What Comes of National Dreams?

I left China more than three months ago. Since then, I’ve left my job and announced plans that I’ll be leaving for Taiwan this fall to study Chinese. I gave myself a couple months for time off to enjoy friends, family, and home. It has also left me with way too much time to think about the mysteries of the universe. Regrettably, I’ve spent the most time thinking about the American Dream and the Chinese Dream. Fun stuff right?

As an American, I’ve grown up with the American Dream being engrained in our culture. We use it to discuss the positive aspects of our country and why over a million immigrants a year legally flock to the United States, with many more on waiting lists, and some regrettably coming illegally.  Historically, the American Dream has stood for the freedom of upward mobility and opportunity for prosperity through ones own merit and hard work. Essentially, if you have a dream, a vision, and/or a passion, you have the opportunity for success in America’s open society.

Most Americans don’t give this ideal much thought. I can’t help but notice how the American Dream has changed over time. It used to be about the means. Leaving my stable job has shown me it is more and more about the ends.

I grew up with the mantra, “you can do anything.” This is a pretty standard way of thought for Americans. Anybody can be CEO. Anybody can be President. Anybody can a professional athlete. All it takes is hard work. For us lay people, that means you can succeed in any endeavor you pursue. For some that’s being an engineer, a doctor,  a lawyer, or even a public servant. For others, that’s being a writer, an artist, or even an entrepreneur starting a small business out of their garage selling stuff on Etsy. People have done all of those things to lead successful lives in America that ALSO allow them to support a family. It happens every day.

While this is all good in theory, the support and encouragement to pursue those dreams is often met by skepticism and cries of irresponsibility. We tell our young people to follow their dreams. When they actual do, and its not on a well tread path of stability and financial prosperity, we call them naive, irresponsible, and even selfish. An undergraduate student aimed towards a STEM, business, or medical career is met with praise. A student majoring in liberal arts or the humanities is met with skepticism unless they’re going on to become a teacher or further education. Think I’m crazy? How many times have you heard the words, “What are you going to do with that?” (GREAT ARTICLE..READ IT)

Many people have also shared they think what I’m doing is awesome, what a great opportunity, and they regret not making similar decision when they were young. I’ve received skeptical questions dozens of times from friends, family, and acquaintances since leaving my job. Why in the world would I quit a stable job? Can’t you just learn Chinese and work at the same time? So you want to live in China forever? People my age are usually just curious what I envision for myself going forward. However, I cringe whenever I hear the question, “What are you going to do with that?” from older generations because I saw it asked of so many liberal arts majors in college when I was doing the smart thing by becoming an engineer. It is laced with implication that what I’m doing is irresponsible because they don’t see the tangible benefit…pure self-indulgence until I snap back to reality. “You’re made to feel like you’re crazy: crazy to forsake the sure thing, crazy to think it could work, crazy to imagine that you even have a right to try.”

I’m pursuing my own truth and my own path to success in this world. That is the American Dream right, the freedom to embark on that journey? Yet when I look around, I see how the American Dream has been hijacked by materialism. If you ask many Americans and people around the world, the American Dream is having the house, two cars, kids running around with the dog in the backyard, vacations to the beach etc, etc, etc. It has caused many Americans to rationalize working a soul crushing to job to live for the weekends and to buy stuff. Yes, stuff. Our national ethos is more and more about the cowardly values of comfort, convenience, security, predictability, control (from article above) all so we can obtain the image of a “successful” life over what is little more than simple materialism. Yet we praise our nation’s history of risk takers. It just doesn’t make sense.

If we continue the path of defining material goods as success and the American Dream, we will lose ourselves in the process. The free means to pursue your vision of success is what has made America a success story and why so many people flock to this country.

What does this have to do with China and why is it on this blog?

The main difference between the Chinese dream and the American  Dream though is the Chinese focus on the “national rejuvenation.” The Chinese Dream is more about the Chinese nation reclaiming its rightful status. Only when the country is strong can people lead successful lives. This is the exact opposite of the American Dream. The American Dream essentially states that the country is strong because individuals have the opportunity for success. Whereas the Chinese Dream states that individuals’ strength and success is provided by the strong state, aka the CCP.

However, I’m not here to talk about national propaganda campaigns. Most Chinese are so numb to them anyway that its not worth discussing in great length in this post. I would say the Chinese Dream for the individual is improving their livelihood and reaching a level of prosperity not imagined a generation ago. Unfortunately, this manifests as materialism, corruption because the general Chinese population all started at ground zero 30 years ago with an understanding of limited resources, better than most Americans by comparison. This reminds me of American baby boomers who were raised by frugal parents that experienced the Great Depression and later wanted to give their children everything they never had.

While the Chinese national dialogue stresses collective effort, the practical application is only within one’s family or guanxi network. This may even sound noble in theory, doing everything in this world for your family, but it worries me in practice. You can justify a lot of wrong in this world in the name of your family. Bribes are so pervasive in Chinese culture, even bribing doctors and teachers. “Why wouldn’t I do everything I can to help my family?” is an argument I’ve heard repeatedly.

