An Amer­i­can’s Sim­ple Life in China

Special Focus - - Contents - Doug Larsen

Doug Larsen was born and raised in Amer­ica. Be­fore com­ing to China, he was rel­a­tively well off in Amer­ica, with a big house and three cars (in­clud­ing an RV). But now, af­ter com­ing to Wuhan, China, he lives in the out­skirts of the city, ten miles away from down­town, work­ing as a teacher.

Why did he give up ev­ery­thing in Amer­ica and choose to live in Wuhan, half a globe away from his fam­ily and old friends? Re­cently, Spe­cial Fo­cus went to WFLS Meiga Academy in the Jiangxia Dis­trict of Wuhan, and spoke with Doug Larsen about his past and present life.

Be­fore com­ing to Wuhan, I once vis­ited Beijing in 1999. At that time, I was a teacher and head bas­ket­ball coach in a high school in New Mex­ico. One sum­mer, I coached a team for a tour­na­ment in Beijing.

Dur­ing our ten days in Beijing, the team vis­ited a lo­cal pri­vate school and I was deeply touched by the stu­dents there—it was def­i­nitely the high­light of my trip. They wel­comed us with such en­thu­si­asm that I didn’t want to leave. Those stu­dents will al­ways hold a spe­cial place in my heart.

Most of my life grow­ing up was spent on a ranch in Amer­ica with eight sib­lings. Yes, eight. I was the old­est of the six boys. It was a sim­ple life and my ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of work­ing in the fields with my dad.

My par­ents taught me what the im­por­tant things in life are: Work hard. Al­ways do your best. Re­spect oth­ers. Be hon­est, kind, and help­ful to peo­ple. And above all, love. The “sim­ple” things. We didn’t have much money, but we had ev­ery­thing we needed to be happy.

Af­ter col­lege, I got mar­ried and be­came a teacher and coach in New Mex­ico. Eleven years later, in 2003, I left my teach­ing ca­reer to start my own busi­ness. My life dur­ing this time was squan­dered away spend­ing money to try and buy hap­pi­ness.

Even­tu­ally, this ex­trav­a­gant life­style took its toll on my body and soul. I woke up one morn­ing and found my­self un­able to move. It was one of the dark­est times of my life. There just didn’t seem to be a rea­son to go on any longer.

Two weeks later, my wife left me.

In Septem­ber of 2013, my wife and I fi­nal­ized our di­vorce. I was des­per­ate but de­ter­mined to find some­thing that would make me feel whole again, and my ex­pe­ri­ence with those stu­dents in Beijing in­spired me to have a try in China.

Among all my job ap­pli­ca­tions, the one sent to the WFLS Meiga Academy pro­gressed for­ward seam­lessly. When they of­fered me a con­tract, I took the chance.

Be­fore com­ing to Wuhan, I knew al­most noth­ing about Chi­nese cul­ture. The only Chi­nese lan­guage I knew was “Hello,” “You are beau­ti­ful,” and “I love you.” I didn’t even say those things with the cor­rect tones as to be un­der­stood. How­ever, I was ex­cited to start this new ad­ven­ture.

When I fi­nally ar­rived two hours late on Novem­ber 15, 2003 at 11:00 pm, I didn’t know what to ex­pect, but there it was, a bright pink sign with my name on it. Hold­ing it was an adorable, smil­ing Chi­nese girl, Chrys­tal. I was ex­hausted but re­lieved. There was some­thing that as­sured me I was right where I be­longed.

The first year in China was not easy. I still car­ried the weight of my

life in Amer­ica with me. I was still men­tally and emo­tion­ally drained, and in such con­stant phys­i­cal pain that I spent most of my time at school dur­ing the week and dreaded the week­ends.

My apart­ment is ac­tu­ally smaller than my bed­room in my for­mer house, but it has a bed­room, bath­room, and liv­ing room/kitchen. I can get al­most any­thing I need by walk­ing a few min­utes from my apart­ment. It is per­fect.

Peo­ple here in Wuhan have a lot in com­mon with the peo­ple I re­spected back in the US. They are hard-work­ing, kind-hearted, and fam­ily-cen­tered in­di­vid­u­als who live “sim­ple” lives.

I have some very spe­cial friends here in China, but at first, it seemed the only peo­ple who would talk to me were the fe­male teach­ers. I couldn’t even get eye con­tact with most of the male teach­ers. It both­ered me a bit and I thought maybe they just didn’t like me or that I was do­ing some­thing wrong.

When I learned about the cus­tom of giv­ing cig­a­rettes as a sign of friend­ship, I bought a pack and started hand­ing them out. It worked.

