Stopping to Visit the Peonies of Luoyang

In Luoyang every year from mid-April to mid-May when the peonies are in full bloom the city celebrates the Peony Festival. There are many peony gardens to visit in the ancient city that was once the capital of China. The most famous and main garden is the Luoyang International Peony Garden. It is one of the oldest peony gardens in all of China.

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I did not go to this garden. I couldn’t tell you which garden I visited. All I can say is that I was in Luoyang during the Peony Festival.

It was May of 2014, the morning after I had just hiked Mt. Hua with my friend Sean, and his friend Xiang Kai. We had hiked for 14 hours the night before, ill prepared and with little experience, on one of the most dangerous mountains . I’m talking about myself as far as the experience hiker part goes, but I didn’t think Sean was an expert, and I knew Xiang Kai had not hiked many mountains. Hiking in China is different than hiking in the U.S. In the U.S. hiking is a solitary experience. You climb with one other person maybe a few people and perhaps you cross the path of another hiker or two, but mainly it is you and the wild, and the animals who ignore or watch you. In China (or at least on Mt. Song, and Mt. Hua, and the other mountain I hiked) there are no animals only hoards of people. I never saw any animals, not a squirrel or a lizard only a bird or two. I’d never seen so many people on a mountain at the same time except at a ski resort during a holiday. The day we hiked was rainy and cloudy so it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it could have been. Even on a bad weather weekend there will still be hundreds of people climbing. It doesn’t matter if you go early in the morning or late at night it’s still crowded. The key would be to go off season during the middle of the week and definitely not during any vacations or weekends, but when you’re a teacher you have the same schedule as all of China, so either you don’t go at all, or you experience it like all of China-crowded. I had decided that day that I would one day return to China, but not to work only to travel so that I could plan my visits to ancient sights and geological wonders on the off times, but those were and are daydreams for other days.

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It was Sean’s idea that we stop in Luoyang to attend the Peony festival. Xiang Kai had to work that evening so he would not be able to join us. I was exhausted. My body felt worn and broken and I was irritable and still fuming about Sean’s comment that I was too old to climb a mountain. Ignorant boy, my mind ruminated on his off handed remark about my age that only an ignorant boy would make. I had hoped his feet were still suffering from his badly chosen climbing shoes. The wise thing for me to do would have been to go home, eat something nutritious, and then go to bed, but when Sean made the spontaneous suggestion I felt I needed to go. Life is an unexpected ride and you never know when it will stop and where it will start and many times an opportunity is a one time only opportunity. When would I be in China again for the Peony Festival? I had already decided not to renew my contract. I had already decided to leave China. I could tell myself I would be back, but I didn’t know for certain. Some days I hated China, and would think, never again- never again will I return to this country. It had been a hard year for me, and not all China’s fault, but I was in China when my mother died. It was in China when the most important person in my life left this world. My worst fear had been awakened. How many times had she told me that she would not be able to live without me? How many times had I promised I would never let her die alone? How many times had I told myself I would return and take care of her? China was to be my last experience, my last galavant as an explorer of this world living a life style that I didn’t believe was meant for me. I had never imagined I would ever be able to travel, that I would have lived in foreign countries. I was an accidental traveler and it was time to return to my “real life” whatever that was meant to be. I was going to go back to California and going to care for my mother. I didn’t want to live in Chico because there wasn’t anything for me there, but she was there and she needed me. I had been too slow, and too selfish, and I had failed her. I failed as a daughter. I suffered through that guilt alone in a foreign country, a country so foreign from my own that even our process of grieving was different. My mother died alone, and I had not been there to help her.  My anger, and my guilt, and my pain all manifested into my frustrations about a country that was so incredibly different from my own. I did have Sean though, my friend with his choppy english and his oh- so Chinese ways of thinking. Sean my friend who stayed by my side the best he could and tried to show me the things he loved most about his country. Sean was an impatient Chinese teacher, and impatient about many things, and he expressed much frustration about where he was in his life, but through it all he taught me a lot about patience and how to deal with frustration and how to accept that where you are is where you are, but that change is always around the corner whether you want it or not. Uncertainty is the essential part of this life experience and in the uncertainty lies the choices.