On the micro scale, similar to petty theft, it may not seem like a big deal. On the macro scale, it can even cause society to break down because of a never ending ripple effect that leads to moral decay because of absence of simply empathy and lack of trust.  I bet the recent chemical warehouse explosion in Tianjin was caused by somebody cutting corners, likely rationalizing that they’re not hurting anybody and earning more money for them and their family. Look what happened. Every day you can find news reports of building collapses, sink holes, or food scandals. It hurts a lot of people.

Drawing the comparison back to American Baby Boomers, who many predict are the first American generation to leave the country worse off than they found it, Americans are only now learning their lesson. Corporate responsibility is more and more important, especially to millennials who are demanding more and more from their employers and corporations in general. A national dream focused on the ends instead of the means lead to cutting corners on financial ratings leading to the sub-prime mortgage crisis…7 years later and we still haven’t fully recovered. China prides itself on learning from the West’s mistakes. However, it’s incessant pursuit of results, with means always justifying the means, has caused their financial system to slowly unravel, and a ripple affect recently beginning to affect markets globally. Do we even need to talk about the environment? Their economic stimulus caused comodity markets to balloon but the recent economic slowdown is affecting every economy tied to it. yada yada yada.

What I’m trying to say is, our macro world is a summation of all of our individual lives. While one person’s greed may not affect many people, a society chasing materialism will lead to larger economic problem that affects many many more. We learned this the hard way in the U.S. in 2007-2008. China needs to learn from those mistakes. If their economy falters, it will affect us globally as western countries currently have very little maneuverability for austerity measures as we continue to recover from the last decade.

So as many individuals continue to preach the mantra of individualism in less obvious ways of “I don’t care what people do with their lives as long as it doesn’t affect me,” we need to realize their decisions do affect you, even if it is indirectly. Only comparing the changes in the American Dream over the past century, with my experience and understanding of the Chinese dream, and what is happening to the global economy, have I seen the importance of the moral conviction in our everyday decisions and how we lead our lives. 

While we might think we’re not hurting anybody individually, national trends do affect everybody, both good and bad. So if we fail to recognize this, we may ultimately be hurting ourselves because national trends that negatively affect our well being, such as a faulty economy or a stock market crash, may ultimately prevent us from achieving those dreams we’re trying to pursue, both in the United States and China. 

However, it’s important to note that I am full of hope. Corporate responsibility and NGOs are more and more important in the United States. The Chinese are also becoming more and more socially aware as they gain disposable income.
(This post did not turn out how I expected. Who knows if it even makes sense. The connections make sense in my head.)

Writing about China is Tough

I haven’t posted on this blog in quite some time, not because I have nothing to write about regarding China, but mainly because I have no idea where to even start. I tend to become paranoid about things outside of my control. I’m paranoid after a bad day, some blog post and subsequent negative rant will come to haunt me one day. However, this will be the case for my entire generation. Good luck running for office! Considering my career goals are shifting more and more towards China, sometimes I imagine somebody digging deep into this blog to when I was a student and finding some position of mine on China that has changed and questioned my credibility. Sometimes I simply have no idea what to write about. The Western media talks about the SAME things regarding China, about anything really. Ai Weiwei got his passport back OMG!! Its tough to find authentic viewpoints anymore. Non-political, investigative journalism appears to be dead. Many Chinese commentators, even those who “speak Chinese” don’t appear to have spent considerable time working in China. The people who have tend to summarize Chinese articles and insert some commentary at the end of the article. There are some great China journalists and authors, but the majority seem to be writing for the casual China observer, not someone entirely informed about what is actually going on. Xi who? Li who? The gaokao is like the SAT right? Where’s Taiwan? The phrase 现买现卖 comes to mind. There also seems to be a media mafia around China. Any idea outside the party line gets lambasted because they’re “misinformed” or “out of touch”…hello David Schambaugh. The last point is the most frustrating. Nobody has a monopoly on China and those preaching western values should at a minimum nurture varying domestic dialogue.

Just a rant.

Speaking of western journalism regarding China, get your story straight on the Communist Party. The abbreviation is CCP, not CPC. The Chinese is 中国共产党 which means its CCP. Case closed. Thats like being a journalist covering Washington DC and calling someone representative when they’re a senator. Details mater.

Rant over.

Does Anybody Agree with David Shambaugh?

David Shambaugh’s recent WSJ essay about The Coming Chinese Crackup has more than made its rounds in the circles of Chinese experts and observers. For somebody ranked as high as number 2 by the Chinese government for the most influential in the U.S. regarding China, his words carry weight, and therefore more criticism. Simply Google “David Shambaugh” and you will see the plethora of follow up articles refuting his position (there are too many to link). The most common rebuttals include claims of Cold War mentality, there being nothing new in his observations, and worst of all, claiming his understanding of China is incorrect, shallow, and even naive.

I expect rebuttals from the Global Times and other Chinese publications. However, the outcry from non-Chinese journalists covering China and “seasoned” China observers is nothing short of embarrassing. It has exposed the arrogance of those covering China and simple hypocrisy of many journalists.

Why is it hypocritical? The same people who acknowledge having no direct insight into the inter-workings of the CCP, a very common comment during any plenum, claim Shambaugh’s conclusion of a coming crackup to be outright wrong. You can’t have it both ways. How can journalists criticize the lack of freedom of speech and opposing views in China, to almost equate an opposing view of  China to outright blasphemy?

