For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived as an expat in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing is a megacity of 30 million people. Often abbreviated as CQ, and pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring, Chongqing is located in south-central China on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way from my small hometown located in (pause for effect) … south-central Missouri on the Little Dry Fork Creek. How long? How about 14 time zones-long? CQ is one of the world’s largest cities but I am on a quest for a simple life. I want to “simplify, simplify”, as Hank Thoreau beautifully stated it. Thus, even in the middle of a huge metropolis, I publish these observations and admonitions from my 18th Floor Homestead.
I am currently working on a new book, The Expat Life. It will deal with expat experiences, lifestyle, and mindset. Welcome to come along for the ride. If you find this invitation intriguing, become a subscriber to my free weekly newsletter at http:/theexpatlife.substack.com. Yes, it’s free and yes, it’s in the form of a weekly email sent directly to your Inbox. Substack also provides an opportunity to leave your comments if you wish. Welcome!
Lost – One Island Girl
Some years ago, an incident occurred that became a literary nugget for one of my favorite writers, Gordon MacQuarrie. I’ll let Mac tell it in his own words…
Once I knew a man beset with business cares who came to the little turn-around at the end of this road and camped for three months in a trailer. He was as happy a man as I ever knew. He caught up with himself there.
… He had his trailer backed under a tall pine. He had a nervous breakdown when he arrived in the spring, and he had the color and zest of a wild Indian when he left in September.
Old Doc Brule [the Brule River in northern Wisconsin] cured him. He went to sleep to the river’s lullaby and woke up to the song of its birds. He built himself back by slogging up and down the Brule’s rocky back-bone. He caught and ate more trout than mortal man is entitled to these days. He looks back to it today as his second boyhood.
… Letting myself down that watery stairway, I thought of him. Of how lucky he had been to find this place. Of the danged old rod he owned which drove me to distraction that day I broke mine. Of the books he had read in that pine-shaded trailer and how, every time I saw him, he was browner and tougher, and grinned wider and wider.
(From When The White-Throats Sing)
The curative power of nature was a frequent theme in MacQuarrie’s stories. But, unlike that character whom I refer to as simply “Joe”, I cannot walk away from my current commitments – not all of them, anyway. For me, there can be no three-month holiday from responsibilities and relationships. But I can learn from Mac’s words to create my own more modest retreat.
Maybe not for three months, but for the next couple of weeks, I will continue to suspend all my digital projects, except for the ones where other people depend upon me. Likewise, except for absolutely essential role tasks and activities, I will make no checklists to organize my days. Except for those few activities that would bear significant negative consequences if not completed that day, I will simply look around to see what catches my attention, with special emphasis on staying away from my desk and computer. I want to spend more time upright and working with my hands. Quoting MacQuarrie again, There is immense satisfaction in being busy. Around the cabin there were incessant chores that please the hands and rest the brain.
For the next couple of weeks, that’s what I will be looking for. Maybe it will be a little spring cleaning, maybe resurrecting my recipe for Sweet Cream Biscuits, maybe enjoying the simple chore of getting the kitchen knives really sharp again, or maybe I will break out my lovely old Canon camera and renew an old hobby. Or maybe it will just be going downstairs to sit quietly and digital-free on a secluded wooden bench, soaking up the sunshine and being absolutely immobile for twenty minutes at a time – my own version of wading and fishing the Bois Brule.
And what’s brought about this sudden revulsion with my uberbusy digital lifestyle? Part of it is admittedly Spring Fever but at least part of it came after reconnecting with an old friend from my teaching days…
Lost – One Island Girl
Long ago, when I was a foreign teacher living on a huge university campus – those days seem so innocent and simple in retrospect – I established a weekly English Corner. We met each Thursday evening in my home, a tiny apartment in the foreign teachers dormitory. This was before marriage and parenthood entered my life. It was back when I had the time and energy for discretionary activities like hosting an English Corner. I called it Open House and welcomed all the students from my classes who could fit into the small living room – about twenty, maximum. This went on for several years, with different students attending each semester.
One year’s Open House sessions remain in my memories as especially enjoyable and gratifying. That year, the Open House gradually evolved to become a salon in the classical French style featuring lively discussions about a wide range of topics every Thursday. In those evenings, two individuals were regular and vigorous verbal combatants, taking opposite sides on almost every issue. L was a little older than the other graduate students in my classes. A practicing lawyer and family man, he had returned to the university to pursue an advanced degree. L could be depended upon to take the conservative, traditional perspective on every issue. He was countered by C, a young, single female grad student filled with spirit and liberal notions about what she regarded as needed social changes. Together, these two, L and C, represented opposite poles on almost every issue, and week after week, they debated with eloquence and passion. (Indeed, isn’t that exactly the objective of all English Corners? We want participants to speak thoughtfully and clearly in proper English.) C and L both became good personal friends of mine that season.
C was so determined to be independent and free of social restraints that I used to tease her that she would be happier living alone on a deserted tropical island where there would be no rules and no expectations because there would be no other people to limit her freedom. Thus she took on the name Island Girl in our discussions.
Later, I left that idyllic campus life. Then, marriage and fatherhood forced me to be responsible, almost respectable. Sadly, the four winds and the passing of time have separated me from those old friends. I have not seen either L or C for many years. The good news: In my mind’s vision, all three of us remain unchanged – young and vigorous and full of optimism for the future.
However, fate recently offered an opportunity for an online reunion with C which was most enjoyable – and enlightening.
Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that our relationships and our personal freedom are inversely proportional. That is, the more you have of complicated relationships, the less freedom you enjoy. Thus, while a single Island Girl would have virtually unlimited freedom, after she got married, she gave up much of her freedom. Then, making the decision to continue her education to the Ph.D. level meant a further sacrifice of freedom and mobility for several more years. Completing that degree and accepting a professional-level job at her university limited her even more, given the expectations and requirements of her new career. Finally, C is now a parent – happily so, I think. But, being a responsible person, she takes this new role quite seriously and I’m sure she is doing a great job as a mother. But personal freedom? Not hardly. That’s okay; this path was her choice.
I can certainly relate to her feelings about the trade-offs, though. Me too. I have often said that, if I were not concerned about providing the best environment and resources for my son, I would be waking up on the beach on Hainan Island these days where my most urgent decision would be if I would go fishing before or after breakfast. Like C, I am happy with my life today and feel the benefits of my relationships far outweigh the sacrifice of personal freedom and mobility. For me also though, personal freedom? Not hardly.
How is this issue related to the Expat Life? Really, these dynamic trade-offs between personal freedom and the comforts and other benefits of accepting conventional roles in relationships are a common dilemma among adults in the modern world. But perhaps expats are a bit more conscious of these sensitive issues because, in making the earlier decision to become an expat, they have already carefully considered the trade-offs of a conventional lifestyle against the joys of reinventing a new life of freedom and mobility in a new time zone.
I’m sure that C is happy enough with her decisions and with the time and energy sacrifices required to achieve her current position. I’m sure also that she is not deeply disappointed when she considers the opportunity costs. There can be no tropical island with its freedoms for C. For me too, I admit. But, when old friends meet again and compare our lives, past and present, there is always that bittersweet sensation as we remember how we used to be.