I was finishing up my first year of teaching English as a Second Language and studying linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh when a job offer came from a company whose task it was to supply foreign experts in developing countries—mostly for building bridges or drainage ditches with the occasional gunfire overhead. The year before, when I was unemployed, I’d applied for an opening teaching German at a university in Nigeria. Now, in the summer of 1984, the company was offering me a gig teaching English at a university in China. I saw it as an opportunity to find out whether I really wanted this new career before I’d invested any more time and effort in getting the proper credentials. Besides, it had been a difficult year, it was really hot in Pittsburgh and I was feeling stifled. The advice was unanimous from the department—go. I went.
The arrangements were all last-minute: a couple of phone calls with a really bad connection, confusion about when I’d be boarding the CAAC flight to Shanghai, the wrong airplane ticket, delays in reissuing it, a ride with a good friend from Pittsburgh to the Chinese embassy in Washington to pick up my passport with the work visa in it. My friend Dee drove me to the airport. The ticket was business class, and I’d been told to bring as much stuff as I wanted, so my checked luggage was a box of advanced reading textbooks for my classes, a suitcase, an old footlocker and the manual portable typewriter my parents gave me when I graduated from high school. I was at the check-in counter in the airport when the footlocker was hoisted high into the air. From below it was clear that the hinges had broken and my clothes were about to fall out. I was horrified. Was this a sign that I wasn’t supposed to go? What did I know about the place? Nothing. I’d just finished reading a book on foreign imperialism in modern China. I’d gotten advice from people who’d been there. That was it.
I looked at Dee. She said, “You’ll get along in China better than anyone else I know.”
I knew she was right. I have a pioneer streak suited to, for example, living on the America frontier with a log cabin full of children to clothe and cook for and do farm chores for and keep close and safe.
Okay, then. The airport check-in guy gave me some tape, we taped the footlocker together, and I asked for the rest of the roll just in case my luggage had to be opened at customs and retaped.
I was soon to learn that the Chinese didn’t think of my position as that of a rugged individualist going it alone. As a Foreign Expert I was directly under the Expert’s Bureau in Beijing, but there was also a local Bureau of Foreign Affairs, a departmental party secretary, my own personal minder, and the teacher who gave me a three-day tour of Beijing while my students sat in the classroom in Xiamen waiting for me to arrive. This was in addition to the usual teaching supervisors, department heads and higher administration. Few decisions were mine to make. I would be living in these two large rooms with bath and balcony in the university’s Number Two Guesthouse. Also, because I was late in arriving, my reading classes had been given to someone else, and I got conversation classes for freshman and for first-year graduate students. The freshmen had a completely inappropriate textbook written for students living in English-speaking countries, who would know about Western life, while my students thought a computer was like a television set connected to a typewriter. They’d probably never used a telephone without an operator. The text, which was full of technological and cultural references Chinese teachers and students did not understand, and it was selected with the misguided idea of teaching students about advanced technology through English. It was about as effective as my high school attempts to learn Latin via the German I hadn’t learned yet. My graduate students had no textbook at all.
It was late summer 1984. During the 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, having anything to do with foreigners was dangerous for the Chinese. You didn’t wear foreign-looking clothes or listen to foreign music or even stand next to foreigners on the bus. But now the pendulum had swung the other way, and having connections with foreigners was in fashion. My minder was a whiny, nosy woman with large teeth who treated me like a prize cow to be led around and shown off, while I thought of her as my assistant. We went to the library to find books I could steal lessons from. The stacks were closed. The sully, slow-moving library assistant would bring books to me one at a time—they all had generic titles like Intermediate English, which could mean anything. With my minder as translator, I bullied my way into the closed stacks of the library so I could inspect the books myself. It wasn’t until months later that I learned banging one’s fist on the counter, as I had in that library, was common behavior among Foreign Experts who were continually frustrated in their attempts to get something done. I took books home, retyped selections on mimeograph stencils, added discussion questions and took them to the printing factory to have copies made. Eventually one of the department typists took over about half of the typing.
My first immediate supervisors were old codgers and micro-managers who shamed the poorest students by making them read aloud and insisted on good handwriting. We did not get on. But within a couple of months there was a big shake-up in the university, and in typical Chinese categorical fashion positions were decided not on the basis of individual merit but on the basis of age. Old guys out, new guys in. My supervisors were replaced by a friendly, thoroughly agreeable department head who was pleased with everything I did. He became a good friend.
