May 17th, 2013
A photo of me proofreading the final draft of my book, 2013
It’s been roughly 4 years that I’ve been living in China, and in another 2 months and I’ll be back home in Australia, ready to start the next chapter in my life. After having made some close Chinese friends over the first year or so of uni, in 2008 I decided that I wanted to do a half-year exchange as part of my university course. Leading up to my departure, I never once thought about what would happen when I got there. It just felt right. And so I didn’t think about it. Facing the same situation now, but in reverse, I still haven’t thought about what it’s going to be like leaving China and going home. Once again, it just feels right. So, if there were any moment to reflect on my time in China, that moment would probably be about now, while I’m still here and have it all on the brain.
Now, despite what some people in my family might think, living in a country does not make you an instant expert on the culture. China is really complicated and I have less of a clue of what’s going on than any of the billion+ people living here already. Still, even though I can’t write about China with much authority, it’s good to finally get these ideas out in the wild. If you have any questions, then let me know in the comments. I’ll have more games-related content soon, but probably not a great deal. Most of my recent attention has been focused on book #2, which you’ll probably hear about in the next few months.
Oh, and for clarity. I did some travelling in China in 2006. In 2008, I spent 6 months in Shanghai as an exchange student. In 2010, I worked in Wuxi, Jiangsu, as an ESL teacher for more than a year and a half. And since 2012 I’ve been working in Shanghai.
The Greatest Civilisation on Earth
China is without a doubt the greatest civilisation on Earth. Some people get a bit riled up when I say stuff like this, as if I’m some kind of China-file (which is not true, I hate China-files and am far too critical of China to be one), but I speak from a more objective point of view. Chinese civilisation is one of the earliest in human existence. It’s home to twenty-two provinces, five autonomous regions, and four municipalities, most of which have their own history, culture, local foods, and dialects. There are also fifty-five ethnic minorities. China invented gun powder, the printing press, the compass, and paper (四大发明), among other inventions. Some Westerners tend to think of China as this giant monolithic structure where everything is uniform, but once you come here, you realise that China is more like an Asian version of Europe that’s been brought together as one country.
And so it changed my life…
Since living in China, I’ve unearthed and developed my passion (writing and analysis), learnt to live independently, become an experienced teacher, improved my Mandarin, made a whole bunch of great friends, and found my partner for life (yes, a wife). It’s these things which have allowed me to take ownership of my life and become a more assertive, stronger person. And for that, I’ll never forget this place.
Keeping in Good Spirits
I don’t think of myself as someone who gets depressed much, but with writing being a rather solitary and raw experience, the high expectations I put on myself, being in a strange and alienating place, and not being able to see my partner for several days at a time (as was previously the case in Wuxi), it can get pretty hard to remain in good spirits sometimes. I don’t feel like I had this problem too much when I was in Wuxi working with a team of foreign teachers, all of which were good friends, but in Shanghai where I’m the only foreigner in the office, my workmates change every week (and the people who stick around are personality-deficient, and prone to loud outbursts), and I’m not bothered making friends because I know that I’m going to be leaving soon, it can be a little trickier. Good support networks are important for anyone doing soul-dredging creative work.
Make Friends and Say Goodbye
One of the reasons why it’ll be good to go home is that I’ll be able to stick with people instead of having to always make friends and say goodbye. Such is the nature of living overseas: you can never hold onto friends for too long. After a few years, it’s left me exhausted. I haven’t been around a fixed group of friends since high school.
Orgasms in Advertising
Orgasms are often used in advertising to exaggerate “product elation”, however, I find that some Chinese ads are a little less subtle about it. I have two examples. The first is a Cadbury ad where three robot girls each consume a chocolate pod. The screen then cuts to a cg pod with the white liquid inside bursting out, before cutting back to the three girls trying to quietly hold back the sensation. The second is a Pizza Hut ad where a lady takes a bite of pizza and then orgasms as the cheese strand extends from the slice to her mouth.
