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So I have my usual speech: “Before we get the training started, I’d like to see your mountain. Let’s go ride for a bit and you can show me the hill.” This usually gets everyone pretty stoked, as they are expecting a drill sergeant who’s going to have them sitting on their asses for hours on end. I follow that up with, “Is everyone OK with the terrain we are about to ride?” (This is somewhat of a rhetorical question as I assume that, yes; these instructors will be fine riding their own mountain.)
We are at Wan Long, a snowboard and ski resort four hours north of Beijing that sits on the edge of Inner Mongolia. We ride the chairlift to the top of a very Vermont style mountain with deciduous trees, a biting cold breeze and miles of groomed terrain cut from the gladed forest. The base altitude is 6,000 feet. At the top, everyone is flashing big smiles jumping up and down in excitement when suddenly my translator, Wang Lei (China’s most famous pro-rider), leans over to me.
“We have a problem,” he says.“See that instructor over there? He has never snowboarded before.”
OK, someone was not on his or her game in the HR department, I think to myself; who would hire a teacher of snowboarding that didn’t know how to snowboard? So I quickly assign someone to ride the chair back down with this very scared and confused “instructor.” Baffled at the man’s reluctance to answer my inquiry about everyone’s level of comfort with the terrain, I ask my friend and translator how my question became lost in translation?
Wang’s answer quickly taught me a key element of Chinese culture.
But all is not lost! This young man would soon be our guinea pig for teaching someone how to ride. Although I was faced with some obstacles–he spoke no English and I do not speak Chinese, and at times he was so scared I noticed him visibly shaking–I was determined to make this work. Now, with 15 to 20mile per hour winds, 10 degrees temps, and plenty of ice, I proceeded to demonstrate how to teach snowboarding. Admittedly, it took a little longer than usual considering my test subject couldn’t understand a word I was saying. But we persevered, and after two days we were ALL riding down from the top of the mountain, icy conditions and all.
Frigid temps, language barriers, and difficult snow made this one of those lessons I’ll never forget. Not for the conditions, but for the result. This young man, whose name I unfortunately cannot remember, began to cry after I handed him his “diploma.”
At the end of the day as we drove down the canyon from the mountain, I noticed an elaborate line of caves alongside the road. They looked like enhanced holes dug into the dirt wall of the hillside, and I soon discovered: people were actually still living in them! Then it hit me: the reason he was so emotional was never before had a kid like this, from Inner Mongolia, had the chance to have a job like this. Not only was he now able to make money, he was doing it while snowboarding.My job had never felt more meaningful.
Since 2000, I have been a training instructor for Burton’s Learn to Ride program. This job has taken me all over the world, and soon China for a fifth time.