why I came to China

I was planning on writing about something else today, but on the way home from work a friend of mine invited me over to his place and it’s not like I was going to tell him I couldn’t come because I had to go home write a blog entry about all the sex I’m not getting, or something.

I work from 8:30 am until 7:00 pm, Monday to Friday, and I get paid about a thousand dollars a month (after taxes and food). Most people at the Institute work more hours for less money. Because I could afford it, I rented a really nice (but small) 2-bedroom apartment for about $300 a month in Huilongguan, a suburb of Beijing. Most of the people at the Institute live in Huilongguan because it’s relatively cheap and close to where we work; there’s even a dedicated bus to take us to and from the Institute.

This particular friend doesn’t usually take the bus at 7:00, but he caught it today because he’d taken his wife out to dinner, so they hopped on when it passed for a free ride home. This friend is one of the guys I play football with on Fridays, and although we get along great, our conversations are pretty limited because he doesn’t speak much Chinese and I don’t speak much English.

I’m not even sure exactly what he does at the Institute, but I know he’s not a scientist. He’s part of the office/admin staff, I think. And while I’m pretty squarely middle-middle class, he’s closer to lower-middle class, by Chinese standards.

His apartment is on the fifth floor of a dull, listless concrete building; pretty much exactly the kind of stereotypical Communist thing you’d imagine. There’s no elevator, but the lights in the stairwell are sound-activated, which makes sense if you want to save electricity. His apartment is a lot bigger than mine, but that’s because it’s shared by at least eight people. It’s more like what you’d expect in a dormitory; a smallish communal area with an adjoining kitchen, surrounded by various stairs and hallways that lead to the bedrooms. I actually don’t know exactly how many people live there because I was trying to be polite and not gawk.

His room is a little larger than mine, but not by much. There’s a queen-sized bed, a coffee table, a single chair, and that’s it. But at least it has its own private bathroom. I didn’t ask, but I imagine he pays less than $50 a month for this. It’s illegal to subdivide an apartment in this manner, but the owners do it anyway because obviously they can make more money that way.

Sound pretty bleak? Well, it’s actually not as bad as you might think. He’s got a big-screen TV and a laptop, and while he initially complained about how small, rundown, and cheap his place was, he later admitted that he was actually pretty happy with it. He got married last May, and his wife is pregnant. He’s got a good, stable job, and while he’s not exactly rolling in luxury, he’s pretty damn comfortable. He has everything he needs to be happy. And a few things he doesn’t need, but enjoys.

And basically, he’s the reason I came to China. Well, not him specifically, because that would just be kinda weird, but people like him. Essentially, I came to China to see how regular Chinese people live, and to make friends with people who have different backgrounds and experiences.

It’s my personal view that you can’t really understand a culture unless you’ve lived within it for at least a year. I don’t really have any empirical evidence for this, but that’s just been my experience. But think about it; no one talks to a journalist the way they talk to a friend, and no journalist is going to have an easy time of understanding a culture unless they’ve actually lived in that culture as an equal and a participant, rather than merely an observer.

I don’t have a single non-Chinese friend in China. I’ve seen the way some Westerners act here, and frankly I’m not impressed. But hey, who am I to judge.

And yeah, I’m not suddenly an expert on China. At best I can say that I maybe have some small understanding of the life of an American postdoctoral researcher in a Chinese Institute, but that doesn’t mean I automatically understand the country as a whole. Still, I do feel like I have some small insight. For example, when you look at all the protests going on around the world in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Wisconsin, Yemen, Algeria, and Bahrain, the reason you don’t see anything like that happening in China it twofold: 1) for the middle-class people like my friend, life is actually comparatively good; he has more to lose than to gain by challenging the status quo. 2) the culture of China is such that the general idea is to work hard, keep your head down, don’t make a big fuss or draw attention to yourself, and you’ll be fine. So things would have to be pretty damn bad here indeed for people to riot on a large scale. And it may yet happen if food prices continue to increase the way they have. So who knows.

As I near the end of my 1.5 year misadventure in China, I can’t help but reflect that despite all I’ve done and seen, and all I’ve learned, getting repeatedly felt up by hot female Chinese security guards has definitely been the highlight of my experience here.

Seriously, the TSA could definitely learn a thing or two from China.

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About Critical Awesomeness
I'm a 32-year-old American with a PhD in chemistry and a green hat. Only one of these two things is really important.

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