My students were at first terrified of this foreigner, or maybe of what could happen because of their association with this foreigner. I think someone reassured the freshmen, because there was a sudden thaw, and classes became fun, even with that awful freshman textbook.
Gradually I learned enough to determine what my role should be. The students were hungry for news from the West, particularly cultural stuff. Their knowledge was spotty. Some of them had pirated Michael Jackson tapes, but they’d never heard of the Beatles. They knew nothing about psychology, which was illegal. Why would you need psychology in a worker’s paradise? Their lives were stressful. Their families had sacrificed a lot for them to be there. Some of them were city kids who’d been sent out to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution—maybe a short distance, but 100 years away—and they’d had to adjust. Their parents might have annoyed the wrong person and been assigned lifelong jobs in different parts of the country, leaving the children in the care of an old grandmother. The parents might have been tortured. Only the rich and powerful had privacy. I used some psychology readings I thought students might find useful in their daily lives, thinking, okay, if the party secretary tells me I can’t teach this stuff, I’ll apologize and never do it again. But until then I’ll use my own judgment. I knew the class monitor also doubled as an informant, but I decided to ignore that.
For the first time, I began to look at myself and my reactions as typical of the Western expat. Why was I always angry when I opened the door? Because someone had been rapping on it continuously for the last five minutes, apparently without considering that I might need time to get to the door or that I had the right to ignore them. Why was I annoyed by a barrage of personal questions from a stranger? I wrote materials to introduce students to Western customs and Western conversational styles. My neighbor was a French teacher who spoke Mandarin fluently and was a great source of cultural information. I learned, and I began to take on a role of introducing students to the West. The students seemed to be really enjoying my classes and getting a lot out of them.
In Europe I’d had some friends who were expats, but as far as I knew there was no expat community where I’d lived and no particular need for one. I’d just adapted. In China the Foreign Experts and Foreign Teachers were put in the Number Two Guesthouse and foreign students on the top floors of a student dormitory. Originally a heavy metal gate separated foreign students from Chinese students, but that was removed one night and thrown into the sea.
So we were in a ghetto. The doors were locked at night. We could supposedly ring the bell to be let in, but that would lead to questions. It was easier to sneak through the back door into the kitchen. Contact with Chinese was limited and controlled. When students came to see me, they had to sign a book in the lobby, and the whole time they were there the guesthouse maids came in and out, monitoring. Any closer friendships would have to be with other foreigners. I made two exceptions—my department head and the only female PhD candidate, a woman who moved to the States toward the end of my stay. All the other Chinese I lost contact with when I left. At the time I was planning to write a book, and I thought it would be too dangerous for former students if, in another 20 years, someone with a grudge looked through their personal dossiers and said, “What were you doing spending so much time with that spy?”
Surveillance would have been worse if we’d been in Beijing or even in Shanghai instead of out-of-the-way little Xiamen. The foreigners knew our mail was opened and read. I got mail which was slit open. Others got envelopes opened and then glued back together with old-fashioned library paste. A German woman received a letter with a page from some stranger’s mail in Afrikaans, probably both read by the same Germanic languages spook in Beijing. When confronted with the evidence, Foreign Affairs just denied it. They didn’t care what we thought. They didn’t hold their positions because of their great love for foreigners. I wasn’t particularly concerned about the mail, but I was about possible repercussions to my other activity, interviewing and collecting stories from other expats living in China. Still, I was fairly certain no one would snitch on me. Almost everyone with an international background had too much dislike for the Foreign Affairs Department.
What I experienced vicariously greatly expanded my knowledge of China. I gathered stories from the other foreign faculty, the businessmen out in the Special Economic Zone, travelers, Hong Kong residents who’d been to the People’s Republic—anyone who would talk with me. We were telling each other our stories anyway. Anything having to do with student demonstrations, surveillance, lifestyle, friendships, traveling, teaching, international business, negotiating contracts or assorted bits of intercultural clashes. (A wide variety of posts is available in the website archives, all listed in the index.) In the process of talking to people I discovered a kind of joy in learning that was different from what I’d experienced as a lone scholar holed up in the library. I put together a manuscript and sent out some letters but eventually gave up trying to get the thing published, at least in that insufficiently edited form. But my interest in introducing Westerners to the expat experience in China continued—a bit similar to my introducing my students to the West.
