Return to China

This post is epic. It is so long that you may wonder what kind of narcissist writes this much about themselves. In an effort to keep you from hating me while reading this, I have divided the post into three sections so you can take breaks: part 1) a narrative of my journey to this point, part 2) reasons why I wanted to return to China, part 3) general observations. I hope this satiates your interest in my travels.

It has been over a week since I arrived in Shanghai, and everything has gone swimmingly despite my best efforts (or lack thereof). My travels here were a model for how not to travel abroad, a true exercise in lack of preparation. I did not review any Chinese. I did not invest much time or thought into packing. I left without arranging accommodation for when I arrived. I didn’t even know my flight itinerary. Although I’d like to use the excuse of being too busy with law school excuse as a justification, I had over a week after the writing competition ended to get things together. I chose to relax and hang out with my friends instead.

This last issue proved to be pressing not long after leaving Atlanta two Sundays ago. I thought I had an eight hour layover in Chicago with my flight to Seoul leaving at 12:30 at night. As it turns out, 12:30PM is in the afternoon, so a twenty hour, overnight layover awaited me instead. I vaguely recall reading that I my layover was eight hours, and I don’t put it past computers to intentionally spite people. Even though I booked my ticket hastily, flight booking websites generally show the length of layovers and total flight time, and in spite of having much pride in being a hardy traveler, I don’t think I would subject myself to an over forty hour flight itinerary.

Unfazed, I got on the internet in the Chicago airport and looked for a couch to surf that night. (For those unfamiliar with couchsurfing, it is a website where people offer to host travelers in their homes to show local hospitality and engage in cultural exchange. Sean and I couchsurfed across Europe last summer and it was definitely the best part of our trip.) I found someone to host me, went to dinner with my host, and used the remainder of my short time in Chicago to look for another couch to surf once I got to Shanghai.

My flight to Seoul was quite nice. I flew Korea Air, so I watched Godzilla and sumo wrestling for in-flight entertainment, and geishas served as flight attendants. They gave me a pair of teal socks for walking around the plane and kept refilling my wine at meals. I have to recommend Korea Air.

After a short delay, I made my connection to Beijing. When we pulled up to the gate, Chinese health inspectors entered the plane wearing face masks. They took people’s temperature remotely by aiming some device at your forehead. They were on the lookout for swine flu and were taking no chances. People who had a fever were taken off the plane. Since getting to Shanghai, I have heard that these people who were lead off of planes have been quarantined for a week to make sure that they are not carriers of the virus. On the illustrious list of people to be quarantined is Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans. I’m glad I connected in Korea because I’ve heard the examination was much worse coming from the US. A friend told me that they inspected his plane for two hours.

My flight from Seoul to Beijing was delayed just long enough to prevent me from taking a sleeper train immediately to Shanghai that night. The reason I flew to Beijing instead of Shanghai is because I booked my ticket before I had an internship. I knew I wanted to return to China to intern this summer, but I couldn’t find any organizations to take me on. When prices for plane tickets started rising hundreds of dollars by the day, I decided to buy a ticket, and if I couldn’t find a job in advance, I would just find one when I got on the ground. I assumed people would have to take me seriously if I showed up at their office telling them I would work for free.

I had opportunities available to me through my alumni mentor in Boston, but I thought that if I just settled for something I really didn’t want to do, I’d regret it. Luckily, I found an internship in advance. Of all the cities in China, I thought Beijing would be the best choice for the summer, but when I found work, it was in Shanghai. Rather than pay the exorbitant price of changing the ticket, I opted for the train.

I stayed the night in a hostel by the main train station and left from the south train station in the morning. I took one of the new high-speed trains. Riding in the hard seat section of that train was a stark departure from the cattle cars I had known as hard seaters. As the passenger next to me tried to strike up conversation, I began to regret not studying more Chinese in my time away from the country. But jet lag set in to cover my regret, carrying me in a coma to Shanghai.

Wednesday night, I arrived in Shanghai, about seventy hours after leaving Atlanta. I stayed with a French girl and two German guys that night. The next day, I went looking for an apartment and accepted the first one I looked at. I moved in on Friday morning.

My roommates are a British English teacher, James, his Chinese girlfriend, Amy, and a French student here for an internship, Melanie. I really like all three. James is a career English teacher, and he exhibits all the strangeness that is characteristic of a person who chooses teaching English in China as a life-long profession. However, he is one of my favorite English teachers that I have met. When I came to look at the apartment, we started chatting. He asked me if I read the Economist, and this eventually lead to a conversation about philosophy. We are a good roommate pairing. Amy is very funny and friendly; she always will take the time to give me a little Chinese lesson when I need to go do something that requires unfamiliar vocabulary. She and James interact like an old married couple. Neither of them could speak each other’s language when they met, but both have learned, with James’ Chinese being superior to Amy’s English. Melanie is very nice as well and has let me tag along with her on a couple trips out in the city. She is the socialite of the group and has thoroughly familiarized herself with Shanghai’s nightlife in her four months here.

