Posted by: Richard Marshall | March 21, 2014

On a Year in China

Me Qibao

Me in the snow at Qibao, Shanghai

I have been in New Zealand for the last two months waiting for my new job to start in Malaysia. I wanted to write an overall retrospective of my time in China, and as I am off again in a week I can’t put it off any longer. I was ready to leave Vietnam after three years; leaving China was a much more difficult decision, and in some ways I’m not at all sure it was the right one. I haven’t been entirely sure what to include, so really what follows is just some of my impressions and experiences from living in Shanghai.

***

Applying for jobs in China, I was determined that I wanted to be in Shanghai. Beijing seemed too cold and polluted and Guangzhou spoke Cantonese, a problem for my good intentions to learn Mandarin. In any case, though, Shanghai seemed very alluring. It’s one of those cities where the name alone gives an incredible sense of romance, and conjures images of decadence, cosmopolitanism, adventure. I was concerned that getting a job there might be difficult. Of course, that was before I was aware that EF would give a job to pretty much any warm body who could speak English. I was offered two jobs, but EF’s recruiters seemed more on the ball than Wall Street’s, so I accepted their offer and flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Shanghai.

It was nice arriving at the same time as a large number of new people. I think my induction group in January 2013 in Shanghai was bigger than the whole teaching staff at the British Council in Penang. The first person I met at the airport was Sam Viens, who became a good friend and we later shared an apartment. We were all put up in a hotel called the Rayfont on Yan’an Road. It was a grey tower block which smelled of cigarettes, damp, and food – a characteristically Chinese hotel. Escort cards were pushed under the door which I later found out was pretty common practice. It was very comfortable though and I think we all developed quite a fondness for the place. Shanghai in January was cold and bleak, though in fact I found that quite exciting after three years of summer in Vietnam. From the gym on the top floor of the Rayfont I could look out over the city with it’s teeming elevated highways, tower blocks swimming in the smog, and areas of surviving row houses and Tudorbethan villas from the 1930s. We explored the area around the hotel looking for food options, and a few evenings after work I ate fried noodles on the street with my fingers so cold I could hardly use my chopsticks.

For all my later problems with the company, I have to acknowledge than one of EF’s great strengths was it’s induction. Everyone was friendly and supportive and they made it easy to navigate the complicated paperwork of working in China. Everyone in the induction group was very nice and we got on very well together. We were taken to some nice restaurants for lunches and a bar at Jingan Temple once the training was over. After a few days training I was taken up to my school in a shopping mall at Da Ning Road and shown the ropes there too. It didn’t take long before I was settled into my teaching routine.

Most of us found apartments in an enormous complex called Brilliant City. I later came to feel that the complex had much less to recommend it than people thought at the time. It was big, there were a number of expats, and was fairly close to downtown. There were very few decent places to eat in the vicinity though, and nowhere to get a drink. Street food quickly lost it’s appeal as the weather got warmer and I became more aware of all the concerns swirling around food safety and hygiene in China. The metro stop, Zhong Tan Road, was only on lines three and four which looped around the city centre. This meant that to get into town you almost always had to transfer to another line. The worst transfer of all was at Shanghai Railway Station, a long walk through a dirty, crowded, dismal underpass. I had to do this every day to get to work and although my commute was by no means the worst it came to be real drag. And although all of us in the induction group remained friends, our social lives began to diverge. There were nights in Shanghai when I had a great time out on the town (and much too much to drink), but at the same time I found decreasing desire to get hammered on Tsingtao beer and trawl Shanghai’s overpriced clubs. This was partly because I had much less free time than I did in Vietnam and hated losing precious days off to lousy hangovers. My closest friends from the group became my flatmate Kiyo, and Sam and Mike who shared a flat in the block next door. This was partly an accident of proximity, but also partly because we were either a bit older than most of the others or had experience living abroad already. I ended up spending much more time with them and seeing the others from the group less often.

