Monday, September 18, 2006

Last week's column

This should seem pretty familiar to you regular readers, like CARRIE WELLS. Do you think my responses to reader letters are too pithy?



THE EXPAT LIFE
By ALAN PAUL

A Hike in the Hills Offers
An Escape From the City

September 14, 2006 6:43 p.m.

Beijing is endlessly fascinating but hardly beautiful. The sprawling metropolis is, however, surrounded by majestic vistas. You can get into some truly scenic mountain areas just over an hour from my front door, and exploring them more fully is one of my goals for the year.

Last spring, Lesley Walter, a longtime American expat who lives in my neck of the woods, responded to a column with an emailed introduction and invitation to join her on one of her regular Wednesday hikes. With my 40th birthday looming last Thursday, it felt like the right time to pry myself away from my computer for an outdoor adventure. So I dropped Jacob off at school and raced a few miles north to meet up with Lesley and her group for an 8:30 a.m. departure.

Eight of us piled into two vehicles and headed northwest out of town. After about 40 minutes, we got off the expressway and drove due west, up into the mountains on a twisting road. We passed through increasingly picturesque surroundings, a haze hanging over the hills to the left [southeast, toward the city] while the air was blue and clear to the right.

We drove down the other side of the mountain and landed in a beautiful valley, the road dappled in light filtered through overhanging walnut trees. Locals in wide straw hats walked down the road with long sticks for poking down the nuts, which they gathered into burlap sacks and sold to brokers, who sat with their scales by the side of the road. We were probably less than 60 miles from downtown Beijing and still within the city limits. [Beijing is a "provincial level municipality" covering 6,336 square miles.]

We drove into a very pretty, very small village, which we explored while Lesley's driver, Zhao Jian, went off to find the local party secretary to seek a guide. The village was occupied then destroyed by the Japanese in the '30s and '40s, though it looked ageless.

Zhao returned with our guide, a tiny man who looked 70 but said he was 52. After bargaining us from 20 to 40 renminbi ($2.50 to $5), he promised excellent service and off we went. He carried no food or water, only cigarettes, which he smoked one after another. He calmed several severe coughing fits with yet another smoke, all the while plowing straight up at an impressive clip.

Just outside the village, a beautiful old temple sat atop a small knoll, with a gnarled, ancient conifer growing in front. The guide said that in his grandfathers' time it was a temple but it was converted to a school after the Liberation in '49. Faded Buddha statues remained in the central building, while a room in the back was used to store intricately carved, brightly painted wooden coffins. Flowers grew on the complex's tile roofs.

Leaving the temple, we headed straight up hill, moving through tall, overgrown grass and bushes, along a narrow path that was little more than a water runoff. It felt good to suck big gulps of clean air into my lungs. We passed by several mules grazing on the end of long ropes and a couple of villagers returning with bundles of cut grass. The guide pointed out several medicinal plants and said he often takes "Beijingers" out here to pick herbal remedies.

We stopped for lunch atop the mountain, in a beautiful, meadowy saddle which reminded me, surprisingly, of Wyoming's Gros Ventre Mountains, absent the looming white-capped peaks. We were right on the border of Beijing and neighboring Hebei. The guide pointed to the middle of the saddle and said, "If the rain rolls that way it's Hebei and if it rolls that way it's Beijing." One of my companions, Wendy Lewis, impressed me by pulling a beer out of her pack. She said she had founded the Tokyo Hash House Harriers, an organization dedicated to running and drinking, not necessarily in that order.

We hiked down the hill and into Hebei. The guide had a big stick with which he beat back armpit-high grass "because there are a lot of snakes here." We reemerged onto a path and eventually reached a gravel road. He pointed left and told us to head that way before waving goodbye and turning right, back to his village.

We passed through sunflower and crabapple fields tended by a handful of elderly couples, who explained this was slow time of the harvest. After about 30 minutes of easy walking I saw a crumbling wall wrapping around the hillside to our left. We were nearing a village and the wall was what remained of its ancient past as an important military garrison, astride a pass into Beijing. Located between the city and the Great Wall, it used to house generals. Today, most of the residents seemed to be aged, with their kids off to the city.

We visited the home of a "da ma," a kind old woman some of the hikers knew from a previous visit. She lived alone in a rambled courtyard house with flowers and vegetables growing between the cracks of her patio. She picked and gave us flower seeds and offered string beans, cucumbers and eggplants. I filled a Ziplock bag with beans and gave her five renminbi, as did another hiker who had received several flowers. She refused the money and when we insisted, went inside her cluttered living quarters, illuminated by a single low-watt bulb hanging by a fraying wire, and brought out cucumbers squashes, gourds and more beans.

As we made our way out, I had a one-track mind and it ran toward beer. We walked through the village -- older and larger than the one we started in -- past a few ladies and about a dozen men squatting on the ground playing cards. Entering an old general store on the main road was like stepping into 1964. A large poster of Mao hung on the back wall, overseeing stock that included everything from farm implements to ice cream -- and cold beer. Typically, they only had liter bottles of TsingTao, which cost two renminbi, or exactly one quarter. I asked Wendy if she wanted to share one. "Surely you can drink one by yourself, Alan," she replied.