Crappy Foreign Branded Products Being Marketed as Premium Purchases
Speaking of Pizza Hut, they’re probably the worst example of a company flogging a crappy product on the basis of a foreign name. Their pizzas are soaked in cheese, lack toppings, often come in strange varieties (corn and peas, anyone?), and are literally half the size of a standard Australian pizza. Yet despite the cheese soup on a mini bread base reality, Pizza Hut market themselves as a luxury restaurant of premium quality.
I’m also not a big fan of Oreos either, even though I do occasionally buy them because of the lack of alternatives. Like many chocolate products in China, they have an artificial powdery taste due to the lower chocolate content and an awesomely-high amount of sodium. Mmm..sodium. What bugs me about Oreos is how their advertising is designed to appeal to unlikeable fathers looking to win over their unrelateable son through an act of cookie and milk kinship, the good ol’ American way.
It’s worth adding that the Dove chocolate, especially their dark chocolate, is lovely indeed. Much better than the pig-fat-filled Cadbury stuff in Australia.
Every time I have dinner with my Chinese family, they put on the news, and I’m always surprised by how much better the Chinese news is compared to the local news back home. They have about twice the amount of world news, and a segment after the main headlines where they cover the key topics of the day in depth with lots of charts and figures. It’s worlds better than the same old crime, irrelevant local issues, AFL reports, and supplementary tabloid guff of the Australian commercial networks. The news I watch is probably around the same quality as the ABC news and 7:30 Report.
I would be remiss without mentioning that following the regular news is the CCTV news, read: government propaganda nonsense. The family always flicks over as soon as that classic opening that they still haven’t changed from the 1980s comes up.
In Adelaide, I knew that there were probably brothels around somewhere, but aside from walking past a few strip joints in Hindley Street, I never encountered anything even related to the practice. In China, though, I can spot a brothel a million miles away. There’s at least three of them within a 5 minute walking distance from my house.
The problem with brothels in China is that they’re there, and you know that they’re there, and for that reason I’ve thought about them more than I otherwise would have. Well, I haven’t thought about brothels so much as the moral implications of using these services. I’m not against sex work, but I think it should be legalised and regulation instead of ignored and abused by the Chinese government and certain government officials. Doing so would clear up the issues of physical abuse, human trafficking, sexual slavery, and AIDS/HIV that are connected to the industry.
Stockings and Cleavage
Where in Australia, showing some cleavage is the norm and stockings are often associated with prostitutes or open-minded people, the reverse is true in China. It can really throw you sometimes.
Collectivism at the Dinner Table
In Wuxi, I use to do a few adult and on-site business courses on cultural relations. My main focus for these classes was real-life applications of collectivism and individualism, the dominant ideologies of the East and the West, aside from free market capitalism. To introduce the topic in a familiar way, I’d use the dinner table metaphor: westerners eat their own meal by themselves (individualism) where Chinese share a selection of dishes (collectivism). From this base, you can extrapolate a wealth of discussion that can usually last for several lessons. I must admit, I do love the communal nature of sharing dishes. To use a few game terms, there’s so many natural dynamics, ways to express yourself, organic suspension of unfinished food, and emergent situations to eating like a Chinese person.
One of the things I love about China is how people drink and toast each other on special occasions. This adds to the festive nature of, say, fifteen people huddled around a round table. Usually either beer, huang jiu, lao jiu, bai jiu, or wine will be poured into rice bowls and friends can toast each other freely. Every time we have a family gathering, one of the family members, who smokes like crazy and pours his lao jiu from a large plastic jug, always looks over in my direction, encouraging me to match him, cup for cup. His enthusiasm usually extends our meals for an extra half an hour, with just the two of us clanking our bowls together.
(Correction: That’s West Lake. Tai Lake is in Wuxi)
I’m not a fan of bai jiu, a spicy kind of alcohol which has an alcohol content of 50%. The first time I had it I did four rounds in tall glasses, toasting four different members of my best mate’s family. I was fine for an hour or so, but after that, once we got home, I threw it all up and fell asleep on the couch. The other times I’ve tried it, I really didn’t like it, just because it can burn your throat.
Hardened into Place
Living here and spending a great deal of my time writing has made me more assertive, but I hope it hasn’t radicalised me too much. I care a great deal about games and politics, and push my ideas with a lot of conviction, which can probably rub some people the wrong way.