One of the for­eign teach­ers, John An­thony, pro­vided me with the in­sight, wis­dom and sup­port I needed to deal with the cul­tural dif­fer­ences and to ad­just. “No stress pol­icy” is what he kept telling me. With his guid­ance, the help of the won­der­ful Chi­nese teach­ers, and re­ly­ing heav­ily on my ex­pe­ri­ence as a teacher in the US, I started be­com­ing a good teacher for my stu­dents.

I made my first close friend at a very dif­fi­cult mo­ment. Just one month af­ter ar­riv­ing in China, I re­ceived news that a dear friend in the USA had taken his own life. In shock and tears, I ran out of my of­fice and sat in the court­yard of the school. A teacher pass­ing by, Ali­son, no­ticed I was cry­ing and sat down, try­ing to com­fort me with­out know­ing what hap­pened. We have been close friends since that day.

Another un­ex­pected ex­pe­ri­ence brought a ca­sual ac­quain­tance to be­come my dear­est friend. I was walk­ing alone in Guanggu when a spell of dizzi­ness struck. I was des­per­ately strug­gling to keep from fall­ing to the ground be­fore I could find a place to sit.

I thought of Lizzy, a lady I had re­cently met. Upon re­ceiv­ing my call, she dropped ev­ery­thing and im­me­di­ately came to my res­cue.

Lizzy in­tro­duced me to tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine and acupunc­ture, which was noth­ing like what I had ex­pe­ri­enced in the US. There were nei­ther pri­vate rooms nor soft music with scented can­dles. Af­ter a pe­riod of this painful ther­apy and some bit­ter Chi­nese herbal medicine, I started to walk with a nor­mal stride and could enen take stairs two at a time.

I also found a piece of the sim­ple life in my en­joy­ment

of Chi­nese food. In­stead of spend­ing hun­dreds of dol­lars on a meal at a nice restau­rant, I en­joy hot dry noo­dles (re gan mian) for around a half of a US dol­lar, noo­dles fried with The God­mother (Lao­ganma chao­mian) for about one US dol­lar, and zhu gan (pig liver) for about two US dol­lars, along with many other dishes that I don’t know the names of nor the in­gre­di­ents. What I know is that if it has hua jiao (Chi­nese prickly ash) in it, I will love it.

Liv­ing in Wuhan was ab­so­lutely the cure for what was wrong in my life. Af­ter my sec­ond year in China, I was ready to let go of my busi­ness and for­mer life in Amer­ica. Dur­ing my re­turn to the USA that sum­mer, I shut down my busi­ness and sold just about ev­ery­thing I owned that was left from my life there. The fol­low­ing year I had saved enough money to pay off al­most all my debt.

It was not easy to let go of the busi­ness I had built. How­ever, as I went through with this, the weight that had long been on my shoul­ders lifted off me and I felt a greater amount of free­dom than I had felt in many years.

Be­ing a teacher at Meiga Academy has re­ju­ve­nated the very fiber of my soul. From the mo­ment I walked through the doors, I felt a spe­cial kind of en­ergy. When I en­tered the build­ing that first day, I heard some very fa­mil­iar words ring­ing in the halls. It didn’t strike me as real at first, but as I climbed the stairs, the words be­gan to pen­e­trate.

My mind did not com­pletely grasp what I was hear­ing un­til I climbed the last few stairs and the scene came into full view. What I saw and heard took my breath away. Hun­dreds of Chi­nese stu­dents lined up in the hall recit­ing in uni­son the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence. They fol­lowed that with the “I Have a Dream” speech. I wasn’t dream­ing. I was stand­ing there with chills go­ing through my body and my mind rac­ing to com­pre­hend.

The stu­dents I teach are all mir­a­cles. They have brought love and hope back into my heart. They are spe­cial to me and I love them dearly. I teach nine­teen classes a week (Al­most three-hun­dred stu­dents). Each class in­fuses me with en­ergy, but after­wards, I am usu­ally ex­hausted. When I am feel­ing down, or just too tired to keep go­ing, I look into the class­rooms where the stu­dents are study­ing. Or, dur­ing the breaks be­tween classes, I go out in the hall and recharge my heart and mind as the stu­dents pass by, smile and say, “Hi, Mr. Dog” punc­tu­ated by a high-five, fist bump, or my per­sonal fa­vorite, a hug.

In these mo­ments, it be­comes as clear as any­thing ever has in my life that I have found the sim­ple life again. I have found the ful­fill­ment and joy of those things that carry a value far greater than money and pos­ses­sions. I found the things I had lost in Amer­ica. I found them in a school in the out­ly­ing area of a city in China called Wuhan.

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