Why I left China

A reader emailed me and asked why exactly I took the drastic step of leaving my job and leaving China. She wanted to know why I didn’t stick it out, and if there were hidden reasons I had never mentioned, or perhaps never faced up to myself. I thought I’d try to address this, for her and for me, on this hot and humid afternoon in Chiang Mai.

Leaving a job I generally enjoyed and a company I still feel a strong loyalty toward was no easy decision, nor was it an impulsive one. The company knew I was unhappy in China, and they did all they could to help me. These are really wonderful people, and I hope I can get to work with some of them again, though not in Beijing. The fact was I had made a mistake, something a lot of people do, and I needed to come to terms with that fact. I did not belong in Beijing. My personality and my likes and dislikes (across the board, from food and music to the weather to the news sites I enjoy surfing ) — none of these meshed with my environment. Yes, the Beijing people are warm and gracious, but their city is a challenging one. So is their government, and as I began to loathe the CCP more and more each day, the more determined I became to get out. Perhaps the biggest factor was the language. I can now communicate in pidgin Chinese well enough to get me around the city and to have a very, very basic conversation. But nearly all of the time I was struggling to understand and to be understood. The most basic things, like ordering food at a restaurant, became monumental hurdles, and it wore me out and depressed me.

Despite some attempts to bargain with me and counter-offer, I felt I had to hand the company my notice. I went back and forth in my mind for several days, and then I finally decided there was no choice. SARS was then becoming a big issue, and it certainly didn’t generate any new love between me and The Party. I actually ended up leaving Beijing several days earlier than I had planned because I was afraid the entire city was going to be barricaded (thus my allusion to “fleeing” and “escaping” Beijing, and ultimately China).

I knew within minutes of arriving in Thailand last week that I had done the best thing. When I saw signs in English and had CNN and the BBC on the television, when I was able to log onto my own blog and the blogs of others, when I realized I had returned to freedom and civilization — I can only describe it as a sort of euphoria.

I write everyday to my friends in China, and I plan to go back and see some of them, though I can’t say when. I learned some invaluable things about the Chinese people and how to do business in China. I also learned how the government there functions, and any liberal notions I may have harbored about the joys of Chinese socialism were soon shattered. I learned about myself, and what I need to survive and be productive, and I also learned how this tool (blogging) can help me organize and sort out my thoughts and emotions and problems. It was only in China that I got serious about blogging, and now it is an essential part of my life, something I truly look forward to…. So all in all, it was a great experience. Not necessarily a fun or delightful one, but great in the sense of helping me grow. If there are other “hidden reasons” for my choice, I am not aware of them, and after 10 months of chronic distress and uncertainty, I now feel serene in the knowledge that I did the right things, both in terms of going to China and in terms of saying farewell.

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