I haven’t seen anybody in a major publication come out and support David Shambaugh. Not a single one.

In a world of China bears and bulls, at least one prominent China observer has to agree to his overall position, or at the very least entertain the idea. Yet I’m simply not seeing it. Are journalists too afraid to support his position and lose their Chinese visa? Have those covering China simply all unknowingly become panda huggers? Have they become biased in their own reporting because of the time they’ve personally invested in learning Chinese and understanding China? How can the same people disagree over China’s actions in the South China Sea, the future of the Chinese property market, the value of the Renminbi, strength of China’s economy, future GDP growth, the definition of “The Chinese Dream”, AIIB, the New Silk Road initiative, degree of repression, etc, etc, etc, all believe that the CCP regime will currently go on indefinitely, with no risk of a breakup? That’s almost equivalent to Democrats and Republicans disagreeing over policy yet all agreeing Barack Obama is a good president. Something doesn’t add up. Instead of his essay leading to a discussion, it turned into people trying to outright shut him down.

An objective analysis is always supported. But how can somebody say a subjective, opinion based essay, which contains no data, is wrong? Is there one correct view of China? Is there one correct view of American politics?…of course not. I find people citing their own extensive experience in China to support their disagreement with Shambaugh to be outright arrogant. I don’t understand how so many China observers tend to stake a claim over China, with their understanding being superior to other’s. China varies drastically by region and industry. I’ve spent my career working with SOEs (and indirectly the CCP) in manufacturing in the northeast. This has shaped my understanding of China to be different than somebody working in finance in Shanghai. In a complex country of 1.3 billion people, do people really expect there to be a consensus on understanding China?

The same is true for foreigners who speak Chinese. I’ve known people to speak other languages and I’ve never seen the same air of arrogance as those who speak Chinese. Sure, its a hard language and speaking it well is an achievement. The same can be said for various other languages and any other career discipline. Sure, I speak Chinese. However, I certainly know I have a long way to go and will forever be learning this language. But I’m quick to stay away from people who outright say their Chinese is good. Simple humility goes a long way. It seems to be the case in journalism too…little humility with few people knowing what they don’t know.

Many people who speak Chinese and “understand China” are quick to dismiss other’s opinions for lacking a detailed understanding. They make claims that China is nuanced and the person simply isn’t seeing the big picture. This happens a lot in business and is something I’ve caught myself doing from time to time. My management will make decisions I don’t necessarily agree with regarding China, causing me to think they’re not seeing the big picture in China. While I acknowledge that to fully understand a foreign society and culture you need to speak the language, I question if I’m also biased because I speak the language, even though I tend to be hawkish. Those who “study Chinese for business” are quick to burn out. So getting to an advanced level requires some emotional investment and genuine interest. Positive motivation is stronger than negative motivation. This makes me believe that those who speak Chinese must be conscious of the inherent bias towards China that comes with the territory. I believe most journalists and academics fail to make this realization. Despite the criticism of shallow scaremongering, I found Michael Pillsbury’s book of China’s 100 year marathon to replace the U.S. to accurately represent what I’ve seen on the ground working with SOEs.

Simply put, I was disappointed in the coverage of Shambaugh’s essay. Maybe people just pounced on the opportunity to disagree with a China expert. But it’s one thing to say you disagree, and another to say somebody’s view and understanding is incorrect. There’s no one worldview that governs the truth of China and no ones person has a claim to the correct understanding. Nobody knows anything for sure, especially regarding the future of China and the CCP.

Hardened By Experience

People yap on about how we’re all a sum of of experiences. People often talk about how our experiences shape our worldview. However, being an expat in China, people never talk about how your relatively localized experiences here can shape your view for the entire country and its people. The same is true for any person in any foreign country.

Any responsible China scholar or businessman knows to address China region by region. Outside of recreational travel, the entirety of my China experience has been in the northeast (that’s Manchuria for you old folks). I first came to China three years ago as a student in Dalian. I didn’t know how well I had it then. Dalian is one of the cleanest cities I’ve been to in China. Not too mention it has mountains AND ocean. What else do you need? The last two years I’ve been coming to China for work and have split time between both Harbin in Shenyang, both Dongbei powerhouses.

Despite Dalian being fairly international by being an hour flight from both South Korea and Japan, it is still Northeast China. People tend to be a bit more aggressive and straightforward; its more true the more north you go. It was my first time outside of the US (Canada and the Bahamas do not count) and I went by myself, not part of a study abroad group. It was a manventure I had been looking forward to for months for both increasing my Chinese and for life experience. I remember when I first crossed into Chinese airspace, as giddy as a schoolgirl, I thought to myself, “There’s Chinese people down there.”

