I grew up on a farm in a small Michigan town of less than 2,000 people. It is so small that, to this day, residents use the zip code of the next town to the east to ensure mail delivery and send their kids to another town to the south where the nearest school is located. It is, like many midwestern cities, towns and villages, dotted by more churches than most any other single type of building.
My family was, and still is, firmly lower middle class, economically speaking. My mom, though now retired, worked for the local hospital as a lab technician, collecting and processing blood work on shut-ins and nursing home residents. My dad, also now retired, was a supervisor at a local factory before being demoted because he wanted to take extra time off when his brother was dying of Lou Gerhig’s disease. My dad was a captain for the volunteer fire department in my town and worked as a handyman on the side to pick up extra money. My parents gave birth to three children–me, my older brother and my older sister. We are your typical American family, so to speak.
After I was born, my family kept close to home out of financial necessity, never traveling out of the Great Lakes States and never making it further west of Wisconsin. My life, as it went, stayed geographically isolated until the summer of 2005. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I caused quite a bit of trouble for my family growing up. I was too, let’s say, precocious and had a hard time saying, or wanting to say, no. I got suspended from school early and often because I just did not understand the process. I did not feel a part of my education; I felt lost and abandoned. After years of feeling like I could not relate, I dropped out of school, got my GED and went into the workforce. But I never wanted to stop learning. I took odd jobs in every conceivable field – from construction to insurance account representative, art consultant to Harley-Davidson salesman, electrician to local store clerk. I took jobs out of curiosity, remarking that if I ever won the lottery, though I have never played, I would want to work the rest of my life doing any and every job imaginable.
I wanted to experience new things and I wanted to learn, but I realized after five years of that life, I needed more – I needed to go back to school.
I enrolled at the nearest, cheapest, state university and declared my major in Political Science. I intended on learning more about a subject that was always a passion of mine but for which I had no conceivable outlet, the study of differing types of governance. I was born in 1980 and can remember the increased tension, at that time, involving this seemingly unseen but ever present threat that was the Soviet Union and communism. The town I went to school in, with its nom de guerre of Coast Guard City, USA – because of its housing of a Coast Guard base, albeit a very small one – was full of fortified fallout shelters. We had them at our schools and under our community center and library. Though perhaps strange to others, we were still practicing duck and cover in case of attack when I was in elementary school. Those moments stuck with me. I can remember the Berlin Wall falling, the bloody stamping out of protests on and around Tiananmen Square and seeing those curious yellow and black signs around town but not the bunkers behind them. I was left to wonder how ideas of such moral, religious and philosophical differences could exist to the point of near extinction. So when I finally went off to college, at age twenty-two, I knew just what I wanted to study.
I was most interested in Russia but quickly realized that the language was beyond me and my genetic hinderance that apparently disallows me from rolling any letters. More importantly I was exposed to China by some great professors that had roots there themselves. This was 2002 and China’s rise was becoming more and more apparent so I took every China and Asia related class I could but continued to indulge my ever present curiosities in other areas as well. I started college just a half a year after 9/11. Our country and our way of life seemed to be threatened in a completely different manner so I enrolled in subjects such as Abnormal Psychology and Criminal Justice, classes that explored terrorism. My studies, like my previous employment, were guided only by my yearning to fulfill my ever burgeoning inquisitiveness. I was learning more than I ever had and following my growing interests in the world but I still felt isolated. I still had not left the Great Lakes States and I was already twenty-five.
The summer of 2005 I took two road trips. I drove to Tennessee to backpack parts of the Smokeys and the Appalachian Trail. Then, a month after that trip while still on summer break, I drove to Colorado and hiked around the Rockies. I have always loved the outdoors, camping and cooking under the stars, but I had never seen mountains before. I loved them and I loved the experience of seeing new landscapes and even seemingly new people in the South. I was hooked. The next summer I boarded my first flight.
Whether it be to Florida to visit Disney World or out west to go skiing, most Americans by the age of twenty-six, have flown on a plane, or so it would seem. Not me. I bought my first plane ticket and went to Shanghai, China. I did not speak Chinese at that time and I had no real idea as to what to expect. Sure, I had studied the governmental system of China and its modern history but nothing could have prepared me for the culture shock that awaited. I went from a town of less than 2,000 people to one of some 26 million.
I have spent over five years in China since then, on and off. Most people that study, work and live in that part of the world take advantage of the comparatively cheap economies of SE Asia. They vacation in Thailand and enjoy the beaches of Bali. I, on the other hand, have spent my free weekends and holidays traveling across China. I have probably been to as many or more places in that country than nearly any person living today. I could write pages about my time in China – maybe even books, albeit of questionable quality. It changed me in ways I am still discovering but one thing that will always be true is my insatiable urge to learn, discover and explore. Of course, that is not to say I never get out of China. I have been lucky enough to travel through and around the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar.
My curiosity has gotten me into some trouble but has also allowed me to see things few have. As sidetracked and delayed as I have been, I feel I am still heading in the right direction to see just what lies down yonder way. You see, my dad always told me I am a jack of all trades but a master of none. While it is true, I like to say, I know a little about a lot of things, a lot about some things, but not nearly enough about anything. So I keep looking.
Thanks for reading. I look forward to your comments and questions.
About The Name Yonway
Rambling Reason for Site Name: It’s Punny
In case you are wondering why yonway. It is a shortening of yonder way, as in down yonder way, alluding to where life can take you. Yonder being a colloquial measurement that my Dad, Uncle and Grandpa would have used in describing the location of something. It is also a play on Chinese in that yonder way sounds a bit like yáng zhì huī (杨志辉), my name on my Chinese driver’s license and an immodest homonym of sorts for foreign ocean of wisdom. Yáng, here written 洋, can mean foreign, vast, or ocean. Zhìhuī, written 智慧, means wisdom or intelligence. Yáng Zhì Huī (杨志辉) is a rather commonplace Chinese name and neither my adopting of it nor the meaning behind it, I can assure you, was my idea. I do not often go by a Chinese name but my original one, bàopǔ (抱朴), was given to me by my two former professors and current mentors and friends, Ni Peimin and Shang Geling. Its meaning is much too complicated, if I am to stay on topic for this post.
Tangentially speaking, as if this entire piece hasn’t been, when I call to make a reservation I usually just say, “Bó Xīlái de bó (薄熙来的薄)”, to much astonished laughter, because bó sounds close to my actual name, Beau. For those that do not know, Mr. Bo is a much disgraced and currently imprisoned Chinese politician who was once a mayor of Dalian and Chongqing, as well as a serious contender for a top spot on the Standing Committee before being brought down on corruption and links to murder.
Thanks for reading.