It’s not easy being red

This article in Prospect by Mark Kitto was so depressing to read, mostly because it’s dead accurate. People who come to China are largely idealists, ready to absorb an exotic, polar-opposite culture, widen their views of the world and humanity, and discover whatever it was they felt were missing in their former lives. Unfortunately for them, the China they heard about from afar — the one with stellar growth, abundant opportunities and anything-goes attitude — always turns out to be far different from the China they meet in person. China sucks up people’s souls and turns their hearts into little black balls of cynicism. Why? Because, as Kitto points out in the title, you’ll never be Chinese.

Not that you necessarily want to be Chinese, but China does something weird where they welcome foreigners with open arms (this is why that idiot could pen that Times column about how China wants you) and, at the same time, keep them at a chilly distance (so that Bloomberg could come back and say, no, they don’t). In the workplace, such schizophrenic mindset translates into a job position where you, a foreigner, are really just an expendable accessory:

During the course of my magazine business, my state-owned competitor (enemy is more accurate) told me in private that they studied every issue I produced so they could learn from me. They appreciated my contribution to Chinese media. They proceeded to do everything in their power to destroy me. In Moganshan our local government masters send messages of private thanks for my contribution to the resurrection of the village as a tourist destination, but also clearly state that I am an exception to their unwritten rule that foreigners (who originally built the village in the early 1900s) are not welcome back to live in it, and are only allowed to stay for weekends.

Before anyone moves to China for a job, he basically imagines that he is the wise and knowledgeable expert being called over to teach eager Chinese about how to integrate into a global society that his forbears built. It is obviously a very inflated self-view and dripping with condescension, but its premise is largely built on what the Chinese told us they wanted. I mean, they are the ones calling us “experts”. Plus, they ask us all these questions about how they can improve, as if our suggestions mean something to them. They don’t.

Meanwhile, the official (government) line is that foreigners suck:

The Communist Party of China has, from its very inception, encouraged strong anti-foreign sentiment. Fevered nationalism is one of its cornerstones. The Party’s propaganda arm created the term “one hundred years of humiliation” to define the period from the Opium Wars to the Liberation, when foreign powers did indeed abuse and coerce a weak imperial Qing government. The second world war is called the War of Resistance Against Japan. To speak ill of China in public, to award a Nobel prize to a Chinese intellectual, or for a public figure to have tea with the Dalai Lama, is to “interfere in China’s internal affairs” and “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” The Chinese are told on a regular basis to feel aggrieved at what foreigners have done to them, and the Party vows to exact vengeance on their behalf.

It’s kind of bewildering. For the most part, it’s not personal, but no one likes to be used as a pawn in a game of domestic political chess. And even though I know that most Chinese don’t care that I’m foreign, when I read stories like this one about xenophobic attacks, I can’t help but think that it could have been me, and that there are government-sponsored articles and influential mouthpieces that encourage it. I imagine this is how Muslims in the U.S. feel about all the anti-Islamic rhetoric coming from the Tea Partiers and Republicans, and thereby the U.S. You just honestly don’t understand how such a large group of people can say things like this.

All that aside, China has very few redemptive qualities. The standard of living is abysmal, unless you want to pay an arm and a leg for quality that would be much cheaper elsewhere in the world. There is a lack of fairness and no equal treatment. Fuses are short; rarely will you see an act of kindness, but you’ll witness an argument or fight every day. Everybody looks, acts and thinks the same. You find yourself immersed even deeper in the very materialistic culture you tried to escape:

Modern day mainland Chinese society is focused on one object: money and the acquisition thereof. … Social status, so important in Chinese culture and more so thanks to those 60 years of communism, is defined by the display of wealth. Cars, apartments, personal jewellery, clothing, pets: all must be new and shiny, and carry a famous foreign brand name. In the small rural village where we live I am not asked about my health or that of my family, I am asked how much money our small business is making, how much our car cost, our dog.

People everywhere discuss how much things cost, and we’ve all had a conversation before with a smug acquaintance who clearly just wanted to show off his new big purchase. In China, this happens way too often about things you didn’t even know you were supposed to care about. Once, I asked a neighbor about his dog. I was more focused on how old it was and its name, but he instead told me how he had bought two of them in Hong Kong for RMB 10,000 (about $1,470 back then) each. I pretended to be impressed.

To make a very long story short, it’s easy to become disillusioned in China. Very few foreigners can make it here, where they see themselves as Chinese, growing old and living out the rest of their lives in China. Even the ones who have been here for more than a decade, with families and whatnot, seem to know that at some point they will move on. Part of the reason may be us: We just don’t want to live here forever and be Chinese. But part of the reason for that is China just isn’t a place we want to be.

Somehow, though, while we are here, we manage to chug on and brush all the crap aside. Sometimes it’s even pretty easy to do. Because there’s still something about China that makes us stay, root for it, and maybe even call it home.

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