If you asked me fifteen years ago, when I was about your age, where would I be and what would I be doing with my life in 2015, I probably wouldn’t have guessed that I’d be CEO of my own company, living and working in the rugged outback of southwest China.
In fact, I used to consider myself a city girl, born and raised in California, studied comparative literature in Los Angeles, then journalism in New York, spent a year researching press freedom as a Fulbright scholar in Taipei, and eventually ventured to Beijing to manage an arts and lifestyle magazine. It may have been that I had always envisioned myself residing within the realm of a writer. And I am. But that’s not all: I am also an artist, a photographer, an illustrator, a translator, a graphic designer, an entrepreneur, and a Where There Be Dragons instructor. And I will be in Beijing to greet you all when you arrive on June 7.
I suspect this may be the first time in the People’s Republic of China for many of you. But it may surprise you to know that this will be my first time teaching a Dragons course. Still, I am, hopefully like you, looking forward to our soon-to-be colliding of worlds and alternate realities.
China is, indeed, an incredibly different place. It both surpasses and rejects your assumptions and expectations. It has a different sense of time and space, of right and wrong, of meaning and value. Some of these differences are easy to understand; others may be not. And while you can come in with whatever generalizations you have, hopefully you will discover by the end of the summer that China ought not be thought of as East versus West, or Right versus Wrong, but simply appreciated as a thing of its own. If you can do this, you will find there is so much to enjoy.
I have been living and working in China for eight years. I think back on it now and realize what a big chunk of my life it has been, and yet it seems to have gone by fast. I arrived in Beijing in the run-up to the Olympics, was present during the Olympics, and stayed on after the Olympics. It was an extraordinary privilege to be in China, and specifically in Beijing, amid such a climate of great change. It still astonishes me today, coming back to Beijing now, fathoming how one single event had such a monumental impact on the city, the country, the psyche of its people. In 2007, there were only two subway lines; now there are 18. Previously seedy streets full of KTVs and DVD shops are now (real) Louis Vutton stores and Apple Genius Bars.
As fate would have it, I didn’t stay in Beijing long. Instead, at the height of my young and budding career as a magazine editor, I decided it was time to leave my good job in the city and head to the countryside, into the wilderness, towards the unknown. And since 2009, I have been calling Yunnan “home.”
Yunnan is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s not just the natural environment, with its stunning mountains, bending rivers and epic cloudscapes, its lakes and forests, its high plateaus and tropical marsh lands. There is something else here that one finds alluring: The simplicity of the farmer’s life perhaps, still naive and pure, and so far removed from the complex, fast-paced modernity of China’s new cosmopolitans. Or perhaps its the richness of all the different minorities you encounter here, each with their unique traditions, religions and oral histories. Or it might very well just be the food — the wonderfully delicious, fragrant and tangy, fiery and scrumptious, mouth-watering food.
This last statement might very well be the truest, for as I write this on a plane heading back to China from Kiev, I am giddy with excitement at the thought of Chinese food, the bowl of greasy noodles that has been on my mind for the past few weeks. At the same time, I chuckle to myself because I had, in fact, eaten dumplings for dinner last night — Ukranian dumplings, so much like Chinese dumplings, but different too: cheese-filled and served with sour cream and jam. This also makes me recall, a few years ago, traveling in Uruguay and eating dumplings there, though there they are called empanadas and baked, not pan-fried or boiled.
At the end of the day, maybe we’re not all that different — after all, Italians eat rice, Uygers eat pizza, and everywhere in the world, people eat dumplings. Who knows? You might find yourself relating more to a Chinese farmer than you do to your own sister or brother. I know I do sometimes. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. Not a thing.
So on that note, let me welcome you to China! Be prepared for anything — maybe even having your world turned upside down. Who knows? You might enjoy it. I know I do.