This Was Originally Published In the Walla Walla Walla Union-Bulletin’s Lifestyles Magazine
Last December, foreigners living in Xi’an, China gathered at the Westin hotel for the expat “Jingle and Mingle.” Hors d’oeuvres disappointed. The bartender performed juggling tricks with flaming wine bottles. At a circle of couches in the corner of the room, legs crossed, wines in hand, sat six Whitman College alumni.
Not every Whittie in attendance worked in Xi’an directly on account of Whitman in China, but the alumni teaching program does form a web through the community, acting as a gravitational field that has channeled Whitman graduates abroad for over 36 years now, operating as a major force in the longstanding and unexpected relationship between China and the Walla Walla Valley.
Three buddies and I visited Xi’an to see our friend Nadir Ovcina, who was then four months into the Whitman in China program, teaching oral English primarily at Northwest Polytechnical University. He introduced us to the squad, recent graduates all.
China, a country itself undergoing rapid transformation, has proven a strange place to find grounding for Whitman alumni, who come in search of adventure, direction amid the ambiguities of the post-grad moment. In some cases, the experience has cemented sensibilities and interests that defined a person’s identity for the rest of his or her life; in other cases it has constituted a strange state of suspension. As Whitman Anthropology professor Chas McKhann told me, China is not the place to “find yourself. It is a place to get further lost. If you don’t find yourself, you will surely get lost.”
Established in 1982, a mere ten years after President Nixon’s famous sojourn, the Whitman in China program emerged out of a serendipitous connection made during a 1980 visit to China by Walla Walla wheat farmers and then-Whitman College history professor David Deal.
This “farm tour” took Deal and compadres to the Yunnan province in the Southwest, where they met, as McKhann tells it, the only Westerner in all of Kunming at the time.
Elizabeth Booz, who would write about her experience for National Geographic, invited the Walla Walla crew to a birthday party, where she told Deal that the country was starving for native English speakers.
Deal and some of the farmers arranged for a Whitman trust to fund the Whitman in China program, which would be established through relationships with Yunnan University, in Kunming and Northwest Polytechnical University, in Xi’an (pronounced shee-yon). Soon thereafter, Whitman became one of the first schools in the United States to send teachers to China since Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy began.
The six class of 2018 students slated to embark next fall will bring the total number of individuals who have taught in China through the program to 206. Seventy-five Chinese students and faculty have now participated in the reciprocal element of the program, by which Chinese universities send one of their own to Walla Walla.
The program has undergone numerous permutations since its inception, but in spirit much remains the same. These days it is run by Susan Holme, director of Whitman College’s study abroad office. Holme herself taught English in 1981 Taiwan through a YMCA program. She traveled to mainland China in the summer between her first and second year in Taiwan, and said that, at the time, “it was unbelievable. I wouldn’t say it was like going to North Korea, but pretty darn close.”
No restaurants. No cars. Few buses. “Thousands and thousands of bicycles.” Holme still remembers looking out a hotel room window upon a sea of bikes in Guangzhou, and thinking to herself “wow, they could really get it right. They could go the no-car route.”
By chance, Holme’s visit to mainland China roughly coincided with the arrival of the first batch of students from Whitman’s program.
This cadre included the aforementioned Chas McKhann, whose interest in China had been piqued in classes he took with Deal at Whitman.
The third plenum of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party took place in 1979 Beijing, three years after the death of Mao Zedong. Immensely influential policies around agriculture, domestic life, and the loosening of economic controls stem from this gathering. McKhann said that in 1982, when he arrived in Kunming with one other Whitman graduate, these first reforms of the Deng era were just entering the implementation stage.
He traveled around the countryside of Yunnan province, closed at the time to foreigners, but accessible on special dispensation from the provincial government for him and his fellow-expats, as long as they had a minder. “Mind blowing, so beautiful,” he said of this trip into the mountains. He met the director of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, told him he wanted to do doctoral research on ethnic groups in Northwest Yunnan province where he had traveled. The director helped him get the visa to make it happen.
“That was the was the beginning of my story,” said McKhann. “And I’ve been going back ever since.”
By this time, Kunming’s foreigner population numbered around 10, maybe 12, said McKhann. “Knew every one of em by name.”
