I am a great believer in Voltaire’s proclamation that “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.” Most all of my thoughts and beliefs are subject not only to the continual external criticism and scepticism life throws at us all but also internally, from myself. It is, I think, all part of a continual project of self-improvement or perhaps more accurately, self-actualisation.
One of the reasons I chose to come to China after I graduated was to shake up my settled world, settled thoughts, settled future trajectory. At around this time three years ago, I came too see, like the ghost of Christmas future, the path that people of my demographic, soon to be graduating from my subject at my university, in this social and economic climate, were being inched inevitably along. I would hear about testing centres, go along to careers fairs, read lists of the ‘top x’ ways to improve my CV.
You may well argue that going abroad, and of course to China – that up-and-coming, yet reassuringly exotic place – and teaching English is not exactly straying far from the beaten track. It’s true, I could have given up all my worldly possessions and become a hermit at the bottom of Cheddar Gorge, but that wouldn’t have done much to expand my world view. Only those who believe that there are eternal truths to be found in one authoritative ‘holy text’ might emerge with a more settled soul. I personally find a turning away from the world anathema to finding solutions, or rather ameliorations, to it’s illimitable dilemmas.
The problem I had was an over-familiarity with myself; my thoughts and though processes, my habitual actions and routines, my place in society and society’s expectations of me. I needed an environment the would require me to relearn how to live.
China, too, wasn’t a total leap in the dark. I already had a connection to China through having learned Chinese in my first year at university and having come here on a summer programme during that summer holiday. If I wanted to live here, the only two realistically obtainable long-term visas for a recent graduate were to be an English teacher, or student at a Chinese university.
I certainly didn’t want to continue to be a student. Teacher it was, then!
So I chucked everything up in the air, and until recently I have still been in the middle of that process of witnessing it all incomprehensibly fly about. It’s a beautiful place to be. You learn at the speed of light. You marvel at the smallest things. Your frustrations galvanise to action far more readily than at home.
Take breakfast for example. And 6 months into my stay in a small Chinese city the elation at discovering fresh milk. Then discovering that it’s unpasteurised, and no part of the visible supply chain looks like it’s ever even cleaned, let alone disinfected. Then on balance giving it up but in the process discovering a ‘milk-bar’ serving hot fresh milk. Buy it in the evening, store overnight in the fridge, enjoy cold at breakfast. (Everyone in the shop thought I was bonkers for doing this.)
Freedom in certain aspects of life that are heavily formalised in the UK is another joy. Before I came I knew I wanted to get an electric scooter. After my first wages had been paid I went on a tour of the local shops, chose the biggest bike with a classy design, bought it there and then with cash, and rode away. No licence, no insurance, no helmet. The next day I was off exploring every nook and cranny of the city.
Recently, however, and probably precipitated by a number of events, my observations about China and the ideas they’ve lead to have to an extent solidified. But living alone, and feeling increasingly out of sync with the culture around me, I am lacking someone else to bounce my thoughts off. In this situation I can feel the positive reinforcement setting in. Things I witness on a daily basis, rather than surprising and challenging me as they had been, are reconfirming held beliefs.
This feeling of increased certainty isn’t a pleasant one, although it claims to obviously highlight the way forward. Returning to the UK is now the option that will perhaps most disrupt and challenge me. It wasn’t that long ago, however, that I had been adamant not to become just another atomised soul in the great metropolis London, working for a large multinational who’s aims I don’t even remotely share in.
That is a slight exaggeration. I still don’t have any desire to work for a large company who’s sole aim is to maximise shareholder value. But the cost of rent, the two-hour plus commute each day, the 9-5 in an office. As I write these down I feel any enthusiasm for change in that direction ebbing.
And yet, teaching English in this city in China has become my default mode. I can see in small ways all too often now how I am consciously internalising and accepting it’s drawbacks and limitations. Maybe it’s only familiarity itself that I’m agitated by.
This is why, I suspect, I am feeling such a strong need to look within myself and write some of this down.