When you live in China, there are days where you want to drop kick everyone in the country and leave on the next plane never to return. I call these Bad China Days. A good example of this has been my frustrating search for an apartment, which has taken over 2 months, resulted in 2 deals that have entirely fallen through, and currently stands with a semi-flaky agreement to possibly rent an apartment still under construction at an indeterminate point sometime in the future, but definitely after my temporary housing arrangement runs out. For awhile, I’m going to be living in a motel. Fortunately, I have a business trip coming up, and that will minimize my out-of-pocket expense. Meanwhile, though, everything I own is stacked in my office. Fortunately, I still have an office, although that’s going away in a few months–the result of another Bad China Day. This will happen on roughly my 11th anniversary with The Company (TM), and will represent the first time since college in my professional career where I have not had an office. Oh well, at least I’m making considerably less than I was in the US and paying higher taxes. Hey, wait a minute…

Wow. That’s a lot of frustration, and believe me, you’re only getting a thumbnail sketch. What makes it all worth it? Good China Days, like today. And wow, today was a really great day. It was beautiful, sunny and about 72 degrees. After spending far too long in my apartment looking for tickets to other places and trying to get ideas on what to do, I looked in the Beijing Excursion Guide. And something leaped out at me: Tianijn. It’s only 30 minutes away by bullet train, and I’d never visited. So I jumped on a subway and headed to Beijing South Railway Station, a subway journey that takes nearly as long as the trip to Tianjin.

Only one automated ticket vending machine was operating (this line is special and has automated ticket vending machines, something I wish all Chinese trains had). I lined up and easily bought a ticket, since the menus were in English and Chinese. Unfortunately, only standing room was available. No matter, it was only a 30 minute train journey. After buying a tuna sandwich and an iced mocha (at surprisingly high Western prices), I boarded the train.

Every seat was full, as I expected. I made my way from car to car and eventually found a place to sit down. In between taking some video, a college student began talking to me. He was a freshman at Tianjin University, had surprisingly good English skills, and was interested in studying for an MBA at Wharton. We discussed his upcoming TOEFL exam, American politics, and President Obama. When we arrived in Tianjin, he offered to show me around since his bus back to the university wasn’t until several hours later.

This began a whirlwind journey of Tianijn, a delightful city with a colonial past and classic Italian, French, British and American architecture. There has been a serious effort to preserve this history. Tianjin is a little bit cleaner than Beijing and buildings are better preserved, although the sewers still spew foul gas, litter still abounds, and random puddles of vomit are every bit as ubiquitous as in Beijing. Johnson, my new friend, called several friends from his university, and we spent the evening wandering neighborhoods I’d never have found on my own. Being just eighteen, they liked to eat–a lot–so we bounced in and out of various student-friendly snack outlets. Eventually, unable to eat nearly as much as they did, I had to explain that older people can’t eat so much. They were very surprised to learn my age, thinking that I was in my early twenties. Johnson said “I would never guess that. No Chinese businessman would sit on the floor of a train, they think they are more important!” American culture, it seems, takes at least ten years off your age in China. Another year having just flown by, I’m happy to see them go in reverse.

Age in China is, like many things in China, viewed completely the opposite as in the US. When you get older in the US, you’re less desirable, less interesting, and eventually you’re shuttered away in some depressing place called Shady Acres, where your basic needs are met in a soulless setting entirely devoid of challenge or joy.  In China, middle aged people (or those approaching middle age) are considered experienced, and this is genuinely valued. Retirement doesn’t slow people down here, despite the considerable physical challenges. It’s not unusual to see a large group of people my parents’ age practicing tai chi or ballroom dancing in a park or square on a warm summer evening. China is still a very challenging place to live for everyone, especially those in their golden years. The attitude seems to be that if you must rise to the challenge that daily life presents when you’re an eighty year old person anyway, you may as well infuse the world with sunshine and smiles.

Today was a good China day. I made new friends and enjoyed new experiences. I put myself into multiple situations that were risky and shady and totally inadvisable per the US embassy, but everything worked out beautifully. Days like today remind me why I turned my life upside down in the most dramatic way I have ever done, and make me glad for this decision. Here’s hoping for many more Good China Days.