The Chaos Run

On the cusp of 2000, I made my first trip to New York City with my friend Alex. We wanted to be in the most exciting place when the ball dropped in Times Square. Some people gave us dire warnings of terrorist threats or Y2K mayhem, but we weren’t worried about that. There was something alluring about the year 2000, and we were two twenty-one-year-olds that would not be stuck in Tampa for it.

For part of our adventure in New York City, we stayed with my friend Dave, a crazy budding director I had befriended in Japan. Dave was a guy that was always excited about something, that loved the 80s, that was fascinated by new toys, and that infected you with his enthusiasm as he leapt from topic to unimaginable topic. He was just the kind of person Alex and I wanted to hang out with in New York.

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Our actual New Year’s Eve was a wild ride, but one of the most memorable incidents for me happened well before December 31st, in Grand Central Terminal. Dave led Alex and me into the station during rush hour. The main lobby was magnificent, and it was swarming with commuters. It was at this point that Dave told us about his game.

“This is how you play,” he told us. “Just run, and don’t stop. Keep changing directions so that you don’t hit anyone. It’s a blast!”

“Wait, what?” I started. But Dave had already shot off straight into the crowd. Alex and I quickly followed suit.

We had no time to even notice the reactions of the people around us. There were so many, all melting into a blurry wall, and it was all we could do to avoid collisions as we dodged, weaved, reversed direction, and sidestepped ourselves into exhaustion. Finally we all ended up against a wall, panting and laughing. The masses continued their milling beside us.

This is the kind of thing kids do. Adults reason that it’s silly, that someone could get hurt, that it’s a waste of time. But presented with the idea in the right way, a kid will just try it. And damn, what a thrill.

The way I feel about China is much the same way. This country is like one big Grand Central Terminal. Society is milling about as it always does, but here there are a lot of people doing the chaos run. Some are natives, some are foreigners. Some of them just like the thrill, but many are out for big profits. There is no question that on this scale, the game is very dangerous. Innocent people get knocked down and bowled over. Others run themselves headfirst into walls. And yet, China’s powers of seduction remain unshaken. There’s something about this place that keeps me in a near-perpetual state of excitement. I know there are risks and sacrifices I must face for living in China long-term, and maybe I can’t do it forever, but damn, what a thrill!


John Pasden

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


  1. I think you just summed up what it is like living in NYC, as well, but this feeling of frenetic energy and possibility, of chaos and adventure and insanity is more palpable in China today (and not just in Shanghai) than it is in NYC. Being a foreigner in that environment only adds to the madness, spikes the thrill. I couldn’t do what you are doing, staying for the long haul, though: it’s too exhausting and the bad China days start to pile up. But on the good days, China just feels like the place to be. Soon, though, it will become the trendy place to be and the ex-pats with goatees and berets will swoop in from their perches in Prague and Moscow, unless it’s already reached that point.

  2. To that I agree.
    Foreigners in China, harken: These are the days! This is the time of exploration, of being a stranger in a strange land, of waking up in a different country every morning. This is what you will tell your children about. Enjoy it while it lasts… before China will settle down and become just another country on this earth.

  3. I think you mean December 31st??? 🙂

    Good to see China stays interesting even after…5.9 years. I’ve been here about a year, and thought it might just be the novelty factor.

  4. Jeff,


    Ah, it wouldn’t be a blog entry without at least one glaring error/typo. (fixed!)

    To be honest, I think that the novelty definitely does wear off for some people. Those people leave after a year, usually. But some of us never lose that buzz…

  5. My 4.575 years have been one helluva ride. Never leaving. Just bought the house (condo) in Jiangsu. Too much ‘life’ in China! Too much safety (for us laowai) walking up and down any and every street or path!


  6. Who are the natives doing the chaos run? Do you just mean people trying to develop business ideas? I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who simply enjoyed the thrill of life in China, apart from foreigners (or people who come to the mainland from Hong Kong). That’s not to say that they don’t exist though, maybe I’ve never looked in the right places.

  7. Todd,

    Yeah, most of the people I mean are the ones (native or foreign) trying to develop business ideas. I do think there are a growing number of people in China leading exciting, non-traditional lives, though. Look at the musicians in the underground music scene, for instance.

