Years ago, I was riding with my parents and brother on a train through England. It was winter, and cold outside, and even in the carriage we were bundled up in our winter jackets.
Across the aisle from us was a young American couple. He was bearded and bespectacled, and earnest in an English-major sort of way. I don’t remember what she looked like, frankly, because he did most of the talking. He was telling my dad about their semester studying in York, all the things they’d done, all the places they’d been. The program they were on was in the school-afield system—where 20 kids from a US institution go to a foreign country and live together in a big house, taking classes from their accompanying professor and getting the occasional lectures from local faculty.
My parents listened to all of this, nodding politely and smiling encouragement—they have a habit of doing this, I’m not sure why—while I was quietly rolling my eyes. You see, I was living in England for a year, not some measly semester, and I was studying with real English professors and real English students, not bunking in some condo somewhere with a bunch of people from Kansas, then coming home after four months with a Yorkshire accent.
I let hirsute boy ramble on for maybe an hour. It was clear he thought we were just touring for a few weeks, an all-American nuclear family leaving their white-picket fenced cottage to see the sights of ye olde Englande. I tried to keep my mouth shut, really I did, tried hard not to be a jerk. Eventually, though, I just had to let it drop.
“So your teachers were Professors, then?”
He glanced at me jaw still open, mid-sentence. “Excuse me?”
“Your English instructors? They were professors? Because most of them at Durham at lecturers. There are some readers, too, but we don’t get many real professors.” I went on for another three minutes, explaining as best I could the Byzantine elaborations of the British rank system.
When I was done, he closed his mouth, glanced at his girlfriend, then looked back at me.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“Durham,” I said, and then, just to receive full credit in the How to Be a Jerk certification process, added, “At St. Aidan’s College.” No Kansas roommates for me.
He looked at me again, carefully. Then he said, “Oh,” leaned back in his seat, and didn’t say five words the rest of the trip.
I have to admit, we were pretty impressed with ourselves when we found out we were going to Hong Kong. How daring of us to rip up our family, travel half-way around the world, settle in a new region, a new country, a new institution! Talk about doing some major-league carpe dieming. And to do it with three little kids? My, weren’t we just the most adventurous family ever!
We still feel pretty cool, frankly. We’ve had a great year. We’ve seen things we never thought we’d see—Ho Chin Minh’s body, up-close-and muddy pandas, floating children—eaten things we never thought we’d eat—I just had left-over pig’s knuckles for lunch, last week we had stuffed duck, and both Ellen and I can eat chicken feet, if the situation forces us too. We’ve woken up to 30-degree temperatures inside, have strolled through Vietnamese villages by candle-light, have taken the magnetic train in Shanghai. A month ago, I rolled into the flat at 1:30 and announced we were leaving for Chung Chau island at 2:15. At 2:00, the kids turned off the TV, went to the bathroom, and put on their shoes. Fifteen minutes late, we marched out the door, carrying a single suitcase and a backpack full of granola bars: no whining, no fussing, no dawdling. It was a powerful moment: we’re a couple in our forties, with three kids under the age of ten. And we can go anywhere in the world. Anywhere.
So yeah, we still feel kind of cocky.
But we weren’t here two weeks before we realized we were in the minor leagues. First, there were our friends the Smiths. They’re Canadian born, both in unrelated areas of education. Their careers have taken them and their four kids from Canada to New Zealand, back to Canada, back to New Zealand, to Hong Kong, back to New Zealand, and now they’re in Hong Kong to stay. And it’s not like they have to do this, like they move to find jobs: he’s well-thought of enough in his field that he travels all over Asia speaking at conferences. They could have stayed in Canada and been perfectly happy. But they chose to wander.
Then there was this guy we met in Vietnam. We were at the Citadel, meandering way back in the gardens when I came across two kids swinging from a vine loop in a tree. They were maybe 13 and 11, a boy and a girl speaking English. A little further along, I met their father. We talked about the gardens some—he thought Angkor Wat was better—and then about traveling with kids. He asked if we were in Vietnam on vacation.
“Yep,” I said, then felt that usual swelling of pride as I told him we were actually living in Hong Kong. “For the year,” I added, just so he knew I understood the real Asia, not the six countries in two weeks version.
“What about yourself?” I added.
“Oh,” he said. “I’m with the defense department. We live in Malaysia now, but before that, it was Japan. And before that, South Korea.”
Talk about karma.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m from Kansas, actually.”
Next up were the Gringortens. We met them in Hoi An, on the beach. They live in Suzhou, China, where they are teachers. They used to live in Toronto, but having experienced a wonderful pre-child stint in Korea, decided they wanted to take leave from their jobs and take their two kids, ages 7 and 10, to Asia. So they signed on for three years at an international school just outside of Shanghai. When we saw them again in March, they’d decided to extend their leave by another year. Which doesn’t sound like much, until you realize it means that both of them had to resign their jobs back in Canada.
