Too bad my site is still blocked in China at the moment (even after changing the IP address yesterday), as this is one of those “important” posts. To cut to the chase, after a lot of soul-searching and lengthy conversations with people I love back home, I decided that I have to get my priorities right; I have to leave China and move back to America. I will be leaving China next month.
Boy, that was hard to write.
When I joined my new company in March, I told them I couldn’t sign the standard one-year contract because I didn’t know how long I would be in China and thought there was a good chance I couldn’t stay a whole year. I had already been in China more than two and a half years, and in Asia for more than four. I knew I would have to return to America at some point, where I have family commitments I can’t ignore.
This is not an easy decision. As my friends here in Beijing know, over the past several months, ever since the Olympics ended, I’ve become integrated with the city, it became my home. Before and during the Games, I could have been almost anywhere, because I was working almost constantly, including nights and weekends. That was exciting, but my schedule never allowed me to familiarize myself with Beijing, aside from the narrow strip of road from my apartment house to the office in the CBD and to Haidian, where I did a lot of my work. There is no complaint about that; it was the most exciting work I ever did, even if it didn’t give me much time for exploration.
After that I had more time to spend with people here and to savor life in Beijing. I finally figured out how to get around by bicycle and bus after nearly two years traveling mainly in expense-account taxis. My circle of friends grew and instead of seeing Beijing as an overwhelming and unnavigable place, I began to see it as home. The new job as an editor at the Global Times gave me a chance to once more do what I most enjoy, writing and editing, while giving me a bird’s eye view into how the Chinese government and media work together. I got to see some courageous work by editors there who pushed hard to put out stories that “the powers that be” were uncomfortable with. I got to work with some wonderful people, and I also got to see just how the news is used to push the party agenda and to shape harmonious public opinion. (Some of the bloggers I most admire, like this one, as well as the now-defunct Beijing Newspeak and Leaking State Secrets, took the same course, working with the Chinese media despite their outspoken criticism of the CCP. It offers an exceptional microcosm of how things work here.)
The choice to go back home was not made on the basis of my job or my finances. I still believe China is “the place to be” right now, especially for people striking it out on their own, and that despite their monumental headaches, the Chinese will emerge from the mess faster and less scarred than the US, for whatever that’s worth. In other words from a financial/career perspective I’d probably be better off staying here at the moment. But this decision isn’t based on considerations like that. It’s a lot more personal and has to do more with intangibles like feelings and emotion and love. Having a secure job and most of our needs met is great. But the old cliché still applies: Without love, it doesn’t matter much.
I’ll be around several more weeks. I stop working in July and then will ship my stuff and prepare for the big move in just a few weeks.
Having done this before, I’m ready for all the reverse culture shock in store – getting used to anchors on CNN who don’t have English accents, seeing a lot more overweight people everywhere, going to the supermarket and not being overwhelmed with the scent of raw fish and durian fruit (in summer), not needing to look both ways for silent-but-deadly electric bikes every time I cross the street, and getting onto any web site I want. Things like that. There’s a lot of mixed feelings and some serious anxiety about facing the US job market at its worst moment, and also some relief. The reason “there’s no place like home” is such a cliché is simply because it’s true. I remember coming home from Singapore half a decade ago and going to sleep the first night in my own bed in my own house, with my cats lying on the foot of the bed. I don’t think I ever felt safer and more comfortable. Now there’s only one cat, and America is a lot different than it was then, but still….
I plan to hold one last dinner before I leave. Not a sit-down dinner like in the past, but more of a cocktail party/buffet so we can all talk without being confined to one seat. Co-blogger and best-friend Lisa will be here on July 7 so that’s the date I’m looking at. The last one, which Jeremiah and I organized, had around 40 people and was quite a night. It was the fifth in what by then had became a kind of tradition. (Go here to see the photo of the very first one, a lunch, and see who you can recognize – too bad the photo’s microscopic.) I’ll post updates on where we’ll go as the day approaches; I’m hoping it will be a place I like near Gulou. I know with all the tweetup and Web 2.0 dinners of late that a “Peking Duck Dinner” may not have the cachet it used to, but it would still be excellent to have one last get-together before I go, especially with Lisa in town.
What more to say? Workwise and productivity-wise and learning-wise, it’s been the greatest almost-three years I’ve ever had. Adapting to a new life without the people and the conveniences I’m so used to will be painful (not to say that everything in China is so convenient – just look at how this site is blocked – but some things, like 40-fen bus rides and no need for a car and $4 dinners and sleeper trains and having a maid will be hard to do without). On the other hand, priorities. We have to have our priorities.
Even though it’s early and I’ll be saying it again, a lot, thanks to everyone here who was so good to me. It was the complete opposite of 2002 when I first came here, alone and unable to speak a complete sentence in Chinese, when I had no bearings and no friends. It’s so ironic that this blog took off during the last few weeks, as I was getting ready to leave, and when I was most unhappy. For all its randomness and at times frivolousness and cloying mawkishness, it opened up a lot of doors for me here and directly led to some of the most precious friendships of my life. I’m still not sure how I’ll do without them. So many amazing people, the people I worked with the first two years and all the people I’m working with now, and all the friends this site led me to. To say “I’ll miss you” is trite and inadequate.
You’ve still got a few more weeks to put up with me. This post is to let everyone know I’m leaving and to invite you to the July 7 party. Please try to be there. And yes, I’ll keep the blog up after I go. Thanks again.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.