Walt F.J. Goodridge is the "Jamaican in China"... well one-fiftieth of all Jamaicans in China according to the statistics. Island boy, traveler, "nomadpreneur"... he's got life nearly all figured out. A positive thinker and prolific writer, Walt is passionate about enjoying life to the fullest and sharing his experiences, thoughts and philosophy on living the dream in his blog, Jamaican in China. You'll be hearing more from Walt on China Travel in an upcoming series of guest posts but in the meantime, here's a taste of what's to come. >>>
China Travel: Can you first give us a brief introduction to yourself and how you came to be in China.
Walt: My name is Walt Goodridge. Here's the "elevator pitch" for my life story:
"Once upon a time, there was a Jamaican civil engineer living in New York who hated his job, followed his passion for music, started a sideline business publishing his own books, made enough money to quit his job, escaped the rat race, ran off to a tropical island in the South Pacific, and started a tourism business so he could give tours of the island to pretty girls every day... and went on to live a nomadpreneur's dream life."
I lived on the Pacific island of Saipan for the past four years. During that time I interacted with many people from all over the world, and made many friends from China. China is now the second stop in my nomadpreneur journey.
China Travel: You had a lucky escape from a 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. life... do you ever miss engineering, or yearn for that straightforward, sedentary life?
Walt: Absolutely, positively, emphatically, and without question, NO! Engineering was never a passion. It was a career I ended up in because my counselor in high school said, "Walt, you're good in math and science, you need to be an engineer. Of course, I'm grateful for having gone to Columbia, for the college experience, and for the skills I developed during the training. However, I realized very quickly after starting my first job as a civil engineer, that the concept of working for someone else just didn't appeal to me. I wanted the freedom to go see movies in the middle of the day. I mean that literally, as that's one of my pastimes, but it's also a metaphor for the simple freedom to decide where I go and what I do, without having to punch a clock, and have someone else determine my worth.
China Travel: When you were young did it ever cross your mind that one day you would be writing books and traveling the world?
Walt: I don't think so. I'll tell you something a little odd though, that I've never spoken about in an interview. My full name is Walt F.J. Goodridge. So, my initials are WFJG. My mom tells me that when I was young, I would run around the house singing those letters like they were the call letters of a radio station. You know, like "WFJG-FM!" Years later, I would be a radio deejay on WKCR-FM, Columbia's famous Jazz/Alternative station. For five years, I was "Sir Walt," the Reggae DJ on a late night program. It's that passion for music that I pursued that eventually led me to write my first book, which eventually allowed me to escape corporate America! So, those youthful days singing my initials were a foreshadowing of things to come.
China Travel: Tell us about your book, Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin. How did you come to write it? Did it have any influence on your decision to come to China?
Walt: Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin: Diary of a Chinese Garment Factory Girl on Saipan is a book I co-authored with former garment factory worker, Chun Yu Wang. As many people may know, Saipan was home to about 36 garment factories that employed thousands of workers from China, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and other places. They've all since closed as of January 2009.
However, I met Chun in 2006, while living on Saipan. Once I got to know her and learn of her story leaving her home town, her family, her husband and son, in Wuxi to work on Saipan, I realized that there was a unique story of life as a garment factory worker that many people outside of Saipan, and around the world were not aware of. Over the course of several months, I helped her recall and translate those recollections of her life and experiences over the ten years she had been working on the factories on Saipan. It was (and continues to be) a great experience. The book was released several months ago, and continues to receive great reviews. It's available on Saipan Factory Girl and on Amazon. It's really an eye-opening story.
Even before I wrote the book, I had my eye on China. I was fortunate to travel to Wuxi, Suzhou and Hangzhou in 2009 with Chun Yu, and met some of her family, and some of the people she wrote about in the book. That was my first experience in China. It lasted only two weeks, though, so I knew I would return. And here I am again!
China Travel: Is there much of a Jamaican community in Beijing?
Walt: From what I understand, from having visited the Jamaican Embassy in Beijing, there are less than 50 (and I'm being generous here) Jamaicans registered with the embassy as "living in China." Other reports put that figure at less than 20. So, I would estimate there's somewhere between 20 and 50 of us here. That would make me a quite sizable portion of the Jamaican community in China!
China Travel: Have you done much traveling in China so far? Tell us about your best experience.
Walt: This year, I've been to Beijing, where I stayed for two months, and then Kunming, and now Jinghong (Xishuangbanna). I'd have to say, that overall, the friendliness of the people is the best experience so far. Everywhere I go, I get "hellos!" "how are yous" and smiles and a fair amount of stares from everyone. (Again, not many Jamaicans here!) I'm never at a loss for curious, helpful, friendly and welcoming people everywhere I find myself. People are easy to talk to, so it's very easy to make friends. And, of course, that includes the pretty girls!
China Travel: And your worst?
Walt: I live my life according to a set of beliefs that keeps me happy. And the main thing I believe—and live by—is that unhappiness is always caused by an unmet expectation. Change your expectations, and you can deal with anything that happens in life. A lot of what people interpret as "bad" experiences when they travel are the result of cultural expectations that don't mesh with the local culture and the reality on the ground.