Toward the end of my first year, I found myself in contract negotiations myself. During conversation with the Foreign Expert in the English Department of Foreign Languages—I was in College English, a service department—I found out that he was making more money than I was even though I had a Ph.D. So when my department head asked whether I would be interested in teaching for another year, the back-and-forth started with Mr. Gao, head of Foreign Affairs. I conveyed through one of his minions my request for a raise, as was appropriate for my credentials. I was told that Mr. Gao was considering it. When a contract appeared, there was no salary on it. I refused to sign. I also contacted the individual at the recruiting company. She spoke to someone in the Experts’ Bureau in Beijing. The bureau leaned on Xiamen Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs raised my salary and put it on the contract. I was leaving class one day when one of the staffers tracked me down, and we located one of those nasty dip pens I’d done so badly with in Luxembourg. Ballpoint pen would not do for a contract. I managed to sign it without getting a blob of ink on it.
I learned a bit more about the hierarchy when I inquired about books which had been donated by my predecessors in the English Department, well-meaning Americans leftists who had attempted to get the People’s Republic back on track. They brought books and gave lecturers to their Chinese colleagues, who listened politely. Maybe attending the American’s lectures meant they could skip some of their regular political meetings. The Americans then left behind a large cache of books which was not in the library. It had been locked away in a special room. Maybe a party secretary wanted to control access to this seditious material. Or maybe it was just book hoarding. In a place where knowledge is power, you find strange things happening, like a construction project failing because the foreman wouldn’t let any of the workers see the plans. So I asked one of the secretaries if I could have the key to the room. Oh, no. Those books belonged to the English Department. I had to ask my boss in College English to speak to the head of the English Department, and then he would tell my boss yes or no, and my boss would tell me. We were all in the same office, but in this organizational structure, everything is up or down, not much lateral. Okay, my boss talked to the other boss who talked to a subordinate who got the key. He escorted me to the room and I looked it over to see whether I could use any of the books in my teaching materials. They were all very dry.
I was learning the importance of connections. I had stumbled over the concept shortly after my arrival when a middle-aged couple in the English Department invited me to dinner. I accepted. They put out an enormous spread. I was impressed and grateful, they were gracious, but within the week the graduate assistant of the husband appeared with the doctoral dissertation of one of his graduate students, a study about dictionaries written to show how the Chinese were translating better than anyone else. The implication was clear: I had eaten the dinner, and as repayment I was expected to proofread this damned thing. It was not short. I looked it over. My neighbor and colleague in French looked it over. We decided the “research” was so greatly flawed that there was no point in correcting the many errors in grammar and word choice. I called the perpetrator in and talked to him. His adviser never asked me to proofread again, but I often got requests for corrections in the late evening when I was about to take a bath and the dean came over with a translation he was doing for extra money. My hostess from the dinner sent over requests for me to make tapes. Other expats warned against accepting any favors from Chinese because they always came with strings attached.
I was equally clueless until the end of my first year. Then the heating wire gave out on little electric hot plate I was using to heat up food. I took the stove back to the store where I bought it, and they refused to replace the wire. Why sell a cheap little wire when you can soak the rich foreigner for a new stove? After I took the stove back to my place on campus, I complained to a graduate student I’d gotten friendly with, and she said, “Oh, you know Stanley from last semester? He fixes stoves like that in the chemistry lab.” Then it clicked—connections. Where do you find someone who can proofread English or make tapes for you with a native-speaker accent? In a country where you have exploit middle school connections in order to buy railroad tickets, who you know is everything. I stopped being self-righteous and offered to make tapes.
In China you are almost never seen as an individual. On the phone, people ask not who you are but where (which work unit) you’re calling from. If you want housing on the campus of another university, you present not your faculty ID card, but a letter of introduction from your Foreign Affairs Department, which also looks after your visa and pays for your transportation back home by sending a Chinese escort who has the money for your air ticket. You are not on your own. You’re part of a very intricate network. What favors you do or don’t do are a matter less of your relationship to the other person than a matter of what groups you belong to and what the hierarchy is. Foreigners are a little outside the loop, but not exempt.
I was to see this traditional collectivism—not socialist collectivism, but agrarian collectivism, a network of blood ties and school ties and political ties and overlapping hierarchies—again in South Korea and the Philippines, although in different forms.
Link to my essay on teaching in China: