The city man found some modern cities in China, but many areas in the world's most populous nation are still without running water.
By CATHY SECKMAN
EAST LIVERPOOL -- Chris White is a typical small-town boy who grew up here with a brother and two sisters. His father, Larry, owns a small printing firm, and his mother, Kathy, is a kindergarten teacher.
White graduated from tiny East Liverpool Christian School, then from quiet, pastoral Malone College with a bachelor's degree in history.
You might think a kid like that would come home to Mom and Dad and find work in a local museum, or maybe a school. You might think he'd be happy to live a small-town life.
You'd be wrong.
Three months after graduation in 1999, White was on a plane for China, carrying a book bag and a pocketful of dreams. For the next two years he would roam through China, gathering snapshots and experiences.
Between travels, he helped aspiring teachers learn English and the vagaries of American culture.
Why China, of all places? What sent this small-town boy halfway around the world to a place where the customs are strange, the language is incomprehensible, and the people are as different from him as people can be?
The answer is as simple as a bottomless thirst for knowledge that only a 22-year-old can have.
Endless fascination: "I love Chinese history," he says with a wide smile. "All 5,000 years of it. There's an endless supply of things to know."
He first became interested in the country when he had a class in Chinese history as a college sophomore. In his senior year, he took a study trip to Shanghai through a Christian university co-op program.
"That first trip confirmed that I wanted to go back. While I was there, I interviewed with Amity Foundation. It's a Chinese organization that brings native English speakers to China to teach in its teachers colleges."
During his two-year teaching contract at Linyi Teachers' University in Shandong Province, White took every opportunity to travel. "Once I lived out of my book bag for 50 days," he bragged. The people he met, he said, could be like us, or very unlike us.
"In the cities, the people have telephones and cars. They go to Internet bars, which are becoming very popular. Their TVs show American movies. But in the country it's still common to have no running water or plumbing in the houses. And pollution is terrible everywhere."
White would go anywhere that looked interesting and stay anywhere that would accept him.
"Foreigners are only supposed to stay in certain hotels, but the other ones are less expensive. I was always on a tight budget, so I'd basically just try to talk my way into the cheaper places," White said. "Sometimes I'd stay in private homes."
He always felt safe in China, White said, because "you stick out."
Essential concepts: "People are always staring at you. There's a concept called mianzi -- that's "face." A Chinese must always maintain face, for himself and for China. Foreigners are always treated with respect, more so than other Chinese."
Another Chinese cultural concept that fascinates White is guan xi or "relationship."
"Everything in China depends on your relationships -- your connections. And the idea of friendship is tied up with that. Friendship is much more of an obligation in China. If a friend asks a favor of you, you have to help. You can't say no, because of guan xi and because of mianzi."
White's guan xi has been inextricably bound up with China, it seems. He'll be returning in August for a one-year stint with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities at Xiamen University.
As an assistant director in the China Studies program, he'll shepherd American students on study trips like the one he took as a college senior.
Graduate school may come after that, but White isn't sure. The only thing he is sure of is that he'll be returning to China -- again and again. "Part of my future is there," he said confidently.