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This was life, and I was still living, and I had to take the opportunities as they came no matter how much my body hurt, and how aggravated I had felt when would I have another chance? I agreed to stop in Luoyang and to see the Peonies.

My body was not in full agreement with my mind or my heart. As we wandered from the train station to the nearest garden my body began to pull rank and my brain switched sides and together they caused me to grumble and slouch and move among the flowers like an impetuous child snapping bored pictures here and there waiting to stop to take a nap. Once in the garden all I really wanted to do was lie down in a bed of purple peonies among all the butterflies and drift off into a deep sleep. I did my best to not unleash my grumpiness on Sean, and I allowed him to tell me stories about the history of China and the symbolism of the flowers. He was gracious enough to understand that I was not feeling my best, yet still seemed to enjoy my company. In the end I knew I was not fully present in the moment, and that my body and exhaustion had won this battle, but simultaneously I was aware of the value that the day, and the weekend held.

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We are gifted moments in life and too often they only come once. Some are large and noticeable, but most are small and subtle and too easily we miss them. We don’t take the chance to strike up a conversation with a stranger or take the path that no one is following. I know no other person from my life, as of yet, that has hiked a sacred mountain with friends from China, and eaten prepackaged chicken feet and teriyaki marinated boiled eggs, and then stopped off at a Peony festival that had been celebrated for two thousand years. When I do meet someone who has experienced this it won’t be the same as I had experienced it. We all experience our lives differently, we are similar, but still we are each unique.

I didn’t get to enjoy the Peonies to the fullest of my capacity, and I wasn’t able to collect the memories of the day here in a nice well packaged form to share with others as to the best way to see the Peonies. I didn’t have to because no matter where I go in the world I am going to be me. That means me in a bad mood, me in a good mood, me irrational and me aware. Me wonderful and me not wonderful. My goal is of course to lean my life more towards the awareness and wonderful, and to be in the presence of my life and embrace the moments. Some days work and some days don’t regardless if I am climbing a sacred mountain in China or washing laundry in a laundry mat in Portland, Oregon. Years later I can think back on my hike and my visit to an ancient garden with my friend from China, and look at the pictures I took of flowers that had been planted and cultivated for two thousand years. I can accept the fact that flowers and gardens are not top on my bucket list, and I can say to myself, I did that, and I went there, and I was in a bitchy, irritable, and grumpy ass mood, but I was there. I took that moment and received all that it offered me even if the gratitude came a week after some solid rest.

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Memories of HuaShan

The sunlight woke me. I remained still on the cot where I had fallen asleep the night before. I was afraid to move because I strongly suspected that my body would react in pain from the damage I had inadvertently put it through the previous day.

I heard the guys shifting on the two cots beside mine and knew my inevitable pain was only seconds away. I would not be able to remain on the cot for the full month of recuperation I felt I was going to need. We had hiked HuaShan the day before, and we did it the Chinese way, as my friend Sho Boa, who I call Sean, recommended. I use the word recommend loosely as I could never feel like Sean was recommending as much as insisting. The “Chinese way” according to Sean who is Chinese was to take the slow night train to Huayin City, and then from there take a taxi to the base of the mountain. The ride would be eight hours, but Sean insisted that we could sleep on the train and would be refreshed to begin our hike as soon as we arrived. I was hesitant about this choice as I lacked the amazing Chinese gift of sleeping anywhere, anytime, and in any kind of environment. Sean insisted this would be the best way, and that this was how he did it a couple of years before while he was a college student, and hiked with a group of his classmates.

“It’s a very Chinese way to experience it.” He had said.

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In retrospect, as I felt the fluid eek around my knees and heard audible sounds that had not been there before, and as I felt searing hot pain when I tried to bend them, I thought, he must have meant to say the cheap ass Chinese way to experience it. I mumbled cheap ass in my mind out of irritation, but I knew that it was half about having “the real experience” and half about not having the money. The bullet train would have taken us two hours and been much more comfortable, but neither Sean or his friend Xiang Kai could afford the bullet train. I knew with my salary which as a foreign teacher was much higher than the salary that Xiang Kai made, even though we did the same job, afforded me not only enough to pay for my own ticket, but Sean and Xiang Kai’s too. Sean wouldn’t hear of it. It was a waste of money to spend, he had said. I didn’t want to insult Xiang Kai with the offer, but I vowed to myself that painful morning that if I were ever to take another trip with Sean that I would rudely push aside his Chinese sensibilities and practicalities in favor of the imperialist American desire for comfort (which I knew many of the middle and upperclass Chinese were taking advantage.)

