We should all be more like Kevin. Do you know him, by any chance? No? Then let me tell you a little bit about him. He’s another English teacher that I’ve met here in Bao’an District in Shenzhen, China. Kevin isn’t like some of us, and he especially isn’t like me. He is a very patient person for whom, I imagine, anger is an alien concept. You see, I don’t consider myself to be a jerk by any means. However, I’m no Saint, either. I can tolerate people’s ignorance to some degree, and more than once have I put up with all sorts of obnoxiousness on the part of my friends and close relatives. But I do have a breaking point which, if it should reach its limit, will transform the-most-of-the-time-nice-guy persona of mine into a modern day Mr. Hyde. In that regard, you could almost say that I’m the complete opposite of Kevin. But I’m getting off topic here, because I’m not here to tell you about me; let me tell you more about Kevin.
You see, Kevin and I differ in a few specific ways. I, for one, am not a religious man, which is not to say that I’m an immoral person. Kevin, on the other hand, is a devoted Christian who goes to church every Sunday (yes, even in China, the most atheist country I’ve yet visited, he’s managed to find the only church in a city of 10 million and attend it on regular basis). Kevin will also give up his seat on an overcrowded subway to any lady he deems is in need of one (which is pretty much every woman on a Chinese metro). Me? No way in hell am I giving up my seat on a Chinese train, especially when they can get as packed as sardines in a matter of minutes. And when it comes to drinking, well… I’m no lush, but I like to have a beer or two (or 6 or 7) every now and then, like most guys. Kevin, on the other hand, does not drink. Never has. Well, maybe he has tried alcohol at some point, but we’re not really sure. It’s an urban legend. There have been reports that at some point, somewhere, he had a drink. However, we’re still looking for the person who may have witnessed him partaking in such a consumption (at least prior to him arriving in China).
Kevin comes from New Hampshire, and is here in China teaching ESL to grades 4 through 6 at Jingbei Primary School. Having recently received his Masters degree in ESL, he decided to move to China, where he could experience the Eastern culture in all its modern glory. You see, unlike me, who barely speaks more than 2 words of the language, Kevin’s Mandarin is very good. He studied it for 2 years back in the States, knowing in advance that he’ll be needing it in near future when living in the People’s Republic. Every time Kevin and I go out here in Shenzhen – whether it’s for lunch, dinner, to get a massage or for any other social activity – the comfort and benefit is equivalent to having a Chinese person who speaks English with me. What’s that? The menu is confusing? I can just ask Kevin to read it and translate it for me (he can read over 800 Chinese characters). The waiter is making no sense? Can you guess who I can ask to translate it for me? Yup, the same guy.
The first time I met Kevin was in early September of 2013. That day I was meeting with Laura, another foreigner who was teaching English in Shenzhen. We were all brought together by Penergy Education, the Canada based company that employed us, and during our e-mail exchanges, we decided to have dinner. Laura and I sat at Starbucks on that evening, just off the Bao’an Stadium stop on the Luobao train line, making small chit-chat and waiting for the third member of our dinner party to arrive. This third member was Kevin, and that night he snuck up on us, unnoticed, as a most skilled burglar.
“Are you two the English teachers I’m supposed to meet here?”
That’s all he said upon approaching us, and that’s when I noticed his lisp. He was apparently very soft spoken, but the lisp he had nullified even the most loud and intense noises to a near whisper. Laura and I got up and followed Kevin to the Japanese restaurant around the corner, which he suggested, and which he swore had excellent food. His frame was tall, but thin. His arms were more or less as thin as his legs, and he took long and and quick steps. The glasses he wore were thick, and they accentuated the wear and tear on his eyes, most likely caused by years of reading, playing video games and learning the Chinese letter symbols. That, at least, is my first impression of him.
Since that day, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Kevin and the other English teachers working in Shenzhen. Kevin is unique from the rest of us, and in more ways than one. He learned the Chinese language to a great degree prior to moving to this country, something the rest of us failed to do. He can communicate, and find his way around any part of Shenzhen, without resorting to the desperate American cry for help, which is to always expect anyone and everyone to know their mother tongue. I know little about the Chinese culture, and I knew even less prior to moving here to teach. Looking back, I have certain regrets about that. I should have taken the time to educate myself a little better, if for no other reason than to avoid the shell-shock that I experienced during my first month here (proper use of chopsticks, proper sanitizing of utensils at dinner table, learning how to speak on most basic level, etc). Kevin, on the other hand, came prepared. I should have been more like him.
I recall Kevin being very terrified of riding a Chinese motor cab when I first met him. He claimed that those guys rode around like maniacs (which is true, for the most part), that neither the drivers nor the passengers ever wear helmets (also true), and that the likelihood of a fatality while riding one was very high (this part was not so true). You see, Kevin isn’t exactly very confident about his own safety in any given situation, and he is especially worried about riding on anything that can move above 15 miles per hour without a helmet (this is one of the reasons he has never accompanied me and the other teachers on a biking trip here in China).