Everywhere I’ve lived in China it’s been noisy. In Wuxi, I lived on the top floor of a building next to a reasonably busy intersection. Even twenty-three stories up, the truck horns don’t get any quieter. In the last 6 months of me living in Wuxi, construction of the Wuxi subway began right next to my apartment. That’s the sound of jackhammers from 6 o’clock in the morning to 10 o’clock at night, day in, day out. Although it’s been quieter in Shanghai, the pleasant ringing of jackhammers have returned twice for month-long durations as neighbours renovate old apartments. Oh, and there’s the army training that goes on on the hill next to the estates. Nothing like the sound of gun fire to wake you up in the morning. At least it’s better than fireworks going off within 5 metres of your bedroom window from 12 to 4am in the morning.
Chinese people speak loudly because they have more people to speak over. Although I understand the logic, I don’t find it any less offensive, especially from the people at work who are so disruptive that it often pushes me to an edge. I don’t know why people feel the need to yell to each other from opposite ends of an office to sustain a long conversation.
China sometimes makes me miss the hoon drivers and loud parties that we occasionally got back home.
A Point of Difference
The most important thing that one can get from going overseas is a point of difference. When you displace yourself by leaving your country, you have two options: adapt or go home. Those who stay long enough bend to the foreign culture. What separates this kind of learning experience from any other is that you’re not just tested on one small thing, but you’re forced to rethink your entire understanding of life. This is why people say that living overseas is a life-changing experience, because it literally displaces you from your culture to somewhere between your culture and the host culture. I can’t imagine living anywhere else but in the middle.
Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics
The Chinese government use the line “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to describe their political position. This is incorrect. China is a capitalist country with a powerful government and major state-owned players in the free market. All of their policies are in line with the dominant economic rationalism and social conservatism that has gripped the world since the Regan and Thatcher era. The current Chinese president, XiJinPing, was your typical big business free marketeer when he was running Fujian and the same is likely going to be true of his leadership of the mainland.
The scariest thing about capitalism in China is the lack of government regulation over industry. The recent pigs in the river and chicken scares in Shanghai are good examples of this.
I’d be remiss to not mention Chinese cuisine. There’s just so much to talk about, I’m going to put everything in dot point form:
- Unlike Western food, Chinese cuisine incorporates spicy and sour flavours as part of the regular palette. They also apply the flavours in different ways too. So they have sweet pork and sour fish, combinations we never see in the West.
- Chinese cuisine is about flavour where Western cuisine is more about..I dunno, large pieces of meat. This is why Chinese people cook and eat the entire animal, not just the bits with the most meat, because the most flavoursome parts of an animal are near the bone.
- Chinese soups are also just water, a few spices, some oil, and a couple of large bones
- I’ve never had a problem with bones before. You just spit them out on the table or in a small bowl. Only once has a small fish bone got caught in my gums.
- In Australia, I never really liked eating fish because it had that fishy taste. In China, I’ve never tasted a fish with that odd fishy taste. And as such, steamed fish has become one of my favourite meals.
- Most of the dishes we eat at home are just meat or vegetables with a mixture of either oil, ginger, salt, sugar, soy sauce, spring onions, sesame oil, vinegar, and “cooking fish” oil.
- Each province has its own specialty foods. So, in Wuxi I often had Wuxi steamed dumplings 小笼包, which are largish dumplings with meat and sweet juice in the middle and nubbed together at the top. In Shanghai, the 小笼包 are really small, so I eat Shanghai dumplings instead, which are nubbed together and fried on the bottom.
- Noodles. I love noodles. Throughout China there are many Xinjiang noodle restaurants. Before I moved in with my Chinese family, I use to go there several times a week, sometimes everyday. In Wuxi, I was good friends with the chefs. They use to hug me every time I came around for a bowl of noodles. I remember one night when I was at KTV, my main Xinjiang friend, who I called Chris, was texting my friend, asking her where we were. Half an hour later, at around midnight, Chris came bursting into our KTV room half-naked before being yanked out by security. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was delivering noodles. Strange times. My biggest take away from frequenting these noodle shops is that I got to experience and talk about Muslim culture first-hand, something which I didn’t know much about before I came to China.
