467: Americans in China
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Benji had been living in China for just three weeks when he was first invited to be on a Chinese TV show.
It's very easy as a foreigner to get on TV in some random way.
And it depends on what areas you're hanging out. Like if you're always hanging out at the malls, where a lot of foreigners are, where these scouts kind of hang out, then it can happen a lot. Once a week or once every two weeks.
Emailing with Americans in China in putting together this week's radio show, we heard about this kind of thing from person after person, people being approached to be on TV. And at some point we began to wonder, have you guys all been on TV? It was such a common experience for Americans in China. TV producers spotted Chidalia on a website where American expatriates hung out in the city of Guangzhou, a website called Guangzhou Stuff.
A girl kind of just saw my photo and she asked me if I wanted to be on TV. And just, of course, me without even really asking what the program would be, I just said yeah, sure. And they said, OK, come to the casting audition and I went.
The woman at the audition asked if she'd ever heard of American Idol. The answer was yes. But this would be for sort of a Chinese version called Super Girl.
And So I just asked her what exactly that would entail. Because I know American Idol is all singing, and I'm not a singer. Like not even a little. So I told her I can't sing. And she said oh, that's OK. That's no problem.
And so I'm thinking well, how is it not a problem? If this is a singing competition, the fact that I can't sing should actually be a really big problem. But they just wanted a foreigner to be on the program. [SINGING CHINESE SONG]
That's Chidalia singing on the program. She was kept through the early rounds of the competition while, she says, much better singers were bounced.
I've often felt like a performing monkey on stage.
That's Benji again. The four different Americans I talked to used the phrase "performing monkey" to describe the experience of being on Chinese TV. Benji's been on singing competitions as a judge and as a contestant. He's been on dramas in some pretty big parts. He's been on talk shows, which he describes this way.
When foreigners go on TV shows, the most common thing is, they like to dress them up in old Chinese garb, like the Tang Dynasty clothes, and make them sing some old Chinese song and say some ridiculous phrase in Chinese. And then the host will come out and just kind of make fun of them or like talk back to them in a really bad Chinese accent, kind of like we-- which in America, if we were to speak to somebody back in their accent in English, it'd be considered kind of rude.
Like I've heard that in Chinese TV, the things that get the best ratings are children, animals, and foreigners, which just kind of says it all. It's just that foreigners are considered cute and adorable. It's kind of like a baby who can't take care of himself and needs to be loved.
Oh, so it's not ridicule. It's more like--
It's more like oh, they're so cute. Yeah, oh look at that cute foreigner. He's trying to speak Chinese. It's so adorable.
This is the treatment that foreigners get even when the subject is completely dead serious. Leif Rogers says that he's been on Chinese TV over 100 times in his seven years in China, mostly on talk shows, discussing charity fundraising for various causes that he organizes in his job at a Chinese bank.
I'm sure you've talked to quite a few people regarding this. I mean, right in the middle of a serious interview on a talk show about-- here we are talking about the victims of the earthquake in Sichuan, and then they'll say well, can you sing a song now? And then I'm like, no, of course I can't. And they're like no, no, no, you can sing a song.
And they'll name some John Denver tune or something that's popular over here. "Yesterday, Once More." And then they'll get the audience cheering and everything. And you know, no, I'm not going to sing a song here. Then they're clearly disappointed.
Oh my. And are they doing that because you're a foreigner? Or they would just do that to anybody who's sitting there?
The thing is, is a Chinese person would sing the song right away, no problem. So I think that it's more interesting when the foreigner does it.
It's more interesting when the foreigner does it. In the remote areas of China, lots of people have still never met or seen a foreigner. Though in the big cities, it's different. There's so many foreigners these days, that in day to day life in certain areas, they are not a novelty at all. Americans living in China who've been living there for years and years, no surprise, see things about China and the incredible changes in China going on right now that we here in the United States have never heard of, only have a hazy notion of, or just have wrong.
Evan Osnos arrived in China in 1996. And yes, he was asked to take a bit part in a Chinese movie his second month in the country. These days, he writes about China for The New Yorker. And he says he struggle sometimes to explain, not just in his writing, but to friends back home, what it is like to live in China. For instance, if you're living in America, he says, China just seems like this powerful, possibly threatening, world power, ready right now to dominate the world.