He lived a loose and free lifestyle. He drank beer and biked around the ring road of Kunming. He swam in reservoirs, attended rural markets. One time, he took visiting friend to the hot springs thirty miles west of Kunming, where they “ate acid and hiked through the mountains all day long.” He has devoted much of his career to the study of China, the first of many Whitman alumni ever since who have come to the country and thought, in his words, “woah, China. I think I can make a life out of this.”
The Car Route
In the thirty-plus years since these maiden voyages, China has undergone a period of massive development and cultural transformation by which hundreds of millions of people have emerged from poverty and been thrown into a full speed globalized world.
Such dynamics have only heightened a widespread desire to learn English. Runyan told me that her students are motivated by career ambitions — one student expressed hope to one day work at Boeing in Seattle — social pressures, a desire to talk to foreigners and participate in global popular culture.
Kunming proper now has around six million people, the result of a nationwide migration pattern to the cities from rural areas, comparable in scale to the combined total migrations from Africa to Europe and South America to North America over the same time span. The ring road McKhann once biked in an hour is now ringed by exponentially larger ring roads.
Epic demographic trends create epic urban planning challenges and ambitions. The Whitman expats living in Xi’an now mostly travel by bus, cab or “Didi,” the Chinese equivalent of Uber, but soon will be able to avail themselves of the eight new subway lines visibly under present construction. I preferred the dockless bike share system, remarkably ubiquitous in major Chinese cities, just beginning to appear in the U.S. — (the U-B recently reported that College Place may soon be getting a fleet of its own).
“Bad and Bougie”
I rode one such bike to meet Serena Runyan in a Starbucks on Chang’an Road, a major thoroughfare leading through the Southern Gate of Xi’an’s famous city wall. Sitting in front of an indoor mural featuring Mt. Rainier and Seattle’s Pike Place Market, Runyan, now in her second year abroad, said that “things are starting to get pretty comfortable.” The challenge of foreignness that once animated even day-to-day minutia has faded somewhat, if not yet entirely.
Runyan graduated from Whitman in 2014 — while still a student, she interned at the Union-Bulletin — and worked AmeriCorps in Walla Walla for a year before applying to the Whitman in China program.
Her teaching experience, as in the case of many oral English teachers, was minimal. She received some training in Walla Walla, but beyond providing her teaching schedule, Northwest Polytechnical University in Xi’an provided “nothing” in the way of orientation when she arrived.
Instructors teach the same lessons to numerous different classes, usually filled with undergrads. Many teachers start with misguided, often over ambitious approaches to a teaching practice that tends to humble. Runyan said she is at her best when she is simply facilitating talking, modelling good pronunciation. Many undergrad Chinese students are proficient with reading and listening to English, but as oral English is not required by the infamous pre-university Gau Kau exam, speaking remains a trouble spot.
Some teachers employ popular culture clips to exemplify different modes of speech. Runyan used scenes from the show “Modern Family” in one class. My friend Nadir Ovcina told me that for his class he played the music video for “Bad and Bougie,“ a hit rap song in which Offset, of the Georgia hip-hop group Migos, riffs about “cookin’ up dope with an uzi.”
Henry Allen, another teacher, said that he feels like he relearns the teaching process every semester. One time, he tried to teach grammar. “I got confused. I taught the wrong thing.”
But the teaching workload is rarely oppressive, and a significant slice of life lies beyond the university.
Runyan has tried to ignore the pressure to return with “stories” for the people who hear you are going to China and think “obviously you’re going to do a hundred cool things because you’re going to China and if you don’t, that’s, like, weird.”
But many of the expats have indeed found “cool” side gigs, in teaching, or in other worlds altogether. One Whitman grad teaching English outside of the Whitman in China program plays on a local expat soccer team. Runyan, for her part, has written a few pieces for the expat magazine “Xianease,” print circulation 10,000. When I saw her, she was working on an article on the “top five apps you need to have in China.”
The Expat Gamut
I met Tim King, the editor-in-chief of Xianease,” one blue sky morning in a Starbucks — a different one — near what is marked as the origin of the Silk Road, just off the old Northwest Polytechnical University Campus.
