Courage and Fear

Over the weekend I watched the movie Donnie Darko for the first time. I loved it. It reminded me a lot of a Murakami Haruki book, and a little bit of Slaughterhouse Five. It’s one of those pleasantly confusing stories, at once entertaining you and enriching your for the mental struggle it puts you through.

Completely by coincidence, I ended up reading The Courage to Live Consciously later the same night. I found the advice there vaguely reminiscent of Jim Cunningham‘s philosophy, only much more useful.

I found the two sources’ takes on courage and fear to be equally valid.

The Courage to Live Consciously–and this quote in particular–got me thinking about the decision to come live and work in China:

>Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.

–Erica Jong

When I was visiting the States I got to thinking about how easy and comfortable it would be to just stay in Tampa, where my friends and family are close, and just find some job to do. But that would be totally betraying my passions and my potential.

Some say moving to China to work takes a lot of courage. Numerous times, Americans from back home have told me that they admire my courage for doing what I do. But does what I do take any courage, really? I don’t see it that way.

To me, learning foreign languages and coming to China is simply a matter of doing what I like to do. I really enjoy studying Chinese, and helping other foreigners learn Chinese is something I genuinely like doing. I don’t think I deserve any special credit for doing what I like doing. If I’m hungry and I have a hamburger in front of me, am I courageous for eating it? No. That’s the way I see it.

That said, I do know that some people are living out what they feel are boring lives in the USA, Canada, or elsewhere, and they’d love to be able to move overseas and try out a new life. They see the hamburger, but they have a million reasons why they can’t eat it. Or maybe they’re afraid of what the hamburger has in it. I can’t be sure, because I’m not one of those people. I just eat the damn hamburger. I don’t think it’s courage.

Related? Those Who Dare.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Kastner Says: July 26, 2005 at 7:51 am

    I’m so glad to see your true feelings on this kinda matter. What they fear for, I think, is a new life-style which is unknown anyway. Besides the culture shakes, loaves and fishes should be taken into account, all of us are normal ppl. Sigh~~~
    P.S. good job! another 7:00am post, hehe

  2. john, for some people the hamburger is in sight, but not within immediate reach. and then there are those that know they are hungry, but are not even aware of the hamburger yet.

    i love my job, and i love the 2 women i work with, but i also have decided that what i am doing right now is not enough. i have to figure out a way to take what i have and make it even more fulfilling. so i’m thinking and imagining, but my hamburger is not even on the grill yet.

    you’re very blessed to have found such a tasty burger! 😉

  3. Amy,

    But you’re not someone interested in living overseas, are you? It wasn’t a great analogy in the first place, but I think you’re derailing it a bit. My focus was on courage and fear as it relates to a foreigner living in China.

  4. Love the hamburger analogy, so fitting of all the choices that could’ve been made.

    A flip side to the “betraying my passions and my potential” is that when one is “stuck in a boring job or location, there comes a point where, as a human, that human reaches a breaking point or awakening of the spirit, where through the consequential action, an equilibrium of sorts is reached and attained. The passion to defeat the said situation is the path that is chosen. What’s next? Well, that’s ALWAYS the question. It doesn’t end, until it ends. Thanks for the inspiration and the head nod, John.

  5. In my case, it’s definitely not courage (I’m as craven as a coot) so much as fecklessness.

    Also, I liked Donnie Darko, but c’mon – the movie doesn’t make any sense without the DVD extras.

  6. Brendan,

    DVD extras??? I watched the director’s cut on VCD, so I know nothing of DVD extras. I’m very curious now, though.

    I don’t think the movie is nonsensical… there are enough clues there to at least put together an interpretation, and I’ve gotten some training from Murakami.

  7. I guess it was just tne ending of the movie that struck me as problematic. Don’t think I saw the director’s cut; the DVD version that I saw included the ‘Physics of Time Travel’ book as an extra feature to explain Harvey the Evil Rabbit, the blobby trail dealies, and all that.

  8. Da Xiangchang Says: July 26, 2005 at 10:07 am

    I agree with you, John. It takes VERY little courage to move overseas, esp. to China where any Westerner automatically gets treated with a lot more respect than he ever would in his native country. Foreigners who think it takes courage to live in China are just deluding themselves. I would argue it takes A LOT MORE courage to stay in their native countries and try to make it big without any advantages as a “rich” foreigner. Cuz, IMHO, it sure as hell harder for an American to be a “success” in America than it is for him/her in China.

