It’s not you China, it’s me

Like many laowai I have come to China to work. I have also come here to have a closer look at this fascinating country of natural wonders, ancient traditions, ultramodern technology and rapid economic rise. China is exhilarating and never boring. I could stay here and study forever and not know everything there is to know about it, and not see everything there is to see. It is too big to ever fully grasp. The sheer size is just one of the many aspects that I find fascinating. China can never be painted with a broad brush.

Yet, this is exactly what many of my fellow laowai do. I hear a lot of foreigners complaining. About the hacking and spitting, about letting small children pee in the street, and even about curious Chinese people who approach them for a friendly chat. I don’t understand how this can ever be offensive? This is just people going about their everyday business. I never feel as if someone is deliberately trying to be annoying. If anything people go out of their way to be helpful and friendly. The sociability is actually one of the things I will miss when I leave.

Pee pee
Pee pee

There are of course some things I also find deeply annoying. For one I will never get used to the traffic. Big SUV’s have the right of way over smaller fry. They will cut me off on my bicycle when they turn a corner, without indicating and while talking on their phone. This is infuriating. Another thing I find hard to swallow is the lack of strategy and management in my company, which I suspect is common in other Chinese businesses as well. This means I receive different orders every week and they don’t always make sense. It is hard to have a conversation about this with the management. But even in these cases, where it is definitely inconvenient for me, I do try to understand this is not because China is out to get me. My Chinese colleagues and fellow road users suffer from this as much as me.

China is challenging at times. However I never feel the need to blame China for my struggles to understand the language, the people and their customs. If I have a difficult time it’s not because China is wrong, it’s because I don’t understand enough. It’s not you China, it’s me.

Planning ahead

As it is I understand so little it is hard to build meaningful friendships outside of the usual expat circle (which I am not really interested in, see the previous mention of moaning). So, I have made a tentative plan. The idea is I will keep studying Chinese until the end of my contract June next year. Then I will cycle home in about 3 or 4 months, visiting friends in Georgia, the Balkans and the rest of Europe on the way. I will settle back in Amsterdam, to reconnect with friends, family, and work. I will keep up my study of the Chinese language, and later hopefully return. By that time I should be able to connect better and have better job prospects, for instance with the wonderful Linden Centre. Because despite our differences, I do love you China.

The last few weeks I have reconnected with friends and family. This has also made me long for home more than ever before. My parents came to visit which was great, and I am glad they got to see how and why I live here. They were happily surprised by the modernity and friendliness of contemporary China. I am pulled between my home in Amsterdam and my new life here. Time will tell how this will balance out. For now it is back to my Chinese study and my books about Chinese culture. The best company any occasionally lonely laowai could ever wish for.

Recommended reading

This is my current reading and study list:

Please feel free to leave your suggestions for Chinese language and culture books, websites and apps in the comments. 谢谢!

Rifts and rapids, ages and riches

A short bike trip today again reminded me of just how many worlds can exist alongside each other in China and how excited I am about this heady mix. Unlike the worlds in The City & The City of China Mieville which are a bit like oil and water, the worlds here are fast evolving and often touch and mingle. But there are big rifts, and the rapid pace of development widens the gaps between the different worlds.

From revolutionary to consumer

Firstly there are the vastly different worlds of the different generations, often living under one roof. The grandparents of today have lived much of China’s tumultuous history. As a result of difficult circumstances they are often very short but also tough, friendly and despite their advanced age active members of society. If they are not still working or gardening vegetables they are looking after their grandchildren. Unlike in Western society they are very visible in daily life which is really nice. They (and the generation of their children) provide evening entertainment by performing Chinese opera, water calligraphy or dancing in the park.

Their children had a lot more opportunities to thrive when China recovered from the Cultural Revolution. But, between 1979 and 2015 families could only have one child, resulting in today’s generation of privileged children. The focus of a whole family is on this one child, and as such, they have to work their little butts from a young age to become successful. They might not have a lot of free time but they do have a lot more money and love to spend it on smartphones, smart clothes and international travel. Their life is a world away from what their grandparents lived.