And there are others like them: in Yangshuo, we met a couple living in Hong Kong for three years so that he could work at the consulate; then there are our friends, the Wells, who are on a three-year stint outside Chengdu, in a place so remote their entire family is near-fluent in Mandarin after only ten months.
The clincher, though, was the family we bumped into at a Norwegian restaurant (yes, you heard me) in LiJiang. They’d both graduated from the University of Virginia, and had had good, stable jobs in the US. Until they decided to move to China and study Mandarin intensely for three years before going into the medical supply business. When I asked how long they were planning on staying in China, the dad, a square-faced strawberry blonde with glasses, shook his head.
“This is it, we figure. We’re here for good.”
Of course, for the record, they don’t have three little kids, like us.
They have four.
So we’re cool, yeah, but only in relative terms. We’re adventurous, yeah, but not compared to some. And we’re nuts, yeah, but only—well, actually, we’re still more nuts that most, but you get my point.
Not long after we got here, colleagues from at least three different universities began to make inquiries into my long-term plans: might I be interested in staying in Hong Kong? they asked. Would I consider applying for a position here?
Though this may seem impressive, it’s worth pointing out that: a) at least one of the people making an inquiry forgot my name almost the instant I walked out of the room; and b) because of the restructuring of secondary and university education in Hong Kong, 2012 will see a double-cohort of students leaving high school and beginning university. In short, every Hong Kong university is scrambling to staff twice as many classes as usual. In such a context, my guess is that a trained monkey with relatively good penmanship could get an offer in this city (my penmanship sucks, by the way).
When these suggestions—I can’t really call them offers; no figures were mentioned and no contracts were set in ink—when these suggestions first came up, I protested gently, pointing out that if people knew the quality of life I had back home, they would understand how even a really good offer from Hong Kong—or anywhere else for that matter—probably wouldn’t be enough. I very distinctly remember describing Lexington to my friend Chris: It’s Mayberry, I told him. The sidewalks are cobbled, they’ve maintained all the old storefronts, everyone waves at their neighbors as they drive by. We have a beautiful old house on a half-acre of land in the middle of town. Any given evening, we can stroll out our back door, down the hill in our yard, through one of the oldest cemeteries in the commonwealth, and be in the middle of town within five minutes. Once there, we can get homemade ginger-lemon ice cream, or go to the chocolate shop for dark-chocolate covered orange peels. Most summer evenings, we go to the pool, where we hang out with our friends while the kids play Marco Polo. It’s gorgeous there, offering a 360-degree panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On the 4th of July, the whole town gathers at the Virginia Military Institute parade grounds for a fair, balloon rally, and fireworks.
Seriously, I don’t think that anyone’s lived the way we do since 1952. We’d be nuts to leave, I told Chris. And I meant it.
But the more we explored Hong Kong, the more we got to know Asia, the more we thought, “Then again . . .”
Simply put, Hong Kong is an amazing place. There’s Central, of course, with the trams and the Peak and the shopping and the tailors and the noodle shops and the temples burning so much incense you can smell it forty yards away. There’re the Star Ferries, the junks in Victoria Harbor, the nightly light show incorporating all the skyscrapers on both sides of the water. Kowloon-side, there’s TST and the Spring Deer, the Hong Kong History Museum, the Art Museum, the Science Museum and the Space Museum (admittedly, a bit weird, since HK isn’t really known for its rocket programs). There’s Mong Kok and the flower and bird markets, the Spicy Crab and the night market where you can get your fortune told by a little bird who hops out of his cage and tugs your cards from a Tarot deck.
But beyond that are all the little corners that the tourist books never tell you about: the Chi Lin Nunnery, one of my three favorite places in the world (Eagle River, Durham, Chi Lin). There’s the 10,000 Buddhas, of which there actually are 10,000, and there’s the amazing goldfish pond at Chinese University, and the beaches near Sai Kung. There’s the best wet market in the world in Tai Po, and Man Mo temple, and a great temple up in Fan Ling as well. Jamie and I just spent a day roaming Sheung Shui, nobody’s tourist hotspot, and found a wonderful little market street lined with dim sum eateries and shops selling dried shrimp out of baskets.
In short, every time we turn a corner in Hong Kong we find something new to explore.
