Last week’s column


Chinese Teacher Veers Away
From the Material World

July 20, 2007

I’m going to need a new Chinese teacher in the fall, which will be a big change in my life. My “laoshi” Yechen has been a major part of my daily life almost since arriving in China. Now he is leaving Beijing to become a monk, likely in a distant mountain Buddhist or Taoist monastery.

The news was initially shocking but once it sunk in, I actually wasn’t too surprised. One of the things I most enjoyed about studying with Yechen was his thorough grounding in classical Chinese philosophy, culture and religion. He animated his conversation with references to ancient parables, guided his decision-making by looking to historical precedence and was obviously slightly out of step with contemporary Beijing’s go-go aesthetic. I found all of this entirely endearing.

More Chinese now seem to be becoming enraptured by Buddhism after decades of the religion being discouraged and even oppressed, with temples damaged or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Anecdotally, at least, there is a small but significant movement of upwardly mobile young Chinese becoming monks. Several people I have told about Yechen’s decision have had their own tales of friends making the same life-altering decision, turned off by an increasingly materialistic culture.

I met Yechen at a large language school where my friend, Tom, and I began twice-weekly two-hour sessions six weeks after arriving in Beijing. We rotated through cubicles and teachers, many of them young women looking at us blankly as we grew exasperated, struggling to master Mandarin’s four tones.

After about a month we entered Yechen’s room and immediately felt more relaxed and confident. Yechen, who is in his early 30s, had spent five years at a prestigious British university, and he was at once more serious and more relaxed than his peers. He also spoke much better English and was happy to toss the syllabus to intuitively guide us into a comfort zone.

When I needed a translator to interview basketball player Sun Yue (recently drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers), I hired Yechen and as soon as we climbed into a cab, he told me that he hated teaching at the school and would soon be quitting. Tom and I were happy to hire him and a few weeks later we began private lessons at my dining room table.

Unlike most other expat classes taught outside universities, Yechen used textbooks and insisted that we learn at least a basic grounding in characters. After just a few months Tom had to leave China due to a family crisis and Yechen and I continued with more intense one-on-one sessions.

My language skills progressed, held back only by my lack of studying. As pleasing as that was, I also just liked spending time with Yechen, gaining insight into his view of China’s history and its contemporary potential and problems, which he believed stemmed largely from a disconnect from the nation’s long, proud history.

A few months ago, Yechen told me he wouldn’t be back in Beijing in the fall. He had a great job offer from a London university, with a high salary and free lodging in a storied Victorian mansion. When I congratulated him he thanked me but said he wasn’t sure he would accept the position. He had been profoundly moved by a recent visit to a holy mountain and might like to become a monk.

As we discussed this further it became clear to me that he was restrained only by guilt about his mother’s reaction. “Chinese parents don’t want their kids to be monks,” he explained. The vow of celibacy means no grandchildren and the unofficial vow of poverty means no long-term financial support for the parents, who lack an American-style Social Security system. Still, a week or two later, he announced that he had rejected the London offer and would soon be searching for a monastery.

I was not surprised. Yechen speaks in ancient aphorisms with ease and without pretension. One of my most memorable Beijing trips was last winter when Yechen took me to Baiyunguan [White Cloud Temple], Beijing’s most revered Taoist temple. We had tea with a monk friend of his after which Yechen gave me a lovingly detailed tour. Afterward, we visited a small Buddhist temple down a winding hutong lane. He clearly held both places in great reverence; his interest in Taoism and Buddhism was not merely academic.

Soon his dedication will be complete. Next month, he will leave Beijing, visit his mother then set out in search of a monastery. He will travel with one small bag and go from place to place until he finds a place that suits him. All of his friends, he said, think he is crazy.

“Chinese people today think that only someone who is a failure would become a monk,” Yechen told me over lunch at a vegetarian restaurant near the Lama Temple, Beijing’s largest Tibetan Buddhist site (Yechen practices the related but quite different Zen Buddhism). “They think it is opting out of life. But I don’t feel that way.”

As a monk, he will have a simple life, spending most of his time meditating and studying scriptures. Some people become monks as children or young adults and Yechen thinks he has an advantage over them: “I am doing this as a choice. I understand how the real world works.”

“Everyone is concerned about being cheated by someone else, but it doesn’t matter. They should worry about cheating themselves. That is the worst crime you can commit and if I didn’t do this, I would be cheating myself.”

The one person who was supporting him, he said, was his former professor in London, with whom he remains close. The professor was not surprised because he recognized Yechen as a seeker and avid learner and was sure this was a good path for him to travel. And what of Yechen’s mother? He hasn’t told her yet, and won’t for another year. Then, he figures, he will already be established in his new life and things will be going well so she won’t have to worry about him.

I think Yechen’s decision is bold and honorable and that he will be an earnest, dedicated monk. I was, however, taken aback when he told me that he had visited Baiyunguan and ceremoniously burned the diaries he had been meticulously keeping for 10 years. They were his pride and joy and he planned on crafting a book out of them, but he had come to see them only as totems of youthful naiveté, markers of a past he was leaving behind.

