Tuesday, August 2, 2011

So Long, Farewell, Goodbye, Amen

Well folks, that’s it.

We set up this blog to chronicle our adventures and misadventures in China and now that time has come to an end. After two years and over 900 blog posts, this is our last. I have set the timer so that this last entry will be posted at the same time that our plane takes off. By the time your read this, we should be in the air bound for The States.

Thanks to all our friends in Hong Kong who made the last two years so memorable. And thanks to all of you readers for tuning in on a regular basis.

Until we meet again,

Jack, Julie, Annika, and Elise

Monday, August 1, 2011


When I was younger, identity was a much simpler concept.

For example, I had a clear idea of what it meant to be German: spoke German, ate sauerkraut, grandfather used to wear lederhosen. But what about the Turkish immigrant who has lived in Germany for twenty years? What about his seven year old son who has spent his entire life in Germany and grew up speaking German?

What about the white farmer in Zimbabwe? How long does she have to live there before she gets to assert that she is in fact a Zimbabwean?

Or the how about Alberto Fujimori son of Japanese immigrants to Peru? At what point does he get to claim to be a Peruvian? Was it when he became President of Peru, or did he secure his Peruvian-ness at some point before that?

Like I said, concepts of identity where a lot simpler when I was young.

Shortly after arriving in Hong Kong, I remember asking somebody “So what do you call a person from Hong Kong, anyways? A Hong Kongan? a Hong Kongite?”

Well, it turns out the preferred term is Hong Kongers. That’s cool, I thought. I can work with that.

If I had been an American living in Beijing or Shenzhen or Fuling for two years, it would never presume to claim that I was now Chinese. But Hong Kong isn’t Beijing or Fuling. Despite her return to China in 1997, Hong Kong is not just another Chinese city or province. It is a Special Administrative Region with the operative word being special.

Hong has always been a mash-up of many things. From the day it was established as a British colony over 150 years ago it has been a blend of Chinese and Western influences. Many of the places in Hong Kong bear very English names: Chatham, Queensway, Aberdeen, Victoria. Many observers thought that after the handover, one of the first orders of business would be to start changing place names in an attempt to China-fy Hong Kong and scrub it of her colonial past. But that didn’t happen. There was no rush to shrug of names like Glouchester and Hennessey. Hong Kong knows who she is and that is a mix of East and West. No sense denying it. No sense trying to change it.

What’s more, the population in Hong Kong is very fluid. In an end-of-the-year goodbye note my principal started by writing “I have lived here long enough to know the drill.” He went on to say that people leaving Hong Kong was in inevitable part of life here. There does seem to be a constant stream of people settling down in Hong Kong and of people pulling up stakes and going to university in Toronto or taking a promotion with their employer in London or reverting back to a teaching job in Chicago.

As a result departing isn’t a barrier to being a member of this city. Rather, transience seems to be part of the definition of what a means to be a Hong Kong-er.

I spent my youth living in three different cities in Michigan. For the last twenty years I have lived in Chicago. But I can honestly say that I have never engaged and embraced a city the way that I engaged Hong Kong. Maybe it was because I traversed so much of it on foot. Maybe it was because I knew that our tenured here came with a deadline and I was committed to soaking up as much as this city had to offer.

Hong Kong wormed its way into my heart and has become a part of who I am. And I like to think that maybe in a small way, I impacted my little corner of Hong Kong through the students that I taught and the people I worked and lived with for two years.

So at what point does the young man from Turkey get to call himself German? I don’t know. I guess I will have to leave it up to him to decide.

But here is what I do know.

For two years I was –and I suspect that to some degree, I always will be- a Hong Konger.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Goodbye Ruby Tuesday part 2 of 2

-seeing young men who spent more time on their hair than their girlfriends did
-embarrassing my daughters on the MTR by making faces at little local kids
-having a backpack of one size or another strapped to my back almost every time I leave the house
-old dudes with multiple long hairs growing out of that one mole on their cheek
-seeing flowering bushes year round in this subtropical clime
-seeing young people wearing thick black frames with no glass in them simply as a fashion accessory
-living in –and having to clean- just 900 square feet
-bottled water advertising wars between Watsons and Cool
-getting pinged by Chinese cell phone carriers every time I take a hike in the mountains near the Chinese border
-old women doing early morning tai chi while wearing a clashing mix of brown checks and gray stripes

Goodbye Ruby Tuesday part 1 of 2

Some of the aspects of life in Hong Kong that I will miss once we leave:

-living without a car
-my multi-purpose Octopus card
-good cheap Indian food
-riding double-decker buses
-watching soccer highlight on the MTR

-living and working in the same building
-standing on the street corner in Tsim Sha Tsui in the evening and watching people of every nationality walk by under the electrifying neon lights
-being able to leave my house and twenty minutes later be hiking in the mountains
-old men playing Chinese chess in the not-quite-a-park area under the highway access ramp
-seeing six or seven old guys watching said game of chess with the intensity of world cup fans

A little adventure

In part, I wanted to live and work overseas for the sheer adventure of it all. It’s been quite a ride. In the last 24 months, I:

-ate eel, chicken feet, squid, pig’s ear, jelly fish, cow tongue, and yak
-speared shrimp in the waters off the coast of Sumatra
-slept on the roof of a wooden boat in Halong Bay in northern Viet Nam
-smuggled Bibles into China
-dined and slept in the home of a traditional Hmong family in the hills of Sapa
-rode elephants in Northern Thailand
-had -not one but two- very large boa constrictor draped around my neck
-walked through the slums of Manila
-motored through the Mekong Delta
-stood in a Chinese police line-up
-floated down a Thai river on a bamboo raft
-was nibbled by a rat as I slept while stranded in an Indonesian village
-hiked the terraced riced patties in the mountains of Northern Vietnam
-crawled through WWII bunkers built to repel the invading Japanese
-got hustled –not once, but twice- on the streets of Bangkok
-zip-lined through the jungle canopy of Southeast Asia
-saw orung utans up close and in the wild in Borneo
-watched the sun rise over an 800-year-old village in China
-rode sampans, cyclos, tuk-tuks, trams, cable cars, sleeper trains, overnight buses, and motorcycle sidecars
-climbed on and among the ancient ruins of Ankor Wat
-hiked the Great Wall of China
-bicycled atop the wall of an ancient Chinese city
-was stung by a sea urchin in the Gulf of Thailand

I would say that that is about enough adventure to keep me sated.

At least for a while.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Stepping Up

No doubt about it, I was agitating for an overseas experience. My wife and two daughters would have been perfectly content for us to stay on the trajectory we were on. But Dad had some half-baked ideas about pulling up stake and moving half way around the world. My wife and daughters were gracious enough to line up behind me and support this whole undertaking even when it wasn’t easy.

I remember vividly the first day of school last year. It was just six days after we arrived in Hong Kong. Because Annika’s entry-level Mandarin class conflicted with the math class she needed to be in, somehow in the midst of all the first-of-the-year start-up, she did not have a class schedule as the school day began.

Thirty-five minutes into the school day, I found her wandering around looking absolutely shell-shocked. I could tell that she was barely holding it together. I had a room full of students waiting for their teacher, but I decided at that moment that Daddy trumped Teacher. Annika and I found a sofa, sat down, and I put my arm around her. I don’t know who was closer to being in tears -her or me. I thought to myself, My God, what have I done? What have I done to my family? I have to be honest, if somebody knocked on our door that night during dinner with four one-way tickets back to Chicago, I think that we would have jumped at them.

But oh, what a difference a couple of years make. We not only survived a tough transition, but my family thrived. I asked a lot of them and they stepped up in big and small ways. This experience has stretched us all in ways that we could never have imagined when we climbed aboard that United Airline flight two years ago.

Elise was just nine when we left, now she will be entering middle school when we return. Annika was a thirteen-year-old kid who had just finished seventh grade. When we get back she will be sixth months from getting her driver’s license.

I asked a lot of my family. I turned their world upside down. We changed cities, continents, jobs. We had to meet all new people. The girls went from home-schooling to having school five days a week in an insanely academically rigorous environment. But they stepped up in big and small ways.

Before we left, somebody in Chicago said that this experience would forever change my girls; that they would come back different people than when we left.

I know for a fact that this is true. Their horizons have been broadened. They have been given a taste of what it is like to be part of an international community. And they know that when God leads, it is possible to do really bold, really big things in life.

God used me to ask a lot of family and they stepped up in big and small ways.

Thy Will Be Done . . . (whatever that might be)

I tend to push a little hard for things that I want to see happen. Oh let’s see if I can come up with a recent example . . . I guess living and working overseas would be one example that comes to mind.

