An Open Letter to 2014


Dear 2014,

You were a year full of surprises!

Sending Chinese lantern into the sky
Katie sends a wish into the sky during the Lantern Festival. February 2014.

We imagined spending Spring Festival in Thailand. Then come summer exploring China’s Tianzi mountains. Eventually returning to the United States for the next adventure: reverse culture shock, reverse homesickness, and getting back to our lives.

Surprise! Those things didn’t happen…

In January 2014 our Thailand travel itinerary changed. Something was stabbing at Katie’s insides. It couldn’t be a baby. Babies don’t come with knives.

We rush to the hospital in Zibo. But the doctors aren’t doctors like you’d want them to be doctors. I keep expecting the physician to say, “I’m not a doctor, I only play one in China.” *Rimshot* Instead he says, “Women’s troubles. Drink more warm water.”

In search of a second opinion we board a bullet train to Beijing. In China’s capital city we discover United Family Healthcare. A beacon of hope for expats with medical needs.

The hospital is clean!* They have specialists! The specialists speak English†!?

We learn Katie doesn’t have babies with knives or mere women’s troubles. Her pain is identified and treated. Finally, answers to questions!

Unfortunately, we blew our Thailand travel cash and most of our savings. A week later we’re back in Zibo, broke and on bed rest.

Overall, a frustrating start to the year, 2014. We couldn’t travel. We were bitter. You would’ve been, too!

To free up our weekends we quit our part-time teaching gigs. Our employers weren’t happy about our decision and threatened us.

The boss says, “Michael, I am like your sister. And I have to tell you the honest thing. You do something to the school, the school do something to you.”

Overlooking Forbidden City
Exploring Jingshan Park, with the Forbidden City in the background, during Tomb Sweeping Festival. April 2014.

Being threatened while living in a foreign country isn’t pleasant.

Thankfully, the school only fucked with Katie’s‡ teaching schedule. Instead of being off Friday afternoon through Tuesday morning, now she had to work late Friday and early Monday. And due to its size, 48 hours are not enough time to explore all of China.

So we waited. Until April. To take our first real vacation during China’s Tomb Sweeping Festival.

The first three months, 2014, were rough. But I finally noticed — with Katie’s help — our Chinese employer, Zibo Century Talents Foreign Languages School, was being a Chinese employer.

During my first year in China I did whatever• the school requested. I was in China for an experience. Turns out my experience was working a lot.

expat drinking out of coconut with a colorful hat
An idiot on vacation in Xi’an, China, during Labor Day. May 2014.

Sure, I’ll judge your English speaking competition! Yes, I’ll record voiceovers. You bet I’ll pose for your marketing blitz! Fun! I always wanted to tutor all of your friends’ kids! Do I really get to proofread and edit all these personal letters to your friends in Canada? Thanks! I’m so honored that you chose me to forge a letter of recommendation and falsify next years foreign teacher’s credentials! Yes, of course, I’d love too! We’re friends!

Apparently I set a bad precedent during year one. Though the precedent wouldn’t have mattered if I left China as I originally planned… But I’m an idiot and fell in love with a woman on the other side of the world. Whom, as it turned out, was interested in teaching in China.

She signed a contract, I re-signed mine. Then bad precedents bit us in the ass.

With Katie in-country I wasn’t the school’s lapdog anymore. Our relationship was the focus of our time abroad, not work. We’d decline requests beyond of the scope of our contracts and suddenly we were the bad guys. The school didn’t like being told no.

At the end of the year when we tried to make the school year special** for our students the school shut us down. Revenge!

We couldn’t win. But we’re not supposed to. We’re foreigners.

School photo ZBCT Zibo China
Staff and graduating students of Zibo Century Talents Foreign Languages School. June 2014.

By the time June rolled around I was so happy! After two years abroad I was ready to come home. The end of our Chinese adventure was in sight! And there was no way in hell I was going to stay another year…

Unless…the person I love wants to stay.

Katie received a job offer to teach English literature at the Shandong Zibo Experimental High School. Not only was she excited about a bump in salary, but also the opportunity to teach what she was passionate about. We both knew she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

We decided to stay. Because we had each other.

Foreigners in China holding their Chinese marriage license
On July 1, 2013, Katie picked me up at the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport and we said, “I love you.” One year later we were married in Zibo, China, and said “I love you, forever.”


And as long as we have each other we’re golden. So we made it official and got married.

We got married. In China!


We were the first foreigners to ever be married in Zibo, Shandong, China! Which is pretty awesome†† considering there’s 4.5 million people living in the area.

After our courthouse wedding the summer dragged.

We couldn’t travel — again — because this time we didn’t have our passports. The Chinese government needed the passports to update our visas. Which is just fine, 2014, because really — who wants to travel over summer vacation anyway…

Despite being stuck in Zibo, we did have our own little adventures. We moved apartments. Twice. We bought ebikes. Later, Katie was hit by a taxi on hers. I was nearly decapitated on mine. We even met a Mexican tequila salesman who helped us get wasted for free!

We did venture to the outskirts of town once. Our friends Danielle and Nikki brought us to a fascinating place they called “an amusement park.” Though it looked like the setting to a horror movie.

