I went to China for the first time when I was 6 and I hated it, for a while at least. I went back when I was 12 and fell in love. China was amazing, the food was great, and, instead of suffering through seventh grade in Brunswick, Maine, I was kicking around Beijing—riding buses and taking photos as I pleased.
I’ve been going back and forth since, majored in East Asian studies at Colby, and tend to lecture accidentally when people ask me “What’s it like over there?” The thing is, simple answers are either flip (“Well, the dumplings are good”) or virtually worthless (“Let me tell you, it’s all changing very fast”).
It is easy to be bombastic when you talk about Chinese history and culture; it is, after all, a story of operatic complexity and of epic proportion. But when you live in China, it’s also easy to experience the minutia of daily life as distinct from all that hoopla. Walking down the street in almost any Chinese city, it is clear things are on the go. Buildings are going up, buildings are coming down. Men with expensive shoes stride purposefully past migrant workers in from the countryside. There are so many stories.
China’s most populous city, Shanghai has seen substantial development since the late 1990s, including the 88-story Jing Mao Tower, one of the world’s tallest buildings.
China has been alternately booming and imploding for the last 4,000 years—growing as a regional power and then falling apart, descending into civil war, reorganizing, and dominating once more. It is difficult to know whether the country’s current geopolitical dominance is just another part of the cycle or something completely new.
One hundred years ago China was in the death throes of a dynasty. There was a revolution, a brief republic, a civil war and the invasion of Japanese forces, more civil war, then the rise of the People’s Republic. That alone would be a story. But with the economic reforms of the post-Mao era, China has transformed from a pitiable battleground to a hotbed of industry and innovation, and that story is the subject of great fascination and worry in the West.
The story is of economic development, of demographic shift, of human geography, of human rights abuses by petty officials. The list goes on. But, at the same time, it’s just another day in China. Asking for a description of China in 2011 invites any number of answers—some of them contradictory, all of them probably true.
For this feature I asked Colby alumni living in China and Colby students with connections to China to put some of their experiences into words. The people I spoke to have lived through some of the change; they have experienced some of the shifts first hand. They can’t tell you what China is all about—but these Colbians speaking together certainly reveal more than the quality of the dumplings or the rate of change.
With Liberation Comes Challenges
You-Li Sun ’84 is currently director of the China Studies Institute, a study-abroad program located at Peking University in Beijing, where he grew up. After Colby he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and taught history at several American colleges and universities (including Colby) before returning to China in 1998 to care for his parents.
I left a socialist country; I returned to a country more capitalistic than the United States. With a booming economy making money was more popular than anything else. The ethos of the day in China for the past twenty years is making money, nothing else. I mean nothing else. Whereas in the United States there is something else. So it was quite a shock.
You-Li Sun ’84
It was disappointing in some ways, because you miss the egalitarian social economic system. It’s exciting in some ways to see something vibrant going on. Because in the old egalitarian system things were pretty stale, not very exciting; like today’s Korea, people were controlled. But in the nineties it was a different story. You see a vibrant society, people have a sense of liberation, and they’re free to make money. They’re free to do all kinds of things.
[Today you see] a continuation of drastic changes, economically and also culturally. Culturally, people born after the year I left are single children in the one-child policy. And you see these kids spoiled, living a relatively materially good life. And these are also the Internet children. So there is a much higher degree of Americanization of local culture than I was used to. Young people know more about Hollywood than I did (and they still know more), and they know more about the NBA, for example. They know more about pop music, and the whole thing.
I have seen the worst: the chaotic period during the Cultural Revolution. Then I have also been to the West. For example, I can see the argument … even though this is conservative argument in China, that stability is more important. Even though the word stability has been used by the government to maintain their legitimacy, still, stability has been crucial to China’s economic growth, and will be.