The first swig tasted as good as anything can taste. I offered up sips before tipping back the rest of the brew, all the while softly, inwardly singing, "Happy Birthday to Me." I won't wait a year to hit the hills again.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com
* * *
Readers Respond

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, about starting my second year abroad with a desire to see as much of China as possible. As always, many of the letters humbled me and opened up new avenues of thought.

Congratulations on wanting to soak up as much as you can while you're there. The wealth of diverse experiences that you can have in China and beyond is probably overwhelming, but that represents some wonderful choices.
--Karen Okupniak
* * *

My family and I returned to the U.S. this summer following an 8-year assignment in Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. You rightly say that you need to fight the complacency now that you are "seasoned" expats. We took advantage of the many travel opportunities in Asia and still have "regrets" for not getting to a number of places.

As for our return to the U.S., it is a bit like your first year in Beijing except the places are familiar and everyone speaks English. It is still a tough transition.
-- Chris Wilkens
* * *

The one-year mark was much the same for me upon returning to Kuala Lumpur after a holiday recharge in the U.S. Looking back now -- after 7 years here -- I view what I thought of as my triumphant return to Asia as being quite similar to a sophomore returning to high school. I thought I had figured it out, but I had so much more to learn.

Too often, expats drift almost subconsciously into that bubble you referred to. I haven't lived within a stone's throw to an expat for five years, I shop where the locals shop, eat where the locals eat and it's been a wonderful experience. Granted, doing so in KL is far easier than it is in China, but I do encourage you to push your comfort zone a little further as your confidence continues growing. You'll be glad you did and amazed at what you learn: both about yourself and the country that so generously hosts you.
-- Patrick Cusick

I felt exactly like a high school sophomore when I returned here last January. Maybe I am a junior now. I am not arrogant enough to feel I know anything about this place beyond how to survive comfortably day-to-day and as I said, I am definitely trying to push further outward.
* * *


After living in Chile and Mexico for two years each, I really wish that more people could spend extended amounts of time in other countries. I think they would be more appreciative of America, and might also have more tolerance of others who arrive here from foreign lands.

Learning new languages and adapting to new cultures is very difficult. Some people don't realize that it would be just as difficult for Mexicans to learn English as it is for Americans to learn Chinese or Spanish.
-- Robert Anderson

Living abroad is definitely a broadening experience. I hadn't really pondered it before now, but I do think that struggling to learn even basic Chinese gives me more empathy for immigrants to America.
* * *

Your column might hit close to home for a lot of people, but the feelings are much deeper and more complicated for me, and many others who have been away from home for five years or more. Also, my birthplace is different to where I grew up, which is where I am calling "home." Explaining "where is home" to a stranger requires much more effort than one can imagine.
-- Sharon Chan

As I have written before, I do feel that this whole situation is much simpler for my family because we are secure in our American identities. I understand that is a huge difference, particularly for the children. I know many people in situations similar to yours and it certainly does get complex, though it also produces some remarkable young people.
* * *

Though its sounds trite, you will never return the same person. I repatriated from Prague in 2001 after ten years there and still struggle. The longer you stay, the harder it gets. I wrote a "repat manual" shortly after my return. Some of it is Czech specific but I'm sure you can read between the lines.
-- Mark Rooney

If you want to send me one of your repat manuals, I would love to read it.

* * *

My experience following 3 years in Amsterdam and 1 year in London is that people grow tired of stories that begin, "We were on a train between Switzerland and Italy," despite the fact that this is our equivalent to "We were on a flight from St. Louis to San Francisco." This is what our life was for 4 years, and upon returning you sense people resent that, particularly those who consider themselves well traveled because they've been to London and Paris and perhaps a backpack train-tour when they finished college. It got to the point that we just tone it down a bit, to avoid the rolling of the eyes from those who think this is braggadocio. It was a bit of a disappointing shock to the afterglow of a life abroad.
-- Greg Johnson
* * *

I'm on my 4th tour of duty overseas -- currently in Rome after two jogs through Paris and a semester abroad in Peru. Two years into my 3-year Italian contract, I find myself feeling a bit like I'm on borrowed time, as if I might regret having wasted the opportunity of a lifetime if I don't photograph every last Roman arch. But the most lasting and heartwarming memories of my postings in Paris were the times spent doing "everyday stuff" like shopping, hanging out at my favorite neighborhood watering hole with the girls, working out at the gym, etc.
Try to explore and take in as much as you can - but don't overlook tending your home garden -- it's where the real memories bloom!
-- Sarah Starkey

Your point is an excellent one, but I see enough of the home garden working at home. I need to keep getting out and mixing it up.

* * *

Giving your children this opportunity, even if it is somewhat dominated by a "normal" suburban lifestyle, is one of the best things you could ever do for them. Enjoy it while it lasts, because I know for a fact that it will be gone before you realize.
-- Allen Hamby

I am trying to enjoy every minute.

* * *

I am Chinese and lived in the States for 4 years, returning in 2005. During the time, I went back and forth twice and had so much the same feeling as you. I find that very interesting and can't stop to read every one of your articles. I wish you, your wife and 3 kids the best to enjoy your life in China. I went to the States to finish my PHD thesis, but the lasting memory is travel, meeting people and seeing a different culture.
-- Jing

Thank you. I particularly enjoy hearing from Chinese readers and am pleased to know that some of the experiences I describe are universal.