“There is a lot hiding here beneath the facades they want you to see,” he said. He conceives of his role as magazine editor as elucidating opportunities and possibilities for expats — bodybuilding, bar reviews, vegan societies, bands — King plays bass (“sort of”) in the foreigner band Nunavut.
He came to the country in the wake of the great recession, and so has spent far more time in China than expats of the common Whitman variety. Dropped into an isolated old petrochemical-turned green energy town as an English teacher in a preschool, his path to editorship has taken him through the gamut of expat gigs — teaching kids, teaching adults and college students, copy editing translations for a big multinational — and he has tried to impart his lessons upon his foreigner community, “appeal to their better angels in terms of trying to admit that they’re here, they’re going to be here for a while, but that you can still experience a full rich life here.” He said “it’s definitely a restatement of your expectations. Either totally clearing them. Or finding new ways to fulfill them.”
China enables a clean break for some expats, an opportunity to become something, like a teacher, or a bassist in a band, that in other worlds one would lack the qualifications for. “If you are the kind to believe in privilege — I am — it works in spades out here,” said King, who used to joke that having pretty blue eyes was the closest he was going to be to “understanding what it was like to have rockin’ breasts, because people would look at you and be arrested by it… I’ve waltzed into jobs because I’m a white guy. And people have been refused from jobs because they are a black guy.” He said his band would “never had been anything” if not for their being white. Never would have gotten a bar gig.
As foreigners pour into China, and as China rides its own nationalist swell under the presidency of Xi Jinping, such dynamics are getting more complicated, although King did not want to discuss so politically loaded a phenomenon in so public a space. “I’m a dog tied up in the yard,” he said of his capacity as a magazine editor in a country that does not have freedom of the press. “I don’t want to find that the end of the leash is me talking too loud in a Starbucks.”
“There’s Your Pull Quote”
McKhann said he find himself nostalgic for the old China of the 1980s, of charming rural simplicity, in some places devoid of electricity, or even running water. “I sit in a very privileged and luxurious position,” he said, acknowledging that this bareness of life was in many ways a manifestation of extreme poverty. And yet in the face of massive and banal concrete developments, of infamous pollution, he thinks such nostalgia has some genuine substance.
“The pace of life is so fast now … Those memories …. There were no cars on the road at midnight. That’s a different pace of life, and it’s gone, and it ain’t coming back.”
But some things haven’t changed. “China is fun,” said King. “There’s your pull quote. It is annoying, it is frustrating, it is bizarre, but it is away interesting and there is always an opportunity to have a good time.
“But just like that guy who graduates from undergrad and you find him the next fall semester drinking in college bars, at some point the party is over … There is a point where it starts to look like hiding rather than growing.”
King, who has a Chinese fiancé, said that he himself is “starting to feel like the party is over. I’m about to turn thirty, and I think it’s time for me to reassert my case to the West.”
The Goat Hoof
Our final night in Xi’an, we visited the famous Bell Tower, across from the Drum Tower, both magnificent vestiges of the Ming dynasty still standing in the middle of the city. “Although it is impossible to completely collect and display all historical data of 600 years,” reads the curator’s preface, “the two buildings embodying ancient Chinese civilization and traditional culture can still enable us to feel remaining temperature of the history … The time never stops passing. To hold it is to grasp the future.”
After we left the tower, which, like much of Xianese architecture, blends form such that it is difficult to tell whether a building is five or 500 years old, we ran into a Chinese-American couple from Tennessee. We exchanged pleasantries and wished each other well with an uncommon sincerity. Evening was setting, and it had been a beautiful day.
As night descended, we continued to Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter, a serpentine and overwhelming carnival of neon and vendor stands and warm oppressive scents where vendors of the Uyghur ethnic minority yell price and product at passersby amid the sizzle of animal flesh.
We entered. I picked out a fried still-shelled crab on a stick and Nadir told me it was “authentic.” Friend Jack carried a greasy clear bag of meat in one hand and in the other he held goat hoof on a stick (¥20). We searched for gifts for our mothers. Friends Jack and Lilia haggled unsuccessfully for rocks. Nadir munched down half of a squid on a stick.