On my first trip walking around the city, I ran into one of my law school classmates on the sidewalk. I knew he was going to be here; we had plans to meet up, but the probability of just walking into someone you know in a city of about fifteen million people is baffling.

I reported to work for the first time Friday afternoon. I am interning with China Economic Review. It is an English language business publication mainly for expat managers in Shanghai and Beijing. Quickly I realized how much I had to learn about writing in business journalism. Philosophical and legal writing is very dry; an emphasis is placed on showing steps of logical reasoning instead of being pleasant to read. Business has a lot of ridiculous jargon, for example synergize and dynamic, that don’t really mean anything, and journalism requires engaging your audience.

Overall, I’m enjoying work thus far. In editing, I’m having a tough time deciding what is substance and what is fluff, but I really like it. Editing someone else’s work implies that you know how to write better than the author in a sense, and I appreciate that flattery. I’m getting to read so many articles about China; I’m going to learn more about the country this summer than I ever thought I would. I’m looking forward to editing some legal content and getting to write some articles of my own. My work this summer should be engaging.

Seeing the production process has been very interesting as well. Its amazing to me that ten people in a corner of an office full of Chinese people sitting at desks can put together three magazines per month. C.E.R. Focus is about to go to print, so I came in on the last phase of the production cycle. I got to select photos for some of the stories, and looking at the drafts today and seeing the changes I had made get into the final copy was really rewarding. This month’s issue is about business education, and it was particularly insightful to see the sales and editorial staff go back and forth about how content should be presented about their advertisers with one side trying to please the clients and the other side trying to maintain journalistic integrity.

I got the job through a friend from UGA named Evan. He is the person who sparked my interest in China and recommended that I go to Harbin on my first trip. He received a Fulbright Scholarship to study here in China last year, and he put me in contact with my current boss, Pete, also a participant of the Fulbright program. The first time we talked, Pete more or less offered me the job, and I accepted immediately. I’m editing for free, but I get paid by the word for any content I get published.

It has been about three years since I saw Evan last, but he and his girlfriend, GP, came to Shanghai last weekend. Pete, Evan, their two girlfriends, and I had dinner at Pete’s apartment Saturday night. Pete lives in a quiet alley that feels far away from the bustle of Shanghai. We dined al fresco in the alley with occasional interruptions from the neighbor with Tourette’s. Pete showed us to a martini bar that night that oozed the nostalgia of turn of the century Shanghai. We sat on crawl-legged sofas across from a bar made of old wood and mirrors. We were served by waiters in tuxedos. We drank the most expensive drinks I have ever drank.

I met Evan, GP, and one of their friends the next morning for a dim sum brunch. Evan and I talked about Atlanta, China, and a number of other topics. It was the kind of conversation that is so rewarding that it reminds you why you are friends with someone. However, the part of the conversation I want to bring up is about being civilized. There are signs in Shanghai, most notably in the subway, telling people to be civilized. It was duly noted by their friend that Chinese people wear pants, so what does it mean to be civilized? They could have chosen “courteous” or “considerate,” but the word is civilized. Is this just another bad Chinglish translation? If not, how insulting is it when you have to tell your own people that generally their behavior is fundamentally wrong?

Taking the subway to work in the morning is an experience. The subway itself is clean, modern and efficient with large, well-lit stations. I live close enough to work to walk or bike, but I’ve dismissed both options. It is too steamy to walk without being soaking wet before you get to work. I seriously considered buying a bike but decided against it because of the hassle of buying and selling it in a two month period and subjecting myself to the dangers of being a part of Chinese traffic.

On the subway, I take one stop, connect in the center of the city, People’s Square, and take one more stop to my office. During rush hour, the People’s Square stop is like a demonstration of molecular dynamics. People press together in areas of high concentration like elevators, stairs, and the doors to the trains and then disperse in the wide corridors. Old ladies and businessmen alike sprint off the trains to be first in line for the escalator. There are designated points where the doors will be when the train stops, and there are instructions on the floor to form lines on either side of the door and wait until passengers get off before trying to get on. Nonetheless, some people chose to stand in front of the doors and try to wriggle there way through the exiting mass onto the train. I’m in a great position to observe this great migration, being a head taller than the crowd. I think it would be a less interesting and more exhausting if I didn’t have access to fresh air. Also, by only having to go one stop on each leg of the trip, I can conveniently position myself by the door for these short trips.