But, if you insist. Let's see. Well, as a health-conscious, non-smoker, I'd have to say that two realities I've encountered that I'd love to change if I could are "the phlegm and the fumes." Ha! Ha! Let's just leave it at that! Perhaps I'll blog about my take on that, but having been here in 2009, I prepared myself for it before arriving. I came with different expectations, so now, it's not a deal-breaker for me living here! The friendliness of the people more than makes up for it!
China Travel: You've done quite a lot of couchsurfing in your travels—do you think this is way of traveling that will take off in China on a local level?
Walt: To tell you the truth, while I've MET and been helped by my couchsurfing friends, I haven't actually surfed anyone's couch here in China, except for my friend, Les, a friend from Saipan who met me at the airport, and whose apartment I stayed during my first two weeks in Beijing. The couchsurfing community, especially in Beijing, and Shanghai (from what I've seen online) is very active. I've seen many "apartments for share" ads which specifically ask for "foreign roommates" so that the hosting tenant can practice another language and learn about new cultures. I think it's already "taken off!"
China Travel: What are your top five not-to-be-missed recommendations for a visitor to Beijing?
Walt: Well, this is an interesting question. I had a feeling you might ask that. So, I started thinking about what I blog about, and what I don't blog about.
First, of all...
I'm a minimalist. So, I'm not doing any unnecessary shopping. In fact, I hate shopping. So you won't be reading any reviews entitled Walt's Guide to the Best Shopping in China. I came with a duffel bag and a laptop and I'll likely leave here with less than I came with!
Nomad's Recommendation #1: Travel light.
I'm vegan. So, I'm not going to be eating in 90% of the restaurants other travelers would eat in. So you won't be reading any reviews entitled Walt's Guide to the Best Steakhouses in China. I can tell you a few veggie restaurants that shouldn't be missed, if you like!
Vegan's Recommendation #2: Eat organic.
I'm Jamaican. So, my perspective on life, the things I notice, and the things I seek out to make my life blissful may be flavored by having grown up—at least part of my life—on a tropical island. Right now, for example, Jinghong is my new paradise in China! Why? I can get coconuts, tamarinds, sweetsop, and sunshine in November! (ed.: Check out the Vegan Social Club of Beijing if you're so inclined).
Island Boy's Recommendation #3: Follow the sun.
I'm a cheap date. My idea of a good time is to sit with a special someone, experience her individual vibe, and just chat and watch people.
Observer's Recommendation #4: Watch and ye shall learn.
I'm easily entertained. Yesterday, I had a great day! I happened to walk by the local college in Jinghong, saw some table tennis tables, and spent a few hours just playing with the college girls and guys, taking photos and learning new words in Putonghua.
Kid at Heart Recommendation #5: Find joy in the simple things.
And, finally, I'm not a tourist.
When I visit a new place, my goal is NOT to be a tourist. The goal is to blend in to normal, everyday life and experience what it's like to be one of the local folk. So, I typically don't do or write about the touristy things that others do. I walk around the city and explore each neighborhood by taking commuter buses from terminus to terminus. I shop in the local stores and open markets not the tourist malls. I'm not too much into snapping photos at the usual attractions. I take photos of friendly people or ill-named sex shops (you'll have to check the blog for that one!), I meet and interact with the shop-keepers, the waitresses, the students, the street vendors, and enjoy casual encounters with the neighborhood residents. For accommodations, I look for apartments with kitchens or, if I must, hotels off the beaten tourist path. I learn about the culture through couchsurfers rather than guided tours.
Bonus Recommendation #6: Live locally!
China Travel: You've lived in many different places in the world, what most surprised you about China?
Walt: Well, let's just say I'm pleasantly thrilled, but not necessarily "surprised" by the warm reception. Meaning, I didn't have a preconception of China being an unfriendly place—else I wouldn't have come—but the degree of warmth from all corners is nice to experience. Many people have told me that I'm their first "foreign friend." There's a curiosity, a graciousness, and a hospitality that is quite nice. But, you know, throughout my life, I've always had an affinity with things and people Chinese. Even when I was living in New York, I felt more comfortable, and at ease walking through Chinatown than I did in Midtown (Manhattan). Perhaps I was Chinese in a former life! In fact, I'm sure of it!
China Travel: Is there anything you wished you'd known before coming here?
Walt: I should have planned a little more in advance and started my trip early in the summer months so November wouldn't have caught me in Beijing! I'm an island boy at the core, so anything below 60 °F (15 °C), is not making me happy. Next time—and there WILL be a next time—I'll do the northern part of China starting in April or May, perhaps. Right now, I'll stay in the south where it's warmer!
China Travel: If you were to leave tomorrow, what would you miss most?
Walt: Ahhhhh, yes! I would miss having the opportunity to achieve that which I have not yet fully achieved. I started learning Mandarin while on Saipan, and also through ChinesePod. I can get by a little, but my social and romantic encounters could be enhanced if I were more fluent in the language. I would miss the chance to really immerse myself and really perfect my communication skills.
China Travel: What three words sum up your China experience so far?
Walt: Friendly. Friendly. And did I mention "friendly?"
All images by Walt Goodridge.
For more of Walt's past and present escapades in Beijing, Yunnan and beyond, head to Jamaican in China, and keep your eyes peeled for his future guest posts here at the China Travel blog.