“Hmm. Those motor cabs scare me. They don’t look safe at all”, Kevin would often say.
It wasn’t until Lin, another English teacher from California who works for the same company as we do here in Shenzhen, talked him into taking a short ride on a bike cab one night after a late dinner (a night during which Kevin may have been a tiny bit intoxicated, or so the legend goes). Needless to say, he survived that ride without a scratch, and since then he’s been a regular rider on motor cabs with me on our frequent trips all over Shenzhen.
One situation in particular illustrates Kevin’s great adaptability to his new environment, and his level of preparation on how to deal with unforeseen circumstances. This involved a particular printing house on Daxin road, located not very far from Shenzhen University. I wanted to print some copies of my favorite comic book, which I had translated from Italian into English, and after days of searching, I finally found a print house that was willing to print a few copies (most places won’t print low quantities). Anyway, my next task was to go to this print house by taking the Luobao line to the Taouyan stop, and then take an additional cab. I was told in advance that the man in charge of printing, Mr. Wu, spoke no English, so naturally I asked Kevin if he’d like to go with me and play the translator. Thankfully, he agreed to come along.
At the Taouyan station, we had to choices: to take a motor bike cab to the printing factory, or just a regular taxi. Finding a regular taxi to be a more sensible option, especially since there were two of us, we quickly hailed one. The ride was rather quick, and it cost all of $2.50, if I was to translate it to American currency. Mr. Wu was waiting for us in front of the factory, and both Kevin and I greeted him with the traditional, “Ni Hao!”. Kevin then proceeded to have a more in depth conversation with him about the specifications of the book I wanted him to print: what the page dimensions need to be, what kind of paper is to be used for the inside pages, what kind is to be used for the cover, whether the cover is glossy, etc. In other words, I had to do very little, yet in a matter of minutes, everything was taken care of, and Mr. Wu understood exactly what I wanted. All of this, thanks to Kevin. I wish all my friends were more like him.
In November, I accompanied Kevin on a trip to Hong Kong, where we went for a celebration of the Scottish national Holiday, the St. Andrews Day. A few weeks prior, we made dinner reservations at The Canny Man bar, a place on Hong Kong island, located close to the numerous other Western style restaurants. I recall us leaving Shenzhen early on that Saturday morning, in order to avoid the large crowds at the customs line. It was a relatively warm and sunny day, considering that it was late fall, and snow was falling heavily back home in both of our hometowns. By the time we got to Hong Kong to check in at the Brighton Hotel (where we were staying for the night), it was already past 3pm. We took a short nap, and then proceeded to The Canny Man, which was located only down the street, around 6pm.
Much to our surprise, the place was surprisingly empty, and the few other guests attending St. Andrew dinner were few and far between. I recall taking advantage of the open bar (which was included in our pre-paid reservation that we made a few weeks earlier), and for the first time seeing, with my own eyes, Kevin order a beer as well. Since he wasn’t a drinker (he only drank tea and water), watching him drink this dark, Chocolate flavored Belgian beer was kind of fun, and as rare of an occurrence as a solar eclipse during midday.
“Hmm. It’s not bad”, Kevin said, smiling.
As I kept throwing beers down, one after another, and then followed that by numerous mixed drinks, Kevin kept his drinking to a minimum, and kept his wits about him. That’s another thing you could always count on with this guy: sobriety and a clear head, even in this alcohol filled heaven, in one of the most expensive cities on the planet, where a someone such as myself would dare not pull back on this great perk. Being well aware who I was with, I just kept drinking, for even in a most drunken state, I knew I was going to get to my hotel without much difficulty, because the company I was with, although younger than myself, was always a reliable designated walking buddy. That’s Kevin for you: a voice of reason at times and places where there’s none to be found.
And so it was that I travelled thousands of miles from USA to China, wanting to experience a different culture, and to learn some of their Buddhist philosophy about life, all while teaching English to children at a public primary school. The irony of it all is that everything I was hoping to consume from this Eastern culture and apply it to my own way of life, I ended up learning from another American, a very quiet, disciplined and reserved one. Kevin is obviously not Chinese, but he’s so interested and conscious of everything in that culture that I can see him being a citizen of this country at some point, if he should so choose (he often spoke of wanting to marry a Chinese woman). His Mandarin is nearly fluent, which is something I fear I may never master, since I probably will not be spending any more time in China after June of 2014.
I do hope, however, that Kevin and I stay friends long after our teaching contracts with Penergy Education come to an end. I’m not sure where I’ll be a year from now, or especially in five years, but I do hope that I’ll apply some of Kevin’s life philosophy to my own way of life. Older than Kevin as I may be, I’m not necessarily wiser, and in many ways I’m much more immature and irresponsible. I do wish him the best for the future, and I hope he finds himself a Chinese wife that he’s so longed for. And if he does, I hope their children are just like him.
If only all of us could be.
“Bite my shiny metal ass!”