I understand where Americans are coming from and the Cold War mentality, the ideological concerns, but the Chinese society is different. Like the Egyptian society—most people are excited about the revolution overthrowing Mubarak. But how we go from here is really more challenging than a simple kind of uprising, where we’re talking about changing an entire culture and social structure. Other than just ideology, there is a lot of complex stuff ahead of us. Russia has a political democracy; just look at where Russia is at now. I have transitioned from a young revolutionary to a conservative evolutionary ... Ha! I shouldn’t say this to a young guy like you: you should go out to make revolution. Young people push their society forward, push old guys like me aside, which should be the case.
Yet to Scratch the Surface
Andrea Linney ’07, an international studies major, has been in China since graduation, working in the English language industry.
It wasn’t until I came to China [as part of a] Jan Plan class that I thought I could really move here and make a life here.
When I returned to China in 2007 I lived in Beijing, and every month I had these negative China moments, as I would call them. Those were the moments like, “What am I doing here? Did I make the right decision to come here?” Because Beijing to me was the China I had always seen portrayed in the media, the political capital. I really did feel more watched ... especially as a foreign woman. I lived in a neighborhood of twenty thousand people, and I was one of two foreign women.
Working for a Chinese company ... bribery was rampant. They failed students who were doing well. I was told I had to pass certain students because their parents were paying a lot of money. So that was disillusioning, but at the same time I felt like there was more to China. And that was one of the reasons I moved to Shanghai.
Die-hard Westerners who love China will say that Shanghai is not really part of China. It is part of China, but it’s a different aspect of it. As a Westerner living in Shanghai, I get all of the comforts of living at home—other Westerners, other expats, Snapple. I had more culture shock moving from Beijing to Shanghai, actually, than from the States to Beijing. But there are still pockets of Chinese communities here in Shanghai that are traditional Chinese neighborhoods. It’s still part of China.
And [China is] huge! Once you travel more, you see that the people that make up China are completely different. There are hundreds of minority groups, and they each have their own cultures, their own languages.
I feel like I have yet to scratch beneath the surface of China. I feel like there’s so much more out there.
Like China, Her Ideas Are Evolving
Yiyuan Jasmine Qin ’12 grew up in Chen Zhou, Hunan, China. An environmental studies and economics double major with a music minor, she’s worked with professors Philip Nyhus and Walter Hatch on the reintroduction of South China tigers and NGO and civil society development, respectively.
I grew up with the idea that there are two universities in China that you should go to. One is Beijing Da Xue [Peking University] and the other is Qing Hua. You have to study hard and do well on your gao kao [entrance exams], and then you go to those two universities—and then what? It’s not a process of growing up to look at what you want and what you want to be, but to go to those two places.
Yiyuan Jasmine Qin ’12
I don’t feel like I was appreciated as an individual as a student in China, and actually, that was very much discouraged. We had to wear uniforms. I don’t want to say that’s bad, but you can’t wear anything that distinguishes you from other people. You have to be ... like everybody else.
I feel my ideas have been evolving since I came to Colby, very definitely—aspects of what I think and how I process and look at the world. I went abroad and I went around the world to see different parts of the world. It definitely has shaped me into a different person than a Chinese college student. But the education I grew up with, I very much appreciate the Chinese ideal of being polite and modest and hard working. Those values, I think they’re still very much ingrained in me.
I have to say that Chinese government—I have a lot of sympathy for what they do and how they portray different stories. Because we have a lot of people, and you approach different things differently when you have to ensure stability in a country, and that’s very important in China.
It’s complicated. I have confidence in Chinese people. We’re smart people and we’re hard working. There are a lot of problems right now, but I have a lot of confidence that we will be able to fix it. ...We have bright young people working hard to fix things. Things change and situations change, like human rights and how people will be able to express what they think. It changes. I think it’s going on the right track. ... As an environmentalist I’m pretty worried, but I’m still confident that we’re going to make a bright future.
Separate the Government From the People
Preston Decker ’08 studied Chinese in high school and majored in East Asian studies and biology at Colby. He’s been back and forth to China since graduation. In 2009 he started a year-long teaching position in the Uighur Autonomous Region (in western China) just as riots broke out in Urumqi and the government closed the region to foreign media.
