Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Farewell column to Chinese readers

I wrote a farewell column exclusively for my Chinese readers. It has been
up on the WSJ Chinese site for a few days and getting some really nice comments.

The translation (my original, of course) is below. I really don't feel it is my best work and I'm sure some would call it hackneyed and overly sentimental.. well, too bad. I wrote it from my heart.

****

I never could have guessed that leaving China would be this hard.

When my family and I moved to Beijing three and half years ago, we knew little about this huge nation and even less about “the expat life.” We threw ourselves into life here and tried to make the most out of every day. Now it is very much our second home.

We are returning to the U.S. as changed people. We have faced and met new challenges. Forcibly cut off from our long-established support systems and every day lives, we discovered new aspects of ourselves, and we grew closer as a family, spending more time with out nuclear five-person unit than we had previously. We also return with a profound appreciation of and respect for Chinese culture as well as a deepened love and understanding of our own homeland.

Sometimes you have to step outside your day-to-day reality to see it with true clarity and I would urge anyone who has the opportunity to spend some time living outside his or her home country to do so. It can be a very broadening experience. Just don’t expect to go back as the same person.

I offer sincere thanks to the people of China for the hospitality and respect they have shown me and my family. Though there have been many challenges living here, I have been extremely impressed with the growth and modernization of China – it has changed before my eyes with a speed and vigor that has been stunning to behold. I am even more impressed with the kindness and hospitality shown to my family by people from one end of China to the other.

I have been deeply touched by Chinese friends, including my two laoshis and my bandmates in Woodie Alan, all of whom have become dear friends whom I will forever carry in my heart. Each of these people have shown me parts of China I never would have otherwise seen and I have been greatly enriched by our friendships and by meeting their friends and family. I hope that I have been able to make similar impressions on their lives.

But I have also been deeply touched by the thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens whose paths I have crossed in our travels. We have visited many parts of China and enjoyed them all, from the mountains of Sichuan and Yunnan to the Xiamen coast. The love and interest shown to our children has been particularly heartwarming. Though they sometimes tired of posing for photographs or having their hair tossled, I can only say thank you for being so nice to my family. This warmth eased many other problems. Spending this much time in a country that was not so kid friendly would have been difficult for us.

We have been offered home-cooked meals by people living in huts in Guizhou, people who clearly had little for themselves but insisted on sharing it with the foreigners in their midst. We have shared tea and noodles and bread and meat with people all over China and I will never forget any of them.

I believe that friendly relations between China and the United States will be essential for both of our countries in the years to come and I am optimistic that they can be maintained and strengthened. I hope that the political leaders of both nations remember the mutual interests we share and the mutual respect that should be shown to one another.

Both nations are large enough to be self-contained and to breed a bit of arrogance in their citizens. Long ago, China called itself the Middle Kingdom, believing itself to be the center of the world. Contemporary Americans often have the same perspective and we both need to broaden our horizons a bit.

But I truly believe that Chinese and American people have a lot more in common than most seem to recognize. People in both places value family, want the best for their kids and like to relax with family and friends around tables of good food and bottles of cold beer.

China has touched my heart deeply, but I still don’t consider myself in any way an expert on this country. I have recoiled the few times I have heard other describe me as such, recalling the sage advice an old China hand gave me shortly after my arrival: If someone calls themselves an expert on China, run the other way. The nation is far too complex for anyone to truly understand it, much less a non-academic writer who has been here a relatively short time.

Almost three years ago, on my first summer visit back to the U.S. I stumbled upon an elderly couple speaking Mandarin in a park near my wife’s family home in the small town of Bay City, Michigan. I was as excited as I was surprised and felt like running up and hugging them. I can only imagine how strong those emotions will be now, that I am moving back to the U.S. permanently and will not be returning to my second home in Beijing. I will never look at anything Chinese quite the same way again. Every Chinese person I see, every Chinese restaurant I pass or enter, every Chinese movie I watch will touch something inside me.

In many ways my life in China has been a series of highlights – these have been some of the best years of the lives of both my wife and me. But a few moments stand out particularly brightly. One was the formation of my band and some of our performances outside of Beijing. Another was when I learned that my column would be translated into Chinese and subsequently that people were actually reading it and enjoying it. It is hard for me to describe how much it means for me to be accepted in this way by you all. Again, I can only say I thank you and I hope that I have rewarded your faith and loyalty.

I will continue to write my column now that I have returned to the U.S. and I hope that it continues to be of interest to you. For now I say goodbye my friends and thank you for everything.