And that’s just Hong Kong. Consider: from where we are, it’s no more than a six-hour flight to Beijing, Mongolia, Katmandu, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea, and Japan. Add a few more hours and you can get to India, Australia, and New Zealand. So far? We’ve only seen Mainland China and Vietnam. Sure, we’ll spend a couple days each in Cambodia, Borneo, and Bali on our way out, but . . . what about all those other places? It’s not like you’re going to sign up (and pay) for two 20-hour flights to spend a two-week vacation in Laos (though, Thailand, maybe). So by leaving Hong Kong now, we’re basically admitting that our chances of lying on the beaches of Cebu or driving through the plains of Mongolia are pretty much nil.
In comparison, when you’re in Hong Kong, visiting these places is cheap. And getting to them is cheap. We have friends who are teachers who are able to sock away 75% of their pay, visit any place in Asia they want, and stay at nothing but five-star hotels. You know those pictures you see every once in a while of a glass-walled veranda, a woman in a white swimsuit holding an umbrella drink as she looks at the palm trees and white sand beach in front of her? That’s what we’re talking about, here. In Thailand, in Vietnam, in the Philippines, in Bali, in Borneo.
It doesn’t help that three weeks ago I was lying in bed, just beginning to emerge from sleep, the early morning heat suffocating the room, when I had a sudden flash of myself pulling up in my Volkswagon Passat to the local CVS on highway 60 in Lexington, Virginia. There was the familiar red and white building design; there was the freshly tarred parking lot, with its brightly painted yellow lines; there were the wide roads and the low buildings and that sky that seems so low and flat and broad.
There, in short, was life in suburban America.
And my heart sank.
Because Lexington is a beautiful place, yes. Truly beautiful, touristy “I can’t believe people get to live here,” beautiful.
But ain’t Bali.
On the same time, of course, Ellen and I both have very good jobs. She’s at one of the best university presses in the country, and they like her there. I’m at a decent small college with a great sense of community, and they, well, tolerate me there.
That said, tenure and professorship were never meant to be a trap, never meant to keep thinkers and scholars and life-long-learners in a life of predictability. My friend Joe makes the point that life is a series of gambles. He doesn’t mean that this is true just for those who become life-long expatriates, however: he means it’s true of everyone, the people who quit their jobs and move to Columbia (like my friend Brad, who just did this) and those who never leave their home towns. Neither approach guarantees success or glory, or even basic safety. People lose their jobs at the local factory just as often (or more) than folks who travel around the globe to take a new position; marriages end just as much when couples play it safe as when they explore the world together; children drown in the backyard pool just as often as they do in the Indian Ocean.
Even so, Ellen and I both know that the poetry of a one-year stint might not translate into the prose of a permanent move. The first is an adventure, occurring in a finite space of time with the knowledge that you will go back to your “real” life at the end. As such, you cram your year with as much experience as you can: you travel in emerging countries; you go into Mainland China not once but four times. You play occasional hooky from work and explore obscure corners of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, or the New Territories. You make a point of eating bizarre foods (pig’s knuckle, anyone?) Everything is tinged with a shimmering edge of the ephemeral: you know you will be doing this only once, that you may never be in this restaurant or on this ferry or on this island or at this market ever again. Experiences are richer when they are rare, and when you’re overseas for only a year, everything is rare.
Coming back—or staying on—you risk losing that. This becomes your job, not your adventure. And let me tell you, if the pay in Hong Kong is outrageous (literally double my salary in the States)—so are the expectations. For a long time, Hong Kong avoided the exponential growth of publication expectations. When it finally hit in the early ‘90s, though, it came with a vengeance: twice now I’ve heard of folks who’ve taken on administrative duties to help out their departments being awarded shorter contract renewals because their extra responsibilities cut into their research. And I’ve met more than a few folks here who are blunt in their insistence that teaching is something of a bother, getting in the way of their “real” work in the library.
And then there are the hours: in the US, graduation at my home institution is on the first weekend of May. After that, I won’t be expected back to campus until the last week of August. That doesn’t mean I’m not working, of course—I spend all summer writing, trying to crank out the ideas that have been storming my brain all year. But I can work at home, in Wisconsin, or in Europe for all the difference it makes to anyone.
Not so in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, faculty are allowed 21 days leave a year. A year. Now I’m not going to debate this issue with those of you who have “real jobs,” where four weeks is the max “vacation” you can get—your life is harder than mine, I know that, and if you don’t believe me, read the rest of this blog. My point is that when you’re an academic from the States and you’ve spent your career with these expansive summers where you can balance the insanity of the school year with a more leisurely, contemplative pace—when you’ve spent your whole life with that schedule, being told you can’t return to the States for the summer, that you have to be in the office five days a week, even in August, really really really really really kind of sucks.