Evan also indirectly provided me with another contact that I think will prove to be pretty important. He forwarded me an email during my job search about an opportunity to do research for a Chinese law firm in Shenzhen for the majority of the summer and Shanghai as well. Having at least the chance to get paid at China Economic Review and not wanting to be in the sweltering southern boomtown of Shenzhen, I took no action.

But once I started this job and realized it would be a tough sell to make it seem like a good legal credential, I emailed the firm to see if I could help with the project. There was an article attached to the email written by one of the founding partners of the firm, Dr. Liu Nanping, about deducing corruption in Chinese courts from the poor reasoning of judicial opinions alone. I was intrigued. The firm replied the next day. Dr. Liu was here in Shanghai, and I was invited to dinner the following day. I accepted.

I was a little nervous for the dinner meeting because I had never had any formal meetings with a Chinese person and had no knowledge of Chinese (or Western for that matter) business dining etiquette. The internet proved to be a valuable resource for learning customs, thereby easing my nerves.

Dr. Liu interviewed me in his office before diner. The interview started with an indirect request for praise. What do you know about the firm, the project, etc? He then asked a few questions about my resume and what I could do with his project. I agreed to help him with editing the English translation and to do some research in my free time. We walked around his office, and I received introductions to his staff and the porcelain pieces on his shelves. He was sure to pull out his laser pointer to direct my attention to each piece. I couldn’t contain my smile.

Dinner was more engaging. All pretenses were dropped, and Dr. Liu proved to be a very amiable and funny man. I enjoyed his staff as well. He asked me a lot about American politics and Obama, and I, in turn, asked him his views on the Chinese President, Hu Jintao. He said that he was the right person to be leading the country at this time; to which I replied, “So, you think the country is headed in the right direction?” He said no; there should at least be democracy within the Chinese Communist Party. I asked if he was a party member. He said no, his membership was terminated while he was getting an LLM at Yale. I asked why, and he said that if he told me that, I would have too good of a story for my magazine. Eventually, he agreed to tell me the story when I’m leaving. I asked if he was afraid of being blacklisted in the legal community for his articles, and he claimed that they force judges to be honest with his firm or risk ending up publicly denounced. Working with him is going to be a very good experience.

—-

I imagine some of you are wondering why I wanted to come back to China. Certainly, I should explain myself for being back in China after leaving prematurely on my first trip. I wanted to go back for a number of reasons. In a lot of ways, my previous experience has been romanticized in my mind. I remember sitting around big tables of food and beer with my friends. I remember remarkable things happening regularly, friends buying billboard advertisements as birthday presents, seeing a half-man sitting on the sidewalk, getting asked to model in the grocery store, buying fruit out of a truck that just came from the farm. Especially with learning Chinese, everyday is challenging and interesting.

After living in Boston for a while, I’ve realized that I really appreciate having everything available to me at little expense. Your money goes much further in a developing country. And the developing world is where all the big changes are taking place with China as the engine of those changes. It is still where everything is happening. And with the current state of the economy, China is the best chance I have to establish a career in the developing world. Getting legitimate experience in China on my resume will be extremely valuable entering the work force.

Furthermore, I think this experience is going to be very different than my last. I’m in the New York of China, not Milwaukee, and I have much more fulfilling work in terms of its demand and importance.

But probably the most important reason, a largely subconscious reason before I got here, is that coming back offers a chance of redemption on my last trip. Reading through my writings, I’m embarrassed at my loss of composure in emotionally trying situations. I let my paranoia about being taken advantage of change me into a mean and aggressive person at times, even when there was really nothing at stake other than a few dollars and my own dignity.

James was telling me the other day about how during the first six months he was here, he hated Chinese people. He couldn’t deal with bargaining, feeling ripped off, and his perception of people being rude. After that, he got over his culture shock. Then I realized that that is what I was experiencing, culture shock. I assumed that the only symptom of culture shock was homesickness, not anger. I always attributed the problems I had to China; it was inauthentic, inconvenient, cold, dirty. I ultimately concluded that what I was seeing was authentically China and that it was just undesirable. But really, the problem was in me and my inability to adapt. You can live in China easily, over a billion people do it, but it is much tougher carrying your cultural assumptions of how people should behave.

Surely there are plenty of cultural institutions in China that could be improved, and my perspective as an outsider cues me to that. But I needed to learn how accept the frustrations as the way of life here and not take it personally because it isn’t personal, and in the end, I don’t have to be here if I don’t like it. China is never inauthentic; what I’m experiencing is always China. It is always just a question of desirability.

Backpacking in Europe this past summer also put some perspective on my trip to China; I had enjoyed feeling established and connected in Madrid and Harbin and just passing through and looking wasn’t going to be satisfying. I had dismissed Harbin and its discomfort in the expectation of taking pleasure in backpacking, something I wasn’t going to find really fulfilling no matter where I did it. My expectations for traveling in China were impossible to meet.

