And so, the story of “an American [who] goes to China to teach English” is on the verge of coming to an end. My three years in the Middle Kingdom will be over at the end of April. That date also marks the fourth “anniversary”-a misnomer if there ever was one- of the death of my beloved Ellen.
I will be moving on. Moving to Ho Chi Minh City which shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve read my postings from December through February. I have accepted a position as an English teacher (what else?) with one of the largest foreign-owned teaching outfits in the country. More about that in future posts. For now, I want to focus on these past three years of my life.
Call this posting “a love note to China,” one of three parts (posts). This part will be my overall impression as well as a personal venting of my spleen by way of including my thoughts about the differences in perceptions about Western-style governance vs. Confucian-style. I’ll probably be too “preachy” for some readers. So be it. Being a “political animal” and someone who has always been fascinated by sociological factors, I have a lot to say about what I’ve observed in my three years living in China. Part two will be a list of the top things I won’t miss about China and part three will be the top things I will miss about China in which I “name names”.
A three-part farewell, if you like. Two parts love, one part snark. So let me begin…
“It was a dark and stormy night…”
It’s been quite a remarkable three years living in China.
Even today, I sometimes catch myself thinking “Wow, I live in China!” It’s something that I never ever dreamed I’d be experiencing. It’s a cliché to say everyone loves to travel and see new and exciting places. But how many people are lucky enough to commune on a daily basis with the citizens of a foreign country for a period of years. And for the last three years, China has felt like my home. From that first day, arriving in Beijing, April 2016, not speaking more than five words of Mandarin (now up to twenty plus, at last count!) I felt like I somehow fit in. Like I belong. Truly impossible of course, the language barrier actually being the least of the “impossibilities”. Here, I am by definition -as are all westerners-“the other.” As the Chinese would say, I fail “the mirror test.”
Yet despite this, in the three years, I’ve never felt anything but the welcoming attitude of the Chinese people. Standing out as I do, not speaking the language, people everywhere have been patient, kind, friendly and welcoming of this foreigner. If someone was utterly exasperated at trying to communicate with a person who hasn’t made the effort to learn their language while living in their country, I’ve never seen it. I’ve never had a negative encounter. Never given a “dirty look” and, in fact, for the most part rarely given a second one despite the fact that in “Tier-Two” cities like Xi’an there aren’t many westerners to become blasé about. Only periodically have I found myself feeling as though I’m “in a fishbowl” on display for prying eyes.
People always speak of the stereotypes of different nationalities. “The French are rude to tourists.” “The Czechs never smile and if they see you smiling at them, they instantly distrust you.” “The Latin Americans have a ‘mañana’ attitude about…everything.” “Americans think everyone wants to be like them.” “The Brits always ‘keep calm and carry on.'” “The Russians are utterly dour.” The Germans are humorless” OK, that last one is true. They killed all their Jews.
Among the Chinese stereotypes: they are insular, reserved, quiet and studious (they’re all good at math and science, right?) and possess a large dash of xenophobia. Oh yes, let’s not forget, they’re terrible drivers. This appears true but isn’t. Well, not in China, anyway. Although traffic rules do appear to be optional in China, I’ve actually come to realize that it’s quite safe to face traffic as a pedestrian. It takes time but you begin to realize that what looks like traffic mayhem is actually something that works well. As for the other stereotypes, well they’re just that. In terms of xenophobia, you too might be suspicious of foreigners if you’ve been subjected to a “century of humiliation” at their hands. But on a personal level, I have never felt that anyone viewed me with suspicion. Not once, in three years has a security person (and they are plentiful and ubiquitous) ever stopped me and asked to see my passport.
I have found the Chinese to be the most friendly people in the world. Always eager to help me despite the language barrier (“Parisians, are you listening?”) Not afraid or suspicious of individual foreigners, not at all reserved. There are plenty of Chinese interested in the fine arts and like me, many are simply dreadful at math. In terms of insularity, far more Chinese know who Trump is than Americans know who Xi is. Using previous results of “map tests” given to Americans, I would opine that far more couldn’t locate China on a map rather than the other way around (see the link to discover beautiful “West Spain”.)
I am really going to miss living in China. I’ve met many remarkable people and thankful that they’ve let me into their lives to share their hopes, dreams and of course the frustrations and aggravations that people everywhere experience in the thing we call “the daily grind.” I’m thankful that I’ve been touched and graced by people who I never would have crossed paths with back in the bubble of the San Francisco Bay area. I am a better “citizen of the world” because of it. And leaving here does make me sad.
I’ve really come to appreciate another culture, up close and personal. I will always be thankful that I got to live in one of the oldest civilizations in the world and experience it, albeit as an outsider. Nonetheless, I’ll take it. I see with my own eyes that this is a peace-loving country and despite the undemocratic nature of the government, it delivers for its people. It delivers much better in fact than America’s so-called democratic (and therefore, “superior”) system.