But actually, once you start to spend time in China or start to understand a little bit about how the Chinese see their place in the world, it becomes a lot harder to picture them thinking that they're ready to do that. And that's simply because the Chinese self-image is still in so many ways, very, very, very, very-- it's of a very weak country. They see themselves as being very weak.
There was just a poll that came out in the United States that shows that most people in the world, for the first time, now think that China is the world's most important economic power. Most people think that in Europe. Most people think that in the United States.
But in China, people don't think that. Only something like less than a quarter of the people they talked to actually think that China's an economic power in the world. I mean, even in the cities, the biggest cities in China-- Beijing and Shanghai and so on-- one in every three people doesn't have their own kitchen or toilet.
So it's not to say that China's meek and that it doesn't want to make an imprint on the planet. Of course, it does. And it plans to. But its own self-image is that at the moment it remains a big, poor country with a lot of very, very poor people in it. And I think that's hard to picture from far away.
Well today on our radio program, "Americans Living in China," what it is like to be there and what do they see, living there, that we don't see. They interpret for us this hour. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.
Act One: Why Do You Have to Go and Make Things So Complicated?
Act One. Why'd You Have To Go and Make Things so Complicated? There are about 70,000 Americans living in mainland China today, according to the Chinese and American governments. A lot of the Americans in China only stay for a few years.
But then there are others, American expats who've lived in China for a decade or more, with no foreseeable plans to come home. Who are they? And how Chinese do they become? Evan Osnos has this story, which starts with an expat named Kaiser Kuo.
Kaiser Kuo's parents were born in China. They lived through the Japanese bombing during World War II and then Revolution. They immigrated to the United States as teenagers and fell in love with each other and with the United States. They loved the Kennedys and the Apollo moon walk and Dr. Spock's child rearing books.
Their wedding photo shows a young man in Buddy Holly glasses and slick hair in an all-white suit, next to a beautiful young woman also all in white, standing together in bright, white California sunshine. They plucked Kaiser's first name out of an American book of baby names, if you can believe it. Kaiser's father, in particular, was smitten with America. Here's Kaiser.
My father told me once-- and really, it broke my heart-- he said he never touched his father until his father's funeral, when he finally touched his corpse.
Yeah. They never embraced. I mean, I have this really affectionate family. I mean, we hug. We kiss. My dad always kissed us goodnight. I mean, I think this is part of their embrace of America. It's like, we're going to do things this New World way.
The New World way meant Kaiser and his three siblings grew up with kickball, pool parties in the backyard, camping trips, a bad high school rock band. But all of that was constantly mixed in with stories about China. Their father kept a whiteboard next to the dinner table and sometimes wrote Chinese expressions on it during the meal. As much as they loved the United States, both parents never stopped missing China.
When the kids got out of college, China had begun to open up. And after so many years of learning about the country, three out of the four siblings moved to Beijing. They already spoke some Mandarin, and each of them became missionaries of a certain kind, for different parts of American culture.
One brother, Jay, was active in the early gay scene in Beijing. Mimi opened one of the city's first US-style yoga studios. But only one of the siblings has stayed in China to this day-- Kaiser, who brought rock and roll. It was his contribution-- part of it, anyway-- to the two generation obsession in this family-- the US, China, and how to build a life that straddles both.
Before Kaiser, for thousands of years in China, people had been listening to this.
[MUSIC PLAYING - CHINESE CLASSICAL MUSIC]
Or maybe some of this.
[MUSIC PLAYING - CHINESE POP MUSIC]
Then along came Kaiser with long hair, head banging, and this.
[MUSIC PLAYING - CHINESE ROCK MUSIC BY TANG DYNASTY]
Kaiser was the lead guitarist and co-founder of a heavy metal band called Tang Dynasty, one of the first rock bands in China. A whole generation of Chinese kids, the ones who were interested in loud Western-style music, grew up with Tang Dynasty. By the mid-1990s, with Kaiser on guitar and his best friend, a Chinese guy named Ding Wu as lead singer, the band was huge, and getting bigger all the time.
The number one song, stadium crowds. Kaiser sometimes looked out from the stage on 30,000 people singing back to them. People recognized him on the street. Things were great. Until May of 1999.
One morning, I wake up. And it's my brother, my little brother on the phone, telling me oh my god, turn on the news. The US has just blown up the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
China says it is outraged after 4 people die and 20 are injured, when NATO bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
You may not remember this. But lots of Chinese people do. There's a Chinese monument to it in Belgrade. And the incident is taught in Chinese schools as an example of how superpowers like the United States-- and I'm reading here from a junior high curriculum-- put their interests above world peace and development and use their military advantage to attack whomever they want.
