The Way We Were

I’ve noticed something recently. I’ve become completely apathetic to my surroundings. My living in China has staled and been replaced with just ‘living’.

Sure, I still get pissed off at the “HELLOOOOOs” and the whispered “shhysehsshsheshlaowaishehshsheksdlkjed”, but the truth is, I’ve settled in.

The moment I realized this was when I noticed I never bring my camera anywhere anymore. It used to be that I’d bring my camera along to the most mundane things in case there was a photo op that would help capture what it is to live in this randomest of all random places.

I don’t notice it anymore.

Last week I was out at the local Irish pub for the 100RMB all-you-can-drink hangover-giver the other night and it was jammed with a bunch of American and Mexican students that had just completed a Chinese course at Suzhou University. They were out for one last big hurrah before they all dispersed back to their lives back home.

People were pished, flashes were blinding, girls were dancing on the stage and singing convincingly into a microphone that was missing its connective bits. It was a blast – for them.

It wasn’t so long ago that I was doing my own rounds of “good bye”, “I can’t believe you’re staying”, “we’ve got to keep in touch”, “best of luck down in Thailand on your way back”, etc… but somewhere around the fourth or fifth round of them it lost its flavor. However, strangely enough, I really miss it.

I certainly don’t miss saying goodbye to people, that’s the worst part of being a long-term laowai. Imagine having relationships with people like you did when you were in college, but instead of a year-by-year basis, it works in terms of 6, 8 and 12 month contracts. It sucks. And though you promise (as you did in college) to keep in touch with everyone … eventually that moment that was real begins to fade, and no amount of “hey man, long time no talk” e-mails can bring that back.

Well, I don’t miss that, and I guess it’s no coincidence that my social circle has adjusted to reflect that, with many of my friends now being fellow long-timers.

However, I miss the excitement of it all. I miss going to a meal and wondering what the hell I’d just ordered, and if I can brag about eating it to my friends back home. I miss living for the school breaks so I can jump around to various tourist spots (now I’m reluctant to even travel to the corner store).

I miss telling people when I am leaving and what I plan to do next.

The college analogy runs true with this as well I guess. There’s just such a similarity (perhaps largely due to the age of the players involved) to those free-wheelin’ years of higher academia. Well, I’ve been here two and a half years now, I’ve graduated. I’ve moved into the real world of having to figure things out and work China into my life, rather than my life into China.

With school ending in the next couple weeks, I’m reaching the end of another chapter of the China experience. Friends/co-workers are leaving, and personally many things are changing.

So it was, last night I found myself with a real-estate agent viewing an apartment she was looking to populate. It was then that it dawned on me that I wasn’t actually looking at apartments because I wanted to move, but more just because every time change had previously occurred in my life in China, it meant a new apartment.

I’ve got a nice little apartment though, and don’t really need nor want to move. I’ve only lived here five months, the price is good, the size is good, the location is good… but still there I was, chatting about neighbourhood-quality, closest vegetable markets, etc. with some lady.

So, needless to say, my mind is a mess with which direction it’s meant to go. However, through all of this – the reminiscing, the confusion, the challenges ahead – there’s still an underlying feeling I’m on the right path. I had that feeling when I first decided to quit the ‘good job’ back home and start travelling, I had that feeling when I left for China, I had that feeling when I scraped my plans to leave China, and I had that feeling when I asked my wife to marry me

I may not have it all sorted out, but I have to assume I’m doing something right.

15 Responses

  1. Dear Sir/Madam,
    My name is Oombata Magumbu and I am a lawyer representing the interests of the late Mufassa Kanimbula who passed away in tragic airliner crash in Zagubuland in 2001. Mister Kanimbula died intestate and the Government of M’bete (click) Land has decreed that his estate will be forefeited to the Government of M’bete (click) Land unless a family member can be found to rightfully declare inheritance. We at Magumbu, Magumbu and O’Reilly invite you to get shaken down big time and send all your personal details and bank account numbers by email to us so that inheritance can be transferred to your Canadian bank account, of which your fee would be a generous 10% of the transferred amount.