I struggled to get settled in my first few months. Although China and Vietnam are of course very different I still didn’t have the same sense of excitement I had had the first time I moved to Asia and that I could see in others who had not worked abroad before. Joining a gym was difficult. They all had inconvenient hours and demanded that people sign up for at least a few months. When I eventually did find one near work it was so unpleasant I eventually just gave up.By the end I was doing almost no exercise at all in China, which was bad for me physically and mentally. I had had great hopes of learning Chinese but foolishly didn’t take advantage of EF’s classes. Instead I tried to study on my own and with the help of my friend and colleague Maggie. Somehow I just couldn’t get any traction – I felt at times like I was getting stupider as I got older. I was also trying to maintain my Vietnamese and keep fit and I simply didn’t have the time. So in the end I basically gave up studying too. Money was tricky in the first few months. EF offered us a loan to cover initial apartment costs but then started taking it out of our first paycheck which was only for 3 weeks so for the first month we were really broke. I had to borrow money from my parents which as well as being shameful was also frustrating; after three years in Vietnam I seemed to have moved sideways at best. Rent was paid every three months which was tough for someone with my lack of financial discipline. After the first three months Kiyo’s mom became sick and he had to leave suddenly just as the rent was due. I had to scramble to find a new roommate and managed to lose my bank card in an ATM, so it was a very stressful couple of weeks. Most of these issues were overcome and in a second year I probably could have found a better place to live and become financially stable – the salary was fine. But I ended up feeling doubt and frustration about my life in China that I couldn’t overcome and eventually got worse later in the year.

***

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Lilong in the French Concession

One of the things that I found most amazing about China was how my preconceived ideas about the place were proved to be really limited or inaccurate. I think my understanding of the country was similar to many people (and indeed, I ended up arguing with other expats as my views began to change). I thought that Mao was a bad man but he had at least brought peace and unity to China and left it a superpower. His successors had abandoned totalitarian social engineering and instead the government had become one of technocrats – a little corrupt to be sure, but achieving economic miracles the depressed West could only dream of. I thought that the Chinese people had happily exchanged freedom for ever growing prosperity. I also believed that whatever else you could say about authoritarian government at least it got things done unlike Western democracies which were mired in partisan deadlock or else suffocating between two centre parties with little or nothing to distinguish them. And I thought that China was an unstoppable juggernaut, the power for the 21st century, an idea fed by everything from newspaper columns to Amy Chua. In fact, almost all of these assumptions turned out to be incorrect.

I hadn’t read much Chinese history with seriousness and still have a lot to learn, but a handful of writers really changed my ideas about Mao Zedong. Jung Chang (Wild Swans, Mao: The Unknown Story), Frank Dikotter (Mao’s Great Famine, The Tragedy of Liberation), Jonathan Fenby ( Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China he Lost) and Yang Jisheng (Tombstone) really brought home to me not just the terrible loss of life of the Mao era but also the irreparable and continuing harm to the fabric of Chinese society and civilization. Mao didn’t leave the country strong; he left it a shambles, ruined by the ten years of anarchy and terror of the Cultural Revolution. Whatever strength and prosperity was achieved by his successors came as a result of rejecting everything he stood for, with the exception of the one-party state maintained by violence. And the greatest tragedy of all is that, in the end, all the heat-breaking death and destruction of Mao Zedong achieved nothing. The country in many ways has come full circle back to 1949. China under Chiang was characterized by authoritarian, corrupt government, pervasive human rights abuses, massive inequality, coastal cities prospering through the combination of foreign capital and cheap labour while the rural hinterland languished in poverty, large scale but patchy infrastructure investment and modernization. In other words, pretty much exactly the same as China today.

With the exception is that the Kuomintang eventually lost their grip on power in Taiwan and became a democratic party, while the communists in China remain determined to hang on to power by any means necessary. Although I knew Vietnam was an authoritarian country I seldom personally saw any evidence of it. This of course reflects the insulation of my life there and my ignorance of the country’s political landscape. But it’s also because China did things Vietnam aspired to do far more effectively. The most obvious example of this was the internet. I was surprised how exasperated I became by the agonizing slowness of Gmail, the uselessness of search engines such as bing, and the huge range of sites I couldn’t access, from YouTube to Facebook to the New York Times. I eventually got a VPN on my laptop but that didn’t help in the endless hours of boring downtime I had at work staring at my computer. In the international media, though, there was of course far more reporting on China than of Vietnam. It was an eventful year: Xi Jingping and Li Keqiang took up the reins as the new leaders of the country and newspapers avidly followed every fitful attempt at reform and the rather more determined crackdown on the media, domestic and foreign. A journalist in the Atlantic pointed out that people should remember that overall most of the news coming out of China is good news, despite the headlines. I agree with that, but the discussions surrounding reform were frustrating. Some important things happened while I was there: the one child policy was effectively ended, the infamous Laogai labour camps were allegedly closed, minor changes were made the awful hukuo, the internal passport that ties China’s people to their home villages and towns and is a source of appalling inequality; and ideas were bruited to make the economy more open. But fundamentally the country remains locked in a backward political system and an economic model rapidly running out of steam, and, ever mindful of the fate of Gorbachev, China’s leaders prefer to delay or halt reform if there is any suggestion of limiting their own power.