    Having said this, however, there’s no doubt that a foreigner who lives abroad enjoys a far more exciting life than the average person living at home. I think of the time I lived in Eastern Europe and China, and the period in my life now living in LA, there’s no comparison. It was FAR more exciting living abroad. However, in my own particular case, I just didn’t see a future living in China, at least not the kind of future I envision for myself–in all modesty, a grand future. So I have to slave away at everyday drudgery and hope my goals work out. Then I’m definitely returning to China for at least several months a year and live a life of complete abandon. Exotic foreign location, a language I can (imperfectly) speak, hot Asian broads . . . paradise, complete paradise!

  9. I don’t buy that courage is the big secret. Certainly it takes some guts to exchange familiar surroundings for a foreign country, but that’s not all it takes. In my case, it was just that I was certain it was what I wanted to do. DOUBT is a bigger obstacle than fear.

    But I’m not saying that doubts are a bad thing. The doubts might be quite valid, and eating the hamburger might not make you happy at all. Save your appetite for a hamburger that you have no doubts about. Not everybody has to share John’s hamburger.

  10. Mel Smith Says: July 26, 2005 at 7:27 pm

    Though I don’t plan on going to China anytime soon, the time is right for me to go back to school. It just feels like a natural step in my life: I’m going to be learning something I am always totally loving, and even 6 months ago, this wouldn’t have been the right choice, because I wasn’t at that stage in my life.

    Courage, or self-awareness?

  11. it’s similar to the concept which leads Americans to bandy about the word ‘hero’ so loosely. Maybe it’s a part of the national psyche.

  12. Da Xiangchang, totally spot-on – excess, controlled recklessness and abandonment, joy, jubilee, wild adventures on an almost daily basis and intense human interaction not found in anyone’s native land. At least, it’s all possible with the right mind set.

    Funny, this past week, China’s been on my mind a lot. Here are a couple instances:

    1. Sitting at Fresh Choice, with a couple of plates of colby salad, artichoke hearts, drenched vinigrette balsamic roasted eggplant, sun dried tomatoes, grilled chicken chunks, tuna tarragon, sliced red beets, topped off with virgin olive oil and fresh ground pepper. A bowl of split pea soup drenched in green tabasco sauce, a bowl of meatball marinara sauce over pizza. And for dessert, an apricot turnover, caramel drizzled over the top with some whipped cream and a half/half chocolate and vanilla soft serve ice cream. The whole time, a young waitress is collecting the used plates and bowls, cleaning the table as we eat in this huge air conditioned restaurant. There was a large number of LARGE people in there – middle aged families and young kids especially. I’m stuffing my face, just thinking, “Good lordy, to walk into your restaurant buffet at the local mall and serve up a meal like this for 8 bucks. This is crazy. You would never have such convenience and freshness like this in China.”

    2. After taking my dog, Lia, on a rollerblade 25 mph cruise around the mile radius of the neighborhood, and heading into the backyard, diving into the pool with Lia following, doggy paddlin’ her way back to the steps and shaking off all the water, and rolling around in the grass like the true savage she is, I get a phone call from my grandmother, Lynn. (She says hi, John!) Of the conversation in catching up with the latest, she ends it by stating, “China is the safest place in the world right now.” I think, how ironic that she’s saying this. You can go back 2 decades and the western countries love to poke at China as being this place where humans suffered terribly, tanks running over students and zero rights in a communist socialist country – China was a threat (actually, US ignorance feels this way still). Well, the tables have turned – and yes, she’s right in so many ways – China is safe as it has been expressed by so many on Sinosplice over the past years.

    I can barely wait to return to China for a “life of complete abandon” as Da Xiangchang says. Let’s go together, hahahaa.

  13. Dude, you hit the nail right on the head.

    I’ve met so many people who aren’t hamburger eaters, but they talk up a storm about hamburgers every time I see them.

