Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Oh Yeah BTW I Moved To China. (Month 1)

So it’s been juts over a month since I landed in Foshan China. Where the hell is Foshan and why did I move there? I will address the later part of that question first because I feel it is most important. My life in California was very comfortable; I had a nice apartment in a safe neighborhood, I had plenty of room to paint, I had a good group of friends, I lived in close proximity to my parents, I was dating a woman I adored, and I was friends with a great group of artists. It was a nice warm, fuzzy existence, but when I realized how complacent I was, how much I wasn’t really pushing myself or my art, how empty my passport was, I got scarred.  Having spent most of my adult life in Sacramento, I needed a serious change. I needed to get REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE in a drastic way. 

You might be thinking,” Why not try New York or Los Angeles or Chicago or San Francisco? They all have big international art scenes.” Solid question. All of those cities have major museums, major galleries, major artists, a population big enough to support the arts, and they are cities I know I could live in and be influenced by. There is just one, tiny, minuscule detail that makes it just about impossible for an “emerging ” aka “unknown” artist like myself to live and function in those cites; the cost of living.  Rent in these cities is fucking ridiculous.  

If I was a fresh out of school, newly minted 22-25 year old BFA or MFA graduate, sure, fuck it, I’d go with my dreams intact, live hand to mouth in a shoebox apartment, live off top ramen, and hope that the art dealer I did a line of coke with in the bathroom at the Rainbow Room would be my gateway to fame and fortune. But to quote the great Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon:  

So am I Danny, so am I.

At this point in my life I’m not willing to trade my comfort, my health, and my safety just to be in “The Scene.” There is also the fact that being an artist is exhausting. My batteries have been running on empty for well over a year now and I knew that I needed a major shift to recharge them. So when the opportunity to travel and work abroad came up, I took it.

So the next question, why, where the hell is Foshan China? Foshan is in the southern part of the country, about 83 miles west of Hong Kong. Yes, I could have gone to bigger cities like Beijing, or Shanghai, and yes I did get offers from those cities, but those offers didn’t include free room and board, 3 meals a day, and a low cost of living compared to other cities. Not to mention far less pollution than major cities. And by offers, I mean offers to teach English as a second language. Yes. I just wrote that. Me, Jeff Musser, who has no experience-teaching children, or even babysitting children, who once on the Fourth of July, had a panic attack when a child of about 3 ran over and gave me a hug, is an English Teacher in China! 

What could be a bigger, more reality shattering challenge than teaching children English in a foreign country? Aside from the change of scenery, there is some strategy to my decision.

"Slow" growth in China is described 7.2 percent a year!

As we all know, Chinas’ Economy is a juggernaut, both in import and export department. Their GDP has been growing at an incredible rate, see above, and China is also the biggest art market in Asia, and if things continue, it will soon be the biggest art market in the world. With huge Biennials that make the Whitney pitiful, Art Basel now in Hong Kong, and Chinas’ relatively low cost of living, there are worse moves I could have made. The teaching gig will allow me to earn a decent wage, save money, travel, and I can learn about the art scene from the inside. Who knows, I may even blow up here.

So what’s it like here you ask? Here is a quick breakdown:

Safety & Precautions
One of the first things I noticed was how “relaxed” things seemed to be in regard to safety. In The States we would say, “Well of course there would be Construction Zone Signs in front of a road being built. Or Yellow Caution Tape blocking a sidewalk that’s being torn apart. Or, if you’re on a scooter with two children, they should be wearing helmets and you shouldn’t be texting. Or yeah, you should be wearing a protective welding mask when you’re welding and not smoking a cigarette at the same time. ” 

Liability? What Liabilty?

But in China, not so much.

I don’t know if it’s the particular city I’m in, or if they have more pressing things to concern themselves with, but it’s weird. China would be a personal injury lawyer’s wet dream! A simple walk down the street would produce a 7-figure settlement in America. But here it seems to be:

“Hey man, proceed at your own risk. I know that pothole should have caution tape around it, but hey, what are you gonna do? Just use your eyes and walk around that mofo.”  

It's really fun to walk in this at night time.

I’ve been told that it is very hard to sue and get any sort of admission of wrong doing, Chinese don’t like to loose face, aka admit that they made a mistake, even more so if that mistake will cost them money. I’ve heard only the rich are able to sue, which of course has its pros and cons.

And I think I may have figured out why Chinese children are beating American children in just about everything. Disregard the education system, test scores, parent involvement, and genetics. I think it boils down to environment. Since I’ve been here, NOT ONCE either in public, nor at the school were I currently work, have I seen children wash their hands with soap and water. Even out in public, unless it’s a restaurant that caters to westerners, there is no soap or hot water in the bathroom!

No soap for you whiteboy!
Disgusting yes, but think of the workout your immune system gets on a daily basis! Throw in the fact that many places in China don’t have the best sanitary standards when it comes to food, and you have hundreds of millions of children who are hardy as fuck! In his book, “Guns, Germs, and Steele” UCLA professor Jarod Diamond said this was one of the reason why Western Civilization has dominated the world over the past 500 years: stronger immune systems that can withstand serious disease will over power immune systems that cant. My theory is a little less scientific, but we in America are a bit over protective and overly sensitive when it comes to our children and their exposure to germs. 