I learned quickly how warm and welcoming Chinese people can be to outsiders. They’re extremely proud of their country, its history, and its culture and are extremely complimented by any foreigner who’s interested and willing to learn their language. Also as an American, I appreciate how relaxed and comfortable people are in China. Yes there are local customs and formalities. However, the way people dress and behave on a daily basis allows you to put your guard down. I like that. When not driving or in a crowd, the only uptight people are the exorbitantly wealthy 0.001%. I had strangers in Yunnan toast me with baijiu because the Americans helped get the Japanese out of China, and had a rancher let me ride his horse and invite me into his house for breakfast when in Inner Mongolia. During that time as a student, I didn’t have much money at my disposal. This caused me to take trains and buses when I wanted to travel long distances, and public buses instead of taxis locally. It caused me to really look at China from the bottom up because I was pinching pennies myself. That’s the lens I try to continue looking at China, the people, not the government and its institutions.

However, for much of the last two years, I’ve been coming to Harbin and Shenyang for work and I’m trying to maintain a balanced view of China. I work on a pretty large contract with high visibility with two state-owned enterprises (SOE). I can confidently say, it has shown me China in the absolutely worst possible light. If it wasn’t for my time here as a student, and me holding onto parts of China I’ve already experienced, with personal growth and long term goals aside, I probably wouldn’t still be here. SOEs are bastions of bureaucracy, nepotism, and incompetency. All I’ll say here is the redundancy in job function and departments as a function of SOEs social welfare makes it very easy to shirk personal responsibility. Not to mention in China, its risky to stick your neck out and fail. Most notably people wear their Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pin on their work shirt every day. Its a very real influence where I work, not to mention how political the project is to begin because of its scale.

How bad can the CCP be at work? That’s debatable. You’ll get different opinions depending upon who you ask. I’ll just say its real. I’ve been on my project long enough to see young professionals join the party and see their careers accelerate as a direct result. I’ve also seen people get kicked out and be cast aside. Ideals aside, the CCP at a minimum exists as a third party pulling strings from behind the scenes. Something might make sense from a business perspective, which is how most westerners think and see China. However, the political motivation and goals of the CCP are real and may sometimes conflict with what makes sense according to a sound business strategy. It is frustrating.

What this boils down to is the vast majority of my time in China has been in a work environment where nothing is as it seems and I don’t know who I can trust…I can’t trust anybody actually. My social interaction at work is a game of chess. To get anything done, I’m forced to think of what’s going on behind the scenes, who has political clout, and who will actually listen to the words I’m saying. The SOE and CCP climate causes for a higher sense of patriotism and nationalism. Therefore, some people don’t want anything to do with me when it comes to getting the job done; China can do it on its own. I get that. We Americans are notoriously patriotic. However, we all have a job to do.

Because I’m here for work on a large project, I get that special expat treatment that nobody deserves but is common practice. I get a driver to work. I live in a nice hotel in a good part of town. Any guests who aren’t here for business are part of that 0.001% I was talking about earlier. They’re likely above the law so they treat other guests and staff with such disrespect, its actually appalling. However, most of the people that are here for business have their heads so far up their asses that I don’t know how they get dressed in the morning. Cool, you work in China. So do a couple hundred thousand other foreigners. You’re not special. And guests across the board have more affairs than I care to acknowledge. Foreigners with wives back home have some local girl (sometimes their translator), followed by the wife and kids coming to visit a few weeks later. Local Chinese have that 小三 that is always humorous. You can’t tell me 50+ old government official with a combover with 20 year old arm candy is true love.

I expect the same from foreigners coming to the US. Spending one week in New York vs one week in Texas will show you the obvious differences in American culture, similar to a week in Harbin vs a week in Kunming. Of course every individual has the wherewithal to understand that people are people and you should treat everyone for the individual that they are. However, while that is true, years in one place will take their toll. Obvious someone who spent two years living in Dallas, Texas will have a different view of someone who spent two years in New York City. Even two foreigners spending years in New York, one living in the Upper East Side in Manhattan, and one living in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, will have completely different experiences, interact with people of different backgrounds, and over time form different views of New York and America.

What I”m getting at is I’m jealous of the people who have a more positive view and experience in China than I do. I’ve had great times here and wouldn’t change it for the world. The rat race and social anxiety of China will harden you. But I feel my experience has hardened me more than most. I see China through a lens of arrogance, materialism, inefficiency, and mistrust which ultimately affects my interaction with those around me and my view on China as a whole. I know there are a lot of positive aspects to this country, because I’ve experienced much of it. However, I simply can’t trust people here. My experience here overwhelmingly supports that view. I came here as a bright eyed college student looking to make friends and live in China. However, I’ve ultimately accepted that I will always be an outsider and expect most, but not all, of my relationship with people to be kept at arm’s length.

(I’ve wrote and re-wrote this post at least a dozen times over the past few months. I basically played musical chairs with each paragraph.)


Can a Foreigner Understand China?

Can a foreigner understand China? It depends on who you ask. Most Chinese tend to say no. Arrogant western businessmen read a book or two and claim to be experts. What’s my answer? Well…if someone claim’s to understand China, they’re either a liar or a fool. I tend to follow up that proclamation with…After a week in China, you can write a book. After a month, you can write an article. After a year in China, you might be able to write a paragraph. Saying you understand a culture is the same as saying you’re fluent in a language. Its a relative term. There is always something you haven’t encountered. But that doesn’t mean you don’t understand it.