  14. Da Xiangchang Says: July 27, 2005 at 9:20 am


    Haha. It’s really funny how you mentioned China was the safest place in the world right now. I was IMing a former student in Shanghai, and I was saying a guy can’t go anywhere overseas these days without possibly being blown up. I really wanted to go to Turkey on my next trip, but dude, they had 2 separate bombings within the last few weeks! Even beloved London–the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to–is off-limits now! WTF?!! England, Spain, Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, Kenya–all off-limits if you’re paranoid about terrorism. Even southern Thailand’s iffy cuz a Buddhist priest got killed by a crazy-ass Muslim there! So I was IMing the Shanghainese guy saying China’s the only safe right now cuz no Muslim bomber will ever hit coastal China–though the second the Xinjiang guys start putting dynamite in their streetside kebabs, it’ll be the end of China too. 😛

    But yeah, China definitely is a great playground, although I would imagine Taiwan’s just as fun. I think the Chinese women of Singapore are probably hotter per-capita than mainland women cuz they’re richer and could afford nicer clothes and orthodontics. They also seem to dress less than mainland Chinese do–like these short shorts!!! Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh . . . But if you really want to play in Singapore, you got to be making more money, which means you might as well stay in America. Haha. I think if you’re talking about Asian women, Singapore has a higher per-capita hot broads than anywhere else I’ve ever been to, including Shanghai (though I haven’t been to Hong Kong or Taiwan or Japan or Korea). Forget about hamburger, man, I want some prime steak!

  15. at home he walks down the street and no one notices, he walks into a bar and no one gives him a second glance, his job application is an exact carbon copy of the other hundreds that sit on a desk. his life is routine and full of predictability.
    he steps off a plane and is treated like a king no matter his education, job experience, personality or appearance.
    this isn’t courage, it’s a ticket to paradise!
    this is true for 99% of the white foreigners that choose to live in china.

  16. Not that I disagree with the general analogy, but it can take courage of sorts to eat a hamburger in some parts of China, especially when you can see the kitchen.

  17. Danni, excellent “in a nutshell” comment.

  18. After living two very fun and interesting years in Taiwan and China and two more in Japan, I’d have to say that, as a white North American, some of what’s said above is just not true. Many decent folks treated me well in East Asia, but there was far more insincerity too, in the form of sycophancy or phoney royal treatment, or sometimes the opposite–unfortunately worst of all in official matters. Not because of who I am but because I look or speak different. Now, I live in a relatively unknown corner of N America where I am not treated differently from anyone else, of whichever colour or language. I also know exactly what’s in my food (if don’t have my own chickens and garden in the backyard), I have important rights here that are non-existent in China, I have pristine air and sea breezes every day of the year, no traffic jams, peace and quiet, safe uncrowded streets, reliable health care, mild winters and cool sunny summers, no heat, humidity, ice, monsoons, hurricanes, typhoons, cockroaches or mosquitoes or other pests, clean (uncrowded) ocean beaches and clean (uncrowded) swimming lakes five minutes away, . . . this list could go on a long long while. I love China, and I was treated well there (and in Taiwan and Japan). Even better in some ways, yes, but (sorry) incomparably worse in some very important areas and overall quality of life. But I guess it depends on what you think is important–sure, for some young folks crowds, hotpants, noise and excitement are great. Go ahead. I’ll go to the Dragon boat festival downtown if I want that, thanks. No, it wouldn’t be as exciting or interesting as a festival in China or Japan. But that unfinished list of boring things more than cancels that out. By the way, terrorism is a non-issue here too–they’d only get a few per square mile–it’s not worth their effort. Cheers.

  19. And really folks, do we want to be treated like a king because we’re white or rich or speak English? I certainly don’t.

    My CV is miles away from the nearest carbon copy, and my next moment in this boring corner of the world is entirely unpredictable–I would argue it’s because I’ve made it that way.

  20. greg pasden Says: July 31, 2005 at 5:53 am

    My philosophy is similar to yours. Do what you enjoy (plus get paid for it) and then it will not seem like a job.

  21. Juan Jourde Says: August 13, 2005 at 6:17 am

    I think we may have touched on this, years ago on the theology/philosophy forums heh.
    And just recently, my friend axis put it best on his LJ..

    “Death or glory, amen.”


Leave a Reply