    That said, I do agree that it’s kind of hard to enjoy the “thrill” of living in your native land.

  8. Da Xiangchang Says: June 27, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    I can break down the “thrill” of living in China into the following percentages (for MOST foreign men):

    40% – the easy women
    30% – the alpha-male boost (money and status as a foreigner)
    20% – the much easier work load and corresponding free time
    10% – enjoying life in a different culture

    Of course, I might be projecting my own desires onto others–but I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve met a TON of foreign guys living in China, and most are like the guys I’ve just described–that, in essence, they’re just like me! Of course, there are a few laowai guys who don’t fit this mold, but they’re like February 29ths–I think I’ve only met one in the last four years.

    And, in all seriousness, I think you can get the same thrill in China at home: just work like you’ll be rich one day, achieve that special status at home, and all its fruits. And if you try and can’t make it, it’s cuz you’re too stupid–like I am now! Now.

  9. DXC,

    Come on… We all know your prejudices, and when you start doing a percentage breakdown on this kind of thing, how can you expect anyone to take you seriously?

  10. DXC: So Chinese women are easy. Got it, thanks!

    Most of Shanghai will tell you that country parts of China are boring. There’s a natural thrill to living in an economically advantaged and quickly growing city of 15 million people. It applies to people Chinese-born & foreigners, even if different words are used.

    On the other hand, I would be bored out of my fucking skull if I lived in Anhui or some shit, just as I couldn’t stand to live in flyover country in the US of A.

  11. Oh, by the way John… I was in Time Sq. that night too 😉 Well.. as close as we could get.

  12. @Da Xiangchang – I really enjoy this blog. It’s a place where people can share a moment, or a laugh, or empathize with the other people living in China.

    You Sir,
    Your comments were unseemly, and in my opinion, disrespectful.
    I, for one, do not appreciate the flavor, nor the connotations of your remarks.
    If ever I have the honor of meeting you, I will endeavor to introduce you to the Western concept of decency.


    The Admiral

  13. Da Xiangchang, hey buddy, I am trying just like you, and like you, I sometimes feel like I don’t have the goods to make it.

    And for those knocking DXC, you ought to know by now, he is tongue in cheek in his remarks and shouldn’t be taken so seriously as to assume he’s being disrespectful.

    John’s story analogy of feeling like a 21 year old forever in China offers a nostalgic look for the ones who went home – the excitement and buzz of living in China was intoxicating. In reality, there was a temporary feeling there, as I had in any other country, state, city, that I visited as a foreigner or tourist.

    However, if one finds a satisfying job, weds and buys a home in that temporary place, it changes and become permanent.

    Here’s to living forever twenty-one!

  14. Zhuanjia Says: June 28, 2006 at 9:52 am

    There is a constant thrill from being in the renao of China. But when I look back on my time there I realise I was always busy but never really productive. The constant background hum of activity can blind you to the fact that you are running in circles.

  15. Da Xiangchang Says: June 28, 2006 at 2:26 pm


    As the Reverend Jackson would say: “Keep hope alive.” 😉 Continue working at whatever you’re working on with the expectation you’ll succeed and chances are, you will. Most people just give up too early on their goals.


    Well, those are just approximate percentages, give or take 5% in each category. 😉

    Also, I was thinking about what you wrote. You know, the “I know there are risks and sacrifices I must face for living in China long-term” part, and while a lot of sacrifices totally suck, I think the problem overriding all others is: Do you really want your kids to grow up in China?! So, in all honesty, I think it’s IMPOSSIBLE for you to stay in China forever cuz I’m assuming you’d want to have kids, and you will never subject your kids to growing up in China. At the very most, you’d be shuffling back and forth between China and America once you have kids; otherwise, you’ll return permanently to America in the future. I’m sure of it, and then, China would just be a lovely dream. (Although, if you raise kids in China, you would be the MOST HARDCORE LAOWAI who’s ever lived! Even Dashan wasn’t crazy enough to do that!)

