When I decided to move to China (the first time) I was living in Bangkok, where I had been teaching English for a couple of years. Most of my classes were of the ‘Business English’ variety, in-company training for middle managers, new employees, etc – so I usually had 4-5 groups of students going at any one time.
One of the most common remarks I heard when I let them know I was going to China was, “Be careful – there are so many ghosts in China.” This advice was always given in ominous tones, concerned faces all nodding in agreement. When pressed for an explanation as to why this was true, the reasoning was that a lot of bad things have happened to a lot of people in China – for a long time. Of course there would be more than a few angry spirits about.
Most Thais firmly believe that ghosts exist. They have some terrifying varieties we don’t have in our Western mythology – such as the mother who dies in childbirth, her ghost a terrifying wraith with head and feet twisted back in the wrong direction, blood gurgling from her her mouth as she screams out her child’s name. Scary, yeah? And that’s only one of many that have specific names. There are ghosts of drowned fishermen, ghosts of murdered lovers, ghosts who wander the rice paddies.
My brother and I were once staying at a small guesthouse off Khao San Road when one of the guests, a young Norwegian guy, overdosed in his room – we found his body when the cleaning staff asked us to check on him, as he hadn’t left his room in three days. All of us were re-located to other lodgings as the place was closed down for a few days, and monks were brought in to perform incantations that would make sure his ghost didn’t try to return and haunt the place.
Being Buddhist, the Thais also believe in reincarnation, that one returns in either a higher or lower status in the next life, depending on one’s conduct in this life. Since Thailand is such a wonderful place, they reason, to be living there now must mean that you were very good in your past life – if you weren’t, you’d have been reincarnated in a crappy place, like India or China. That’s why those places are over-crowded, because there are so many more bad people than good.
Of course I always laughed them off, assuring my students that I was impervious to whatever evils the Chinese ghosts had in store for me. If the Thai ghosts (or for that matter, ghosts of the other 20 countries I’d traveled through) hadn’t bothered me yet, I was confident that I’d be fine.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and I’m spending my first night in my apartment in China. The place was furnished with what appeared to be odds and ends the owner didn’t want in his own apartment any longer, or pieces bought from neighbors as they moved out. The previous tenant had left behind a few things as well, a few pots and pans and worthless knickknacks on the shelves. Let’s just say the place looked decidedly ‘lived-in’. It’s always difficult for me to fall asleep in such a place, at least for a night or two.
So, it’s after midnight and I’m still awake, hearing every pop and creak of an unfamiliar place. Suddenly, from the living room there’s a loud crash followed by what can only be described as deranged laughter. Laughter!
Momentarily paralyzed from fear, I lay there until the laughter stopped. And that was it. No other sounds, no footsteps, nothing. I managed to get my legs working, crept out of bed and to the door. Slowly, I opened it and peered around the empty room. There in the corner, one of the drapes fluttered slowly. I was wishing I hadn’t laughed at my Thai students – I had basically dared the ghosts to come and get me.
Finally making it across the room, I examined the window and found it had a faulty latch – it was the wind, not a ghost, moving the drapes. And in the floor, one of those novelty toys, dentures that move and laugh – like something the Joker in a Batman comic might carry around – had apparently blown from the window sill and crashed to the floor. Relieved, I laughed – and mentally congratulated the previous tenant for his practical joke. The toy had obviously been placed on purpose in front of the only window with a broken latch.
That was my one and only encounter with a Chinese ghost.
But as luck would have it, I am leaving China now because there are indeed too many ghosts for me there now – albeit bittersweet, not blood-gurgling ones. Perhaps the best times to be had in a new place occur at the beginning, when you’re just learning about the place, the food, the people, how to navigate the place. Everyday brings surprises, new sights and smells, new acquaintances.
At best, these things become commonplace as you settle in – that commute to and from work is just a commute now, not a sightseeing tour. Life moves in a positive direction, but the excitement surrounding the exotic and foreign fades away. The new place becomes as familiar as home once was.
At worst, life doesn’t move in the direction you wanted it to – relationships fail, good friends move away, rewarding work dries up – and every place you go brings with it memories of happier times. And you wake up and realize one morning that the ghosts, the memories are not reason enough to stay.
At a dinner in Dalian, not long after my ‘ghost’ encounter, a group of us were grilling yangrou chuar at a large table, drinking beer and talking excitedly about our plans in China. None of us had been there longer than a few months, and the opportunities for love and learning – or making money, for some – seemed limitless. One guy – don’t know who invited him – sat quietly, sipping on a bottle of whisky he’d apparently brought along with him. Without warning, his Sam Elliot-esque voice suddenly rose above the din.
“I had a plan once.”
Everyone stopped talking and turned towards him to hear his story. He looked at his bottle of whisky, poured a bit more into his glass – and deciding he’d already said too much, returned to his drink.
I don’t want to become that guy, dwelling on the plans that once were, the heartbreaks, the disappointments. And so, while I leave behind a handful of great friends, I’ve decided it’s time for me to leave China – at least until the ghosts are chased away.
For me at least, there are indeed so many ghosts in China.
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