—-

I was right when I thought that things would be different this time; even though I’m in the same country, the two trips have been barely comparable. I was immediately comfortable once I stepped off the plane into China. I already knew exactly how to get through customs, catch a bus to the train station, buy a ticket to Shanghai, find a hostel, and so on. I haven’t even gotten sick adjusting to China. It really hasn’t felt very foreign.

I hardly ever think about being in China unless I see a display full of large stuffed animals and Hello Kitty products in a McDonald’s, a sign translated into English as “be civilized,” or a commercial on the subway with pregnant women modeling maternity clothes. As I going to Dr. Liu’s office, it was rush hour and I was walking away from the subway while everyone else was walking towards the subway. Motorcycles and scooters had taken to the sidewalk and were flying by either side of me. Because I was in a hurry, I was just worried about being on time, and it took me a couple blocks to realize that I was walking head on into traffic and that this doesn’t happen everyday. But here, this is just life.

The most noticeable change in China over the past two years is the tightening up of internet restrictions. To go with many major, foreign news outlets, now I can’t access youtube, adultswim.com, hulu and any other site with videos, and these are my usual sources for TV entertainment. All of blogspot is blocked, so I had to send this to Sean to post. Maybe there are more restrictions because I moved to a bigger city with more resources, but I imagine the Great Firewall of China being a single entity. My guess is that the Chinese government wants to block access to any political material because it has become more nervous about political unrest in the financial crisis; the government itself estimates that the economy has to keep growing at around at least eight percent to keep unemployment from causing upheaval. If this is the case, then the internet has become a litmus test for the mood of the Party.

Shanghai has many idiosyncrasies to distinguish it from other Chinese cities I’ve seen. There are crossing guards at major intersections wearing hats that say “traffic assistant” and khaki instead of blue to tell them apart from the real police. They blow whistles at the ubiquitous jaywalkers. Just out side of my office, skateboarders show off in People’s Square.

The populous is pretty cosmopolitan. The people are more attractive and better dressed than elsewhere in China, and it seems like there is a substantial number of Shanghainese that have a working knowledge of English. The most striking experiences in my mind have been when I start talking to people in Chinese and get English in response. Even lowly subway attendants reply in English. In my experience, this doesn’t happen in China at large.

They don’t stare at white people either. There is no yelling “hello,” giggling with friends, or requests for autographs and pictures. They take note, probably because I’m so tall, but they glance not gawk.

Shanghai is modern everywhere. There are very few low rise buildings. But even with the skyscrapers everywhere, I don’t find the city to be very photogenic. Pollution deprives the city of what would be an impressive skyline. During the first flew days, sunlight diffused though the pollution giving the sky a yellow glow, but most of the time it is just gray. Maybe you can spot some blue looking straight up. One day, my eyes started to burn just from being outside. My lungs regularly feel like I’ve been chain smoking.

The weather is extremely humid and hot. This is compounded by mosquitoes that feast on me while I sleep. I’ve solved these two problems by not walking anywhere during the day, turning on the air conditioner in my room, and buying an electric mosquito repelling machine. My room is now a palace of comfort.

Undermining one of the reasons for coming to China is the ridiculous cost of living in Shanghai. It is at least twice as expensive as Harbin and substantially more expensive than Beijing. Shanghai can be just as costly any American city. This high cost also brings with it readily accessible luxuries that are hard to find elsewhere in China. There are both a Dunkin Donuts and a Starbucks within a block of my office, and I can eat a sandwich everyday for lunch at a reasonable price if I so choose.

Because expat community is so large, it can’t be the welcoming monolith that it was in Harbin. Everyone has there own groups, so it is a little tougher to break in. Foreigners understand that I’m new and are inviting, but I haven’t really found my place here socially among either the foreigners or the Chinese. Furthermore, it seems like they want to keep living like they are in the West, and I came to China to be in China. I only have this time to take advantage of a uniquely Chinese lifestyle. This maybe be the New York of China, but if I wanted to be in New York for the summer, I would have taken the bus from Boston.

Overall, I think I’m going to enjoy my time here; work will be rewarding, but I don’t think I’m going to be pushed by living here as much as I expected and desired. The city itself is interesting, but I wouldn’t settle here.

This is China Economic Review’s website. http://www.chinaeconomicreview.com/

For some Chinglish fun, read the caption to this picture. http://en.chinafotopress.com/index/onephoto?oid=386045621&lid=

Despite not finding the city attractive, I may get out this weekend and take some pictures and post them for your viewing pleasure. Please send me an email to stay in touch: rmm@bu.edu. I would really appreciate it.

  • Steven

    Great post!