Focus or Failure

Article by Benjiman Grutner

My senior year of college in America, I was sitting in my favorite tiny bar with my usual “corona-no-lime” during one of the senior-nights in our small college town. A very close friend of mine, let’s call her K, (my housemate since sophomore year) tossed her coat into the booth across the table from me and sat down. She looked right at me with a perplexed and thought- ful look. She had my attention. Then she shared with me the experience that had been afflicting her. “So, last weekend I was in Chicago visiting my mom, and she took me to a fortune teller.” If you knew how I feel about fortune telling, you could probably predict the ‘uh-oh’ that slipped out of my mouth at that moment. “Well, she asked the fortune teller to tell me my future, and she said—seriously—that I would end up with several kids by different guys!” I immediately looked away. “Can you believe that?” She threw her head back and took a swig from her cheap draft.

“Actually…” she looked back at me more in surprise, “I can believe it.” She looked at me a moment, perhaps expecting some sort of ‘ha-ha, just kidding,’ but I gave her nothing.

She grabbed her coat without looking at me, saying she didn’t really feel like drinking anymore tonight. Can’t blame her. After chasing her to the bar and hold- ing her attention while she was waiting to pay her tab, I explained; K didn’t really know what she wanted. She didn’t have a plan. She was an art student who I’d 64 xianease  JAN/feb 2014 seen making one random life decision after another all through college. She was unfocused and unguided, fol- lowing the whims of a young, untamed heart. The rec- ipe for disaster. Finally, after expressing these things to her, she calmed down enough to hear me out, trust- ing that after three or four years of friendship I wasn’t just insulting her or grossly underestimating her out of ignorance. I was serious and I was using this op- portunity to get a very important point across…If you don’t know what you want from this world, this world takes what it wants from you, and it doesn’t care what you’re left with. After some time, and cooling down a bit, she understood, and even forgave my less-than- delicate approach.

A couple years later, I find myself in Xi’an, China, a rap- idly ‘capitalizing’ city with new and astounding devel- opments each year. I help a rapidly growing English school in a small county town outside Xi’an. As if to prove I had been right, a new teacher recently came to try out our growing school, and had quite a tale to tell. This guy had traveled China hoping to find work with which to support his family back home as well as feel he had really made a difference in some students’ lives. But one after another, teaching organizations failed to meet his hopes, until he found himself in league with a couple businessmen who sought to open a school and advertise it via having a foreign teacher. When asked what he wanted out of the job, he said he wasn’t sure, he just wanted to teach. Sounds pretty well-meaning, right? Well, this fair-hearted soul winds up pouring his salary for his entire first year into a new school that he was basically left in charge of building from scratch, a nearly insurmountable goal for most any foreigner in China. In the end, one of the partners, their local con- tact, backed out and walked away, leaving the school to slowly decay and close down. My friend was scarred for life. He’d put everything he had for the past year into this fledgling school, loved the students, trained the teachers, and organized the curriculum. And in the end, he was left with nothing to show for it.

On the other hand, the owner of the school where I now work is an amazing man, has a good head on his shoulders, and is full of dreams and aspirations, all well-inspired. He is focused and passionate. But even he hit some bumps. This past summer was especially hard on him. With a growing family working and liv- ing Beijing, and a ten-year-old school not making much progress outside Xi’an, he was at a crossroads this year. He wasn’t sure what he wanted, and it ate at him. Night after night he was kept awake and worry- ing, wearing down his emotional stability, his spirit. Of course, at this time I had also arrived in Xi’an and was actively contributing to the school and the community. Because I had just arrived, he’d determined, finally, to give the school one more year and see what we could do. If we made no progress, he’d give it up and move on.

That summer I hosted a volunteer program through AIESEC, the largest student run organization around, and together with about 30 volunteers, half foreign half Chinese, we gave a free English training summer camp to the students of our school. In this program, we all communicated with English, had team meetings every- day to play team building games and perform exercises that helped us empathize with a student who speaks a different language than his/her teacher(s). The Camp was hugely successful, and concluded with a grand dance party one evening at HeYang’s humble park and water fountain. It seemed the entire town came to see the foreigners dancing and singing in their unique and exotic ways. Each class of students also performed their own song and dance that night, as well as a fair- ytale play the next day. The community was forever changed. Its people still talk about that huge group of crazy foreigners who raided the fountain-park, and we keep the Weinan newspapers with our story on the cover form that week to remind us of what started the change.

To make a long story short, since the summer, our school nearly quadrupled in size and has opened a new, second campus with plans for a third by next summer. Before his eyes, my boss watched his dream begin to materialize. And as we speak, a story for the ages is unfolding just outside Xi’an. All because a cou- ple guys shared a vision, pursued a righteous cause, and determined to stick to it.

Those of you coming to Xi’an for the first time, know this; it’s a place where success rewards the faithful and the focused. But make no mistake, I’ve seen both sides of the coin. Just like any other place in this world, if you come here not knowing what you want from or for Xi’an, it will gobble you up, chew you down to noth- ing, and spit you back out into the world at large. It’s a tough lesson, and the city is a strict professor. Seek a righteous dream. Stay focused. Fight hard. Do these things and I promise, Xi’an won’t let you down.