The realization that China’s much admired economic model was a long way short of what it’s cracked to be was startling to me. Of course, the first thing to say is that the achievements of China’s thirty-year economic boom are substantial and I don’t doubt that the people of China are much better off as a result. I was excited by the rapid development of Shanghai and my students were mostly reasonably well off, and some of then conspicuously successful. But China remains a middle income country and hundreds of millions remain very poor. I was surprised by the poverty in Shanghai, one of the richest cities in the country. The countryside and the west are much poorer. Life in China of seemed grim in other ways. The country is dirty. Air pollution hung over Shanghai almost every day – clear days were remarkable. Just before I left the city was making international headlines for record-breaking pollution. Despite relentless sweeping litter is everywhere. Shanghai has some beautiful old buildings and some glitzy new skyscrapers, but most of the cityscape is roads and elevated highways choked with traffic, factories, malls and dull, boxy, badly-made buildings. The countryside was also bleak, with air and water pollution, endless construction, factories and dismal concrete towns. I don’t say this as criticism of China or a suggestion that I didn’t like it. It’s just I expected, in my ignorance but also from the narrative of extraordinary economic miracles I had heard, that the world’s second-biggest economy would seem more superficially advanced. The huge economic growth seemed to be a result of dragooning a huge, badly-treated labour force into coastal factories to make cheap goods for export, and a massive, debt-funded construction boom. These had been pursued without much regard to their huge social and environmental costs and in that sense were similar to any other communist social engineering designed to secure the power of the party before the well-being of ordinary people. The political debates going on while I was there focused on the diminishing capacity of this to keep China growing and increasing public awareness of the unacceptably high cost of reckless development.

I often found the building boom particularly distressing to me because of my love for old buildings and neighbourhoods. Shanghai saw almost no development between the 1930s and the 1990s, and as a result large areas of the Romantic, pre-war Shanghai of my imagination were still intact. But development was taking a huge toll on the older areas of the city, often unnecessarily in my view. Beijing, which I never visited but read about, was also paying a terrible price as its medieval courtyard houses were gutted. And much of the country seemed to have almost no physical connection with its past at all – Changsha in Hunan province I thought a particularly dismal example of this. This was a result of war, the ravages of the Cultural Revolution but above all construction since China’s economic takeoff. Of course, I had to look past my Romantic preference for old places and see what was actually best for the people of China. I do believe that lots of construction in China is undertaken without much regard for real need; it amounts to a debt-fueled economic stimulus, keeping the state-owned cement and steel industry in business and a huge labour force employed. The lawlessness of the country leaves ordinary people powerless in the face of corrupt officialdom in the pockets of rich developers. Cities often relied on land sales to fund their budgets making massive development plans especially attractive. And the Chinese themselves are hugely proud of their history and I felt many were increasingly sensitive to it’s disappearance. Often, historical attractions had to be so extensively rebuilt that they had almost no real authenticity. On the other hand, much of the old housing I found so appealing was in deplorable condition. My girlfriend, Emma, was actually quite annoyed with me every time I lamented the destruction of a road of run-down old housing. She pointed out that they were awful places to live, low and dark and lacking proper amenities. After all, it’s not as if I would have wanted to live there. China’s cities are too poor and growing too fast for every old neighbourhood to be renovated or gentrified. However dismal, I did have to recognize that the new tower blocks were simply better places for people to live.

