Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Living in Mainland China

A debate has been swirling in cyberspace about the relative benefits of moving to China to seek work. It prominently includes a NY Times Op-Ed piece by Jonathan Levine who is teaching at Tsing Hua University in Beijing, who raves about the benefits he's gained since moving there a year ago.  On the other side is a website called dontmovetochina.com that argues that despite the exceptional cases of success, most people in Beijing are spinning their wheels.  The author argues correctly that there are many more Chinese with better cultural knowledge and equivalent skills willing to do the job at a lower wage, which is largely true (there is more commentary here). But he also argues that part of the reason China is not a good destination for foreigners is that China is not used to immigrants and is not open to immigrants.  Well, what nation is, really, all that open to immigrants? If an immigrant to the US does not speak English, and speak it very well, can they really "succeed"?  I think he underestimates the ease of success for foreigners in the US.  Americans who speak with an accent, and who don't know sports, also have trouble "integrating" into American culture and making friends.  (My Taiwanese friends who went to the US all commented on this--and how insincere Americans were for saying "Let's have lunch!" and never following up.)  Cross-cultural communication is complicated.

The author also speaks of the cost of replicating a "Western lifestyle."  Maybe it is because I'm an anthropologist, but why would one want to replicate a Western lifestyle in Beijing?  Some of the items he  mentions (e.g. elbow-shaped smell traps in sewage pipes) are pretty useful, but others (e.g. ovens) are nice, but not essential. It is also true that it will be hard to make local friends in a cosmopolitan city like Beijing. Anthropologists have an easier time making local friends when they are in small towns or even villages, where they are novelties. Even then it is not easy, and people in modern times are busy and have other concerns, but a foreigner in a village is novel enough that she/he is sure to find people who want to be their friend. If you are trying to learn the language and culture, that is the place to go.

One question not addressed by the articles is how well do these foreigners really learn Chinese.  It is not that Chinese is inherently difficult, but that it is so different from English (or other European languages) that one cannot really "pick it up" but needs to study it.  Many foreigners who hope to learn Chinese go to China and make a living by teaching English, and then have no time remaining to learn Chinese. They also spend their free time in clubs and bars--not where you'll meet many locals.  I have interviewed a number of foreigners as candidates for our graduate program and I'm often surprised at how poor their Chinese is after even three years in China. If you can't speak fluently, it is of course going to be hard to make Chinese friends. I find his whining about the difficulty of meeting locals less than convincing, but I have not had his experiences. In my own cases, I've been lucky to have introductions, and my wife's work contacts, to add to my network when we lived in Taiwan.

1 comment:

梦里客 said...

I as an organizing member of an NGO group which organizes charity operations in rural China, have experiences of interviewing other fellow students who want to join our programs. Very often they talk about how much they want to learn about the livelihood and culture in Chinese villages. Although being a student of anthropology myself I always try to be very careful about whether we're doing research at the expanse of our informants. During our home visits to rural village households, sometimes we touch on sensitive issues about their life stories. Therefore, anthropology with a humanitarian approach in this regard gives researchers a mission to handle their research findings in a careful way. The meaning-making to learning about another culture is more than words. Cheers, Kootyin.