The wealth divide

The second division of worlds is determined by wealth. The newly wealthy Chinese middle classes are rich and growing fast. In 2000 only 4% was considered middle class. Now, if the idea of classes in a communist state is a bit odd, that is because China is not communist. It is ruled by the Communist Party, and as such it is a one-party state, but communist it is not. Joshua Cooper Ramo’s Beijing Consensus theory offers one explanation of China’s economic and political model: ‘the pragmatic use of innovation and experimentation in the service of equitable, peaceful high-quality growth, defense of national borders and interests and the use of stable, if repressive, politics and high-speed economic growth’. As it is different classes with huge differences in income exist. They are often separate (city vs countryside) but also often existing alongside eachother (garbage pickers and gardeners in rich neighbourhoods).

China's classes
China’s classes

But, I digress. So, I am cycling today. It is raining hard but I am happy to be out and about on my day off. My legs are pumping and so is my heart. I feel fresh and even though the views are not spectacular I enjoy looking around. Along the bike lane many gardeners in Vietnamese conical hats are working to maintain the green borders and parklands between bike lane and lake. The hats are great in the rain; I have one as well and when I wear it I feel like being in a small bamboo hut, rain pattering on my one-person roof. On my left hand the shiny new SUV’s are whizzing by. Two worlds, only separated by a bike lane. Uniformed traffic wardens with big flags make sure everyone obeys the traffic lights. All around me new high-rise apartment blocks are shooting out of the ground and huge poster walls are advertising the brave new world of living in these stacked suburban paradises: (white) children are playing with a kite in a park, a shiny new train takes the commuters into town, happy minority people are dancing hand in hand, and the benevolent state shines down on its industrious citizens.

One of many new housing projects shooting up everywhere
One of many new housing projects shooting up everywhere

I keep cycling. As I get closer to home the rain clears. I come by a huge and brand new convention center. Nearby a new housing project is nearing completion, and a beautiful gate invites potential buyers to come in and purchase a part of this dream. There are guards at the gate: white-gloved young men in dazzling crispy white shirts. This world is not for everybody, only for the shiny SUV owners. More workers in Vietnamese hats are busy here, decorating the high wall that surrounds the housing project with astroturf and butterflies. A truck with new plants to decorate the projects gardens is blocking my way on the bike lane.

As I try to get around I almost crash into another world. An old man in dark blue Mao suit is shuffling towards me and I wait to let him pass. He is a bit shaky but lifts a hand in greeting. His face shows as much surprise as mine: 1950’s China meets a laowai on a bicycle who maybe teaches his grandchildren, on the doorstep of gated community for rich people. The Vietnamese hats keep working. Different worlds almost literally collide, and I am happy with this fleeting and courteous interaction with the China of the past. I am once more confronted with how rapidly things are moving here and how much has happened in the last 100+ years. Here’s to many more paths crossing and many more moments of mutual wonder, bridging the rifts and crossing the rapids that separate the different worlds.

Revolutionary generation
Revolutionary generation



Uncovering the real China

Since I moved to China I started following different media reporting on what happens here. I noticed how incredibly negative and simplistic the comments often are, for instance here. China is a bully, Chinese people are rude. Or the exact opposite: It is a paradise, don’t say a bad word about this amazing country! This kind of propaganda you find in state-approved Chinese news outlets. As per usual the experience of actually being on the ground somewhere is very different from sensationalist media portrayals.

I will attempt to show a face of modern China that is maybe less spectacular, less easy to pigeonhole and hopefully more rounded. Multifaceted and nuanced. Because how can you possibly have a one-sided view of such a gigantic and culturally diverse country? There is no one China, there are many. It can only be seen through a kaleidoscope, and never fully understood. But even without fully understanding we can love this country. I certainly do.

I love China, but it is definitely not a blind love, so I will write critically about my new home. Again, nuance is everything, in order to understand the Middle Kingdom.

Since I live and work here and since I will be writing critically about China I can not give too much information about myself. This is after all a one party state that is fiercely protective of national unity. Dissent is not allowed and there is an ever stronger crackdown on online and offline rogue views.

Thank you for reading my fumbling approximations of truth.

This way please