One night at the dinner table when it was looking as if this move to China might actually happen, Julie opened the meal in prayer.
At the very end, she prayed, “. . . and may Your will be done. Not Jack’s. Amen.”

Fair enough.

We all snickered, but there was a lot of truth in her last-second addendum.

My wife is a pretty wise woman. Once in a while when I am not too busy focusing on myself, I find it beneficial to look at the situation at hand from her perspective.

From my vantage point, the process all too often looks like this: God, I want to live abroad. I am even willing to uproot my family and drag them away from family and friends in order to do so. I am willing to work really hard and take some big risks to make it happen. God, I would really appreciate it if you would be gracious enough to step aside and allowed me to do my thing.

In general, I struggle in life knowing where the balance is between embracing the fact that God wants to satisfy the deepest longings of my heart and knowing when I am just being selfish and destructive to the people I love. God calls me to offer up my desires as a living sacrifice, but I know that God also calls us to do big things. I struggle trying to know where God’s will ends and my ego begins.

From Julie’s perspective it goes a lot more like this: God, I am not in control. I never have been. God, I am confident, that in your wisdom, you will put us exactly where you want us and you will get us there in your own way. You are so amazing, that you can even use the misguided, myopic impulses of a knucklehead like my husband to keep our family in the center of your will.

I guess I should take my cues from my wife. As I bumble my way through life, this has become my prayer. God, I am idiot. On that we all agree. But I really want to be exactly where you want me to be. You have created in me longings and desires. I am just going to go ahead and pursue those and if it’s not what you want, please, please, please close doors as necessary. And feel free to use my wife to slap me upside the back of the head when I need to have some sense knocked into me. She’s pretty good at it.

I find peace in knowing that God can use even a knucklehead like me to achieve his ends.

It’s been a great two years filled with adventure, friendship, challenges, and growth. As much as I pushed and conspired to make these last two years happen, I realize that they happened in spite of me, not because of me.


Langston Hughes asked:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore-- And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Twenty years ago, straight out of college, I took a job teaching conversational English in Japan for a year. If you had told me when I returned home that it would be twenty years before I would leave North America again, I would have been surprised and disappointed. After living in and exploring a far corner of the globe, I was ready for more. I had decided that this was who I was. But then life happened: marriage, first real teaching job, car payments, home, mortgage, church commitments, photography career, credit card payments.

By all measures, I had every reason to be content with my life. Wonderful wife, great kids, good health, good job. In fact, I loved my teaching job in Chicago. But sixteen years is an awfully long time to teach eleven-year-olds how to divide fractions by flipping the second fraction and multiplying top times top, bottom times bottom. Professionally, I felt I was starting to plateau. I was getting antsy and suffering from a large-scale case of cabin fever. I felt that it was time to mix it up and take on some new challenges. I was looking for some dragons to slay.

In the fall of 2008, I started snooping around the internet to see what overseas teaching opportunities were out there. Then, in about October I started to get more systematic in my efforts. I started sending out resumes and cover letters. When I started to hear back from a couple of the schools expressing interested, I let my wife know what I was up to.

On Thursday, December 18, during my lunch hour I sent out my 65th cover letter and resume to International Christian School in Hong Kong. At 7:00 that night I got a call from Donna in human resources. We talked for an hour. That was followed a week later with a two-hour phone interview with the principal. Julie and I were offered a middle school teaching position and a part-time nursing position.

I was moving my family to China for the next two years.

A few months before our departure, I stopped by to see David –a friend of mine from church- at his office. He introduced me to one of his clients who was on the way out the door. David explained that my wife and I were going to the mission field to serve in China for two years. This wasn’t the first time I had heard one of my more earnest church friends put this spin on our imminent departure. I understood the inclination since we were going to work in a Christian school, but his depiction still made me uncomfortable. It ascribed to me motives that were all-together too selfless.

When people in The States or in Hong Kong asked me why my wife and I why were moving our family half way around the world, I found it easiest to explain that we wanted to give our daughters a long-term international experience. Which was true –in part.

The truth was, I was trying to satiate my incurable wanderlust.

Was it fair or reasonable for a guy who had been blessed with so much to ask for even more out of life? There was a definite undercurrent of self-indulgence to the whole endeavor. But how do I begin to explain that to a friend who is trying to ascribe to me noble intentions or to an acquaintance who thinks that I am willing to make tremendous sacrifices for my daughters’ betterment?