I’m not sure it’s possible to describe China at all. To me it’s more of an American need to want to describe things perfectly. I’d love to be able to come up with a perfect quote, but ... I’m not sure I have a takeaway. It’s such a big country; there are so many parts of the country I haven’t been to and things about China that I still don’t understand.
Preston Decker ’08
I think the first thing you have to do is to separate the government from the people. I think everybody who goes to China from America comes out frustrated about the government because of restrictions on liberties. But at the same time, there’s a very strong argument to be made that if the government didn’t have those restrictions, millions more people would still be mired in poverty.
I’m going back to Beijing [in a week]. This time I’ll be teaching English, at least for the spring. … Sometimes I’m not really sure why I keep going back. I think some of it is just the landscape. I like being in cities with mountains around them, and in Beijing I’ll be able to get off into the hills a lot. And then also there’s definitely an aspect of feeling special when you’re living over there.
Sometimes it goes both ways. It annoys you how much people give attention to you, and then other times you like that extra attention of sticking out and being a foreigner. One of the coolest things to me about China and teaching English there is being able to meet people from all over the world—being able to meet other people who are the same as you and like to travel. I think that’s why a lot of people go over there. It’s not to make money, obviously, but it’s to put yourself in a position where you can see new things and be part of a culture that you really don’t know much about.
A Difficult—and Incredible—Beat for a Journalist
Hannah Beech ’95 is the China bureau chief and East Asian correspondent for Time magazine. She’s been in Asia since 1997, based in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and Bangkok. After graduation she was awarded a Watson fellowship to research self-censorship in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Hannah Beech ’95
When you look at China, it’s very easy to write about Shanghai and Beijing and Starbucks and computers and blah blah blah multinationals, and that’s an important part of the story. But to me what’s interesting is what’s happening in the interior,
and the AIDS crisis, and poverty, and the wealth gap, and all that stuff. To me that just means much more. Because the multinationals can sell themselves—they don’t need Time magazine to do that for them. So I feel like my responsibility is much more, in a bleeding-heart liberal kind of way, to help those people who can’t voice things for themselves.
If you are accredited in Beijing you can go basically anywhere with a couple exceptions, like Xinjiang and Tibet, and do reporting.
The problem is that the local officials haven’t really gotten the message, and they have an incredible incentive to keep you out, because if you go in and expose local corruption then they’re going to get in trouble with their bosses. So China’s not an easy place to be a foreign journalist. ... We are living in like spy central. Is my phone tapped? Sure. Are people looking at my e-mail? Probably.
It’s not the easiest place to be a journalist, but it’s also an incredible story and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. And the thing about China today is that
for most people their lives are getting a lot better. For others it’s [human rights activist] Liu Xiaobo. It’s dissidents, and I have a fair number of friends who are in jail. There’s very little justice on an individual level, and that can be very, very frustrating.
I’m not a very good journalist in that I don’t necessarily get the adrenaline rush from being there first or breaking the story, and part of that is because I work for a weekly news magazine. So what I really love are long, textured, narrative stories where you really try to, as best as you can, get people to understand a place or person. And I much prefer interviewing peasants over presidents.
Despite Change, Traditional Culture Remains
Stuart Eunson ’91 majored in East Asian studies and studied in China during the spring of 1989. He returned to Beijing in 1993 to start Arabica Coffee Roasters with classmate Ron Thompson ’91 and an Australian partner, Richard Wilson. Their company, which imports high-end coffee beans, roasts them in Beijing, and distributes around the country, has been growing since 1994.
Beijing’s modern skyline sits beyond The Forbidden City.
I ended up meeting the [Colby] Chinese professor at the time, David Keenan. He was incredibly charismatic and his love for China was infectious. Everybody in his class at the time, all seven of us, ended up keeping China in our life in the future.
[The day I met him, freshman year] Professor Keenan opened up this book of traditional black-and-white ink painting and he asked me what I saw. And of course there was a waterfall and a small pond, a little river running out of the pond. And I said this to him.