- I’m not much of a fan of hotpot. I just don’t like the flavour and it never fills me up enough.
- I love tepenyaki though. Meat and sake are a great match.
- In Chinese cuisine, certain foods match certain drinks. So, when we have crabs, we drink huang jiu because one is cooling while the other is warming (I think).
- The one thing missing from Chinese food is the oven. They just don’t use them.
If you’re interested in Chinese food this documentary, A Bite of China, is really fantastic. Go watch it.
Over the past year or so I’ve become a real tea aficionado. I always have a flask of tea by my side every editing session. I prefer tieguanyin. Later, when my book comes out, I’ll talk a bit more about why I like to drink tea when I edit.
KTV – Karaoke Television
I love KTV. I have no pitch control, but I still have fun anyways. There are two things that I loathe about it, though: all the KTVs in China basically have the same selection of Western songs and all the subtitles for the Chinese songs are in traditional characters. The reason for the latter is that the mainland KTV companies don’t want to pay royalties for using songs, so they just swipe everything from Hong Kong. This is a real pain as it makes it harder for me to sing songs in Mandarin, even though the lyrics are generally pretty simple.
I think the reason why KTV is popular in Asia, but not in Western countries is because Westerners are far too disparaging when it comes to amateur singing. I hate the association that you have to be really drunk to sing too, that pisses me off. Can’t people just go out and have a good time? Oh, and westerners always complain about how they can’t find their favourite song. I never have this problem. Chinese people, on the other hand, just go and have fun.
In Chinese, the word文明, civilisation, is used quite often. It took me quite a long time before I realised that 文明 is more about being civilised than, say, the advancement of a society. This is quite an important issue in China. On public transport, there reminders for people to follow the 七不, the seven don’ts, which includes things like not spitting, throwing rubbish, and damaging public property. Cutting in line, peeing in the street, talking loudly on the phone in a public place, and smoking in crowded elevators are some of my big pet peeves. It’s so peculiar being in a country where the people are reminded to be civilised. The good thing, though, is that the younger generation is much better at this. I rarely, if ever, see any young people do these kinds of things. This is a tacit reminder of the abolishment of education during the Maoist era.
ESL Schools in China are a Rort
The ESL and training schools in China build their wealth on a culture that can’t, both politically and socially, let go of an education system that’s 50 years past its used by date. Chinese schools teach according to the traditions of Chinese education, where the teacher is the knower of all information and the student must be quiet as their knowledgable teacher imparts words of wisdom upon them. What this means for Chinese kids is a punishing diet of rote memorisation and skill and drill that drains their creativity and critical thinking skills, preparing them for a life of unpaid overtime and civil obedience. The backbone of the current education system is standardised testing, a way to measure a student’s self-worth. For the 高考, the student’s big set of exams at the end of high school, one’s exam results determine which university they get into, which then determines their ability to find work later. That is, when they go in for a job interview, the first thing the interviewer looks at is the rank of the university they went to. The applicant who went to the best university gets the job. Of course, university is a relative cake walk compared to high school, so it’s when most kids, burnt out by high school, finally have the chance to socialise, binge on online games, and bonk each other silly. So because the 高考 has such a strong effect on a student’s future, and parents need their kids to make a lot of money so that they can look after them when they get old, kindergarten, primary school, and middle school are all seen as preparation time for the big test. Thus, ESL and training skills have a thriving market of parents looking to give their kids an edge with out-of-school classes. And so the cycle continues. It’s a tragedy.
My current office in Shanghai thrives on a magpie-like scavenger culture born out of a shambles of management. Rather than being put in a shared communal spot where everyone can access them, the teacher resources (books, toys, flashcards, etc) are divided up by whoever can get their hands on something and hide it in their drawer. This way, if I need something for one of my classes, I need to scrounge around other people’s desks to find it. Of course, some of the teachers lock their drawers, which is great when they’re off from work and you’ve planned your entire lesson around that one resource. I have suggested to my manager (who can only politely be described as a manipulative bitch of the Chinese managerial kind) several times that this system of organisation is not only inefficient, but it turns the staff against each other. Her response is usually that if we had a shared space, all the evil part-time teachers would steal our resources.