Just because it is your native culture or language, doesn’t automatically make you an expert. English is my native language. That doesn’t automatically make me more qualified to teach it than somebody who actually specialized in English at university, no matter what country they’re from. The same goes for American culture. I may have more insight into the nuances of American culture because I grew up in nothing but America, surrounded by Americans. However, that doesn’t automatically make my point of view superior to somebody halfway around the world who specialized in American Studies in university, spent years in America, and speaks English. I could even argue that an outsider has the potential to understand a culture more objectively because they don’t have an inherent bias because it is unavoidably their frame of reference.

Chinese cling to their “5000 years” of civilization and culture. They often preach about how complicated and layered things are in China; therefore foreigners can’t understand. Wang Qishan in 2011 in an interview with Charlie Rose, then Vice-Premier, went so far as to say:

It is not easy to really know China because China is an ancient civilization and we are of the oriental culture. And for the Americans, the United States is the world’s number one superpower, and the American people are a very simple people. If they’re asked to choose to understand a foreign country, their first choice would be the European countries, and the South American countries may come second. It was not only until recent years that the American people have begun to pay more attention to China. But over the years American media coverage of China has been scarce, and if there were some coverage, most of them are lopsided.

I remember that interview clearly. What the hell does that even mean? Are Chinese genetically pre-dispositioned from birth to understand China because they’re Chinese? I took offense to it then and take offense to it now. This carries the typical air of arrogance of the subtle Chinese (official/government/party) narrative that foreigners are not as cultured, sophisticated, or layered as their Chinese counterparts. Personally, I find that narrative to be self-defeating. Chinese are very good at telling westerners that Chinese culture is very different from western culture and therefore difficult to understand. However, they often fail to take the time to notice the layers and sophistication of other cultures (evidence by above statement). Therefore, people lack the sophistication and wherewithal to evaluate another culture for what it is by judging it based upon their own set of values that don’t apply in the culture they’re evaluating.

This narrative permeates into Chinese society. Westerners in China often get frustrated when talking to Chinese about China. Their ideas are often dismissed because they’re not Chinese so they can’t understand. We Americans tend to see situations as black or white. After you peel back the many layers of details, nuance, and context, things are either right or they’re wrong. I would even go so far as to say we pride ourselves on taking the moral highground. However, the Chinese tend to play the card of culture, sophistication, and nuance…particularly nuance. Too many times when discussing issues at work here in China, I hear, “This is a special case.” Things are right or wrong based on context, not a third party’s criteria. This is why foreigners say contracts don’t matter to people in China.

Back to the infamous interview quote…there is a difference between “simple” and “simplistic.” I’ll admit Americans tend to be simplistic. We break down a situation or problem into its barebones essentials. Everything else outside of that is fluff. We care to tackle and discuss the root of a problem, not dance around the periphery. I remember venting to a (Chinese) translator at work a couple years ago. The Chinese party was caught up on something that I deemed negligible to the task at hand. I used the phrase, “They can’t see the forest through the trees.” She immediately replied with, “The devil is in the details.” It showed me a fundamental difference in assessing a situation and tackling a problem…

The following is fairly raw thought that I haven’t articulated before so forgive me for explaining it poorly. I’ve never explained it before and it is completely subjective (this entire post merely opinion anyway)…From my time working in China, it appears that many people formulate their understanding through a summation of details. They then try to sum those details into a larger idea. When doing so to form a hypothesis, problem solve, create a game plan, whatever, they’re not very good at picking out trends, form groups, find outliers, decide what is relevant to their goals, etc. It seems to ALL be EQUALLY important. I blame this on the Chinese educational system where what the teacher says goes and everything is needed for the test…rote learning just to pass a test where all information and details are equally important to pass and get a high score. All information is equal when all you’re concerned about is point value. There is no reason to think critically about the information outside of merely knowing it.

(I’m using the example of the educational system here for simplicity. Its part of a wider trend of “form over substance” that is all too common which I hope to touch upon in a later post…communism)

How does all of this relate to foreigners understanding China? When you’ve been conditioned for 15+ years to get a certain score to pass a test, of course you’re going to get fixated on details. If you misread a detail in a question, you may get it wrong. So when foreigners talk about China, of course they’re going to get some details wrong. In addition to the widespread notion that Chinese culture is too complicated for foreigners (westerners) to understand in the first place, any slip up in detail reinforces the belief that foreigners don’t and can’t understand China. This thought process fails to recognize how foreigners can and do understand Chinese culture as a whole. We understand what makes society tick, what motivates people, culture and customs, etc. Certain nuances we fail to learn or know but that is to be expected. We can still understand everything for the most part. It is possible!

Here’s some food for thought:  Take someone from Northeast China for example and throw them into Guangdong, Yunnan or some other southern province. I’d like to see their cultural understanding compared to a foreigner who has lived and worked there for a few years and speaks Chinese.

70% on a test is still passing! Its about time foreigners got credit for understanding China and Chinese culture. It is possible and happens all the time.

(Disclaimer:  I realize I’m painting with a broad brush. I’ve encountered many Chinese that are culturally sensitive. Unfortunately, that experience is the exception when I’m in China and often experienced only when outside of China or dealing with people who have worked or studied abroad.)

China Needs To Learn “The Golden Rule”

“One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.”