“I thought I would feel sadness and fear when I burned them,” he told me. “But I felt a great sense of release and peace.”

I told him I was happy for him, but I would miss him greatly next year. He smiled wanly then brushed away my sentiment.

“There are many good teachers,” he said. “You won’t have a problem finding one.”

We both took bites of vegetable dumplings before I countered with a simple truth: “Sure. But it won’t be the same.”

“Yes,” he finally admitted. “The problem with most Chinese teachers — with most young Chinese — is they lack an understanding of the deep and real culture here. Let’s be honest, you’re going to forget the language when you go back to America anyhow.”

After two years, he was acknowledging the 800-pound gorilla in the room; the cynical thought that pushed me to skip over any word or grammar rule for which I didn’t see an immediate use.

“But the language is a bridge to the culture,” he continued. “And the culture can stay with you forever.”

And that’s precisely why I will miss Yechen so much. And why I will never forget him.

Write to Alan Paul at or join a discussion.

Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. The emails and forum postings regarding last week’s column about overseas Chinese expats in China were particularly intense and interesting. Here is a sampling.
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You wrote: “My friend…is second/third generation American. She grew up in San Francisco with a strong awareness of her ethnicity. … Still, she all but laughed at me when I asked if she had a sense of returning to the homeland when she first visited China.”

How can you possibly assume I, an American-born ethnic Chinese, would regard anything but America as my homeland? Do you consider your ancestral origins your homeland, and if not, why the double standard?

When I get asked where I’m from and I reply Dallas, they go “no, no, where did you grow up?” Then I say New Jersey, and they reply “No, no, where are your parents from?” This continues until they get the answer they’re looking for — China, as in I can’t possibly be an American like them, no matter how many generations we’ve been here.


I understand the sensitivity given your experiences, but I certainly did not mean to imply that a Chinese American is any less American than anyone else. Greek, South American, Jewish and African-American people have told me moving tales about returning to ancestral homelands in Greece, South America, Israel and Africa. Neither I nor they thought this reduced their American-ness and I certainly would not have thought this of Nancy had she felt a homeland connection to China.
* * *

I used to travel in China with a C-A coworker, whose grandfather had taught him a lot of Chinese history, culture and language. His language skills were very good. He sometimes embarrassed interpreters by correcting them.

Often the locals that we were meeting with would try to place his accent and guess where in China he was from. He found that he could use this to either create bonds with people that we were trying to be friendly with, of create a separation when we were in an adversarial situation.

— Ed
* * *

The same phenomenon is seen in Korea and Japan. I lived in Korea for two years and my many Korean-American friends were routinely lectured about their inability to speak perfect Korean. It was also exactly as you reported about China, Caucasians are applauded for speaking the most simple sentences, but when a Korean-American stumbles in speaking they are all over them. They cannot believe that a Korean would not teach their children Korean.

From what I understand it is also the same way in Japan and that they have several words for ethnic Japanese who don’t speak Japanese or don’t speak native level Japanese and that these words are considered to be very unflattering.

In all these countries there seems to be a ying and yang of belonging to the culture but being free from some of its constraints. Korea is an extraordinarily homogenous place where there are unwritten rules about nearly every aspect of culture and life. Many Koreans find this to be absolutely stifling and are anxious to get out from underneath it by going abroad.

— Brendan Ward
* * *

Multinational companies often make the mistake thinking that by sending a “Chinese” to China, they would have someone who can blend in easily. From my own experience, China is a “complex” market to crack for any ABC even if he or she can speak Mandarin, not to mention someone who cannot. The western cultural background makes it difficult for “white bananas” to be as effective as they would be in their western home base. That is the reason why mainland China born expats who were educated in western countries are the preferred choice for many companies today.

— Richard
* * *

I am an American expat of Caucasian heritage living in Beijing. You mention your friend telling cab drivers that she is American and their responding with “No, you’re Chinese. This is an extremely limited notion of what makes one “Chinese” based solely on exterior features. Coupled with my continuing experiences in Beijing, this quote leads me to the disappointing conclusion of just how insular and self-oriented China is.

People should be allowed to decide how they want to identify themselves — be it American, Chinese, Hmong, gay, straight, female, male, etc. For a local to tell them otherwise is straightforward ignorance that has the potential to paint a dark pall over the upcoming 2008 Olympics where people of all nationalities and heritages will descend on Beijing.

I hope that Beijing and China in general can create a more accommodating view of personal identity that does not include insisting upon instilling one’s own notions on others.

— Edward Russell
* * *

I am very impressed by your observations of Chinese society and Chinese people. I have lived outside China for 20 years, the last eight in New York City. Every time when I read about China by Americans, I feel that I have know myself better.

— Ding Gao

Thank you very much for your kind words. As I have noted before, such comments from Chinese readers are particularly meaningful to me. Say hello to New York for me.

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