What’s more, were I to return, I would cease to be special. Were I to stay in Hong Kong for another year—at my institution, or any of the other schools I worked with—I would cease to be a guest (sometimes honored, sometimes not) and become simply an employee. Twenty years ago, after what can arguably be called the best year of my life living in Durham England, I returned to the States, finished my undergraduate degree, went to Colorado for a summer to earn some money, then headed back to the UK. That second year was great—really great, even. But not the same. And not as special as the first year. I ceased to be Paul, the American dude we’re lucky enough to know for a year, becoming instead Paul, the American dude who can’t seem to go away.
And, of course, the cohort of American students I’d been at Durham with were gone. Similarly, were I to return to Hong Kong, it would be without Hedley, Gray, Joe, Janel, and the two Davids—people whose presence here has shaped my experience, my year, my thinking, and—undoubtedly—my life. Taking the shuttle bus down to University station to head to Central for a meeting with the Education Board just wouldn’t feel right, knowing that Joe wouldn’t be waiting on the platform (car 6, every time) for me.
So we’re not staying. And though we’ll undoubtedly come back for finite periods of time and projects, we know it won’t be the same. My guess is that those short stints will be almost painful: no longer can we claim street cred by naming Tai Po as our “home”; instead, we’ll be living at the Hyatt, eating clams on the half-shell cooled over ice with the rest of the gweilos (not that that’s entirely bad). Likely we’ll forget much of our hard-won guandongwa, ordering steamed welk with XO sauce and receiving goose paws in vomit instead.
In the end, though, the reason we’re not staying goes well beyond any of these calculations. It can be summed up in 2.5 words: we’re wimps.
We’re adventurous, yes, but we’re not Adventurers, with a capital "A," not the real deal, not like the Gringortens or the Smiths or that family in Lijiang. We just don’t have it in us to sever our ties with our life in the States. We’re cowards. The thought of writing our bosses and giving notice, of giving up tenure (not to mention Full Professor), of selling our beautiful 100-year-old Queen Anne, of dedicating our children permanently to lives of second-language speakers, of knowing that our friends, from now on, are as likely to be Australians as Americans (not that there’s anything wrong with that, though we have Kiwi friends who might beg to differ). All of those things? We’re just not ready to do that. We don’t have it in us.
This is, of course, something of a startling realization for us. My whole life I’ve been that kid on the other side of the train car, sitting opposite the bearded boy from York University, believing that I was, if not meant to live abroad, certainly meant to be abroad often and intensely. I was twenty when I first left the US, and the first place I went was Tanzania, where I spent several weeks in a village, climbed Kilimanjaro, fell in love with this amazing woman from South Carolina (if any of you know someone named Sarah Sanford, tell me—but don’t mention it to Ellen), and got all sorts of food-related diseases I never could have imagined living in small-town Wisconsin. After that I was in Durham, in a college, living with real British students, playing in a real British band, wearing Wellies and drinking cider and ripping into dear old Maggie. And then I returned to the UK with nothing but three thousand dollars and the promise that I could sleep on my friend’s floor if I didn’t snore and promised to crash in the lobby if his girlfriend came by.
In short, I thought I was cool, if by that term we mean someone who’s unburdened by concerns about security and future comfort and that white picket fence thing I’ve spent most of my life scoffing at. Only it turns out the white picket fence isn’t actually a white picket fence: it’s tenure, and promotion, and three kids who miss their friends, and a town where they can walk to school and where, when you’ll be getting back from work late, your friends will feed your kids spaghetti and make sure they get to swim team practice and finish those math problems Miss B has been nagging them about.
So we’re going back to Virginia, yes. We have to. Our kids are happy there. They can’t wait to see their friends, can’t wait to have their own rooms again, can’t wait to be at that pool again and walk to school again and eat Kenney’s fried chicken again—with flash-fried biscuits, no less.
And we want to. I miss my friends the Chrisses and beers on the occasional Thursday night, and my body-pump class where I’m the only guy and no one is under 40. I miss those chocolate-covered orange peels, and knowing where I can get an awesome chicken-melt followed by kick-ass carrot cake. I don’t particularly miss mowing my half-acre of hillside, but I miss sitting out on my deck in the early evening, waiting for the pork chops to burn as the setting sun casts an orange glow over the two-hundred-year-old oaks in the cemetery.
And I’m not ready to give up my (safe) job that I like and am actually quite good at, and people at least tolerate me even if they don’t think my jokes are funny (It probably doesn’t hurt that I’m on sabbatical for all of the next year). And Ellen isn’t ready (now, or necessarily ever) to give up her job at one of the best presses in the country, with one of the best bosses and colleagues who push her and support her and respect her.
We have a nice life. A very nice life. Idyllic even. Hong Kong is great, the adventure has been fun, but we’re just not ready to commit to a life abroad.