  16. I think it’s funny that comments as mild as Big Saugagemeat’s get taken for unseemly and disrespectful. How about letting me guest-moderate the comments for a few days? I’m sure your ratings would soar.

  17. 请问你能不能写双语博客啊???

  18. I want to point out two things. First, 88’s comment that the above entry could apply to New York City as well seems particularly apt to me: what John describes is a fast-paced international metropolis with a creative and capitalistic streak. Just like you can burn out on Shanghai, you can also burn out on New York, as I hear a lot of people do after they get married and consider having kids.

    Regarding kids, Da Xiangchang, that’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot since I fully intend to have (multiple!) kids here in Shanghai. I figure, millions of couples in China have kids and plenty of them turn out OK. Even though living in a big city can be a challenge, it can also be a boon in terms of opportunities to learn about so many things that are packed into a dense metropolis, and thrive in the fast-paced life we enjoy(?) here.

  19. I’ve been thinking about a lot since I fully intend to have (multiple!) kids here in Shanghai

    Forgive the ignorant question, but is that legal in the PRC?

  20. Of course you can have multiple kids in China: you just have to pay a fee for having a second (or third?), or be a (recognized) ethnic minority, or have a couple of girls in the countryside. The rules have been somewhat liberalized in the last few years, but, as with all legislation in China, liberalization means increasing complexity and Byzantinity.

    What I’d like to know is whether the rules apply to lao wai.

  21. 1) It is legal for an increasing number of Chinese.
    2) It is legal if your kids are registered as American citizens.
    3) “I estimate that about 50 percent of Shanghai is illegal; in the real Chinese world it might be more.

  22. Da Xiangchang Says: June 29, 2006 at 12:00 pm


    That’s a good question. But the one I want answered is “Is it legal to have multiple kids with multiple partners?” 😉

  23. Raising kids in Shanghai is a cute idea. If nothing else they will grow up with a profound appreciation for the reasons why it’s OK for some people to defecate in public/ride motorcycles down the sidewalk/never say “please” and “thank you”/cut in line, but not others. Hooray for cultural relativism! And for the effects of air pollution on infant lung tissue!

  24. Here’s your “naysayer” badge, Lennet, now go sit in the section labelled “first laugh” 🙂

  25. Hmm, if that was Lennet’s attempt at being controversial, it was a little lacking in creativity. I’m almost surprised there was no mention of staring at foreigners.

  26. Da Xiangchang,

    Although I find it annoying when you keep coming back to the same mantras over and over no matter what I write about, I have to admit that you do bring up a good point about the children. It would be tough, but I don’t think it would be impossible to raise kids in China. People do it, you know.

  27. Da Xiangchang Says: June 30, 2006 at 3:27 am


    What, me annoying? 😉

    Well, of course, it’s not “impossible” to raise kids in China–billions of kids have been raised at one time or another there. The question is: For an American, is it better to raise his kids in China or back in America? I’d think this is a no-brainer.

    I guess another question is: Do you see yourself making a Western salary in the future in China AND be able to find a similar job back in America? Because you staying abroad is not the same as, say, Prince Roy staying abroad. When he has kids, he would know automatically they’re American, and that one day, they would return to America to live, work, etc. And he would also have a cushy domestic job courtesy of the US Foreign Service. Of course, if you ever strike it rich in business in China, it obviates everything I’ve said. But, for most laowais, this doesn’t happen, and when they return stateside, they’re screwed career-wise. But instead of starting over at 22, they’re now 30 or 40 or 50.

    Another consideration: your kids’ identity/citizenship. Obviously, being Chinese on paper is out; Chinese citizenship ain’t worth the onionskin it’s printed on. A Chinese identity is out too. China, unlike America, has a very inclusive, ethnically based idea of what “Chinese” means; all others will always remain outsiders.

    So, since your kids will be American, do you ACTUALLY see them going to school in China from kindergarten to high school, then college in China, then eventually working and living in China? I just don’t see this happening. And if they go to America for college, wouldn’t the expenses and practicalities (where would he/she go during the breaks?) be rather onerous to your Chinese-bound and -salaried self? And after college, where would these kids go–stay in America or return to China?! Wouldn’t at some point in raising your kids, you’d think of all the pluses and minuses of living in China and returning to America, and say, “#@^&*( this living in China crap!” I’d think any sane laowai with kids would.

