It seems a difficult task to let off a parting broadside against China (as had been my intent) as I sit opposite a family and their very cute baby girl on a train across Xinjiang from Ürümqi to Beijing. They are offering me food, encouraging their child to play with me, and are seemingly happy at having a novel/non-smoking/quiet/child-friendly adult to share their cabin with. This family are the exception to the rule in my experience, sadly. Though find most Chinese people in a setting where they will not be seen, and they behave much as you’d expect anyone else on earth to when interacting with strangers.
Let’s get the positives out the way (there are a few). In season, lychees are ubiquitous and relatively cheap. Children are extremely cute until the state education system gets hold of them. Public transport is cheap. I made a few good friends playing traditional Irish music (and there is a very good school for Irish dancing in Ürümqi). Taxis are the cheapest I’ve found anywhere in the world (but that’s only half a positive, as I can’t figure out how it’s possible for them to make a living).
I have been working here for the past seven months teaching public speaking and theatre in a private education institute. Upon reflection, it is clear that the majority of my grievances are with Beijing (my trips to Shanghai and Urumqi have confirmed this somewhat). There are however, some distinct parts of Chinese culture, and particularly business culture which appear to prevail across the nation. There’s also the infrastructure to deal with…
One day in the future, when humanity has barely survived the next influenza epidemic, nuclear war, or other means of mass extinction we cannot fathom; our descendants who have been sent back to the stone age will wander the land, and, on navigating much of China will think “What the bloody hell were they thinking!?”
Many towns and cities across China appear to be set on a similar model, and baked in dust or pollution often resemble scenes from the most recent Blade Runner film. Arriving in the dead of winter, it only took a few days of seeing the same appalling town planning everywhere to understand what had happened: when the communists came to rebuilding Beijing they rang up all the town planners and architects from across the Soviet Union and beyond and said “Hey, come help us rebuild Beijing… but before you start let’s all get drunk first!”. The lessons learnt from this epic binge clearly remained with city planners right through to the 1980’s and beyond.
The result is a sweeping mass of tower blocks and occasional, distinctly unimaginative, parks. Most standard roads are triple or quadruple carriageways - four or six for cars, and an extra one either side for anything smaller (but as with the direction of traffic this is seldom respected). Most people use electric bikes for anything other than a short ride, but in an effort to save batteries, ride everywhere without lights on (especially interesting when in a tuc-tuc driving against oncoming traffic at night). Roads, even in Beijing, are in an appalling state: pot holes, raised manhole covers, lack of markings, and anything else you can imagine. In many areas where the city is expanding sewers are large and open. Even where they are not, the smell of a mix between egg fried rice, soy sauce, and shit is omnipresent. Factories still weave into the fabric of residential districts meaning that although you may not have to commute far to work, the air you breathe is all the worse for it. The distance between different lines on metro stations is generally vast, so a commute may take as much time transferring as it does actually being on the trains. Railway stations are rarely in city centres themselves, and security across all these platforms is obscene, especially where the vast amount of time you get bottle necked into a long queue only to find security guards waving you through or asleep on the job. When they do their job properly, you can’t take aerosols, metal tools or a whole host of normal items on the metro with you; so good luck shopping any further afield than where you live. Lastly, and I hate to disappoint if you’re reading thinking “yes, but what about the ancient history and architecture”, but it was all seemingly rebuilt in the 1980’s on a distinct budget. The only thing left to impress you about these sites, as with China itself, is the scale of it – but once you’ve flown or taken a train across it that novelty soon wears off anyway.
Then there’s the nuances of Chinese culture to contend with, and believe me I tried! In one of my first professional meetings I remember being faced with a situation of western colleagues irritated by a Chinese way of doing something. “I’m not going to be a cultural imperialist and tell you how to do things” I intervened, “China has been doing well enough without the British or anyone else for thousands of years”. How naïve I was. Based on the sheer volume of people, and vastness of the country, it is surely justifiable by the law of averages that the society could progress and hobble its way to the situation it is now? It certainly wasn’t done without suffering, strife, and bloodshed that’s for sure.
In every other society I’ve worked in across the globe, the two top priorities in relation to work are generally:
1) Are you competent in your role – can you do the job?
2) Are you respected in your field – does your output or aptitude garner respect?
A possible third may be if you are likeable, but certainly in many companies this doesn’t take any precedence over the first two main points. Not so in China, where “face” and “guanxi” play a role in not only all professional interactions, but most personal ones too. The fact of you being able to actually do your job, much less be respected for it, barely register.
Face is a concept based around not allowing people to lose it – to lose face is to be embarrassed, or put in a position where you should be. A Chinese person will generally lose face if they are put in a position which requires them, or may create the situation where they may possibly have to say “no” to you. This is all well and good for polite conversation, if you’re out having a cup of tea or something – the British attitude of “come on mate, it’s your round” would be a distinct no-no, for example; but when it comes to anything practical (try as I might), I can’t see any practical use for it. When negotiating a contract for example, one needs straight yes and no answers in order to move forward. Thus you will be told “yes that’s no problem” in order to save face, when in reality someone is actually thinking “not in a million years, do you think I’m an idiot”. Thus be aware that even when a deal of almost any kind is reached in China, it is rarely finalised in the mind-set of your Chinese counterpart, as they will almost certainly continually contemplate or act upon the desire to get more out of the deal than what you’ve agreed/signed for.