Wumu is a new brew pub in town. With relief we departed the Muslim quarter for this more solid and familiar ground. Runyan, two other Whitman alums and a friend of the Whitman group named Jaf happened to be seated at the table adjacent.
We chatted and then, having decompressed, re-embarked into the city. We found ourselves paralyzed by the possibilities, the pressure to do it big on our final night. We went to Karaoke Television, or KTV, a popular Chinese night spot in which you rent a room and imbibe and sing karaoke. We mingled and guffawed at the wine prices, and, under a look of severe annoyance from the security guard, trundled off without getting a room.
Some of us continued to Park Qin, a popular hostel bar that a Canadian expat named Kevin told me reminds him, in its ethnic diversity, of the Cantina from Star Wars.
Many Whitman alumni, including Allen and Runyan, happened (again) to be seated at a table (Xi’an is a city of eight million, but the Whitman expat squad typically patronizes a few tried and true hang-out spots). The crew had all been eliminated from a beer pong tournament, the final of which was fought between some tall American basketball players, and an extremely ripped and prodigiously tatted English teacher from Detroit. Detroit won the day, to tepid fanfare.
The night went on. Sebastian, a Whitman alum, and Kevin, the Canadian waxed theoretical on Chinese political forces and strains. Runyan decried the decision to forsake karaoke, positing it as a “quintessential” experience.
The crew sloughed away and Jaf and I remained. We ordered another round. Jaf, a buoyant personality, is 25 and nears completion of his studies to be a urologist. He arrived in Xi’an when he was 19 — knew neither English nor Chinese — after he was forced into exile from Bahrain because of the political affiliations of his extended family, which is now dispersed all around the world. I had interviewed Jaf at a McDonalds earlier in the day. I was curious about his experience, but quickly got the sense that he had little interest in delving in deep with some random American reporter. China has become a second home. He befriends the expats, but “people here don’t stay.” Friends pass through and he makes new ones. What is novel to newcomers is mundane to him. Conversations can get repetitive.
The next morning, I met Henry Allen in Jennifer’s Cafe, a delightful quiet upper floor space that looks down upon a busy street by the university. Two of my friends drank “Jennifer’s Juice” at a nearby table, and Henry and I talked about his time in Xi’an.
I first met Allen at the Green Lantern in Walla Walla a few years ago when I was working on a lighthearted story about a pub-crawl. He had graduated from Whitman, a philosophy major, the year prior and was working as paraeducator at Wa-Hi. Allen joined my photographer and editor and I as we made our way to Ming Court and sang exclusively Blink-182 songs for karaoke. Some months prior, he had received a mailer from the Whitman in China program the same day he was rejected from a job. He took it as a sign.
Now, he is in the midst of his second year in China and, though he plans to stay for another, his experience has flattened.
The early weeks, while anxiety-inducing, brimmed with enigmatic potential. A veteran Whitman in China teacher shared her instruction materials and showed him and Runyan about town: food spots, drinking joints. That first winter, he decided to come out for another year. He got a girlfriend, saw his Whitman friends multiple times per week. They would hang out, watch movies. “It was like a family,” said Allen.
But this year has been more isolating. Some friends have moved to other cities. He spends a lot of time with a new girlfriend.
“I sometimes get glimpses of what Xi’an used to be like during the first few months I was here, of exciting new things on every corner” he said. “I really don’t feel that anymore.”
Allen sent me a message when I returned to the United States. He wrote that he understood Tim King’s metaphor of “the party” in terms of friendships, the excitement of being in a foreign place, the relaxation of pausing your life back home. “When you move to a foreign country as a young person,” he wrote, “you’re kind of putting your life on hold, saying ‘I’ll figure this out later.’ But at some point you have to face it again and decided what kind of life you want, what you want to do with your life, and ask yourself if living in that country is a part of those plans.”
“All three of those parties ended for me this fall.”
He will be staying another year and then things get hazy. He’d like to get a Ph.D. in philosophy. He would need some writing samples to apply, and doesn’t like any of his old work, so over break, between winter and spring term, he’s going to try to produce something new: “If I can write — make myself do it — that’s like, the test, right?”