It was the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, intended to protect ethnic Albanians. And an American B2 bomber flying over Belgrade dropped five bombs on the Chinese embassy. Three Chinese citizens were killed. In America, people saw it as an accident. Not in China.
My lead singer, my then-girlfriend, and I walked down to the embassy district to see what's happening around the US Embassy. And then everyone's there, shouting at us, saying hey, Tang Dynasty's here in solidarity with the people who are protesting against American hegemony.
Of course, that wasn't my take on it at all. I was thinking-- I thought this through and said, this couldn't have been done deliberately. This must have been some kind of an accident.
How did your band members react?
So initially, they kind of saw things my way. I laid out what I thought was a pretty reasonable case. But it changed really quickly.
That very evening, we get a call from our manager who says, look, I'm going to get you guys on a plane tomorrow. We're flying you down to Shenzhen. And you're going to take part in this peace concert.
[SPEAKING CHINESE (SHOUTING)]
So they set up a stage in front of the whole thing. And they bussed in all these people who were wearing color-coordinated t-shirts that say [SPEAKING CHINESE]. Today China says no. And I realize that this is not a peace rally, that this is an anti-American rally.
It's kind of the opposite of a peace rally, essentially.
So my hackles are up. And this camera swings into my face. And it's live, and I didn't know this either, at the time. And they ask me, you're an American. Tell me about your reaction to what's happened. And I said, I come here in the interest of peace. And I said, by peace, I don't mean just peace between the Kosovars and the Serbs, not just peace between the Yugoslav Federation and NATO, but also-- and most importantly-- peace between China and the United States after this tragic, tragic accident.
And at the word "accident," of course, everyone's face just blanches. The camera swings away. People start yelling at me. And then I can see that-- I figured that my band mates who were nearby me were mad because they immediately distanced themselves from me.
I mean, we're on stage under this Styrofoam and wood mock-up of the burned-out embassy complex. And it's teetering. And when we finally get up there to play, the lead singer sort of looks at me, glowers at me and then starts saying today, the Chinese people will no longer be bullied by Americans. And [MUMBLES]. And he shoots me a couple looks. Now this is like my best friend for 10 years.
The tension in the band got a lot worse. And Kaiser left, before he could be forced out.
And the rage across China didn't die down. It got worse. Police were allowing students to demonstrate. The government was even encouraging protests, which are usually against the law in China. They grew into the most violent anti-American demonstrations in years. People set fire to the home of the American Consul General in the city of Chengdu and stoned the American Embassy in Beijing, while the diplomats barricaded themselves inside.
President Clinton apologized for the bombing, said it was a tragic mistake, the result of an outdated map. They'd thought it was a military office. Chinese television quoted his apology, but left out the part about it being a mistake.
For more than 100 years, China has seen itself as being bullied by foreign powers. And throughout the Cold War, when the US led the international fight against communism, the biggest bully was the United States. I've got a Chinese cartoon from the age of Chairman Mao that shows the following image-- an obese Uncle Sam sitting on a pile of money, waving a cigar at Chinese workers in a cage. There were images like that everywhere in the '60s and '70s.
But that anti-American image had gotten a lot harder to sell after China went for the free market. And after the Chinese public had spent the 1980s and '90s falling for one Western idea after another-- Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, blue jeans, Hotel California-- the Communist party had been facing a kind of identity crisis. But then came the Belgrade bombing. And America the boogeyman came right back.
I have yet to meet a single Chinese person, to this day-- I mean, like somebody who hasn't at least spent their life outside of China-- who doesn't believe that this was a conspiracy, that this is a deliberate act.
That the United States deliberately attacked the Chinese embassy in Belgrade?
That's right. I didn't get a sense for how enraged people were. And that was part of my mistake. I think that I was pretty cavalier about just how deep that stuff ran. The whole month of May of 1999 was actually the moment when I felt my American-ness.
For the preceding three or four years, I didn't have a lot to do with expatriates here. I didn't speak a lot of English. The women that I dated were Chinese. The life that I led was quintessentially Chinese. The vast majority of my friends were Chinese. That was a moment of incredible realization for me, that there's still a chasm that I'll probably never actually be able to cross.