“Xiang Kai,” Sean said as he rose from his bed, “You were speaking in English in your sleep.”

“Was I?” Xiang Kai replied.

“Yes.” I said. “You screamed out in English in your sleep. Maybe you were still on the hike.”

“I have not spoke English to an English person in so long. I had spoke it all day with you it must have been in my dreams.” He said.

“They say that’s a good thing.” I said. “It means the language is in your subconscious.”

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The night before Sean met me at my apartment with Xiang Kai, and we all took a bus to the central train station in Zhengzhou. We arrived near Erqi Square (pronounced Archie square) around 11:00 p.m. Our train was scheduled to leave at 1:00 am so we used the time before departure to shop for snacks for the trip and the hike. To say that Chinese do things differently than Americans do things is an understatement, but it is in the small actions of  life, the things we don’t really think about on a daily basis, when one discovers how even our thought processes and approaches to “the way to go about something” can be very different like for example, what you should eat when on a hike. My American mind immediately goes to foods with complex carbohydrates with sustainable energy, things like trail mixes with nuts, crackers pretzels, and protein like beef jerky and maybe some dried fruit, and definitely water. Sean’s thinking which I can only identify as Chinese thinking (not that I speak for all Americans and Sean does not speak for all Chinese, but we do get our way of thinking from our environment) was to get dried noodles, chicken feet, and some other dehydrated things I could not identify. We did agree that a hardboiled egg would be good, and of course water. We argued a lot in the store as to what would be the best to eat, but I acquiesced telling myself I was having the true Chinese experience. Although my gut was telling me this food was not going to be enough fuel for me. I believe it is a good thing to try to have that authentic experience of a culture that is new and foreign to you, but I would not recommend that experience to take place when hiking the most dangerous mountain of the five sacred mountains in China, especially when you don’t hike that much in the first place.

I did not sleep on the train, for multiple reasons. In China once all the seats are sold on the train they continue to sell tickets (not on the bullet train) and the prices for standing are the same as the prices for seats. People crowed in the isles leaning over the people in the seats all waiting for the moment when someone gets up so they can take the open seat. There is no space, and no fresh air, and if you do get up to use the bathroom you have to climb over people crumpled in the isle way. When you return you have to argue with the person who took your seat to give your seat back which they will do, but they certainly don’t want to give it back, and I can understand why. There are three people to a row that face another row so you have six people in one section. I was the only foreigner and only white woman in the car, and quite possibly the train. In these situations I would often encounter staring and some people would sneak or blatantly take my photo, but at 1:00 in the morning on a crowded warm train no one cared about me other than the fact that I was sitting and when would I get up. I shared my section with five men who man-spread better than any men I have ever encountered leaving me with barely enough space to fit my ass. I mentioned that Chinese can sleep anywhere and in any environment and that is not an exaggeration. They can even sleep standing up. When the train reached Louyang it became more crowded and people were nearly sitting on top of each other. One man slept arched over me precariously balanced on the top of my seat.

At one point, the people in the section across from us who all seemed to be traveling together had people sitting on the top of the backrest. They were laughing and loud and playing a game, and watching programs on their phones at full volume. Sean who was sitting across from and facing me leaned forward.  Thumbing his hand in their direction he said, “Look at them. What do they think they are in their house?” He gave them a brief scowl and then quickly feel asleep. I watched him slumber with envious anger and an incredible urge to kick him awake so he could suffer like I was suffering. Xiang Kai was in a separate car, but had mentioned he had managed to sleep. When we arrived in Huayin City at 7:00 in the morning I had not slept one wink and with exhaustion I followed the two rested men to hike, unknown to me at the time, 7,000 ft.