    Bah. I’m Australian.


    The link to the new blog is :

    It was great to finally meet you at Kevin’s party. Well done, my new friend.

  2. I’m somewhat similar experience having returned to Shanghai for the 3rd time. I love it, don’t get me wrong. But, ironically enough, and like you said, the ‘crazy’ things just aren’t that crazy to me anymore. They’re still fun, and undoubtedly more noticeable to me than, say, you. (Having been so long) Oh well though, it’s times like these that I turn to the language study. That never gets old…(well, studying characters does)

    ps. I’m moving to Nanjing in the fall and, as I’ve said before, would love to stop in Suzhou and meet the man behind the blog. If I do so, I’ll email you.

  3. @Steve: We came at similar times I think, so yeah – guess it’s unsurprising we’re sort of hitting on similar feelings, eh?

    @Jamieson: Nice meeting you too man. Nice to finally put a face to the random comments you always leave 🙂 How’d the baked goods work out for you? I feckin’ love that bakery – bagels! I mean BAGELS!

    @Chris: People leaving sucks. Then again, some of the people I’ve met here I was happy enough they left (if you’re reading this, I don’t mean you).

    @Jason: Just let me know man. I warn you, I’m actually a 14-year-old Brazilian eunuch – this whole Suzhou thing is a ruse.

  4. It’s the Doughnuts that turn my head. Unsweetened, yummmm Doughnuts fresh from the oven – Bagels galore. Shhhh, let’s keep it a secret, don’t tell the others about them or there will be none left for me & ZZZ, Ok ? Frozen Sara Lee Cheesecakes in Auchan (product from Australia) is another well-kept secret….ahhh Oops, let that one slip 🙂

    Cheers Mate.

  5. Nice to meet you the other night at Kevin’s house warming. You are dead right with the goodbyes and “I will keep in contact with you”. As much as you would like to keep up it gets put off or forgotten. Keep up the good work and I will be visiting your site when I’m back in Oz!

  6. @Jamieson: I just found that Carrefour (which I thought was pretty useless until now) stocks Thai curry, peanut satay and Vietnamese lemongrass marinades… I’m well pleased.

    @Phil: Yeah man, really nice meeting you as well. I can’t remember when you said you were leaving, but if you’ve got time for a beer this week – lemme know.

  7. I’d like to catch up with Jason, if you don’t mind. Sounds like a cool guy, a few beers would go down well. A friend of yours ?


    150 metres from your hut 🙂 Who is stalking who ? Kidding.


  8. Exactly!!! I read that and realized that i’m feeling the same way about China!
    A minor difference, been here for 8 years, but the apathy kinda hit last year…or the year before. Or some time before that. And it snuck on me (sneaked??) in such a way that your article was my awakening.

    Going to find that camera,gathering dust somewhere on my shelves.

  9. A drink would be nice mate, how about this Saturday at the Shamrock @ 7:30. SSIS is having a pub crawl and there should be 80+ new Lowai’s the meet and mingle with.

  10. Ryan,

    Very moving post there. Really. Being in China for a long time does make you apathetic to a lot of things – the shocking things just aren’t shocking anymore and you get caught up in the daily grind of just trying to get by.

    Grabbing the camera and taking pictures makes you more interested in everything somehow – even if you have to force yourself to do it.

    I think the initial China experience has passed many of us by long ago. But there are some good memories, and sharing it again with new people is never a bad thing.

  11. @Kate: I have a confession to make… I have very feminine hands.

    @Suexilin/Jeremy: I think I’m going to do myself one better and get a new camera. I’ve been helping a friend redesign his site into a photography portfolio, and it’s well time I got a digital SLR. Thanks for the compliments on the post 😉

    @Phil: I’m in. 😉 Two nights a week at the ‘rock was supposed to be my limit, but hell… you only live once. Well, ok, how do I know… but it’s not likely that next time around I’ll be living near an Irish Pub… wait… fuckit, I’ll be there regardless.

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