This concept has been pounded into my head ever since I could form coherent sentences. It has been engrained into American society so much that a teacher can ask his/her class of 5 year-old kindergarteners, “Class, what is the golden rule?” and the class will reply in unison. I’m not one to advocate imposing one’s culture on another but this concept is so universal that it is simply a human principle that extends beyond cultures. 

Any foreigner who has spent considerable time in China can attest that first person relationships are absolutely great. However, the third person relationships are nonexistent. Crowds are a unruly with all the pushing and shoving. Driving is a disaster. Why even paint lines on the road? Trash is everywhere. Product quality is abysmal. And any time you’re trying to buy something you’re likely being cheated. China is a country of rights and no duties.

When you’re in China, you’re in line behind 1 billion people. If you don’t fight for your family and your place in society, there’s over a billion people willing to take your place. In the not so distant past where Mao’s Great Leap Forward to famine killed 30 million people (here), deprivation was everywhere and people had to stake their claim to survive. I get it. However, everybody has a seat on the airplane. Everybody is going to get on and off the bus/subway. The daily pushing and shoving is inexcusable. I shouldn’t get bumped into or cut off on the sidewalk when there’s nobody within 10 feet of me. I realize there are still some remnants of the communist system, particularly meal times at work. Often if you don’t get into the cafeteria before meal time is over, you won’t be eating lunch that day. However, Mao’s great famine is over and everybody has rice on the table. Any position you’re fighting for now in life is theoretical, not a physical place in line for grain, rice, or cooking oil. Calm down. 

Countless times i’ve been riding in a car that gets cut off, the driving honks his horn, slows down, and gives the other driver a death stare, only to cut somebody off five minutes later. People when driving only care about getting themselves from point A to point B. Everybody else is in their way. There is no yielding, no turn signals, and no stopping at intersections, even when pedestrians are present. It is outright dangerous, especially because traffic related accidents are the leading cause of death for people under 45 in China according to the World Health Organization (here). Nobody else matters as long as you get to where you’re going. I have never seen a child in a car seat or booster chair. 

The concept of trash is a tricky one. Many people throw trash on the ground because “it is somebody’s job to pick it up.” Maybe its ignorance. Maybe its complete disregard. Who knows? However, the use of public space carries the idea that “you don’t have any more of a right to this space than I do” versus “I owe it to you to keep this place clean so you can use it too.” Just take a look at the 3 Gorges Dam for example. Trash is everywhere you look in China. Nobody has the right to complain about air pollution in China when they can’t even pick up and take care of their own communities. 

According to the Wall Street Journal (here), and local news stations, the city of Qingdao spent $236,000 in just over 1 month supplying toilet paper to public restrooms in 24 locations. That’s $10,000 a month per location! People were taking all the free toilet paper for themselves instead of leaving it for other people to share the same benefits as them. Isn’t that shitty.

I could go on and on with numerous examples of selfish behavior. China is a country of rights and no duties. People are so concerned about their lot in life that they don’t care one bit about people they don’t know. I realize I’m generalizing but its by far the rule. However, what people in China fail to realize is that by being selfish in the short term to get that immediate reward, its actually detrimental in the long term. If everybody could buy into the concept of duty instead of rights and claims, people would actually be more satisfied and life would be better. Treat people how you would want to be treated. It is so terribly simple.


Nobody likes to be pushed, even Chinese people. If people stopped pushing and cutting each other off in crowds because they realized that the fight is purely theoretical and nothing of substance, then they wouldn’t get pushed back in return. People’s anxieties levels would decrease. All is good in the world.

Traffic is like fluid flow. Only so many cars can travel down the highway at a certain speed within a certain amount of time. Cutting people off causes people behind you to break, delaying the trip for everybody else behind you. If people realized this and stopped cutting people off, then people wouldn’t have cars cutting people off in front of them and everybody else would get to their destination sooner.

Trash is simple. Put it in your pocket until you find a trash can. You’ll feel good about how clean your neighborhood is and your local 城管 can use money to pay for real improvements to make your neighborhood or city that much better rather than pay picking up after you. 

If people weren’t so focused about the short term gain of cheating a customer for an extra profit, then they wouldn’t be cheated by other people and possibly losing more money than they just gained. 

If people didn’t sacrifice the quality of their manufactured product to make a quick buck, then you wouldn’t have milk scandals, fast food meat scandals, etc. They in turn wouldn’t have to question the quality of the product they’re buying. This would actually serve Chinese business well because the Chinese consumer would begin to trust Chinese companies more and reduce the purchase of foreign goods because of dependable quality. 

I could go on forever, seriously. But when people fail to buy into a system, it’s worse for them in the long run. Implementing the Golden Rule in China in the over-simplifeid ways I mentioned sounds good in theory but is next to impossible in practice. It would take a generation; a generation after the current narcissistic generation of “little emperors” who are just as bad or worse than the Millennials in the US. 

All Foreigners Speak English, Right?

Living in China has taught me two things about geography.

  1. There are only two nationalities:  Chinese and Foreign.
  2. There are only two languages:  Chinese and English.

It drives me absolutely insane. Is it an overgeneralization? Absolutely. However, its not too far from reality. What if I said “ni hao” to every Asian I saw outside of China? It would be considered ignorant and racist. 