I wish “the West” would stop using its self-appointed missionary zeal to promote “western values” as “universal values.” It’s like that tired cliche America bellows at the world, usually when we’ve invaded some country for the purpose of remaking it in our image: “We’re number one!” Why? “Because we say so.” As far as the Chinese are concerned, a Confucian-ordered society works for them just fine and they have always invited us to keep our western values to ourselves, thank you! A Confucian society (by definition, non-democratic) is central to their culture and has been for over 2000 years and it seems to have served them well. And, unlike the west, historically, they haven’t shoved it down the throats of those they’ve come into contact with. The Chinese have always felt that their way of life was so obviously superior to that of the “barbarians” that it would behoove them to adopt the Chinese way, but if not, that’s OK with them. It’s not a coincidence that all of southeast Asia is ordered around a Confucian society, not because of any history of Chinese incursions but because it too served these societies well. China, as it turned out, led by example, not by invasion.
Western ideas about individualism, how a government ought to be structured and what constitutes freedom are great ideas but it’s the height of arrogance to claim they must be embraced by everyone, everywhere. After all, the Chinese can point to the complete paralysis of American politics and with some measure of accuracy say “How well is a democratically elected government working out for you?” Setting aside, of course, the fact that our democracy “picked” a “president” who got 3 million votes less than the opposing candidate. On top of that slight is the insult that America now has a “leader” who is conspiring with a cabal of fellow criminals (the Republican Party) to use the levers of democracy to dismantle democracy itself. Yes, America, how is democracy working out for you these days?
Perhaps it can be argued that a vast country of 300 million, very un-homogenous people is simply ungovernable by a central government arranged around one person elected (or not) by a nationwide plebiscite. It really does seem like it’s ungovernable on a national scale these days. That may be more of a “feature” than a “bug.” There really does appear to be two America’s: a “red America” and a “blue America” or perhaps it’s more accurate to say an “urban America” and “suburban/rural America.” Or more simply put: “the coastal states” and “flyover country.” Regardless of what it’s called, everyone agrees that our political system is broken. All the while we “tut-tut” other countries systems and cast opprobrium because they refuse to embrace a system that doesn’t serve us all that well. If a country with 300 million people isn’t served well by the principle of “one-person, one-vote” than what makes anyone think that if it’s tried in a country with four times the number of people that it will work any better?
A few years before he died, the remarkably astute observer of Asian politics, Lee Kuan Yew, the “father” of modern Singapore observed that if China actually tried out Western-style democracy, the whole country would collapse into chaos. In his view, “to ask China to become a democracy, when in its 5,000 years of recorded history it never counted heads” was completely unreasonable. I’m not making a case for eliminating the democratic process, I simply reject the notion that western universalism is “universal.” As Yew put it, “Nothing is morally at stake in the choice of procedures.” This is the Bismarckian principle of “Realpolitik” writ large.
And because America looks askance at China because it doesn’t have an American “approved” government, we treat the Chinese with an air of disdain if not outright contempt. It bothers me to no end that the United States views this country more as an adversary than a partner. Whether it’s the idiotic trade war we initiated or our insistence that the South China Sea is an “American lake” and therefore we’re entitled to put our fleet of warships right off the coast of China, we have made China at best a “frenemy.” A frenemy because the fact is our economies are intertwined and therefore, our destinies, for better or worse, are inextricably linked. My argument is that as different as western culture and Sinic culture appear to be, at the core, the differences between different people aren’t really that great. America (and the west, but mostly, America) needs to get over itself.
Living abroad has allowed me to see that America isn’t the “be all and end all” of planet earth despite America’s continuing insistence, otherwise. The Chinese go about their business with complete pragmatism largely shorn of ideological considerations. They are also quite happy with the way things are in their country and it certainly doesn’t bother them that other countries have systems that are suited for them but not the Chinese. America could learn from this. It won’t of course, but it should.
People here are like people anywhere. They want the same things. Even if political systems aren’t universal, the desire for a better and more comfortable life is. People may look different, speak differently and have traditions that are incomprehensible to outsiders but people everywhere are aspirational in many universal desires. China is a country that is finally stable and becoming rich after countless years of internal strife, factionalism, discord and yes, humiliation at the hands of foreigners. There is for the first time in generations, plenty of food, education for all, world-class infrastructure (while America’s is crumbling) good jobs, a promising future and the respect of the nations of the world. Most importantly, the Chinese people want a better life for their children. No different than anyone else.
I will finish with some sage words by President John F. Kennedy taken from his famous “Peace Speech” given at American University, June 1963:
“So, let us not be blind to our differences. But let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Brian: Thank you for this moving and insightful post. Which newspaper should I send it to? Looks like a good Washington Post piece. I, for one, am appalled at the arrogance of our current administration toward other countries, especially those we call our friends. Not that China is in that category, but could be.
So sorry that in three years we were unable to find the time to visit you in China. We’ll try harder to make it to Vietnam.
– Jeff & Shauney
Hey, Brian! I was so moved when I read your love for China and how everything makes you feel about this country because if it weren’t for your post I wouldn’t be able to realize the progress that has been made in this country. Seems like this adventure is worth it, doesn’t it?
Also, I will miss staying with you for a while for your first year in China and visiting you while you were in Xi’an ( assuming that you read this when you left Xi’an for Ho Chi Minh City ) both would add something new and special to my life experience. Even sometimes when I kinda miss people and things in Beijing, I would come to your blog to see some photos from that period of time.
At last, wish you all the best in Ho Chi Minh City!
Good for you, Brian. Hope the new gig works out well. Take care, old friend.