From Italy to China: A Leap of Faith in the Mouth of the Dragon

As I feel the movement of the train chugging over rails under my back, I open up my eyes. I have been told that finding a sleeper ticket at this time of the year is a slow process, but I cannot afford the luxury of waiting for one. I am forced to move fast westwards.  That is why I am lying on the floor of a train carriage, stretching under the side of a bench. A cobweb of Chinese legs is slung all over me, becoming a cancerous living extension of the train’s metallic flesh. As nightmarish as it may sound, there is no other way to spend the night.  It is either in this ungodly position, sandwiched among a forest of sleepy limbs, or camping out in front of the grimy toilet space. A space filled to the roof with sleepless almond eyes, their smelly cigarette breath, and questioning stares. No thanks.

You would be rightly wondering why I found myself sleeping under a bench on a running train crossing the Gobi Desert from the province of Gansu into Xinjiang, Northwestern China. A task which becomes even harder when hungry all nighters keep kicking into your side, shuttling steamy bowls of readymade noodles back and forth.  The scorching hot water machine hijacks the night from the end of the aisle.

Ok, press stop, and then rewind. Five years time, exactly.

Voghera, a point in the center of any Northern Italy’s map, may be famous enough for its rolling hills giving Oltrepò Pavese an international name for quality wine production. Besides that, this sleepy town buried 40 miles south of Milano is a paradox of small town paranoia, always failing to integrate with the broader thoughts emanating from the nearby fashion capital of the world. For a creative individual like me, being born in such a place was death for the soul. However, since my teenage years I always tried to reach out as far as possible, concentrating on my artistic inclinations, which were utterly frustrated within the borders of my small town’s Italian backwoods.

The increasing globalization of the West had leveled my experiences to something I did not find interesting and “punk” anymore. I needed an inspirational way out, but could not take my focus out of the music business.

I was lucky enough to be able to travel the Western world by playing guitar in a punk rock band.  During every holiday I had, I was on a tour.  This was a fantastic chance to fuel and nurture my early wanderlust – Europe, the UK, the USA – I have seen and performed in all. Nevertheless, those thrills started to become jaded after a few years of interesting musical journeys.  There was something missing. Something started to fail being as adventurous and interesting as it was when I started strumming a guitar. The increasing globalization of the West had leveled my experiences to something I did not find interesting and “punk” anymore. I needed an inspirational way out, but could not take my focus out of the music business.

Finding a way out and failing

Although speaking 3 languages fluently and having a Bachelor degree, I was constantly rejected at job applications in Italy. This played a major role in my decision to follow my dream and move to the USA to pursue a career as a musician. I had enough friends in many states with whom I had collaborated before; when a few suggested flying stateside and work my magic searching for an opportunity directly on the ground, I did not think twice. Before I knew it, I was on a flight to Chicago with a couple jobs as a tour manager and merchandise guy lined up for starters. I was excited, full of hope and resolution to make music my career somehow succeed, at all costs.

The three months of my tourist visa started clocking fast, leaving me limited time to waste and many opportunities to ponder.  I had to hunt down other Italian and Latino immigrants who, like me, dreamed about a life in the USA and had been successful in their endeavors. Unfortunately, the bottom line was clear.  To live in America on a regular work, student, or business visa, I needed substantial capital to start with. In my situation, such an amount was not even thinkable.

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I met immigration lawyers who basically charged me big bucks to say the same thing.  If I wanted to enter the American society legally, my bank account would have needed a huge facelift.

I was scorned, depressed, and tired of my friends’ vain talks of “just overstay your visa, one day you will marry a good girl and become an American”. My freedom of choice and movement was much more worth than any of Uncle Sam’s shiny dreams. And it was by grabbing that same freedom by the neck that I boarded a plane back to Milano, bringing it back with me, albeit reluctantly.

The chance

As I returned, I got a job as a waiter at a friend’s bar. Every day, cleaning glasses and gifting fake smiles to every single customer, I kept on thinking of ways to escape. I really wanted to travel and see more of the world, fuel my wanderlust, do something to make my American failure a less burning memory. Nevertheless, I was not in the position to ask my family or a bank for a loan. I needed to find a way to get work abroad as a suitable start for my travelling dreams.

The sparkle came one day while pouring the umpteenth espresso out of the machine’s sprouts: my linguistic skills were the key! I thought that the fact I was fluent in three languages may have been the only asset making me marketable globally. After some feverish online research, I decided to take a CELTA course for English teaching to speakers of other languages.  The real life-changing opportunity came as I was busy doing assignments for the course and focusing on learning the art and craft of being a language teacher.  Out of spite, I sent a few CVs here and there without even being a qualified teacher yet.