Better to just let them think that I am more selfless than I really am.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The D.T.s and Shifting Gears

I’ve got the detox jitters. I am going through a serious case of withdrawal. After spending my weekends viewing the world through the lens of my camera during my twenty-year career as a wedding and portrait photographer, I traded in my professional gear for a mid-range point and shoot. I took over 30,000 during my two years in Hong Kong. Then my camera was stolen on an overnight bus in China. I survived the remainder of our China trip by commandeering my daughter Annika’s little $60 camera. Now that she has taken that camera back to The States with her, I have found myself without a camera. After averaging 1,500 pictures a week for two years, I have now gone three weeks without taking a single picture. My finger sometimes twitches.

But old habits die hard. Everywhere I go, I keep framing pictures in my head. Mentally, I continue to take pictures.

My wife keeps asking me if I want to squeeze in this or that Hong Kong attraction. I keep turning her down. What’s the point of going to see something, if you can’t take any pictures to chronicle the experience?


When we first game to Hong Kong, I think the excitement and adrenaline of living in a new city shifted us into overdrive. When I look back at all that we did those first two months –weekend at Cheung Chau Island, climbing Sunset peak, visiting Kadoorie Farms- it’s a little insane. Eventually, we realized that we couldn’t maintain that manic pace and settled into a more realistic rhythm.

Knowing that once this school year ended and we returned from our recent foray to the Mainland that we would only have one final month in Hong Kong, I fully expected to find myself shifting into high gear in a panicked attempt to soak up every last bit of all that Hong Kong has to offer.

But much to my surprise that hasn’t happened. I have been pretty laconic as our final days in Hong Kong wind down.

Maybe it’s the fact that teaching kindergartener and first graders in summer school leaves me absolutely exhausted by 1:00 when they go home. Maybe it’s that I am enjoying the slower pace of life now that our girls are back in The States and it's just Julie and me.

Maybe its that I have no camera –so what’s the point anyways, right?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Tail that Wags the Dog part 2 of 2

The Old Guard that currently runs the country will one day be replaced by a new generation of leadership that did not come to power in the shadow of Mao’s legacy. A new generation is coming down the line that has managed work-arounds to get past China’s notorious Great Fire Wall that limits access to the internet and they’ve seen the movie “To Live.” They have a much fuller pictures of where China has been and what alternative futures could look like.

The big fear at the time of the handover was that Hong Kong was going to be absorbed into and become indistinguishable from the rest of China.
But fourteen years into the fifty-year grace period, Hong Kong is holding steady. It is China that is changing. It’s not necessarily that Hong Kong with her seven million people exerts undue influence on the rest of China with its 1.3 billion. Rather, as China seeks to become a more fully integrated member of the world community, its people will start to demand some of the same freedoms and rights that so many of their compatriots form around the world –including in Hong Kong- have been enjoying for years.

Thomas Jefferson observed that the natural order of things is for the State to encroach and for individual liberty to recede. While Jefferson was right, it is also true that humans have never stood by idly and let nature have it way. We fight back against the forces of nature. It is why the people of China built an enormous damn to control the raging floodwaters of the Yangtze. It is how the people of Hong Kong have carved out for themselves a secure and prosperous future from an oversized rock with few natural resources in the South China Sea.

An argument can be made that the ninetieth century belonged to the British, the twentieth century to The United State, and that the Twenty-first century will belong to China. In the least, with her sustained eight-percent annual growth, China will play an increased role in the world. How big of a role is yet to be determined. More importantly, it is yet to be determined what exactly this new, more prominent China will look like.

China has learned from the missteps in the 1960 and 70s that grew out of it experiments with a command-and-control economy. It has started to liberalize it markets. So far, so good. Now we can only hope that Beijing sees the benefits and rightness of bringing the same liberalization to the personal lives of its people.

My prediction? Free minds are an inevitable companion to free markets. Liberty will prevail.

When the handover happened in 1997, the question that lingering in the air on that rainy July day was “Who will change who?” Where on the field of history will these two divergent societies converge?

Thirty-six years from now, when the handover is complete, China in 2047 –with its greater prosperity and inevitable gains in personal freedoms- will resemble Hong Kong at the time of the hand-over more than Hong Kong of 2047 will resemble the China of 1997.