I just returned from a month and a half in the US with my family this summer and while I was away, two prominent foreign writers in China have announced that they’re leaving the country. Both Charlie Custer and Mark Kitto went semi-viral on the China blogger circuit, stirring up a debate about what it means to be an expat in China. These two guys have strong and undeniable China credentials and for them to write about how China is basically driving them away, be it the weather or the enduring sting of getting shafted, makes the rest of us question our commitment to a country that often makes me want to grab my submachine. If I had one.
The two essays, Why I’m Leaving China and You’ll Never Be Chinese really made me think hard because, as I sat down to read them, my kids were frolicking in Lake Harriet, my wife was gushing about the conscious people, clean streets, and beautiful backyards of the United States, and I was enjoying excellent food and drink. And sunshine. And good driving.
After a trip up the West Coast and some great times in Portland, Chicago, San Francisco and Mt. Shasta, we were dreading coming back to China.
I kept asking myself, “Why the hell am I in China?” After I read a letter from “Harold Jansen” on China Law Blog regarding the recent popularity of foreigners departing China, I started asking myself, “What the hell do I do here?” Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that I am the most intangible guy you’ll ever meet. I have no investments, own no property, create nothing but words, and my idea of a productive day has more to do with teacups than RMB. Although when I do make RMB (or $) I consider that to be productive as well.
So I have to face the nasty truth: I am exactly one of those expats that probably should leave China. And I herewith announce that I am leaving China. Just as soon as I can string together enough productive days to finance the whole thing. I also am fully aware that I am neither famous enough nor do I have the timing nor conviction to make this post go viral … or even have a deep impact on the Worthless Laowai vs. Contributing Laowai i.e. Don’t Let The Door Hit You debate. I’m just dipping my toes in.
I once wrote an essay called Enduring the China Blues about inspiration, China and how the relationship between the two keeps me here. In that essay, I specifically mentioned a huge jade carving that sent me to China 12 years ago (O Lord what have I done with my allotted time?). While in Minneapolis swimming in rivers and lakes, I decided it was time for a spirit refresher, so I took my wife and kids to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and showed them the China Collection and the great jade piece that inspired me to come here in the first place.
The first words out of my wife’s mouth were,
“You can’t find any of this stuff in China anymore.”
And it is true, as far as I can say. I have seen very little in the way of Tang Dynasty painted figurines, Song Dynasty jade carvings, Han Dynasty sculptures of Uigher guys and the like. You would think that they would be everywhere here, but I honestly have to say that the collection in the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts pretty much crushes any exhibition I have seen in China. The antique market, the Jianchuan Cluster and the Jinsha Museum are awesome, but rarely do they feature the good, authentic classic stuff.
Naturally that is because White Devils stole a bunch and Yellow Devils pounded the rest into dust. Although in this case it was the Dayton family’s cash that provided most of the M.I.A.’s collection (does that count as theft?). One of the exhibitions is a completely re-constructed Song Dynasty scholar’s den. I found myself drooling, looking at this scholar’s set-up and putting myself in the picture. Talk about productivity. And this person’s room was bought up from a town outside of Hangzhou, all of it, and shipped over to Minnesota just a few short years ago.
It is hard not to fall in love with China wandering around the third floor of the M.I.A. looking at this collection. There’s so much beauty. So much brilliance. I felt almost ready to go back to China again, after seeing the great works of this ancient civilization. But then my brain was shocked back into reality by a vision of Hongpailou, the run down, greasy neighborhood that I live in, where traffic lights are ornamental at best and loogies lead the way to the meat vendor, like a runny, Yellow Spit Road.
Let’s Be Honest
That jade carving is in a museum for a reason: they don’t make them anymore.
Even the residue of such works has long since been ground down and mixed in with concrete to build the New China. We’ve been through this discussion so many times, there really is no point in repeating it. But just in case you didn’t know,
Today’s China is a vast construction site filled with ruthless, desperate, angry, resigned, and isolated people riding a crimson tide of wealth creation toward a future that may be a tranquil pool from which all may drink, but could just as well be the edge of a flat world, sending everyone tumbling into an abyss of acrimony, chaos, and woe. No jade emperors. Few kung fu sages. A shrinking window of stories to write about. In fact, the same things foreigners said 100 years are being said again, such as,
Life here is comedy.
In fact, if you laugh at the piece of jerked meat that just cut you off and is now purposefully leaning over to hock some phlegm out of the window instead of meeting your furious gaze, then you’ll probably have a greater impact than if you threw a fit and wrote a blog post about it. Most likely not though. There is precious little “inspiring” going on out here, no matter what fluff I wrote before about “business is steady“. Most unhappy interactions in China are unhappy purely because you know that you just dealt with someone who is completely ignorant of their own ignorance – or worse yet, proud of it – and there is no chance of changing them for the better.
Most types of idiots revel in being mean spirited, and they exist all over the world. A ridiculously high population density just makes it seem like China is the source of them all, kinda like the largest variety of peppers is in Mexico so you know that is where they came from. The only thing you can really do is wait for them all to become old and irrelevant and pray their influence on the next generation is as minimal as possible.
What we really fear is grandpa pointing out the Hated / Feared / Preposterously Walking Upright just like Us Alien to a little one and saying, “Look Junior, there goes a …”
That’s why I always take time out to smile at the kids.
Now Let’s Be Really Honest
No matter how much I piss and moan about it, I got love for Hongpailou. When I skip over the BBQ ooze from last night to buy meat and taters from the downstairs lady, she always squeezes whichever son I have along with me and she’s just genuinely nice and honest. She even defended me the other day when some dude walked up and said, Oh look, a Foreign Devil.
The guards of my compound honestly missed me. I know they did. There is this old man who walks around in hiked up pants, dress shoes and a wife-beater and tonight he bought my boys a watermelon and held their little hands all the way home.
The broke down peasant lady who sifts through garbage for stuff to sell always cracks a gap tooth grin at me and I can take my boys to the gym and let the ladies watch em while I try and run off all this high fructose corn syrup I sucked down in the US.
Even though I am a bum leeching off of the cheap living standards of China, I can still talk my way onto the airfield at the Xinjin Pilot’s University and even get in a plane with an instructor. All because I am a foreigner. I can sit down with high level officials and get a job running a big website, not because I am overly qualified (although I am. Really.), but because being a “laowai” opens a bunch of doors.
Last weekend a group of Chengdu laowai went camping on an island in a lake surrounded by bamboo covered hills. Every 10 days or so, a group of us will go to Wenjiang and follow the green belt up toward Dujiangyan or maybe go to our secret beach spot underneath the Grand Buddha in Leshan. When I talk to my friends here in the Du, they are unanimously in favor of staying here.
Custer probably hates Beijing because Beijing is not Chengdu. We have Yulin and Hot Pot and Sichuan cuisine and mountains in every direction. Hidden hot springs where monks get naked and villages enmeshed with prehistoric ferns where the farmers spend the late evening drinking tea and steaming fish.
Sure, it ain’t Mt. Shasta or Highway 101, and Chengdu is a popped pimple compared to San Francisco, but we got our lives here. It isn’t bad. But it isn’t enough either; not for a footloose semi-bum like me (or my wife either for that matter). I am leaving, not for another year or so, but yes, I too have my exit strategy. I am not going to hate on China that much because, honestly, China was good to me.
I was saved from complete ruin by a sweet, generous woman; the society gawks at me, but in general treats me much better than they treat their own; I make more money here and spend less than I would in the US; and, best of all, I’m getting away with it.
Are you getting out while you can? Or are you staying put? Let us know in the comments below.