Swings ride at the Chinese amusement park
Enjoying the dog days of summer at an amusement park outside Zibo, China. August 2014.

There was even a horror house! We were told by the barkers it was very scary inside. After bartering on price — because you pay cash at every ride, there are no tickets — we paid and were led inside.

We were ushered onto a 10′ x 10′ mechanical platform in a dark room. Hanging in front of us were large photos of buildings on plywood sheets. Then the floor began to shake. The Chinese teenagers behind us screamed. The plywood sheets fell forward a few inches. Par cans flashed red and blue across the buildings. Sounds of screams, sirens, and crumbling buildings blared through the PA.

The entire exhibit was devoted to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed 69,197 and left 18,222 people missing. The dozen tableaux throughout were horrific and crude. We couldn’t help but imagine someone deciding to make a “9/11 ride.”

Then summer was over!

As the school year started things kicked into high gear. Katie was busy designing curriculum for her new students at her new job. And as we learned, Katie’s new school hasn’t been particularly awesome.

Her school is very concerned with face and status, but the school doesn’t seem to care about other things like teaching students in a way that would benefit them. The students have checked out. Because they’ve got wealthy parents who’ll take care of them.

But what are these kids planning to do? Go to the United States, attend college, plagiarize essays, and hope to be okay? Because that’s what they’re doing in Katie’s classes. Okay, not all the students, but most of them couldn’t give a fuck.

Michael officiates wedding between Courtney and MJ
Officiating Courtney and MJ’s wedding. September 2014.

And as soon as school started for Katie, I flew back to the United States to officiate a wedding. And in a lot of ways, it was torture. We’re not sure how couples can be apart for any amount of time — short or longer — because we just need each other. We need to see each other and make each other laugh. We have to. We’re each other’s biggest fans. And we just need to be close.

When I think about adventure, I can’t complain too loudly. In terms of concrete adventure I did fly over 15,000 miles this year. I got to see the Detroit Airport for the first time. (I wasn’t impressed.) I started working out. I re-read Allen Carr and stopped smoking…again. Katie and I bought ebikes. I bought a bike.

New bike
Purchased a new bike to help me get in shape. November 2014.

We hosted our first Thanksgiving in China! If we can host Thanksgiving in China, we can host Thanksgiving anywhere. Katie and I can do anything, so long as we’re together. I suppose that’s what you meant to teach us, 2014. Right?

small oven big turkey
Hosting our first Thanksgiving in China. November 2014.

The year has been bittersweet. There’s been highs and lows. Certainly.
In the last few months Grandma Venske’s health has sharply declined. Now Katie’s dad is experiencing a health scare. Our families aren’t in perfect health and it’s a thought neither Katie or I can shake. We don’t want to live with the regret of being away from family should anyone take a turn for the worst.

And we’ve been lucky. I’ve been lucky. In the 2.5 years I’ve been here everyone’s maintained their health. The grandparents and their health situations have ebbed and flowed, but they’re still here.

That doesn’t change the fact we’re on the other side of the planet twiddling our thumbs. Waiting for the next bit of bad news. If we needed to leave we could though. The only thing separating us is a Chinese contract, 6,800 miles, and 28 hours of nonstop travel. Then we’d be home.

Family is more important. Not something you realize until you haven’t felt part of your family for a couple years. I’ve been wanting to come home for a while…

We’ve got a decision to make now. Do we stay or do we go? If we stay we’d be able to continue to save money — because let’s be honest, the cost of living in China is cheap. But if we had to, we could be back in the states in two weeks. Granted, we’d have no money. We wouldn’t have jobs or a place to live. And that’s scary. But we’d be with our families. Again, that’s the important thing.

Anyway, enough of this stream-of-consciousness. Back to the matter at hand!

New Years photo Katie and Michael
Celebrating New Years in Qingdao, China. December 2014.

Thank you, 2014, for the understated adventures we’ve brought into our lives. We’ll never forget how you’ve changed our lives and will be part of them forever. You get to live on in us! That’s a little heavy handed, but you get my meaning.

Thank you for safe journeys across China, flying over the world, and back briefly in the States.

Thank you for a great visit with family and friends this fall.

Thank you for aligning the stars and bringing Courtney and MJ together. I’m lucky to call them friends, but forever honored they asked me to officiate their wedding ceremony.

The only wish we have for 2015 — please pass it along — is when we return to the United States to be employed. It’s difficult to say when and where we’ll be on American soil, but start sending leads and offers. We’re open.

Thank you, 2014, for the laughter and love and magic moments!

Sending you this message from the seaside city of Qingdao. Enjoying the luxurious king-sized bed, western movie channels, and more or less recuperating from all you’ve brought us, 2014. Thank you, again!

Alright, 2015 — let’s dance!

(Click here to send job leads!)

wave washing away 2014 in sand

* = and no one’s smoking!

† = many of UFH’s specialists speak multiple languages!

‡ = by changing Katie’s schedule, the school also changed the schedules for a handful of Chinese teachers

• = the exception

** = times we weren’t shut down: serving 300 students homemade mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving, making 140 milkshakes for seventh graders, buying candy for 600 students on Halloween, water balloon fights for grade four in 2013

†† = “how to get married in China” is covered in the upcoming solo show