    So those are just my thoughts. Again, if you strike it rich, it’s alllllll good. In this regard–and many others–money DOES bring happiness.

  28. Zhuanjia Says: June 30, 2006 at 8:35 am

    Raising kids in China? As a foreigner that may be OK until they reach school age – but even then, are you asking your kids to forego a clean environment where they can play on grass, climb trees, swim in the sea and run around without worrying about being hit by a car or motorbike on the sidewalk? China is child-friendly on a human level but not in it’s “hardware”. And as for schools, well, you have a choice of extortionate fees at expat schools or home schooling. Maybe Shanghai is different, but Beijing has only one local (Chinese language) school that enrols foreign kids.

  29. Hooray, finally the discussion on raising kids in China that I’ve been waiting for. First the disclaimer that I was raised abroad as the son of missionaries, so 1) I’m not as attached to the USA, and 2) I think about things deeply/philosophically out of habit. That said…

    Da Xiangchang said:

    For an American, is it better to raise his kids in China or back in America?

    I think the way you frame this question and the answer you provide say a lot about the way you look at the world. But what you believe is not necessarily the same as what other people believe.

    To you, your nationality and living environment are important assets in raising happy children. And judging by other comments I’ve seen on Sinosplice in the past regarding citizenship, this is a common opinion. In fact, the adamancy with which they are defended makes me believe that many people (including yourself?) hold them to be the most important factors.

    The rub comes in that there are other factors besides money and nationality that could be important in raising children: things like ethical uprightness, cultural diversity, intellectual curiosity, a wealth of experiences, strong and lasting friendships, and (for Christians) compasion and more importantly forgiveness. And while these are all affected to some degree by money and nationality, I think there is a feedback loop in that money and (naturalized) nationality are also affected by the above factors.

    And when you take all those factors into account, weighting them according to personal biases based on your own upbringing and life experiences, you will probably still find that the choice is still a “no brainer” for you; but remember that the answer is different for each set of parents.

    For example, it is different for me and definitely not a “no brainer”. Personally I’m not 100% confident on what is going to be the best place to raise my kids. But I’m pretty sure that I can do a good job in Shanghai.

    Zhuanjia said:

    Beijing has only one local (Chinese language) school that enrolls foreign kids.

    True, but where there’s a will there’s a way, especially in China, and especially when you marry a Chinese.

    Also I think you are confusing “China” with “Shanghai/Beijing”. China does have grass, trees, oceans, lakes, mountains, deserts… Shanghai and Beijing don’t. Neither do New York City and Los Angeles. Furthermore, I know lots of people who didn’t grow up on a farm, and are still cool people.

  30. Da Xiangchang,

    Micah made some great points, but I’ll add a few.

    First, I’m confident that by the time I start habing kids I will be able to provide well for them here. This is not a problem.

    Second, I think most American/Chinese couples look at the kid’s nationality pragmatically. As you said, an American passport is way more valuable than a Chinese passport. So that’s a no-brainer.

    As for where the kids go to school, I think that’s not something I can decide right now; I’ll have to weigh the options when the time comes. But I’m confident that it will all turn out OK. Yes, the child will have a very different experience growing up, but that doesn’t mean it has to be any worse than an average American kid’s.

    More and more foreigners are learning Chinese and coming to China. More and more foreign kids and half Chinese kids are growing up in China. The cultural landscape that my future children grow up in will not be the one you experienced last time you were here.

  31. Mark those words: “The cultural landscape that my future children grow up in will not be the one you experienced last time you were here.”

  32. I think what I was trying to say is that raising a civilized child in an uncivilized place is neccessarily difficult, and having a child of mixed cultural/genetic ancestry makes it even more difficult. Whether or not you are willing to admit it, teaching a child growing up in mainland China to always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me’ and to not cut in line/excrete in public etc. means teaching it to act like the foreigners and not like the Chinese people; i.e. in many cases like daddy’s people and not like mommy’s people. Which, again, plants the seeds for many a future neurosis. Little girls growing up to be self loathing lesbians, and little boys growing up to be God knows what. I predict that mixed race children raised in mainland China will fuel a boom in the therapy/rehab industry 20 years from now.

