I know……it’s been a while. I got back from my long-term stay in China near the end of 2013. I’ve been back to China once or twice a year since that time and will go back again in early September – just a few months away. I have an attraction to the place, there is so much to see, the food is good and I can find my way around. I think my most interesting return trip was last Fall when I got to Dun Huang, a city way in the north west of Gansu Province up against the border of Xinjiang and along the Gobi Desert.
I had a guide for a couple of days and saw the sights which included traces of the Great Wall and some touristy places that, as usual, were inundated with Chinese tourists. There is just no escaping large groups of touring Chinese in any place that seems interesting, no matter how far off the beaten path. Whether I was climbing up Yellow Mountain at 4 am to see the morning sunrise (a ritual), or climbing up some other mountain in a national park way up in northern Xinjiang, there was always a crowd and always a line. Hiking in the Shenandoah National Park near my home in Virginia was scary the first time or two after getting back. I saw only a few deer and no people at all. Shades of “On the Beach,”the book and film about empty places after a nuclear war.
I had a couple of weeks in Shanghai in March this year at the end of a couple of months in Thailand where I managed to skip most of winter. (The time in Thailand was not entirely wallowing in decadence. I actually finished a book I’ve been writing about management – kind of a primer). Even in Thailand, as Chinese get more money and seek more adventure, there were dozens and dozens of tour groups all over the place, each following a leader with a flag, rag or stuffed animal on a stick for easy identification of the leader. You never want to be near a MacDonald’s when a Chinese tour group decides to eat. When in Shanghai this time, I stayed at a little boutique hotel called the Fish Inn, which isn’t far from Nanjing Lu’s big pedestrian mall. I’m lucky to have many good friends in Shanghai, so my dance card was pretty much filled. Two of them took me to a fish place where the fish comes whole, sizzling on iron pans and covered with vegetables. Nobody cooks fish like the Chinese. I use the Chinese “Tencent” company’s WeChat smart phone messaging so I can keep in touch with the people I know in China better than I can with my neighbors in the States.
I hear from a dozen or more former students who are now all over the world. The first one’s I taught have now graduated from a host of international English-speaking universities in the U.S., Canada, the UK or Australia. One guy, one of the first students I met in the Shanghai gig (one of only eleven when the private high school was just getting started, finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto early, got his masters from Columbia University Teacher’s College and is considering an offer to join their PhD program in psychology. Others are at or have graduated from Virginia Tech, UCLA, Smith College, the London School of Economics, University of British Columbia and places like that. Almost all these young people come from wealthy families – some from very wealthy families so it’s interesting to see them posting their travels on Facebook to the best five-star hotels and restaurants all over the world. Some travel at the drop of the hat whenever they get the chance – a chance many of their fellow Chinese never get.
One thing very noticeable is that very few students break out of all-Chinese social circles even when at a foreign university. I can think of only two or three of several dozen who have made it a point to mix things up with people from other countries and cultures in a significant way. Most of the photos and activities I see posted or talked about might as well be in China. Immersion in foreign cultures just doesn’t happen very much. The homogeneous Chinese culture is very, very strong. I used to think that the “Chinatowns”in places like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco were imposed. Now I’m convinced they’re preferred.
China, under its current administration, seems to have tightened up on censorship, foreign influence and other aspects of life that I’d seen liberalized when I began my time there in 2007. My former students live on Facebook which is one of the first things they go to once they leave China for their foreign universities. Yet, Facebook remains banned in China. Most Chinese I know have figured out how to use a VPN and several free ones are out there, so they can still connect to their friends and university community when back home. Gmail along with everything else Google is also banned (without a VPN), which is a real pain in the ass because so many people outside of China rely on it. And the boys in Beijing shut down VPNs as they catch them and figure them out, so who knows how long the VPN paths will stay viable?
My young “wife” is still with me, although as I write this she’s in Shanghai visiting her family for a few months. We’ll probably fly back to the States together when I wrap up my next visit to Shanghai in September. The legitimate (as opposed to walking across the Rio Grande sans papers), immigration process is a royal pain in the ass. We’ve got to “remove the restrictions” on Yamin’s temporary, two-year Green Card which takes all kinds of paperwork, more proof that we’re still “married” and a hefty fee all sent to a processing center in St. Albans, Vermont. We sent the package in at the end of November last year. According to the INS website, they’ve just gotten around to processing applications from June of last year. God knows how long it will take to get to a November 2015 submission……. It’s really discouraging to know that there are thousands of people trying to do the immigration trick the right way while there are tens of thousands more getting a free ride by ignoring the process altogether. I’d heard that any immigration processing in the States took forever which is why for the initial application for Yamin’s temporary Green Card I went to the U.S. consulate in Guanzhou where they pride themselves on processing these things efficiently and in a reasonable time. That was only possible, however, because I was also an expat living in China.
