One question I’m often asked is, “Why did you come to China?”
It’s a simple enough question but I always hesitate because I didn’t come to China for any particular reason. I didn’t have a job lined up, I didn’t know anyone here apart from my relatives. In fact, when I came to Beijing shortly after graduation, I had only planned to stay for two months. I wanted to see what China was like, scout it out, and maybe come back after grad school.
Well, I didn’t end up going to grad school and I’ve been here more than four years now. So I guess a better question is, “Why did I stay in China?”
The guy who came to China because he couldn’t hack it in the States is an expat stereotype. This person usually possesses dim career prospects in America, limited social skills, and comes to China knowing no Mandarin, only to discover that people will pay him exorbitant amounts of money to speak English. I don’t hesitate to admit that when I came to China I was, in some ways, one of these expats.
I studied film production and the University of Southern California. When I graduated, I had two choices: become the assistant of a low-level executive and spend ten years climbing the Hollywood ladder, or grad school. Being allergic to routine and indentured servitude, I decided to apply for an MFA in creative writing.
I took the GRE and, with two months before applications were due, went to China to gather experiences for a short story. But when I went to China, I found that I had a third choice: do just about anything else.
By chance, a friend from college who had also studied film was on a Fulbright but secretly using the money to finance a short film. That’s how I found myself at a nursing home on the outskirts of Beijing, wrangling a busful of kids, while filling in for a cinematographer who was chronically late.
Also by chance, a friend from high school was here teaching English at a vocational school. On Monday evenings he would host an informal English Corner at his family’s penthouse apartment. I was a regular and my friend and I would talk deep into the night after his students left.
At the same time, I had gotten a job at an English training school myself. Possessing dim career prospects in America, I was happy to discover that people would pay me exorbitant amounts of money for me to speak English.
It was through my job and these two friends that I met the people who became my first group of friends in Beijing. Perhaps I was lucky, but the people I met, both Chinese and foreign, were enthusiastic about their lives in a way I hadn’t seen since kindergarten. Those that wanted to make films were making films, those that wanted to go abroad were studying English. They believed that the future could be better than the present and that hope was contagious. Their spirit convinced me to stay as much as their friendship.
In those two short months I discovered that I could live both of my dreams—making films and writing—without having to enter into a system. Who would have thought that making a short film in China would, in some ways, be easier and cheaper than making one in the States? Who could have known that I’d get more ideas for stories by talking to my students than sitting in a writing workshop? I was receiving an education, but without the student loans and morning lectures.
Over these four years I’ve come to realize that living in China isn’t about not being able to hack it in the States, but rather taking advantage of the opportunities in China. Since I’ve been here, China has become the focal point not only of global finance and politics, but also of film and literature. More and more American movies are being filmed in China, and Chinese writers are emerging on the world stage.
In the future, life will be less about whether you can hack it in the States, but whether or not you can hack it in China.
Photograph courtesy of Eric Gregory Powell.