Bye, China

By Li Jieyi Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/26 19:33:41

Expats share their experiences of leaving a country that served as a ‘second home’

At the Beijing Capital International Airport, Jonathan Paul Kolb says goodbye to his friends in China on March 20, 2019. Photo: Li Jieyi/GT

Kolb shows the Chinese painting he bought for his mother at his apartment in Tianjin on March 18, 2019. Photo: Li Jieyi/GT

Expats, a mobile community in China, fill their suitcases with personal memories of this country when they decide to leave. Photo: VCG

Farewell gifts were piled up on the bed, and a big suitcase laid open. At an apartment located in North China's Tianjin Municipality, a young man was trying to make more room to pack up all the gifts from his friends and former students. "When I saw the crooked name written by a four-year-old girl, I almost cried," Jonathan Paul Kolb said after opening a valedictory card that was given to him by his student.

The 26-year-old man, who calls his Chinese students "my kids," was a foreign English teacher working in Tianjin at Education First (EF), an international education company. Three days before Kolb's flight, his friends and colleagues held a farewell party for him. "Saying goodbye is always difficult, but it's a natural part of being human," said Myra Mushabati, 26, one of his peers. 

Mushabati told the Global Times (GT) that this is the second teacher from their team to leave in just past three months. The English education industry has seen a large mobility of foreign teachers in China. 

Kolb came to China in December 2017 and told his friends about the decision to leave in February 2019. He will leave China and go back to his hometown in Louisiana, the US. 

A mobile community 

There could be many reasons for an expat to leave China: feeling homesick, inability to put down roots in China or just wanting to experience different cultures in other countries. 

Kolb's decision to leave is driven by ideals and love. In those teaching days in Tianjin, Kolb taught Chinese kids whose ages range from four to 14. "Those moments with my kids, and the smile on their faces, are exactly the things that make me realize that I love teaching and I'm good at what I'm doing," he said. 

Compared with little kids aged from seven to nine, the higher-level students make Kolb enjoy his work the most. They are old enough to have their own ideas and principles, so he can build mutual relationships with them. Some older students talked with him about interesting facts about China, like their experiences with Chinese taxi drivers, for example. These discussions gave Kolb a unique perspective of how to understand China better. "So, I'd like to teach older kids when I go back home," Kolb said.

The teaching experience with Chinese kids has benefited him a lot in making him grow as a teacher. For him, teaching is learning. 

"It strengthened my grammar and language a lot. I want to bring what I've learned here back home and let those children in my hometown feel the beauty of English," said Kolb. He explained that the English curriculum in his hometown isn't as grammar-intensive as the Chinese English curriculum. But it is fundamental for little kids to learn English. "For most expats, they come to China just for the job, but for Kolb, he wants to make a positive impact on the kids and make sure that they can do well," said Marc Gonzales, Kolb's colleague. 

"My girlfriend is about to graduate from college, but she has no interest in living in China," Kolb said and added that this is another reason for him to leave. 

Catherine Patterson has been in China for two and a half years and she thinks about leaving China sometimes, following in Kolb's footsteps. Growing up, she had to move and live in different countries due to her father's job. But now she chooses to stay because she wants to improve her Chinese. "Some people choose to leave because of cultural differences and language boundaries," she said.

China has seen a large migration of expats. For various reasons, they keep coming, especially as English teachers. Most of them are drawn by ideal job opportunities and salaries. "Some of those who left will come back again," said Patterson.

Second-home nostalgia

Mushabati said that for different reasons, people come to China as English teachers. Some leave after several months, and some stay put for almost ten years. No matter how long they've stayed, they've built a bond with China through assimilating into expat communities, building up friendships, working in different industries, and getting used to the Chinese lifestyle. 

"I love my kids," said Kolb. Among many farewell gifts he received, Kolb picked three that touched him the most, which all came from his students. 

He received a Doraemon-shaped glass with colorful jell in it, a valedictory card and a bag bought in the Forbidden City. "I'll be very careful with the gifts, because a four-year-old girl who calls herself Pony asked me to take care of the Doraemon. She doesn't want it broken," said Kolb. 

People always say that forming a habit takes only twenty-one days. Although Kolb didn't stay the longest, the time he spent in China was enough for him to get used to life in this country. 

"I order noodles on sometimes, and I love hot pot," said Kolb. But when he arrives back home, this kind of convenience will disappear. "I'm going to miss Chinese food, like hot pot and Tianjin breakfast," he said. 

 However, the conveniences in China could be seen as merely a normal reason for him to miss China. 

In his spare time, he liked to walk around in Tianjin, seeing alleyways with small shops on each side and the local people who pass through. They buy Jianbing Guozi (a Tianjin local street breakfast) in the morning and some Chinese ride their bikes through the alleyways with their children to send them to school.  

Kolb said he won't be able to say if he will miss China until his plane lands in the US. But he might miss the alleyways and the Chinese. "That's China to me, which I think is beautiful. Those places are not normally seen back in the states, instead we have malls or some other things that are common between metropolises across the world," he said.

These same connections with China are shared by many expats. 

Wangui Maureen, a university student majoring in art design, told GT that one of her most vivid memories is leaving China two years ago. She didn't realize that she had made so many friends in China until people held a farewell party for her in which they shared teary moments together. "I miss them a lot," she said.

Leletu Gxuluwe, 26, from South Africa, came to China in 2017. "I have no plan to leave now, I'll miss the communities and my students if I leave," he said. 

Some expats stay here and enjoy life in China for the long term. Kolb, however, chose to bring "Chinese things" back home to hold onto his memories. He purchased a Chinese painting of a white lotus flower on Taobao for his mother and packed a bottle of Moutai (Chinese liquor) that he received as a gift from his company. 

However, there are some places he couldn't visit that he wanted to tick off his bucket list. "My parents might get angry if I told them I've never been to the Great Wall," he said. 

Before boarding the plane at Beijing Capital International Airport, Kolb turned around to face his last glimpse of China on land and said, "Goodbye China, and I'll see you soon."

Jason Ajibola Lawal contributed to this story


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