Discovering China

You might wonder why someone from a small town in Eastern Washington would ever be interested in going to spend a month in China to study Chinese. I had to think about that for a while to come up with an answer. When I came home to harvest last week, I remembered why. The answer can be traced back to Dayton and to my best friend from home, Ryan Rundell.

Ryan and I have known each other for more than 25 years. He has been one of my best friends for almost as far back as I can remember. Over the years, we spent hours playing sports together, rehearsing and performing in school musicals together, chasing girls together and rooming together in college. Ryan is the one who got me interested in China and learning Chinese. Here’s the story:


In 2002, Ryan accompanied his sister and brother-in-law to China when they went over to adopt twin Chinese girls. The three (soon to be five) spent several weeks over there, in Beijing and in Changsha, where they picked the girls up. They had been at an orphanage in Hunan Province. The adoption process and trip piqued Ryan’s interest in China, and he began to study both Chinese language and Chinese culture. Part of his motivation for studying was that he wanted to be able to answer his nieces’ future questions about the country where they were born.

Over time, Ryan's desire to know more about China grew stronger. He began to study Chinese more regularly and couldn't stop. Languages and cultures are seductive that way—once you get a glimpse of what they have to offer, you want to learn more. Chinese is even more seductive than most languages, because inside its characters are multiple layers of meaning. The extra challenge presented by learning the characters pulls you in and doesn’t let you go. If you ever decide to learn Chinese, I recommend that you start learning the characters right away. It can be frustrating, but it’s worth it. Trust me.

Anyway, Ryan was pulled in by China, and he decided to spend two years teaching English in Changsha. It turned out to be a great experience for him—he told many stories about the crazy things that he and his colleagues did there. I was also glad that he went—it gave me an excuse to go to China. In 2005, his second year over there, another long-term friend (a different Ryan) and I went to visit him.

That trip really opened my eyes as to what was going on in China. Riding the taxi into Beijing for the first time, I could feel the excitement of change and possibility buzzing around us. The crowds of people, the thick brown air, the thousands and thousands of bicycles and the chaos that seemed  to be everywhere captured my imagination and left me wanting to learn more. I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese, though, so I felt utterly helpless when not accompanied by my guide.

After spending a few days in Beijing, we went to Changsha, taking an overnight train to get there. Changsha’s chaos made Beijing feel tame. My two favorite events of that trip were: 1) riding unauthorized motorcycle taxis all over the city, weaving in and out of traffic with nothing more than a skillful driver and a little luck for protection; and 2) climbing Yuelu mountain and riding the toboggan down it. Unlike at the Great Wall this year, we had the slides to ourselves, so there was no one to slow us down. I only crashed once (probably should have used the brakes), but I realized that in some ways, you can be freer in China than in the US. No one was too concerned about safety on that slide, and the experience was phenomenal. I was hooked on China after that, and so I continue to grind away at learning the language.

After two years in Changsha, Ryan moved to Qingdao to study Chinese full-time. In 2006, I visited him there and we had a great time wandering around that city. The most memorable highlight of the trip was the tour through the Tsingtao brewery, a definite must-see if you ever visit Qingdao (you don’t want to miss the tilted “drunken room” or the pitcher of China’s most famous beer included with your admission ticket). Ryan now holds a bachelor’s degree in Chinese from Qingdao University and  is fluent in the language. A perfectionist, he could be mistaken for a native speaker in certain settings.  While he was in Qingdao, Ryan also won a regional speech contest for foreigners, and the local TV news did a feature story on him.

These days Ryan is working as a pharmacist technician at Elk Drug in Dayton. After I returned from Beijing this year, we got together to catch up and the conversation quickly turned to China. We swapped stories about the craziness of China and about the difficulties we both have gone through trying to learn the language. It was obvious that he misses China and I understand why.

We would both like to return to China, at least to visit, so we sat at the table and discussed ways that we could do that. One thing we talked about was to take tour groups to China. In fact, if you ever need someone to guide you in China, Ryan is an experienced guide who does a great job. He has shown several visitors around (including me three times). In the future, we would love to organize a tour of southern China to Yunnan Province. It is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in all of China, and I know we would make the trip a great adventure for everyone who came along. In the future, I will write more about this as we come up with a clearer plan.

Until then, I hope you keep reading Caffeinated PDX. If you have enjoyed my stories about China, great! If you didn’t enjoy them, blame Ryan. I never would have gone if it weren’t for him. . .