Anybody who is not Chinese is referred to as a foreigner. The term is either 外国人 or 老外. When I feel like making a point about being foreign, I’ll even use 洋鬼子 in an attempt at self-deprication to exaggerate the often arbitrary distinction here between Chinese and foreigners. When speaking Chinese, I’ll use 外国人 because I feel 老外 is a bit outdated and carries a bit of a derogatory tone. Despite the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the United Negro College Fund still being around today, among others, you wouldn’t use the term “colored people” or “negro” in the US despite its wide acceptance 50+ years ago. They’re simply outdated and raises eyebrows. However, I’m not as sensitive about the term 老外 as others.

If you read the news, its foreign this and Chinese that. If you read about the Century of Humiliation, it’s FOREIGN aggression against China. The literature often fails to break down the distinction between countries, with the exception of Japan. Often, anything non-Chinese gets the “foreign” adjective placed in front of it regardless if it is relevant to the subject matter. I often correct people at work for saying “foreigner” in my presence telling them to refer to me by name or use my company name. 

I got in the elevator this morning with two women and a little boy. In Chinese they told the boy, “Say ‘good morning’ because all foreigners speak English.” The little boy, about 4 years old, said good morning. I just smiled and bit my tongue. Why did I not reply by also saying good morning? I didn’t want to give those women the sense of satisfaction that all foreigners speak English…because they don’t. I smiled at the little boy because I wanted to be polite and acknowledge the boy’s successful attempt at speaking English to a foreigner. Most kids would hide behind their parents’ legs in complete and utter shyness. You have to be nice to the kids. I came so close to saying, “Not all foreigners speak English.” This was far from the first time and it won’t be the last.

How ignorant can you be about the world?

A few months ago, I was chatting with a hotel employee about Chinese vs English after she said my Chinese was “so good” yada yada yada. She was commenting how it was so easy to understand me when speaking English because my pronunciation is so clear and then began complaining about the English of the Italian, French, German, and Austrian guests at the hotel. She then started complaining with disgust about how their English is so hard to understand and that they need to speak more clearly. I then began explaining to her that English is my native language and English is a second or third language for them. This is somebody who went to university for four years and works at a hotel with many international guests. What a headache.

The rhetoric here in China is generally, “if you learn English you can speak with foreigners.” That statement cannot be more incorrect. Although many foreigners in China have passable English, that is not always the case. We all know Americans and Brits traditionally aren’t conversant in a foreign language. But the majority of Europeans, Asians and Africans here are well educated and have picked up English along the way to at least a conversational level. However, I’ve run into many people here who cannot speak English. And that’s okay. The assumption that somebody (white) not from China can speak English is certainly prejudice.

This all generally applies to whites in China though. The exception is Russians, particularly in Northeast China because of Russian influence and the history between China and Russia. Other Asians generally get their own distinction, specifically Japanese. This is understandable due to proximity. 

I don’t blame people in China for being ignorant. They are only a product of their environment, particularly their education system. I blame the government and the CCP for perpetuating the narrative that its China vs the rest of the world. If China wants to be respected on the world stage, its people cannot be ignorant about the other nations they are dealing with. It affects the daily interactions Chinese have with other foreign nationals. I find it ironic that the Chinese preach about foreigners not understanding Chinese culture leading to misunderstanding. However, the average person, and even upper middle class workers who deal with foreigners on a regular basis, cannot make distinctions about the foreign cultures they’re dealing with. A discussion on the CCP’s choice to keep the Chinese people ignorant is a separate discussion. However, I believe the simple rhetoric of China vs foreign is a choice. Any historical implications are negligible after Mao and the CCP engaged in Linguistic Engineering

There really is no profound point to this post. It simply gets old hearing about how all foreigners speak English and everybody who isn’t Chinese is foreign, not from a specific country. For anyone who says “that’s just the way it is in China” or thinks expats in China are too sensitive, I challenge you to say “ni hao” or “konichiwa” to every Asian person you see at home and see what happens. 

Your Life is Your Journey and Yours Alone

I’m currently in the middle of nowhere China loading some equipment onto a boat before shipping it halfway up China’s coast. I’ve had some quality personal time during this endeavor and can’t stop thinking about where I am in the world and what in the world am I doing here.

I think it all hit me after I met with the captain of the ship Friday morning to clear up some final paperwork issues. I climbed aboard, without a safety harness across the three foot gap of water leading to the ocean below, with a dozen sailors in their underwear standing across watching a foreigner in his Chinos and steel-toe Dr. Marten’s stumble upon their ship. We climbed up two flights of stairs to the bridge to talk. While chatting in Chinese with the captain and crew who speak such Shanghainese infused Mandarin I could barely follow along, while still wearing nothing but their skivvies, I kept thinking to myself, “Well this is a first. Nobody at home can relate to this.” I loved every minute of it.

This is one of many experiences I’ve had that makes China exciting for me. I’m put in such unique situations for an American of any age and background that are so intangible but so valuable for my personal growth that I can’t exactly put it into words. Too often I’m thrown into vastly different worlds from what I have at home that make me feel I can handle just about any ambiguous situation that comes my way. The crux of it all is NOBODY will be able to relate to even half of my experiences here in China, and that’s okay.