When you need help with something technical or linguistic and ask for help, the reply may be “yes of course, let me help you”, where the reality of the thought is closer to “oh shit, I don’t have a clue what to do here, I hope they don’t find out” (the usual result of such situations is that help will be given, and the original small problem will become something much larger). But not asking for help, much less offering it is all too plain to see in daily life as well: I witnessed an old woman who dropped her shopping as dozens just walked past (I didn’t), I saw people struggle with huge luggage cases where the muscle bound and able literally looked the other way, and I witnessed several cases of borderline domestic abuse on public transport to which nobody said a word. Perhaps this is a hangover from darker days when stopping to help could cost you your own life? In any case, on every occasion in which I asked why help was not abundantly at hand, face was always listed as a factor in the response.
The concept of face is detrimental in education too. I had to do full lessons with new students (including adults) on how to ask for help, or question something they didn’t understand. You also have the parent’s Face to contend with. A partial result of the one child policy, though now defunct, is that having a child anything less than “perfect” can cause a serious loss of face for parents. Thus I had students squinting at the board only a metre away, and upon enquiring where their glasses were was told “my mum took them away, she said I don’t need them” (and that example is the thin end of the wedge).
I trained some students in interview technique for getting into international schools, and was constantly met by the same two problems. Firstly, a lack of understanding as to what function an interview actually holds/how it is valued by the inviting party, and secondly of a deep rooted fear of appearing to be wrong, to not know the answer – to lose face. The standard model of preparation for an interview is much the same as it is for sport in China. Repetition – over and over, to the point you blindly regurgitate that which you have practised. All well and good in sport – but in a learning environment, where an expression of self is paramount to not only understanding work but your relation to it, such animatronic behaviours are distinctly counter-productive. In sport, the rules of engagement are set – the same task will be required of you again and again. But in life, much less an interview, different questions will be asked of you all the time. Repeating the same answers parrot fashion as a default response (often to the wrong questions) serves nobody.
A teaching of critical thinking, let alone getting students to ask for help is an uphill struggle. In state education in China, one of the rudest things a student can say to a teacher is “I don’t understand” because the implication is that the teacher therefore can’t teach properly and will lose face. When the teacher then comes round and sees the student hasn’t done work, or has done the work entirely wrong, they will respond in kind and not make the student lose face by being told what they’re doing isn’t correct. The result is a vast swathe of students, maybe 15 – 20% (I guess, though could be higher) at the bottom end of state education who need additional help - be that from modes of learning, disability, or anything else - are left by the wayside, and I assume become the security guards asleep on the job if they’re lucky. It appears that the society in its current state, particularly in education, is aware of this anyway: all focus is put on the top 1%, the best and brightest, because 1% of 1 and a half billion people is a LOT of geniuses. Who knows if this is the fastest way for society to progress? It certainly doesn’t seem the nicest or fairest in any case.
Guanxi is a mixture of your reputation, connections, and credibility with a side dose of talking (where necessary) complete bollocks. It is it’s own special form of currency, and can move mountains where money will not. Curiously then, it is created rather than earned; and in this manner is distinctly different to respect. It can be fabricated out of thin air, as long as you have the strength of conviction and aptitude to carry off your claims as truth. I met several westerners in my time here who talked such rubbish that they’d be laughed out of any similar situation in their home country – “I only have to send one message and two BMW’s with strong men will be here in minutes” or “You can’t afford not to give me a table, do you realise who we are?”. Yet in Beijing, gullible people lap it up wholesale seemingly thinking “well why would they lie?” or “wow, their guanxi must be immense”. To be sure, it is a bullshitter’s paradise!
It seems the vast majority of Chinese people are on a permanent quest to improve their personal, professional, and collective guanxi (family/company/ethnicity) etc. Thus a problem may arise, something small – a logistical or planning error for example – something which is relatively easy to fix. The first thought through the minds of most people would be “how do I fix this?”. In China, there is a first step before this however, which is far more active/conscious than it may be elsewhere. That is “How do I micro manage this situation to improve my guanxi? How do I ensure I will look good and X will look bad? If I cannot fix this problem and it lies within my sphere of responsibility, on whom can I assign blame?”
Such thinking is prevalent across the vast majority of China, as far as I can tell from conversations with colleagues. It ensures that progress is stifled, and what may otherwise be small fixable problems often mushroom into far larger issues whilst the original responsible party continues to search for ways to improve their guanxi.
