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How In The Hell Did I End Up in China?

Our story begins not with an intrepid world traveler, but with an unsure pubescent boy living in a nondescript, 98% caucasian suburb somewhere in North America.

I was fourteen years old, a freshman in high school. The school year was in its final days, and I sat in the school cafeteria with “the usual gang of idiots”, that inseparable group of high school friends everyone has, talking amongst ourselves about which classes we would be taking the next year. As is typical of high schoolers, our class decisions were based less on credit requirements and interests, and more based upon which classes would be fun, easy, and which of your friends would be taking them with you.

We sat browsing the list of offered courses, scanning for our required criteria of not being a serious class: ceramics, woodworking, jewelry, Chinese. That was a new one. Our high school had done away with German class and would be offering courses in the Chinese language for the first time the following school year.

“Let’s take that, you guys!” someone said.

And so it was decided that myself and the usual gang of idiots, three other awkward white males who had passions for video games and musicals and rap music and other Americana typical of the contemporary suburban teenager, would begin learning the Chinese language.

None of us had any previous interest in learning about Asian culture, except maybe the Vietnamese immigrant among us (okay, I lied about us all being white, but the rest is true), aside from dabbling in some mainstream Japanese animation like Dragonball Z and Pokemon, would embark on a quest in learning what is considered by many to be the most difficult mainstream language in the world.

Some months later, at the beginning of the school year, my friends and I were no longer on the bottom of the high school pecking order, being sophomores, but I suppose being geeks who had never known the touch of a women still had us ranked pretty low.

I attended my morning classes — boring stuff like history and language arts — and then the last class of my schedule before lunchtime was the Chinese class. I entered the classroom, looking for my friends. They hadn’t arrived yet. I waited, and waited some more, and then the bell indicating that the passing period was finished rang out. None of the friends I had signed up for the class with had arrived yet. Some mistake, perhaps, I thought. Maybe they couldn’t find the room.

I sat in the classroom with a dozen other students, mostly intimidating upperclassmen but also some other shy sophomores such as myself. There were no freshman in the class, as I recall, so I was back to being on the bottom of the pecking order. As the class period went on, I resigned myself to my fate and realized that my friends weren’t going to show up. Assholes, way to leave me to suffer in this pit of social awkwardness. I would grief them about this later.

The teacher was not Chinese, to my surprise. Instead she was a white American woman with sandy blonde hair, in the early years of her middle age. She was new to teaching, she said, but she had lived in Taiwan for a couple years on a Mormon mission trip and thus could speak a bit of Mandarin. I had a lot of preconceived notions about The Latter Day Saints church at that time, and I wasn’t too thrilled about having a Mormon for a teacher, especially of Chinese, but hey, what could I do?

As the year went on, my shortly lived hard feelings against my friends died out and turned into playfully chiding them for missing out on what must have been the easiest and most fun class in the entire school. Class time consisted of playing games, watching movies, and doing tai ji moves. I’m all in favor of alternative teaching methods, but the truth is, I didn’t learn much. A couple years later, when I would move to China and begin learning the language anew, the only words I retained were “hello”, “goodbye”, and “STAND UP!”

The awkwardness of the class didn’t take long to melt away, and I began making friends with all those badass upperclassmen — every awkward sophomore’s dream. They were mainly badass because they had the beginnings of facial hair and drivers licenses, but it was enough to wow me.

Sometime before the winter holiday, our teacher entered the room with a somber air about her.

“Class, there’s something we need to talk about.”

What could it be? Cancer? Career loss? Pregnancy? The way she delivered the line, completely contrary to her normally cheerful manner, indicated that whatever she was about to say wouldn’t be good.

“I’ve been talking with the principal of the school…”

The classroom’s eyes widened.

“And he says that maybe, maybe, and I mean the smallest possibility, we might be able to take a class-trip to China at the end of this school year.”

The tension was burst like the popping of a balloon. My classmates and I began excitedly talking amongst ourselves.

“Holy shit, awesome!” I probably said.

“Ohmigod, I’m so excited,” said someone else. Or maybe that was me, too.

The teacher continued: “Seriously, this isn’t a definite thing. Don’t get your hopes up about it, I just wanted you to know that it is being discussed and may happen.”

Five months later, on the last day of our final exams, myself and most of the students in the Chinese class, along with some others, were at the airport waiting to board our flight to Beijing. For many of us, myself included, this would be our first time leaving the country.

Little did I know that a decision I would make as a pimply-faced, curly-haired fourteen year old who had watched Star Wars a few too many times, a blowoff decision that was given less than a minute’s consideration at that high school cafeteria table, would end up altering the course of my life.


This story is continued in When I Went to Beijing

China non-fiction memoir


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