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The hike had taken us nearly 14 hours. During that time we had managed to reach two of the three peaks  and four summits. We reached the south peak and the highest summit (the Landing Goose summit) as the sun set. It was beautiful, but also terrifying because I knew we had to hike back down in the darkness. I’ve read many foreign accounts of hiking Mt. Hua, and how it is not as dangerous to hike as they were lead to believe except for the west peak where there is the famous plank walk. Here you are strapped into a single belt and you walk a plank that is about three feet wide and attached to the side of the mountain with iron nails and chains, and it is a two way path but there is only room for going one way so you have to climb over people while you are thousands of feet above the ground. There are also tunnels built through the rock that fit the size of an average Chinese person. A larger person of girth would find themselves struggling to fit through the tunnel that runs vertical with chains on either side to pull yourself up as you find footing in carved steps that are almost two thousand plus years old. The day we had hiked a storm came through so the chains and the steps were wet and slippery. As Sean recommended us to take the dangerous way down, I began to feel genuine fear. I was running on very little energy having eaten nothing but chicken feet, and eggs, and not sleeping the night before. Already I had felt my arms give on me on the way up. The only thing that kept me holding on was the knowledge that if I fell I was going to take at least fifty people with me since we were climbing, in the words of my students, nose to ass. I told Sean that I didn’t think I could go the dangerous way in the dark.

“It isn’t dark. There are lights.” He said pointing below us.
“Tea lights do not count as lights.” I had said.

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I could not stop thinking of the tunnel that I knew we would pass through because it is the same way up as it is down. If people believe that the hike is dangerous in the day time it is exponentially more dangerous in the dark. Mt. Hua has become a huge tourist attraction for Chinese especially Chinese University students, and this once sacred buddhist pilgrimage has now become a kind of adventurous right of passage for young Chinese. Sean’s approach to the hike was to go at breakneck speed. I was absolutely apposed to this approach and thankfully Xiang Kai was on my side of thinking. Sean nagged us both to hurry up during the hike. Often Xiang Kai would sit and rest, and Sean would complain that we were too slow and we would miss the sunset.

“Ignore him.” Xiang Kai muttered to me. “He’s crazy.”

Thousands of Chinese and foreigners a year visit Mt. Hua, and because of the numbers, and of course the dangers involved the Chinese government had built stairs that were safer to climb and descend. I opted for these stairs for part of the way down not knowing that once on the stairs we couldn’t get back to the original path. This was also something Sean nagged me about during the decent. I knew I did not have the strength to hold my body through the tunnel, but I was also not prepared for over 50,000 steps that began to siphon all the fluid from my knees.

Step after step after step my knees began to stiffen until there were moments when I didn’t know if I could bend them. I became terrified that I was doing permanent damage to them. I kept my pain to myself so as to not have to hear Sean chastise me. I moved in silence until I could not longer hold in the pain. Tears swelled to my eyes as I felt my body break out into a sweat and my heart raced from pain and the anxiety of pain. I began thinking about people in concentration camps, and people sent on marches, and people tortured- if they could survive such unbearable suffering I could make it down this damn mountain. Then my knee froze for a second. If I were the tin man this would be the moment when I could not move because all my joints had rusted stuck.

“Sean.” I cried out. “We have to slow down. I am hurting so bad right now. We have to move slower or I will not make it down this mountain.”

He reluctantly slowed, but quickly began in his assessment of why it was that I was not able to move faster and why I was in pain.

“American’s are not as healthy as Chinese. Even when we are very old we can do this. I think it is because we begin exercising very young. And exercise is important and so we stay healthy.”

“I exercise.” I mumbled, “I’ve just never hiked 8,000 feet before- or 500 feet.”

“I think you are too old for this.” He said. “I should have thought about your age.”

Sean and Xiang Kai were 23 and I was 41. This was the final straw in my tolerance for his ongoing commentary and I stop walking.

“Sean.” I said glaring at him. “If you want to continue living, and make to my age, you really should stop talking right now.”

He looked at me knowingly and walked for the majority of the decent in silence.

Xiang Kai shuffled up along side me.

“I am in quite a lot of pain too, Adrienna. My shins and calves are hurting so badly I think they may tear. Try walking backward, I think it is helping me.”

Xiang Kai and I hiked the remaining way down the mountain backward which as he had suggested did alleviate the pain in my knees. At first Sean was far ahead of us, but at some point near the base of the mountain he began to slow down, and we eventually passed him.

“My feet are really hurting.” He called down to us. “Slow down for me.”