I get the feeling from many people taking work assignments in China, and from naive youth at home interested in the Middle Kingdom, that after some time in China, the world is their oyster and they will undoubtedly have a leg up on the competition for the duration of their career. While experience in China is valuable for SOME business and industries, that outlook simply isn’t true. Xi Jinping is not Willy Wonka handing out golden tickets. If you come to China it needs to be for you. It’s that simple. Your China experience will directly benefit you, your life, and your career, but only in ways that you alone will truly know. Sadly, after returning home, people who have never been to China (pretty much everybody) can’t relate, and not every business has dealings in or with China. It’s up to you to show them what you gained from your experience abroad. Just saying you worked in China isn’t enough anymore.

I don’t mean to be all gloom and doom here. I’m just trying to be constructive. I’ve crossed paths with too many people who coast during their time in China ignorantly thinking it’s their ticket to the C-Suite at home. In order to truly grow from your experience you need to reflect upon it while you’re living it. The water cooler talk in China centers around the negative, but the positives are just as many. Living here isn’t easy for most people but it’s only through that struggle that you gain anything. For example, how are you supposed to become a better communicator if you’ve never had to truly struggle communicating? Through struggle comes growth, but only if you realize it.

So if you come to China, or go to any other foreign country for that matter, it needs to be for you. Your life is your journey and yours alone. Doing anything in life only for the purpose of what may or may not come after is a pretty cynical way to live. You can’t move abroad to prove something to your family, your friends, your boss, and definitely not your future boss. It needs to be for you. You could spend a decade in China and the only thing you’re guaranteed when you go home is a pat on the back and “welcome home.”

Who’s Your China Guy?

Max Baucus is set to be the next US Ambassador to China. After his congressional hearing this week, I seriously doubt he’s the man for the job because of his lack of real China experience. Interacting with China to push America’s free trade doctrine does not qualify you to become the next ambassador to China any more than it qualify’s me to open up my own Chinese restaurant because I eat Chinese food every day. The man was just doing his job, nothing special. Diplomacy is a skill set, and doing business deals with specific agendas is not the same as foreign diplomacy which requires breadth and depth. I expect ambassadors to be functional experts of the country of their post; former Ambassador John Huntsman was one such individual. However, I’m not here to talk about Max Baucus but rather about who foreign nations and businesses send to China on their behalf. Who is their “China guy?”

In my experience there are two schools of thought when sending somebody to China. You either send the best person qualified to push your agenda, or you send a person with a working knowledge of the local language and culture that is able to bridge the gap to provide mutual understanding. I consider Max Baucus to be the former and John Huntsman to be the latter. Each has their own benefit.

One strategy is to send your “expert.” This allows that person to speak with infalibility on the given topic and commands respect because of their passion and success in their given field. For China this is a viable strategy when somebody is dispatched for a specific task. Because of the influence of Confucianism, the Chinese respect seniority and experience, sometimes blindly. You can actually use this to your advantage and send somebody who is older, inflate their title, and pull the strings from back home. For example, one of my coworkers is almost 40 years older than me. We both could say the exact same thing word for word but his statement will receive less doubt because of his age.

The other strategy is to send somebody with substantial China experience, possibly even formal education and language training. This allows you to bridge the culture gap and make more of a personal connection with the Chinese party. I personally think this is the way to go. “Relationship” actually mean something in China and business is not just business. Being able to use chopsticks, hold their liquor, and know simple cultural dos and don’ts is a necessity here in China. Western businessmen preach about “the relationship” because they read it in a book somewhere, but the Chinese expect to see it somehow. They’ll even accept a less than desirable deal for the sake of the relationship and future deals. Somebody only coming to China for negotiations or scheduled visits won’t cut it because its seen as the bare minimum. You wouldn’t only take your wife out to dinner on her birthday and your anniversary and you should expect to show more of a commitment to your China venture than one or two week long visits a year, if you’re serious. The Chinese see a foreigner learning their language and culture as a sign of respect. Use that as a tool.

However, many people view those with China experience as a weakness, not a strength. Those that speak the language can be seen as overly sympathetic and a liability. I find that to be unfortunate and a remnant of Cold War mentality. I’m obviously biased towards sending somebody with a working knowledge of China. I’ve seen too many mistakes that could have been easily avoided if somebody with basic and language and cultural skills was involved to provide input. My ideal strategy would be to send somebody with a working knowledge of China for long term assignments and somebody with specific expertise for short term assignments and specific agendas.

So who is your China guy?

Eating With The People


I don’t know if I sit at the cool kids table or the table of outcasts. However, eating lunch in the company cafeteria is quite the experience. It reminds me of high school with everybody jostling for a position in line and making sure they sit with their friends. There is always somebody staring at us. The Chinese joke about how bad the food is so seeing some foreigners eat there must be perplexing. Usually, all the foreigners and customers eat downstairs in private rooms, family style, but we’ve started eating in the cafeteria. I like it better actually because of the atmosphere. We also have to be the bad guys sometimes so I like to think it makes is look human.

Foreigners tend to self segregate and also get treated better than the average Chinese worker. So us bumping elbows with the workers and the girls that clean the shop can do nothing but help our image around the factory. I’m not special, nobody is.