In Wuxi, because I worked at a reputable chain school and the majority of my co-workers were foreigners, I was rarely exposed to the kinds of labour abuses that most Chinese people face in their working lives. Since moving to Shanghai and working at a bottom-rung training school (I needed the low works hours to finish my book), I’ve seen a lot. New teachers come and go each week. They come in all green and ready to do whatever the boss tells them, and then after putting up with a week or two of unpaid overtime, being forced to do a mountain of busy work which the manager just throws away, and no proper teacher training, they pack up and leave. The school takes advantage of this cycle as a cheap way to cover classes and save money. The unpaid overtime issue is common throughout China. I’m always amazed by how Chinese people take it, like it’s their destiny or something. I’ve discussed this issue quite a bit with my former co-workers and the conclusion I come to is this: China just doesn’t have a history nor a culture of resistance, in fact, is has a culture of inaction and submission. Fortunately, there are people fighting back. Two teachers who use to work at my current school have taken the school to court on accounts of unpaid overtime. I know that one of the cases was successful, but I’m not sure about the other.
The visa system in China is a complete joke. Not only is the process confusing, protracted, and the instructions on the government website are written in nonspeak (just like many of the political speeches which say a lot, but say nothing at all), the government allows for grey areas where foreigners can bend the limits of the law. Of course, it’s not like the laws and regulations in China are actually enforced, given the 关系, relationship, culture, the laws are more suggestion than anything else.
More Complaints about the School in Shanghai
I could complain about this place forever:
- They sometimes try to deny me holidays.
- They put students of mixed levels and ages in the same class.
- The marketing department write the lesson plans for our activities.
- When I refused to teach for 6 hours with only a half hour lunch break, they sent me to three different schools in one day.
- They made me work from 9am-7:30pm every Saturday for a year. Even though I only had to teach for 2-3 hours.
- For the first 3 months, I got full pay and only taught for an hour and a half each week because they didn’t have any classes for me. This was pretty good actually, but just goes to show how woefully unorganised they were.
- Often the teaching assistant can’t speak English, which is fine because I use Chinese, but it’s pretty ridiculous that they employ local English teachers that can’t speak English.
- They let kids play in the office sometimes. WTF.
- They pay me on the 15th of the following month just to stop me from leaving.
- They also hold my labour certificate so that I can’t change jobs. Many schools do this.
- Sometimes they drop random kids, potential customers, on me in the middle of a class.
Despite all their shenanigans, I do like working at the current school, just because the class sizes are small, I have a teaching assistant, I don’t have to use the books, and I teach the same students up to the point when they leave the school. This means that I can have a greater impact as a teacher, something which is impossible to do at the larger chain schools.
In saying all this stuff about Chinese schools, Chinese people are not the robots the west tends to make them out to be. While it’s true that the school system has a numbing effect on people’s brain’s, I am constantly amazed by the creativity of Chinese people. There are so many awesome art galleries and museums in Shanghai. China produces an incredible number of gifted musicians, most of the students I teach learn a musical instrument, and Chinese/Taiwan pop singers like Jay Chou and Wang Lee Hom aren’t vapid pop culture products but high-grade musicians who adeptly shift between genres and fuse traditional and modern Chinese music. In my debating classes, I’m always impressed by how well some students grasp the underlying dilemmas of the topic question. Chinese people are often very funny too. That’s one of the reasons why I love my wife so much, she’s the only woman I know that can make me laugh all the time. Even though it’s not always so obvious, there’s a surprising amount of creativity hidden underneath China’s surface.
The Grey Line
In the same way that China has made me more concious of civilised behaviour, it’s also got me thinking about air pollution in an entirely different way. Over here, the darkened skies sometimes give the impression of a looming apocalypse. At my old apartment, it use to be so dark that I could barely distinguish the time of day, even with all the windows open. Now, everywhere I go I am always looking at the sky to judge the air quality, especially that grey line on the horizon. What I’ve noticed is that all major cities of the world have this line, or worse the entire sky is a blanket of grey (like Beijing and New York). The only place that I’ve been to that doesn’t have this horrible line is my hometown, Adelaide.