In  any case there was plenty of old Shanghai for me to explore. The Shanghai government was also relatively good at preserving heritage architecture, and as early as the mid-1990s had protected the particularly significant areas such as the Bund. One of favourite activities on my days off was to walk for ages through the historic  districts of the city. I explored the Bund and the two or three streets behind it which were protected and being redeveloped. I wandered around the old French Concession which had huge areas of villas, and walked up Nanjing Road between the Bund and Jiangsu Road, which had been the main axis of the International Settlement, the British-dominated part of the city. Old areas survived in surprising places. Hongkou, the old working class area of the city, had enormous areas of old Hutongs which even I wouldn’t have bothered preserving. It also had a beautiful area of red brick apartments which had been the Jewish quarter in the 1930s, and an area around Hongkou stadium where numerous writers had lived (Lu Xun amongst others) and was accordingly being developed into a cultural and historical quarter. I liked the neoclassical piles along the Bund, but above all I loved the art deco apartment blocks and department stores, and the hutongs, quiet lanes of row houses, a mixture of Chinese and European architecture unique to Shanghai.

Another of my favorite pastimes in Shanghai was learning about the great range and variety of Chinese cuisine. For all China’s rapid development people are passionate about the country’s food. Emma used to tease me about going on about the food, but she was proud of it herself and we had great fun trying out different restaurants. I certainly don’t make any claim to have become expert in Chinese food. But it was a quiet satisfaction and enormous pleasure to me to try out the spicy cuisines of Sichuan and Hunan, the Southeast Asian flavors of Yunnan, the sweet dishes of Shanghai and the Yangtze delta, the noodles and flat breads of the north west, the middle-eastern type dishes of Xinjiang and of course famous dishes like Peking Duck and the dim sum and roast meats of Guangdong and Hong Kong.  I disliked most of the street food, which near my apartment consisted of disgusting greasy noodles and mystery meat grilled on charcoal. But there was a reasonable range of cheap food near my work. We ate lots of wheat noodles with a little lamb and vegetables; spicy Sichuan soup called mala tang for which you selected your own ingredients; watery wonton soup, and xiao long bao, Shanghai’s famous soup dumplings. To really experience the complexity of Chinese cuisine you needed to go to a bigger restaurant. This was also a wonderful way to spend an evening with Emma who knew a great deal about Chinese food. We went to a huge state-owned Peking Duck restaurant where they carved the duck at your table and Emma claimed that service was famously bad because state employees didn’t fear dismissal. We queued for ages at  Hai Di Lau for Sichuan hotpot. My favorite restaurant in Shanghai was a Hunan restaurant that Emma took me to. She herself is from Hunan and said it was as close as she could find to authentic. I didn’t know whether that was true of course, but I loved the spiciness of Hunan food without the mouth-numbing peppercorns of Sichuan cuisine. If I have written too much about the food it’s just that it really was one of the best things about life in China.

Shanghai has the potential to be a truly beautiful and dynamic city. It has lovely tree-lined streets, eclectic architecture, some breath-taking infrastructure and an increasingly vibrant social and cultural scene. I can’t wait to see the city 20 years from now. If development isn’t too unkind and if the country achieves the freedom necessary to unleash the full potential of the people, Shanghai will be absolutely unbelievable, and China will reclaim its rightful place as one of the world’s greatest civilizations. I really hope that is something I get to experience as, when all is said and done, I came to admire and love China very much.

***

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Emma and me in Wuzhen water town

The decision to leave China was a very difficult one. There were things I liked about China and things I found frustrating. The things that annoyed me were the usual litany of expat complaints: pollution, dirt, bad manners in public, spitting, cutting in line etc. Some days I confess I found these things unbearable. But I hope mostly I recognised that China and it’s people shouldn’t be judged by things an expat found annoying, especially as most Chinese people I talked to found them annoying too and insisted they were changing anyway. The real problem for me was my job at EF.

The most positive aspects of my job were my colleagues and my students. I worked with great people and made some good friends. We chatted in the office and moaned together about annoying managers and tiresome schedules. I enjoyed going out for dinner at nearby restaurants, sometimes going out for karaoke, or just sitting in the centre drinking tea. I also liked almost all of my students. I was fortunate to be at an adults’ school and chatting to my students gave me much more insight into the concerns of Shanghai’s middle class than I would have got at a kids’ school. I found discussing life in China, the food, travel, pollution, education, even, though I never initiated these kinds of discussions, politics and history fascinating. And most of my students were friendly, interesting people, eager to learn and always happy just to chat with me.

