Head East, then West


The Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, China. Photo from dm4379 (Flickr)

An Interview with the FarWestChina Website

Today, China is a global education hot spot. Many Westerners are moving to China with hopes of finding a career in this rising economic power. Getting a foot in this door often time comes in the form of teaching English. This can be a difficult field to breakout from, especially because the glut of talented and creative people is surprisingly thick.

One success story that has made a mark in this inundated field comes from Josh Summers of the FarWestChina site.  Josh spent four years living and working in China with his wife. He has studied and written about traveling in the westernmost region of China, Xinjiang,  for 8 years. His site is the go-to place for all things on Xinjiang, and it always features some amazing pictures from this majestic region.

We interviewed Josh about his adventures, travels, and experiences in China with hopes that his story could help guide future teachers or expats on their own China journey.

Question (Q): Can you tell AIED Council a little about yourself and your site?

Josh Summers (JS):My name is Josh and I established the FarWestChina website about 8 years ago when my wife and I moved to Xinjiang as English teachers. What was supposed to be just one year turned into 4 years. I eventually got my motorcycle license, bought a motorcycle and we traveled the province enjoying the incredible diversity that Xinjiang has to offer.

As I've fallen in love with the province, I've become disappointed by the realization that the only kind of news that the international community hears about Xinjiang is during a tragedy. My goal with FarWestChina is to communicate my passion for Xinjiang and the Uyghur people in a way that will help people understand their beauty and incredible culture.

Q: When people think of China, they mostly consider cities like Beijing or Shanghai. Can you tell us more about China's diversity?

JS:You're absolutely right. Most people think of China and see photos of the Forbidden City flash through their head and picture the typical Han Chinese person. The truth is that China officially recognizes 55 different ethnic minority groups, many of whom bear no resemblance to the typical Han Chinese.

Xinjiang is a great picture of this diversity. The Uyghur ethnic group is more closely related to the Turks than the Chinese, which provides an incredible array of different foods, music and culture. It's beautiful! In terms of geography, consider that China is home to the world's second largest desert (the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang) as well as the world's second largest mountain (K2, also on the border of Xinjiang).


K2, on the China-Pakistan border. Photo from the FarWestChina site

Q: Can you offer some advice to a foreigner moving to China? 

JS: Determine who you are before you leave. Do you love big cities? Do you prefer peace and quiet? Do you like the great outdoors or the great shopping malls? I've seen too many people move to Beijing and complain about the congestion. Likewise, foreigners in Xinjiang amaze me when they complain about how remote they are!

Also be open to learning and respecting a new culture. This should go without saying, but unfortunately that's not always the case. It's possible to isolate yourself in a comfortable environment that speaks English, serves the food you like best and has only hints of Chinese culture. But there's so much more beauty waiting for those who are willing to make the effort to step out of this environment!

Q: What brought you to this region in particular?

JS:We weren't looking to come to Xinjiang in particular, it just happened to be the job we took! The funny thing is that we come from the great state of Texas in the United States, and the comparisons between the two are hilarious. Both are massive regions in their respective countries and both have this stereotype that its citizens are backward, horse-riding folks. It was entirely by accident, but we couldn't have picked a more fitting part of China to move and live.

Q: What is the most surprising or fascinating aspect of the region?

JS:What surprises me most is how many people have false perceptions about Xinjiang - both internationally as well as within China! When I travel throughout China, one of my greatest conversation starters is the fact that I live in Xinjiang. First, people look at me with pity, imagining my poverty-stricken family living in a small hut along the desert. Oh the humanity!


Yes, the humanity, indeed! Photo from the FarWestChina site

Once we get past this, however, curiosity starts to take over and the conversation has the potential to be never-ending. There is so much people don't know about Xinjiang - from it's gorgeous state parks to its 2,000 year Silk Road history. I could go on and on.

Q: Are there any educational exchanges happening in the region now?

JS:Across China there are a multitude of educational exchanges that are happening, from universities students to business men and women.

For the past couple decades, I believe that the most influential educational exchange has been the English teacher. This goes for Xinjiang and most every province I've traveled to. Teaching offers a level of communication that breaks down barriers and prejudices. It opens the door for both the teacher and the student to exchange cultural experiences and share these experiences with their friends and family.

Q: Why should people learn or care about China?

JS:China is a dominant player in the international community, there is no doubt about this. Ignore China at your own risk!

Ignorance is a temporary solution, anyway. Why not take the time to understand the Chinese culture, to befriend a group of people that is much friendlier than you might imagine? In my opinion, learning doesn't happen by reading the news, it only happens by getting personally engaged.

This post was created by Ryan Allen. If you would like an AIED Council staff member to cover your website or organization, please email him at ryan.allen@aied-edu.org.

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