In a few clicks, I realized that I got a call from China – the last place in the world I would have thought to settle.

One of the last mornings of my 5 weeks course, I woke up and checked my email.  I almost fainted when I saw a sender line full of undecipherable Eastern characters. In a few clicks, I realized that I got a call from China – the last place in the world I would have thought to settle.

I did not know what to do.  China, and Asia in general, were a big unknown. A big block of sparkly colored countries occupying the far right corner of a world map that, up to that very day in September 2007, for me had always chanted “go West.”  I started looking closely at the name of the city I was assigned, Qinhuangdao.  I could not find it on the map, and my anxiety grew immediately.

The internet gave me a few more hints – coastal city of Hebei province, situated 300 kilometers east of Beijing, the capital of the Middle Kingdom. Famous for the summer holiday resort Beidaihe and its seafood. Apparently, Chairman Mao was so inspired by this beach that he wrote a poem about it. Nice. And, most amazingly, it is the city where the Great Wall starts from the ocean, and has its first pass at Shanaiguan. Wow.

I was intrigued. It was enough. I suddenly rushed to the library and started gathering more information about Qinhuangdao. And I found out that Lonely Planet’s China guidebook had a totally different kind of excitement for it: three lines at the bottom of a hidden paragraph, describing “noisy, uninteresting Qinhuangdao” as a good place to catch a bus to Shanaiguan. A very different kind of first hand opinion.

Confusion was queen for a while.  I was finishing my last CELTA classes, spending my evenings browsing for China information in between the piles of assignments and lesson plans to prepare for the next day. To make things even more confusing, a few nights later, another email branded with that mysterious script offered me a second position in ultra technologic Southern Chinese city Shenzen, attached to Hong Kong. For as much as this sounded interesting, I kind of felt mesmerized by that first offer to be an Italian teacher in remote Qinhuangdao, the forgotten town hiding behind the Great Wall’s Dragon mouth, where it drinks white foam from the Bohai sea.

The Dragon won, and I was on a plane to Beijing with my new CELTA certificate sealed in a letter, tucked away in my backpack, a sort of protective talisman for my jump into a totally unknown territory. I felt like a sledgehammer just smashed my comfort zone’s teeth right off its face.

Read Work Overseas: Teaching English Abroad and 17 Questions You Should Ask Before Accepting a TEFL Job

Adaptation and liberation

I jumped at the chance and found myself immersed into a completely new culture, where shock was not enough to describe what I felt, completely overwhelmed by new symbols and an odd, ever changing culture and lifestyle.

Dealing with my first months as a teacher in China was a tough job. Trying to get behind the wall of those almond eyes and see through the projection of their cultural system took me a while. At first, the hard teaching conditions I found myself thrown in without any real direction looked like an impossible challenge, but I did not give up.

I taught English and Italian by day and read and prepared my itineraries by night. I saved conspicuously in local currency and spent almost everything traveling all over China, savoring every minute of the two long months holidays reserved to Public University teachers.

I jumped at the chance and found myself immersed into a completely new culture, where shock was not enough to describe what I felt, completely overwhelmed by new symbols and an odd, ever changing culture and lifestyle.

I changed my attitude towards a foreign culture, and I learnt how to accept the differences by traveling and exploring a new world unfolding around me. I had the time of my life and fell in love with the beauty and diversity of Asia, which slowly became my new home.

Now, back to the nightmarish train ride.  As I open my eyes I am still here.  The enormous country which kickstarted my choice to remain in the Asian continent up to this very day. Five years later, I feel that my early decision has been the right one. Taking that teaching job injected so much adventure, opportunity, and emotion into my life that, thinking back at my Voghera days, I am just happy that they were so grimy and soul-less and pushing me towards a new life opportunity.

And it does not matter if tonight I am hitting the floor, slung across a train carriage in my early 30s.  Some old friends may think I am a weirdo, a vagabond, a lost soul. I am just convinced that by deciding to take that leap of faith and holding still to my decision, I lived so many adventures and improved my existence in ways those same old friends may not even conceive from the back of their office desks.

Read more inspirational travel stories from normal people who have made travel a top priority and check out resources to help you do the same:

Photo credits:  Sisto NikonEole, dmhergert, Dainis Matisonsall others courtesy of Kit Yeng Chan and may not be used without permission
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  • Ferreting Out The Fun said at 2012-09-25T02:38:21+0000: A great read! China can be overwhelming, but it seems like you were up for the challenge. We've been here 1 year and are loving the adventures we're having.
  • Jorge von Kostrisch said at 2012-09-24T18:40:02+0000: An inspiring, awesome story about having the guts to find our real place in the world. Kudos!