  33. And all we have to do is consider the upbringing of the good ‘ol Smith family at ZUCC to answer the question(s) about Westereners/Foreigners raising children in China.

  34. I predict mixed race children in China wil be a non-issue. Crikey. Mixed-race children in the US have the exact same concerns and it’s not even a big deal.

    From my own experience of being raised in both urban and suburban areas, I wish I had never set foot in a suburb, and don’t have plans to subject my kids to such boredom. Climbing trees, who cares??? Are you Amish???

    I just don’t see China as an uncivilized place. Maybe I haven’t been reading enough…oh wait. Chinese people spit and sometimes misinterpret pizza orders, or something inane like that. Fuckin’ savages.

    I don’t think compassion and forgiveness are virtues related or unrelated with Christianity, but otherwise I’m right on with Micah. Family is 99% of who you are, the location you are raised in is basically a point of interest. In the end Shanghai is just another city.

  35. Zhuanjia Says: July 1, 2006 at 5:39 pm

    Our two boys spent a lot of time in China during their first five years, living with their mother’s family. There were plus points and minus points: Good: being in a child friendly environment where they got lots of attention and had lots of little friends; eating good food and not being exposed to chocolate/junk food etc; picking up Chinese language and customs; experiencing lots of “dangerous” things they wouldn’t have in the west, like riding three to a bike, riding horses etc

    Not so good: pollution; overcrowding, never any privacy, weather forcing them indoors much of the year, nowhere to run free or play in the wild … and increasingly a lot of overprotective pressure from family (why aren’t they reading/doing calculus/learning violin yet? etc)

    There may well be ways of getting your kids into local schools that I don’t know about, but we tried pretty hard and kept getting asked for extortionate amounts of money and to jump through a lot of hoops. And the classes we saw were pretty rigid, conformist rote learning ones with 40 to a class. The other factor is that once you drop off the primary education ladder in a western country, it can be very hard to get back on. You have to weigh up the balance: do you want your kids to be a year or two behind their peers if/when you return (yes Chinese schools are more advanced academically, but our local school didn’t see it that way – if you haven’t done their curriculum, you start form the bottom).

    I’m sure if you really want to bring your kids up in China it will work out – we made the choice to bring them up in the west, and give our kids exposure to China via visitiing family and long visits during holidays. The stay in China option was just too hard and there were too many uncertainties. Besides, for growing kids I think Bondi Beach beats Beihai Park.

  36. ha ha. It’s been a while since I’ve read this blog, but things are still exactly the same. Everyone’s getting romantically doe-eyed over Laowai Conquistadorism and Da Xiangchang comes along and makes some brilliant points and everyone gets their panties in a bind.

    No offense, but Asia is like Disneyland for white guys who couldn’t get girlfriends in the west. If the comment doesn’t make you upset, then it doesn’t apply to you. Otherwise it hits a little too close to home. I can understand that gut reaction.

    I thought his percentage breakdown was funny because it’s true. I also thought his points about the difficulties of bringing up your kids in China is not only relevent, but one of the most important issues you’ll have to deal with–if you do want to be a “lifer”.


  37. Zhuanjia, extremely insightful post. As one who’s just gotten engaged, kids are now much on the conversation table. I agree completely that it can be done if wanted bad enough. I tend to side with the “but why?” group.

    (yes Chinese schools are more advanced academically, but our local school didn’t see it that way – if you haven’t done their curriculum, you start form the bottom)

    More advanced? Only if you want a kid that’s got a head full of formulas and not a clue how to use them. A kid that can quote great works of literature but hasn’t the slightest of their significance or relevance. It would take a lot to argue the supremacy of the Chinese education system.

    I do agree that perhaps taking advantage of both systems is the best solution. Those first few years are generally the toughest and when help is needed most. Chinese families are unarguably life-savers for this. Plus cheap costs of living help give us laowai a load of time to spend with our young ones. I’m certain that even on a modest ESL teaching salary I’d have hours of more time a day to spend with my kid in those early formative years.