“No.” I said. “And good!”

Once we had reached the bottom Sean recommended we find a place to sleep and take the train in the morning. We all agreed, and he flagged down a motorcycle taxi. We sat Xiang Kai and myself and the driver all squeezed onto a single small motorcycle seat. He drove us to a restaurant where we waited for Sean who had walked. We rented a small single room with three cots and ascended more stairs under the watchful eye of the proprietor and proprietress who looked me over and probably wonder which of the Chinese boys was my boyfriend because how else could we all be sleeping together in the same room.

In the morning once we got moving and I had managed to get some fluid and circulation into my legs we climbed down the stairs to the small family owned and run restaurant.

“We must eat before we catch the train.” Sean recommended, and again Xiang Kai and I agreed with him.

We sat alone in the restaurant and ate large bowls of noodle soup as the owners watched me eat, and asked Sean and Xian Kai questions about me. I was so hungry from the hike I ate every last morsel of food in the bowl, and could have eaten more. Afterward, Sean flagged down a taxi and we took it to the train station where we awaited the next train to Zhengzhou.

During the ride back to Zhengzhou it was less crowded and we all were able to sit in the same section.

“It is the peony festival in Louyang.” Sean mentioned excitedly. “We should go. Do you want to go Adrienna?”

“I can not go.” Lamented Xiang Kai who had to go to a school meeting that evening, “but, you should go Adrienna. It is a very big thing in China.”

“Okay.” I agreed even though exhaustion was overtaking my body.

When the train stopped in Louyang, Sean and I said our good-byes to Xiang Kai and then watched the train leave the station as we waved to him.

“I think you will like the peonies.” Sean said, “They are very important part of China. And, there are no stairs.”

“That’s good.” I said as I hobbled behind him nursing my well earned broken knees.

It is been little over two years since I had gone on that hike with my friend Sean and Xiang Kai, but still I am reminded of the experience every time I climb a step since my knees are still feeling the pain. Although it was exhausting, and ill prepared and left me with bad knees, I’d go again. It’s a really beautiful mountain and there are many parts we didn’t make it to. I’d go again, but differently this time. I’d go with some sleep, take a fast train, and bring better food, and hike at a slower pace, maybe stay the night like many other Chinese do, and then hike down slowly in the morning. I’d invite Sean along too, and I’d tell him now we’ll do it with the American experience, because I’m old and Americans are out of shape, and we have to do it the old person way and not your cheap ass way of saving money on the slow train. And, of course, I’d get some support for my old lady knees.

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Returning to Asia

After waiting for nearly four months, my criminal background check finally arrived last week, and with it came my permission slip to look for a new job overseas. I had originally intended on leaving in February, but sometimes things don’t go as intended. I’ve decided to look at these extra months as a time for me to get healthy and to really focus on what I need in my life to give me happiness.

It had taken about 3 months to get on the Oregon Health Care plan, but thankfully it exists because I have been able to go to the dentist, and to the doctors, and get myself back on track for a healthy mind and body. As the saying goes, “if you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” I hadn’t been feeling very good for awhile. I’m pretty certain I can guess the cause, but the point is that I’m back on a mission to feel strong again, and just in time too because I will be returning to the proverbial road.

I have been vacillating between applying to work in China and working in South Korea for a few months now. Many of my friends have been saying that Korea is the way to go, and have wondered why I would even consider China.

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“You hated China.”
“You were miserable there.”

It’s true, I did hate much of my time in China, but aside from China there were other factors to my hating it; my mother dying, conflict with the director of the program, and culture shock all contributed to my hating much of my time in China. It is not easy to live in China. I do believe some people may thrive there, but in truth, I think it can be a tough adjustment for a multitude of reasons. I do believe all of those reasons can eventually be overcome if you want to stick it out in China, and that you can learn to accept things, and even grow to enjoy them; all but one that is.