Nevertheless, Yamin has adjusted much better to the U.S. than I ever thought she would. Her English language skills are near fluency, she can get part-time jobs at the drop of the hat, somehow figured out the student loan process (although I suspect the collusion among schools, banks and the U.S. government is shameful), and she is persuasive enough to convince a local judge to drop two moving violation traffic tickets. She has a self-assured confidence that is astounding which I am reminded is a trait of most Shanghai girls anyway. If anyone reading this has a thought about having a Shanghai girl as a partner………..well, we should talk.
A few disturbing things have happened……. a former colleague who also taught economics died suddenly in Tianjin where he’d gone to take a new job. Nobody seemed to know what happened – I learned of it from a mutual friend. The guy was in his mid thirties for God’s sake. I lost another younger friend, this fellow in his early forties at best, who died just as suddenly in New Zealand. Not long before, we’d spoken about meeting up in Thailand. This young man worked for me for a little while when I had an interim CEO consulting job in Florida. He was funny and smart and never said no when asked to do anything. After Nine-eleven, he emigrated to New Zealand to get his family out of the “target zone” as he put it. I think I know what happened and it’s tragic. Another former colleague from teaching in China kind of got thrown out of the country when he had some issues with a new school in Dalian where he’d gone to teach. Apparently the school, run by westerners he said, “lost” all the “A-level” exam papers that had been completed which meant kids would have to retake the exams and go through all the preparation again. The dispute I heard was that the school insisted that the teachers do the revision again (revision is the word for “review” in UK education lexicon), for no pay and with lots of weekends and overtime so many teachers quit. My former colleague who taught chemistry and was popular with his students quit too, but took on a lot of kids as a private tutor which made his former employer incredibly unhappy. I am told that things went from bad to worse, his visa was jeopardized, the school tried to blacklist him too so he had to quit China (after eleven years in the country), and skedaddle back to the States. There are lots of stories about bad schools and worse administrators in China – this was one of the worst I’ve heard about. While I had my own bad experience with the He brothers, the crooks in Wuxi which I wrote about here, on balance, I was lucky to have good arrangements with straight shooters for most of the time.
I’ve seen the Chinese turn on people in a flash, for little or no reason I could ever figure out. The annoying part is that they rarely tell someone straight-up. It’s part of the habit of ducking responsibility at all costs. One of the quirks of the culture. So one just has to be ready for being boxed out from time-to-time, even from “friends.” My conjecture is that every institution save family has screwed over Chinese at one time or another, so trust of anyone outside of family is tentative at best and the slightest hint of treachery, even if imagined or due to some innocent misunderstanding is curtains. I guess everyone is like that to some degree – in the West, even including family. It just seems more obvious and common among Chinese. The only other place I’ve ever seen cohesion and loyalty among family as with the Chinese is in the Jewish culture, which, come to think of it, may be for the same reason that the Chinese hold family relationships so dear.
The South China Sea thing popped up since I got back. That’s the deal where China claims the expanse of ocean between Vietnam, The Philippines, Borneo and Indonesia as it’s territorial waters. And its the location of the Spratly Islands, a group of islands, islets and cays and more than 100 reefs that China also claims. They’ve dredged up enough sand and coral to put airfields and other facilities on a couple of the reefs, all the while pissing off the neighboring countries whose land surfaces are a hell of a lot closer to the Spratlys than any existing land of China. This guy Xi, who took over China at about the time I left likes to flex China’s muscles, real or imagined and seems to be taking the country backwards, retrenching to increase power consolidated in Beijing and squeezing any liberalization that began under Deng Xiaoping under whom much of the opening of China and its economy began. I think this will not end well.
Thousands and thousands of young Chinese students have gotten or are getting a big dose of liberalism, capitalism, free thought and everything the internet has to offer while away at international universities. Some don’t plan to go back to China. But most do and it will be interesting to see how they cope with a more restrictive and more insular China than the one they left.