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Things I wish I learned 13 years ago about life in China – part 2

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Be patient. It’s on the list.

Everyone is talking about how China is a rising economic and
global power. (In fact, in a recent poll, 44 percent of Americans
thought – incorrectly — that China is the world’s largest economic
power.) On the other hand, when you divide China’s economy by 1.4
billion, you get a very different number: 77. Which is where China sits
in the global rankings of countries by nominal per capita GDP, right
between Bulgaria and Botswana.

This is not to take anything away from China and it’s incredible trajectory over the past four decades. After all, it’s not too much
of an exaggeration to say that China in 1978 (the eve of the Reform and
Opening Era) made today’s North Korea seem like Dubai. In much less
than a single lifetime, China’s development has completely transformed
its economy and lifted millions out of poverty.

Nevertheless, today in Beijing and Shanghai where we zip past the
Bentley dealership to grab a Starbucks before we head out to a high-end
duck restaurant or maybe a rooftop tapas bar, it can be hard to
remember that China still has a long way to go. More importantly: people
in China are well aware that the country still has a long way to go to
catch up with the developed economies of the world. That’s why it’s
important for those of us from other countries – and particular those of
us who were lucky enough to grow up in a developed economy – to be
aware of how criticism or complaints about China might sound to people
who live here.

More importantly: People in China are well aware that the country
still has a long way to go to catch up with the developed economies of
the world. That’s why it’s important for those of us from other
countries – and particular those of us who were lucky enough to grow up
in a developed economy – to be aware of how criticism or complaints
about China might sound to people who live here.

China still has many problems…but these are problems which, for
the most part, are already on the “To Do List.” Too often, foreigners
(and I’ve done this too, guilty as charged) focus on what China hasn’t
done, what it hasn’t figured out, what it still needs to fix rather than
on the incredible strides made in what in world historical terms is an
infinitesimally short amount of time.

It’s easy to understand why many people in China get frustrated
when it seems like all the world focuses on is China’s problems, as if
people in China weren’t already keenly aware of those problems already.
As the author Peter Hessler recently put it: “Why do foreign
correspondents [in China] only write about the bridge that collapses and
not the thousands of bridges that don’t?”

This isn’t to say that China doesn’t have serious problems. It
does. Bridges do collapse. So do schools sometimes. These are real
tragedies that deserve our attention. But here is a list of things that
do not qualify as a tragedy:

  • The waitress can’t speak English.

  • The public bathrooms smell funny.

  • People stare at me.

  • The farmer’s kid who just moved to Beijing doesn’t know who to make a proper margarita.

  • The streets are dirty.

  • People spit. In public.

  • That guy cut in line.

It’s only natural – a well-documented sign of culture shock actually –
that we compare our new environment, usually unfavorably, with what we
left behind. But remember that despite all of the problems in China, people here are as proud of their home as we would be.

It’s okay to think critically, but before we complain or
criticize let’s consider how our criticisms might be understood by our
new Chinese friends.

KEYS TO SURVIVAL: Patience, Sense of Humor, Perspective, Sense of Humor, Understanding, Sense of Humor. Sense a theme?

Of all the keys to surviving in China the most important is a
sense of humor. China can be a funny place. Whether it’s for 13 days or
13 years, every day you spend in China you will walk out your door and
see something that day you have never seen before. Usually something
that makes you say: “In any other country, that would seem strange…”

Also, China finds us funny. Or at least if finds me funny. I have
come to accept that I’m a source of constant mirth and amusement for my
Chinese friends, family and neighbors — and that’s before I
open my mouth to speak my version of Chinese. Here’s the thing: if you
can’t laugh at yourself and the mistakes you make and the weird
situations you find yourself in during your Chinese experience then
China can be a rough place.

Who doesn’t succeed in China? It’s the dude who takes himself way too
seriously. The person who thinks people are constantly disrespecting
them. The guy who can’t find the funny when things don’t go their way.
It’s the person born with a circuit which fires at every slight –
perceived or real. Because the truth is China can give you a lot to be
indignant about.

I’ve met people who have an indignation circuit that fired at
everything. Every injustice. Every outrage. Every trivial indignity. And
the result is that they – and their circuit – burned out completely and
they bailed or they stayed and tried to drink the pain away in a
Sanlitun speakeasy.

Here’s an important lesson I’ve learned: If I walk out my door in
the morning and I run into somebody who JUST. DOESN’T. GET. IT. Well,
that’s sad but there are dicks everywhere. If at the end of the day all
I’ve encountered are people who JUST. DON’T. GET. IT. Well, then it’s
time to realize that I’m the dick who maybe doesn’t get it and I need an
attitude adjustment.

Or to summarize even more briefly, the basic rule of getting along in any foreign culture is: don’t be a dick.

China is a pretty safe place.

It’s one of the few positive things about living in an
authoritarian one-party state run by guys so paranoid they make your
neighborhood meth head look like a picture of Zen calm.

That said, it’s important to use common sense.

At night, go out and come home as a group. If you’re getting
ready to leave and there’s one person in your group who wants to stay
and hang out by himself or herself with their new best friends “Elder
Brother Wang” and “Uncle Li,” put them in a hammer lock and get them in a
cab. Similarly, no matter how annoying your friend is at the bar and
how she won’t shut up about her boyfriend or her ex-boyfriend, do not
just flag a cab, hand the driver the hotel card, deposit her in the back
seat, and wish them both a good night. Stick together and watch out for
each other.

Why I’m Here…

China can be a challenging place to live and visit. But it’s also one
of the warmest, friendliest places I’ve ever been. You can go from just
met to best friends for life in a single conversation and once you’ve
made a friend, Heaven and Earth will be moved to help you when you need
it. Once we start accepting China for what it is rather than what it’s
not or what we wish it would be, that’s when we realize what an amazing
opportunity we have to engage with one of the world’s most dynamic and
exciting countries.  I was trained as a historian, and in history there
are certain moments which intersect with certain places to create eras —
Victorian London, 1920s Paris, 1950s New York — well, that moment and
that place is right now in China and I want to be a witness. Think about
it: Where else could a lover of history watch historical change that
took decades in the rest of the world happen in just a few years and
right before his very eyes.

China may not be the easiest place to live, and the Internet still sucks, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

2016-06-23

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