    School age would be another thing. When the kid is old enough to learn, I want him/her learning in a free and open education system that promotes originality of thought. Old enough to learn also means old enough to run around without supervision 24/7… and I’ve not been to a medium to large city yet in China that wasn’t a health and safety nightmare. I don’t buy into that over-protection garbage that has plagued Western culture for the last generation… but I’ve got this photo I saw on ESWN a couple weeks ago forever burned in my mind of a father’s face buried in his hands weeping and a blood smear where his kid was before the bus hit him. It can happen anywhere, but I’m SURE it happens in China more.

    I’ll take boring climbing trees, catching frogs, and campfire cookouts in a medium-sized North American city any time over that risk.

    @Jeff: Suburbia is NOT the only option to a big city. I always hated the small city I grew up in… but now I’m realizing how idealistic it actually is.

  38. BTW: I just re-read that comment, and it definitely should not read:

    Old enough to learn also means old enough to run around without supervision 24/7… and I’ve not been to a medium to large city yet in China that wasn’t a health and safety nightmare.

    Just nix the 24/7 bit… dunno how that slipped in there.

  39. […] 讀了這篇文章以后才有靈感。對! […]

  40. I was also there in 1999, attempting to ring in the New Year in Times Square. Honestly, I didn’t want to go and have to endure the massive crowds. I had done a couple New Years’ Eves there before and enjoyed them well enough, but that year I remember simply wanting to ring in the New Year at a small private party. However, I was coerced into going by friends, of possibly a similar nature as the one you describe, whom simply had to be there for the experience of Y2K. They, professing delusions of grandeur with “Strange Days” fantasies and the hopes of some sort of ultimate climax, and what might have been considered their personal answer to the question of god and the nature of the universe. Through their enthusiasm I started to believe, and when that god did show his face in a burning shower of fire, we all might have a glimpse of some long sought truth, and the painfulness of reality would be washed away in flames with the relief that it was all part of some bigger plan. Needless to say that simply was not the case and 2000 trickled in with little more than a whimper and a groan.
    It took us about an hour to get from 34th to 45th due to the crowds and the fact that we had to walk almost all the way up to central park in order to circumnavigate the crowds. By the time we finally got into position we had frosty beers in hand, and gave cheers and wishes for better years to come. Not moments later the crowd of people surrounding us compacted; swayed and released. The barricade in front of our portion of the crowd was broken and people funneled through like the ocean through a straw. At this point I found myself being swept toward the opening and toward frantic looking police. I made eye contact with a short officer in blue who at that moment seemed to single me out from the thousands and as I was pushed toward him, like a lamb to the slaughter, I made an unconscious and futile attempt to pull my beer up into my sleeve. He saw the maneuver and in seconds swung his baton smacking the can from my hand and sending it flying into the night and within the same motion he rammed his stick with both hands into my chest knocking me flat on my back.
    I was literally stunned as I looked up to see myself surrounded by police horses snorting their horse breath clouds. Shortly, I stood back up, wiping snow from my coat looking the cop in the eye and asked him why he felt the need to assault me in such a manner. I could recognize a slight glimmer of comprehension in his glower, a realization that I wasn’t a drunken instigator (yet) but simply some poor sap that got caught up in the small riot going on around us.
    Long story short, I was ordered to leave and got drunk with all the others on the train who for one reason or another, had left the celebration early. I made it home just in time to watch the ball drop and rang in the new millennium alone on the couch; no fire, no truth, no god… not even a computer glitch… just a few bruises and a couple cans of beer.

  41. […] the article is about Beijing, this paragraph definitely reminded me of some of the things I’ve also felt about […]

  42. […] one time I really tried to answer this question was in a blog post I wrote in 2006 called The Chaos Run. In that post, I described “a near-perpetual state of excitement.” This place really is […]

  43. […] one time I really tried to answer this question was in a blog post I wrote in 2006 called The Chaos Run. In that post, I described “a near-perpetual state of excitement.” This place really is […]

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