Although, my time was difficult there, I had also gained a strange love for China. It’s difficult to explain, and maybe if it hadn’t of been a year it may not have gotten under my skin, but it did. It took about seven months of being away, but I slowly began to miss it. I missed certain things like food, and the crazy traffic, and riding my bike in that crazy traffic. The insane rides on e-bikes, babies in pants with bottoms, old ladies dancing in parks, kites everywhere, are among the few things I’ve missed. There were things there that mattered to me, and left an impression on me that I will carry for the remainder of my life. My kids mattered to me, they mattered a lot, and they were such a huge part of my experience in China. I spent more time with 15 to 18 year old Chinese kids than any other group of people, and the experiences with those kids which included a special trip to Kaifeng, really shaped my view of the country. The Chinese people I became friends with mattered to me. In China it can be difficult to know if Chinese people are really your friends if they actually like you as a person. There are so many people that want you to be around because you are western, and it is about status to call a westerner a friend. You will not ever be Chinese, and you will never be truly accepted into the culture, and because of this it can be hard to ever find that bond that we all crave in our friendships. Perhaps I am delusional, but I feel blessed in my belief that I was able to move beyond this barrier with very little effort with some of the Chinese friends I had made while there. I felt a real kinship with the people I called friends, even when we came up against massive cultural differences. There are Chinese people I do consider to be genuine friends, and I feel that they look on me as the same, not as a “western” friend, but as real friend the kind of friend that accept the whole cultural and enigmatic package that makes up each and everyone of us.

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Xiang Kai and Sho Boa (Shawn) hiking up Mt. Hua 

I have been fascinated with Chinese history since I was a little girl. I remember stacks of National Geographic magazines with images of China. I remember watching the student protests in Tiananmen Square live on television. I had taken a course in the history of Eastern Civilization in college and I had become immersed in the ancient history of the dynasties. When I was a girl there were only three things in the world I had wanted to see: The Pyramids of Egypt, the Acropolis of Athens, and the Terra Cotta Warriors of China (I can mark one off my list). Chinese films are among some of my favorite, and the dissidents of China are some of the bravest people in the world. There is much to be fascinated with in China, and there is a lot to grab your heart and keep you there, but for every amazing thing Chinese there is also something insidious. A drive for cultural success that is so strong that corruption and lies are an accepted part of the society norm creating at times a dog-eat-dog world. The repressive regimes from the cult of Mao to the current CCP that smothers the real strength of what is hidden in China. The annoying and ridiculous firewall put in place to control and suppress the people, and the denial of terrible events by erasing them from history. The horrific pollution that had for too long been acceptable in China, and ignored in the majority of the world. These are things that are difficult to live in, and I believe it is difficult for many Chinese too (judging by various conversations). China is a land of great contradictions and it is these contradictions which constantly push and pull at you. At me.

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Some of my kids rehearsing for “The Outsiders”.

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So, what are the deciding factors, what did it come down to when choosing between China and South Korea? The main motivation for China was a school. A drama school where I would be a theatre teacher, and where as part of my work I would be required to direct my own children’s plays. I contemplated this school for nearly a year. It would be a job that combined my theatre, my literature and my teaching skills. I would finally be working in a creative environment and for that I was willing to move to the polluted city of Beijing. Yet, it was during a bike ride in Portland that finally solidified my final decision.

It is now spring, and the sun is out and the sky is a clear blue that bends over the city with only a smattering of cumulus clouds dotting the sky like paint on a palette. The days have been beautiful and easy going. My moods have been hum-drum and dark, and sometimes this happens even when things are going well in my life, I need these beautiful days to help lift me from my internal darkness. I knew at that moment under the blue sky in the face of mount Tabor, the small extinct volcano covered in the rich green of white-cedar and poplars, that I needed to live in a beautiful place. As much as I had wanted the theatre school and as much as I was willing to return to China, I knew in my heart that returning to an over-populated, dirty, and congested city with air so bad that there were red alert days not allowing us to go outside, was not a good idea for me. I knew, no matter how great the school, my sadness would overcome me, and I can’t live like that.

I have started the interview process for jobs in South Korea, and I’ve focused my attention on applying to schools in places where the sky is blue and the ocean is near-by. The job matters, but the environment matters more.

As I had mentioned before I believe that most of the challenges of being a foreigner in China a person can overcome, but one. That one for me is the pollution. China is a geological diamond and a natural wonder of nature, but the coal and the money made on cheap labor and unregulated businesses that damage the country is more important then the jewel. I will one day return to China, but maybe as a visitor. Till then I will be in South Korea.

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