Directness Vs Indirectness
Westerners tend to be direct, where Chinese people are more indirect. The problem with directness is that it can easily create confrontation. The problem with indirectness is that it can easily create confusion. Obviously, it’s best to be direct in some situations and indirect in others. For a long time I hated indirectness, but over time I’ve grown to appreciate it. What changed my mind was that I started to see it as a more civilised way to communicate, whereby one attempts to minimise all hostility from an argument.
When talking to Chinese people, I always feel that it’s so easy to manipulate them, because they have a real lack of social awareness. Part of this is how language works. So, if we’re speaking English, it’s harder for the Chinese person to counter tone and suggestion, which makes it easy to press them. And so every time I want to win an argument, I just switch to English. Other times though, I can just speak Chinese, and it’s fine. Most of it, I guess, is probably because of the nature of the Chinese schooling system. Because the students are under so much pressure to perform well from an early age, they don’t have as much opportunity to develop their social skills as much as Western students, who probably spend too much of their school life socialising.
While there’s a lot of perks to having a heightened sense of social awareness, like frequently showing up my manager, sometimes it feels like it’s too much power, especially when you come across someone really gullible or begin steering the conversation in my uncharted territory. One of the things I love about my wife is that I’ve never had this problem with her and she knows me well enough now that I can never pull the rug out from under her.
The internet over here is pretty shitty, partly because there are so many on it, partly because few English sites have servers in or near China. I’ve been using a VPN to get around the firewall for most of my time here. Although I never had to use it back in 2008 when I could get onto Twitter, Gmail, and YouTube without a problem. I’m gonna use dot points again:
- Sometimes I can get onto Google sites, sometimes I can’t. Often it cuts out. Google Plus and YouTube are basically always blocked.
- Sensitive topics (Tibet, civil disobedience, Tiananmen), uStream, all social media, porn, WordPress- and Blogger-hosted sites, and Vimeo are all blocked, just to name a few.
- Baidu, China’s equivalent of Google, is horrible for searching English terms, but great for everything else.
- Chinese people find music and video streaming services like Netflix, Google Play, and Spotify to be really strange because they can stream movies and music online for free through their Google and YouTube equivalents. So, any time I want to watch a movie, I just search in Baidu and get it instantly with Chinese subtitles. The same goes for music.
- Overseas TV shows appear online in China, fully subtitled, as fast as 24 hours from the last episode. So many Chinese fans of Western TV shows often watch them in parity with the Western audience.
- The main pages of China’s two most successful video sites, Youku and Tudou, resemble soft-core porn sites. You can tell who their biggest market is and why they come to the site.
- Sometimes Chinese ads will pop up in the corner of my browser, thanks internet service provider. Worse is when instead of going to the site I want, the url is redirect to a Chinese travel site, which is unbelievable. How do they get away with this stuff?
- Buying online in China is pretty incredible. Most things you buy can be received within 24 hours of the purchase, even if they’re on the other side of the country.
- Diarrhoea is reasonably common over here. I get it about once every 2 months. The problem comes from going out to eat, where hygiene practices are sometimes lacking.
- They don’t wash in hot water over here, so often my clothes still smell bad even after I wash them. This isn’t a problem for Chinese people because they don’t sweat as much as foreigners. The deodorants over here are really expensive too.
- Chinese people don’t iron their clothes either. They tend to wear more synthetic stuff.
- I’m constantly coming across new fruits and vegetables that I never knew existed before.
- Chinese people are addicted to television, especially the older generations. I guess this is a combination of the older generations having nothing to do all day and how TV hasn’t been around in China as long as it has in other countries, so it’s still interesting to them. Whether at home or abroad, I rarely watch TV.
- Chinese people always sit in the outside seat on public transport and when another passenger wants to sit in the window seat, they just shift to body a little bit to let them through. This annoys me to no end. It’s so rude.
- They say in China that two people could work in opposite cubicles for 20 years and still not talk to each other. I use this effect to avoid my co-workers.
Well, that’s everything I can think of for now, I’m sure that I’ll come up with more ideas later. If I do, I’ll try to write about them.