Letter from China No.7

Thank your lucky stars to be born and live where?
There are some strange people in the Chinese language school here in Hainan. Some are like the young Russians from Eastern Siberia who “dance” in the Chinese nightclubs. They come for fast money and last a few years in complete isolation from the real world. None of the other students talk to them and they remain seriously aloof. Life must be really bad in their home towns for this to be a more attractive alternative.
Others are strange because they have moved from very rich countries to spend large parts of their lives in China. I was too cautious to ask them directly about their real reasons but that did not stop me from asking a lot of innocent questions, so like a detective, I could piece together the damming evidence.
I will not use their real names.
The first is an American, called Joe. He is a teacher of 54 years, married with 3 adult children. He and his wife have been English teachers in America, Italy, France and China. Last year they decided to concentrate on learning Chinese for 18 months. The income from teaching English in Italy was too small to support the family and they had to dip into their savings, so they had to leave. They told me that they intend to stay in China as teachers for the next 10 years. They do not own any home, they have no pension plan nor health insurance. They intend to live off their savings for the next 18 months. In China life is cheap and health care is almost free, even for foreigners. On the other hand a teacher, foreign or local, can only hope to earn a wage that nobody in Europe would ever accept. Their apartment is modest at best.
The second is Hubert, a 70 year old Swiss national, who spends 6 to 12 months each year in China. He is married, but his wife is a scientist who studies isolated tribes in jungle villages for months on end. They spend years apart. She has no need for a phone since there are no powerlines or mobile networks. Hubert was a businessman, but now he is a pensioner, one who is a rather lonely. Somebody at the school mentioned that he was involved with the miss-selling of Mr. Madoff’s magic investment scams. Madoff, an American, made money disappear after promising magical returns. A dream for any salesman who received a fat commission on each sale. I don’t think that Hubert is very welcome back home in Zurich.
Life in Hainan is calm in the parks and on the beach, but on the streets and in the shopping areas it is hot, humid with wild activity. New buildings sprout up like bamboo, as the old are bulldozed away. The new soon becomes the old. Paint peels off and mold appears in weeks. Death is there every day when you stamp on one of the million cockroaches that run under your feet in the bathroom. Just watch a frail 90 year-old being wheeled along by her daughter or son. Sitting in the back seat of a taxi is a life threatening experience.
When money and life run out here, things are grim. They are even grim for most people before that. Life is tough without a safety net, and the only safety net is the one you make for yourself. To decide to live there without money and without friends is a hard and very risky proposition.
Just one month here should convince any Finn, Swede, Dane or Norwegian that what we have is definitely worth keeping. In fact we should fight much harder to keep what is good.

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