And he said, “You know you just pointed at white paper. The artist was able to let you see something where there is, in fact, nothing. That is the essence of the Dao. Dao ke Dao, fei chang Dao [The Way that can be explained in words is not the true Way].” And that, of course, is the first line of the Dao de jing. I was hooked from that point on.
As a student I was just fascinated by the culture. I kind of fell in love with the traditional Chinese culture, and that is really what made me interested in it.
What has changed in China is very superficial over the last decade. Obviously the cities have changed form completely. Beijing today does not look like what Beijing did in the late eighties and early nineties. However, the Beijing people as a population haven’t changed that much.
The entrepreneurial spirit has always been very strong in China. I don’t believe that having people make lots of money today in China is different than it was a hundred years ago, five hundred years ago, a thousand years ago. There might be more opportunities today in China, but that’s true everywhere in the world.
If you’re using the early nineties to now, obviously there has been massive change. Once Deng Xiaoping said, “To get rich is glorious.” Obviously that changed significantly how a communist country looked at allowing individuals to accumulate wealth. However, at the same time, China isn’t a fifty-year-old country. It’s not a hundred-year-old country. It’s a several-thousand year-old country.
Amid the Boom, Optimism
Chih-Chien Hsu ’80 is Taiwanese and the owner of Eddie Steamship, a company that dates back to when his family lived in Shanghai, before the civil war and the Japanese occupation. When direct flights from Taipei to Beijing started in 2008, he had the first ticket.
Really what’s happening in mainland China now is the exact experience that Taiwan went through maybe forty years ago. It’s exactly the pattern of economic development, very much export driven. And I remember very very well, during my senior year at Colby, in May. I was reading an editorial in the Morning Sentinel. The shoe manufacturing industry in Maine was already on the wane, and I remember this editorial was complaining about the fact that all of the shoe factories in Maine were closing down and all the shoe manufacturing was moving to Taiwan. In the late seventies and the early eighties, if you went into a shop, almost everything was made in Taiwan. Taiwan was making maybe seventy or eighty percent of all the shoes in the world.
Chih-Chien Hsu ’80
In the past thirty years, since that article appeared and since I graduated from Colby, all of the shoe factories have moved out of Taiwan, because labor costs here are too high, and moved to the Guangzhou area. And many of the workers who worked in the sweatshop factories in Taiwan in the mid-1980s are most likely now the managers and supervisors of those factories in Guangzhou.
It’s a cycle that every country goes through. In the article in the Morning Sentinel back in 1980, it was not very flattering about Taiwan, that the workers were working in oppressive sweatshop conditions, but now Taiwan has one of the highest standards of living in Asia. And my view of the future of mainland China, is, quite frankly … very optimistic, because I think from the past thirty years, I think China has always surprised me in a good way.
Shipping is my business, and China has a tremendous impact on the shipping industry today because of its rapid economic growth. I graduated at the time of the second energy crisis, which was caused by the revolution in Iran. Because oil prices went extremely high, many governments ordered their power utilities to find alternate sources of energy, and many shipping companies went out and ordered many new ships to carry these alternate energy sources, which were mostly coal.
But what nobody expected was that around 1982 and 1983 oil prices started to plunge, and many of these power utilities went back to using oil. There was a huge overcapacity of all these bulk carriers that were supposed to be carrying coal. The bulk shipping market went into a long period of depression, almost twenty years, from the mid-eighties up until 2003.
But then what happened is that during the early 2000s, China’s economy started to take off, and you have 1.3 billion people who, for the first time in maybe several centuries, have the ability to consume. So China’s import of raw material skyrocketed. Just as an example, China’s importation of iron ore, which is used for making steel, went from less than 100 million tons in 2000 to over 600 million tons last year. And the same applies to animal feed, because of skyrocketing meat production.
So China’s influence on the shipping market is tremendous. In the coming decades, I think, without question the U.S.-China relationship will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world. I certainly don’t pretend to be so great to be able to bridge any friction in that relationship. ... I think both myself and Colby College, if we can contribute just a small bit, if we can be that one cog in the wheel, that would be good enough.