The teaching, though, was lousy. The majority of the classes were based around PowerPoint presentations. We didn’t have the same students each time but rather taught the same classes which students came to at their convenience. This was great from them, but for the teacher it meant teaching the same class over and over again – sometimes half a dozen times or more in a week. Three months later they all came around again, so by the end of a year I must have taught some classes 30 times. This was exasperating to me, especially as the material was of widely variable quality. It was all very well for new teachers with no experience but for me it became soul-destroyingly boring. The hours were long – we had 4 compulsory office hours with usually nothing to do. Management was poor, in some instances almost unbelievably so. My last manager was amazingly incompetent and under-qualified. The company couldn’t keep anyone who was any good and middle management was embarrassingly obviously people who simply couldn’t cut it elsewhere. EF was a big, for-profit company with high turnover so it was never really going to care less about keeping teachers, but inept and insecure managers always made it worse. The company had a real knack for small, unnecessary decisions that lowered morale – making us work Christmas day for the first time without explanation, apology or gratitude, for example, or short-changing public holidays. Morale was chronically low and unfortunately a number of my friends, at my centre and at others, fed into each other’s negativity in an ever downward spiral.I hated EF violently by the time I left, and although my reasons for unhappiness were legitimate I had also clearly lost perspective and an ability to control my emotional reaction to the place.

EF, though, was clearly a dead end job. I knew I could do better and though I don’t doubt my new job at the British Council will have its issues I am confident it is a much better company to work for. Working at EF I began to have a crisis of confidence about my life, worrying that I would be forever stuck teaching ESL which would leave me forever unfulfilled. The prospect of going back to academia or finding any other career which would satisfy my perception of myself as someone not untalented seemed to be receding ever further away. I tried to make plans to go to Saudi Arabia to try and save money to study again, only to chicken out and chose a reputable employer in a pleasant country. At the time, unfit, not reading much or studying, bored and frustrated at work, in huge foreign city, I became really depressed and confused and filled with a sense of failure and of being trapped without good options. After two restful months in New Zealand I see that I allowed myself to be overwhelmed a bit too much by these feelings and should have been much more careful. Indeed, I am excited by the prospect of living in Penang and working for the BC and have much more faith, now, that the future will take care of itself. And I am confident that professionally-speaking I made the right choice to leave.

But I had to make an agonizing choice to leave because I had a compelling reason to stay: Emma. I don’t really know how to write about Emma or even if I should. I don’t know if you will read this Emma but if you do forgive me for writing about us. I just can’t write about China and not write about you. And if anyone else doesn’t want to read about it (if anyone reads this at all) well, this is my blog and this essay is important to me. And I won’t write much. Emma is the best person I have ever met, I love her very much and have never been happier than when I was with her. I guess that seems a rather bald sentence but to me each of those statements is meant with a profundity I can’t express here. I didn’t even know what those things meant before I met her. And then I left and that may have been the worst make I ever made. At first, I honestly thought I would be years in Shanghai. I left because I thought I would never be able to make anything of myself in Shanghai, which may be true. But I also left because I was afraid, and because I lacked confidence and faith that in the end life works itself out. Emma said I never tried, and the truth of that reproach is horrible. I won’t ever know what would have happened, and right now of course I don’t know what will happen. Maybe in the future we will find a way to be together. I hope so. Maybe we won’t. I don’t know. But the dilemma of my last few months in China and decision I came to was tough, exhausting, and fraught.

***

There’s not much I really want to say in summary but I do want to make it clear that, overall, I view my time in China as having been overwhelmingly positive. It wasn’t always easy, or happy, and I didn’t always do the right thing. But looking back to a year ago I am greatly happier, more mature and richer for the people I met, the things I did and the places I went. I don’t know what I’ll be writing from Malaysia, I don’t know what’s going to happen with my life, but I do know I will always feel immense gratitude and love for China.

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In Cheng Kan, Anhui

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Peking duck with Emma


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