Atop all of this is the fact you are a foreigner or “laowai”. The translation is literal – “constantly foreign”, and though some may say it’s not used with malice, you can believe me that it is. China is one of the most racist countries I’ve ever been to, though perhaps with a slightly different bent on proceedings. Rather than being actively against one race or minority, China is a Han supremacist state. Of all 56 recognised Chinese ethnicities and languages, Han sits atop everyone else and you are judged accordingly. This stretches from the tedious attitude of patronising those from the south of China who may have Vietnamese or Cambodian ancestry to the point of them having to accidentally drop their I.D. card to prove they’re Chinese, all the way to the brutal crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang province by mob attacks, or the police cutting skirts of Muslim women for being “too long”.
In Beijing, where ethnicities from across the globe can be found, racism against black and white can be found in different modes as well. Only a few years ago there was a much loved TV ad for washing powder in which a Chinese girl brings her black boyfriend home, puts him in the washing machine, and he comes out white. I read a blog post from a couple of years ago of a teacher in Chengdu who did a lesson on inspirational people with his class of 11 year olds – upon showing a picture of Michelle Obama he was greeted with hysterics and calls of “too black!” and “next picture, she is too ugly”.
For white people, you are sold for your skin colour whilst simultaneously being chastised for it. “The sooner you accept you’re a white monkey, the easier your time will be here” I was told. "White monkeys" are hired by companies to increase their guanxi, but are not expected to contribute actively to output or productivity, past the functionality of their skin colour. Parents will gleefully demand to film classes to “check progress of students”, only to share them on social media when given the opportunity to do so as a means of saying “look how amazing my child is, a white person is teaching them”. You can also get free entry and free drinks in nightclubs, regardless of how ugly you are... but the same white person will be charged more in shops, chastised as a dirty foreigner coming here taking all the jobs, made deliberately unwelcome in social situations, suffer base mistrust and the ramifications of it (“no more than 5 foreigners in this shop at any time” signs and the like), and be generally treated as a disposable commodity to be seen and not heard. In Hong-Kong we’re called “ghost people” not only for a seeming lack of colour, but apparently for a lack of content/soul as well.
Beijing food is horrendous. Everything is fried – even vegetables are boiled and then fried afterwards, almost always with chilli and meat. When you get to the stage of craving an undressed salad on a daily basis, you know something is amiss! Quite how a culture so famed for cooking pork belly can be wholly incompetent at making or cooking any other pork based product is quite beyond me (hint: the worst ham/sausages/bacon in the world are made in China). Spitting is prevalent everywhere; if you are brave enough to cycle in Beijing you can expect to have people spit in your face several times a year (unintentional, but it is that common). Everywhere is dirty, people don’t give a damn about clearing up after themselves. Crisps (potato chips) are inedible and combine what must be the worst culinary ideas in existence into a cacophony of epic taste failures. N.B. Despite how innocent they may sound, cucumber crisps are NOT a good idea. Milk and eggs often aren’t real, beer whilst cheap is dreadful and watery, bread and cake are the worst in the world (lighter than the lightest sponge cake you ever had and minus the taste). Sugar in everything, sugar on everything, tea costs more than alcohol (£8 - £10 for a pot of tea is fairly cheap). Animal rights don’t exist, human rights barely exist, exploitation is rampant (Chinese staff often work 60 and 70 hour weeks for no overtime, convinced that if they put their head above the parapet they will be replaced – which they probably would be). Not being able to get a cup of tea with an ice-cream because Chinese people think everything cold is bad for you and mixing cold and hot is the worst thing you can do – if you go to the doctor the first thing they will say is “drink more hot water”. Beijing winters are a mix of extreme cold and extreme dryness – there was zero precipitation for four months when I arrived, yet with temperatures of minus 10 Celsius or less that means there’s no ice but the wind can cut through you like a knife. In such conditions your skin is drier when you get out the shower than when you go in. The skin on your legs, hands, even your eyelids all peels/sheds. There’s no deodorant unless you go to an international store, and bureaucracy screws everything up from top to bottom. E-mail barely exists for many companies, and god-knows the amount of hours of labour wasted as people swipe through group messages on WeChat (the Chinese WhatsApp) only to discover they need a file sending again because they didn’t read it the first time you sent it!? Then there's obsession with Hitler (memes and gifs abound on social media) as if it's kitsch rather than just wrong...
In short, what’s not to love?
I know I should be careful writing this, it’s not nuanced, referenced, or fair. It is my experience, nonetheless. I was once told a story of a friend of a friend, a teacher, who wrote a blog post critical of some aspect of China and nearly lost their job after being reported by a student. “If you don’t like it then you should go back where you came from, bloody foreigner” was the general theme of the student’s angst...
Well, I didn’t like it (in Beijing at least), and as I have the luxury of being able to leave, I shall. So long China, and thanks for the education: you made me recognise the imperialistic tendencies within me, you nearly turned me racist at one point, but I leave feeling as though I have fought to a fair stalemate, which is better than losing completely I guess!
P.S. China is a big place, and I'm assured it's not all like this.