By Shauna Mazenes
John Yannakis had been a University of Ottawa business graduate for almost two years when he realized he needed to get up and go.
Unfulfilled with his degree and lack of real-life experience, he decided to move to China and teach English for a year. This was a favourable decision for him.
“The trade-off for being an English teacher abroad is that they pay for all my expenses, my rent, all my meals, all my travel—it’s like living with your parents,” he says.
John is currently visiting home for a month before he goes back to Beijing. He has been teaching in China since September.
His eyes are hard to read as he looks at me behind square, ominous black shades—the classic Ray Bans. He wears a yellow fisherman’s bucket hat on his head and a bright purple hoodie on his chest, contrasted with a red and black flannel jacket. I could tell John didn’t care what other people thought of him.
“In China, as a rule of thumb, when someone offers to take you out, you say yes—because it’s always an opportunity to learn and experience their culture,” he says.
John had initially intended to go abroad immediately after finishing his degree, but an unfortunate turn of events held him back. When the time finally came and he confessed to his parents that he was ready to go, he knew what his father was going to say to him.
“I already lost one son, how could you make me lose a second?”
John’s brother died of brain cancer on Oct. 20th, 2017 at 27 years-old.
He often turned to drugs and partying to cope. He describes his former self as a ‘hard-core drug-addict,’ and ‘absolute degenerate.’ Although, he knew what he had to do in order to reclaim his happiness.
“When I realized I had an opportunity to step outside of that zone and grow— to get the hell out of here and experience something else, I took that leap,”he explains.
The nostalgic Superstitious by Stevie Wonder is playing in the background as he scrolls through his phone to find me a picture of his new friends. He briefly pauses to sip his happy-hour lager beer, my reflection illuminated in his dark glasses by the dim pot light above the bar. He turns his phone around, smiling ear-to-ear, and shows me a picture: several Asian men standing shirtless around a table, with him, the only white man,
He points from left to right, “there’s the godfather, the badass, the clown, the uncle,” as they raise their glasses to ‘gānbēi’ which essentially means ‘cheers’ in Mandarin.
“It’s a brotherhood, but you can only get accepted once you pay your dues,” he says. He was accepted into ‘the brotherhood’ by showing mutual respect for their culture, a major custom in China.
“It’s about respect,” he says. “Everything in China is about respect.”
In fact, he’s learned a thing or two about accepting other people’s culture.
“If I’ve learned anything, it’s to be nice to everyone. Because that’s how people work,” he explains. “If you show them respect, they’ll show you respect.”
For example, he says it’s street etiquette in Beijing to go up to people and light their cigarette for them. He taps them twice on the finger and that’s how you’re supposed to say thank you.
“That’s their culture, and as a foreigner who accepts this simple gesture, it shows them appreciation—it shows them I’m willing to learn,” he explains.
His new friends don’t speak “a lick of English” and communication has been his biggest barrier; yet he misses the family he made there, as he stares down at his half-empty pint.
John didn’t know what was going to happen to him when he decided to leave, and the uncertainty of the risk left him feeling like a sitting duck, waiting for someone to catch him when inevitably fell.
“But no one ever caught me, because I never fell at all,” he says, a distant look in his eyes. “Life begins when you step outside of your comfort zone.”
He shows me another picture of himself with “the godfather,” wearing yet another onesie, this time, a reindeer.
“You can’t have any paranoia in China,” he expresses, a ghost of a smile touching his lips as he reminisces. “You just do you, and they love that.”