The dreaded squat toilet! It's not that bad actually.
There is also the issue of children relieving themselves on the sidewalk or in the street. No, that is not a typo. I witnessed it the first time I was in Beijing, way back in 2000, and obviously it shocked me. I have yet to get a picture of the event in action but I have witnessed: a man holding a child over a trash can while the child shit in said receptacle, at a busy bus stop a woman wiped her Childs’ ass then just casually tossed the brown colored tissue in the gutter, and a child piss radiator fluid green colored urine right on the sidewalk while me an other people just walked around like it was no big deal.

The People

They are friendly and appreciate when you try to speak Mandarin, even when you butcher the shit out of it like I do. By the way, Jesus Christ, is Mandarin a tough language! I new it would be challenging, but I didn’t know it would be this tough. More on that later. And people stare at you. Foshan is not a sleepy town out in the countryside, but it’s not a giant metropolis like Beijing either, so westerners are still rare to see. And all though it’s a little weird to have people eyeball you everywhere you go, they are always very nice.

The Food

Knock on wood, I haven’t gotten sick from any of the street food or from any of the restaurants. And so far, I haven’t eaten anything I didn’t like. The fruits and vegetables are fresher and FAR cheaper than in the states. On many occasions, the fish/chicken/snake/duck I ate was breathing right before I ordered it! 

Fresh Fish!

This shrimp was delicious
They don't waste anything here in China. Even the head is used for "fish head soup"
Guess who? The Crabs!
More fish
Grouper is also delicious, but pricey.

However, they don’t have napkins in restaurants, you have to buy them! And they aren’t really even napkins, they are Kleenex packets you that cost about 1 Yuan, which is less than $1, so who cares, but still. 

It’s Cheap

This is a bill equal to about 50 cents. All the larger bills have Chairmen Mao on them.

Taking the bus/subway costs between $.10-$4. Sometimes meals only cost $2! Clothing and other items like a haircut or large bottle of water cost about 60-70% less than what they do in America. And get this, it’s RUDE to tip people! People actually get insulted if you try to give them more money for a job well done. 

Pollution and Trash

Yes, it’s an issue. The idea of recycling or not tossing your garbage in the street hasn’t seemed in infiltrate the consciousness of people in Foshan. It’s not everywhere, and it’s not in big piles, but it’s there. So if making art out of trash or found objects is your thing, come to China! In America, you can distinguish what kind of a neighborhood you’re in based on how much trash is on the ground, but not in Foshan China.

Off a main street near some shops
This is the same location as above, I just panned to the right. It's a vegetable garden right next the pile of garbage! Sounds crazy, but this type of juxtaposition is quite common here.

The air quality thus far hasn’t been an issue (we'll see if that changes once summer hits), but I’ve noticed I’m congested more than when I was in California.


It’s like I’m back in college! It’s a small single dorm type room with high a ceiling, a small closet, a desk, a small shower, and a twin bed.  I have a view of the school playground, and the morning I hear birds signing outside my window. It’s clean and my neighbors are cool.

The Gig

My first week I felt a kind of terror I have never experienced before. What was I doing here? How the hell am I going to pull this off? What if the kids don’t like me? What if a kid goes crazy and won’t listen to me? What if the administration thinks I’m a fuck up and can see that I don’t know what I’m doing?

On February 21st, I sat in my room, covered in sweat and fear, consumed with dread about the coming workweek. While in full on panic attack mode, I wrote this note to myself:
“Let go of all the fear and apprehension and just do the work. You get to observe Jacob tomorrow, so take lots of notes and believe in yourself. You can do this. Remember you wanted this opportunity. You chose to make this great leap. Yes, it will be really uncomfortable for a bit, just push through it, and you will come out the other side just fine. Keep the lesson plans simple and fun. Their first impression of you is very important, so be happy about this opportunity and it will show through in the class. “
So I stayed in, worked my ass off getting lesson plans together, told myself I could do it, planned out some fun shit to do with the kids, drank lots of tea, and powered through it. Fast forward to the middle of March when I wrote this:
"Two years ago I would never have guessed that my day would start like this. Just the thought of being surrounded by children would have made me shake with fear. Now, after my first month, it’s not nearly as bad as I anticipated it to be. Challenging? Yes! And I still have a lot to learn. But I’m making progress. The kids really respond to me, and most surprising of all, I'm good at it! 
Do I, Jeff Musser, aka Mr. Stone Face, aka Mr. Never Smiles, aka Mr. Monotone Voice, aka Mr. Ice Around His Heart When It Comes Children, dare say this is fun?"

The vast majority of the kids, 99%, are great and lovely to teach. The others aren’t terrors, they just have a little bit more energy, and so I need to find a way for them to focus that energy into being present.

This kid has the most punk rock hair cut in the whole school!
Brace yourselves ladies, Ben is in camouflage from head to toe! 
This little girl is named Joey. She is an absolute joy to have in class.
I have a lot more to say, but at the present moment, there is too much going on in my head, too much information to sort through. But so far, this whole experience has been amazing.