Monday, July 5, 2010

Looking Back: Things I Learned, Loved and Miss from Asia

As my husband and I contemplate our ten years of marriage this summer, I was reminded of the importance of looking back to some of the formative experiences he and I have shared so far. In a new multi-part series, Looking Back, I am unpacking several episodes that influenced us from the time he and I met until now. Today, Part 1 offers glimpses of what we loved and learned during our years in China and Vietnam.

                         photo by 

Three months after I graduated with my bachelor's degree, I got my first passport and headed across the ocean to work as a university EFL teacher in China.  Many Americans and even a few Asians said they admired that I was willing to give up so much.  However, by living abroad for seven years, I came to admire and relish the simpler way of life surrounding me each day.

A majority of the college students I knew mostly lived without:

1. Refrigerators
2. Washing machines
3. Electric dryers
4. Hot water
5. Different outfits for each day of the week
6. Ovens
7. Cars
8. Personal computers
9. Cell phones
10. Air conditioners

In the years since I taught in China and Vietnam, things have changed quickly, with technology becoming more available to the masses.  Many students now have their own cell phones and computers, especially in the big cities like Hanoi and Changchun.  But I doubt that the overall ease of living has changed that much, as you can see here.

As a foreign teacher (and then a stay-at-home mom) in Asia, I possessed many things that many local people did not.  I had a computer, a refrigerator, a toaster oven, and a passport.  However, I also learned that I could live with hot water just four nights a week, no car, line drying clothes in my apartment all year, and teach with only a chalkboard and CD player.  I came to enjoy my frequent trips to the open air markets, my visits to the dorm rooms (which sometimes held ten to twelve girls each), and the amazingly authentic local Chinese and Vietnamese food that sprang from just a wok, a gas burner, and an electric rice cooker.

In both China and Vietnam, it was true that babies didn't wear diapers, not every family had a refrigerator, and electricity was not a 24/7 guarantee.  But once I learned some of the local language, shopping was a true pleasure--even without coupons!  Each outing was a chance to chat with the shopkeeper or seller about what I needed and answer a few personal questions.  Admittedly, my fair skin and blue eyes meant I was not just another face in the crowd, but there were plenty of regular customers who would sometimes linger to chat before leaving with their purchase.  It wasn't "just business," it was personal.  And that familiarity is one of many aspects I miss still.

I wonder, whatever happened to the kind old man who stood outside guarding motorbikes across from the rose sellers?  He would often run to the pile of discarded but still-beautiful fresh flowers (which were too short to sell in the standard bundle) and give a floral bloom to my daughter as we passed by that day.  And what about the Vietnamese English teachers who met with me and my American friends for an intercultural play group?  Do they ever recall our conversations about differences in child rearing and family life?  And I wonder what has become of the student who spent so much time with me that she once said (in amazement) that she forgot for a moment I was not Chinese.  It is a little painful to bring back those precious moments, knowing how far away they are from my current life in the American midwest.

While I am still sad about the faces I left behind, I remain thankful to have seen how millions of people can get along just fine without all the trappings most Americans now deem essential.  I wish I were not so swept up in the busyness and the possessions that can sometimes crowd out even casual friendships.  To have meaningful, personal, face-to-face connections, one has to make room.

So when I think back to the people and places I knew in Asia, I did not see abject poverty at every turn. Most people had their daily needs met.  What I mainly remember is the rugged simplicity and the time that ordinary people had (and took) for relationships.  When I don't keep things simple and I allow relationships to be neglected, it is I who am the impoverished one.

A simpler life and more time for friendships--these are two things my husband and I miss and seek to create in our current context.  How do you pursue these goals in your current season of life?  Have you been able to simplify and make time for people?  If so, I would love to know how.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Thank you for sharing your insights.

It's sad what the "American Dream" has become. Wake up and get into your car (via your garage, so you don't even have to go outside). Drive an insanely long time to sit in a cubicle and stare at a computer screen. Battle traffic to get back home. Watch TV. Go to bed. No interaction with neighbors, and very little with friends or even family.

Something needs to change.

The Book Chook said...

We taught in China a few years back, and it was a life-transforming experience for our family. I felt so much safer walking the streets there than I do in an Australian city!

Penniless Parenting said...

Wow, what a beautiful post.
I sometimes think that I would prefer to live like a poor person in a poor country without any of that. Their life is so much richer, so much more real and there really are times for relationships instead of living in a detached mechanical digitalized world.
I think I would miss a refrigerator though.

Alicia said...

I really enjoyed this post, Julia! It's fun to learn more about you--and how cool that you lived overseas! How long were you there? Had you met your husband prior to moving there?

Aiming4Simple said...

Alicia, we met on the way to Asia, during teacher training sessions in California. I'll share a bit of our engagement story in part 2...