That chasm is something almost any long-term expat in China encounters at some point. I know a guy from Texas whose moment like this came when the Beijing government bulldozed his barbecue joint. For me, it was year three, after I'd learned the language and moved into a Chinese neighborhood, where I loved not having to run into foreigners all the time, even though my job was to write about China for a foreign audience.
And then one day, this fax came into my office. It said, in Chinese, correct your misunderstandings or you and your family will wish you were dead. It turned out the fax was a response to articles some journalists had written about a recent uprising in Tibet. It was spam. Reporters got it whether they'd written about Tibet or not. But there it was.
That fax was so completely out of character with everything else in my life here. It made me embarrassed about all that effort to make myself as close as I could to China. It made me wonder if the enthusiasm was mutual.
You get over these moments as an expat here. You go back to living with the knowledge that most of the time you'll be welcomed, treated with grace. But in the back of your mind, you know there will be another day, someday, when you suddenly find yourself an outsider.
I'm going to get some water.
Kaiser's warming up for this weekly podcast he does. It's called Sinica, usually a lineup of expats in China, hosted by Kaiser and his friend Jeremy Goldkorn. He's South African, another long-term expat.
It's just for fun. It's not their job. Today, besides Kaiser and Jeremy, it's three journalists, including me, because I'm following Kaiser for this story.
Jeremy, you need to talk a little bit to make sure you're--
I need to talk a little bit?
Am I talking?
Would you be able to grab me a beer?
It's informal, clearly. We're all sitting in yet another expat's third-floor walk up in the Dong Cheng neighborhood in Beijing. Everyone here has known each other for years.
I used to be a reporter in the Middle East. But in China, the expats are different. More of them speak the local languages and they don't expect to go to another posting every four or five years. They're usually here because they're interested in China specifically, not because they were drawn by the drama of a war or the perks of a place that's cheaper than home. They want to be in China.
Welcome to the Sinica podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China coming to you from the pop-up Chinese studios here in Beijing. I'm your host, Kaiser Kuo.
Kaiser's 46, still has long hair, And his podcast gets as many as 10,000 listeners a week, mostly expats who've encountered him over the years, who have read things he's written.
After he left the band, Kaiser knew he couldn't continue trying to be Chinese. He was an American, a foreign expatriate, living in China. And he had to embrace that. And now after so many years, he's a kind of uber-expat in Beijing, a convener, a traffic cop who stands at the intersection of China and the foreigners trying to make sense of it. It's almost impossible to be a foreigner in Beijing and not hear about Kaiser.
Kaiser turns for an update to Gady Epstein, who's been in China off and on for 10 years and now writes for The Economist, which has just added a new part to the magazine, a China section.
Now I understand that this is the first time that your magazine has added a country-specific section since, what? 1942?
Since basically about a month after Pearl Harbor. 70 years ago to the month, we started-- The Economist started-- its America survey, where we did we were devoting special attention to the United States. And this is the first time they've added a country since then.
So what are we expecting from the new China section besides the arch and condescending editorializing that we've come to know and love?
Well, we are going to expand on our ability to be arch and condescending.
Ah, well, very good.
We're also going to-- I mean, coincidentally with that, have more coverage of China.
The conversation moves on to what name The Economist will give its new China blog.
We don't have one yet. We solicited people to nominate their own suggestions for the China blog.
Most of them were pretty appalling.
Really? What have you heard so far, Jeremy?
Well, they were kind of like dragon and silk and--
Well, I said we should please have--
--please have dragon, panda, bicycles and inscrutable, or some combination--
The Inscrutable Pearl of the Oriental Dragon panda.
Sorry, too late. I've already taken that.
So I think The Inscrutable Panda is not a bad choice.
How about the China Slant?
You sent me a few of those, offline, Kaiser. And I was going to protect your reputation by not repeating them.
As foreigners living in China, especially ones who write about it for a living, we're always trying to figure out how to explain China, not just to our readers and listeners, also to our friends and family and acquaintances. We know that looking at the country from far away, for instance, from the United States, it can be difficult to make out the proportions here.
Parts of it seem very American, the friendliness, the conspicuous consumption, the drive, pride in the sheer size of the country and belief in the country's exceptionalism and the arrogance that goes with that. Also the ambition, and the anxiety among the ambitious, about getting your kids into the right kindergarten.
But then parts of it are straight out of the Cold War. We don't really have a good word for what China is now. Totalitarianism isn't right. But, of course, it's not politically free in any sense of the word. When I sit down to write, I'm looking at facts that are sometimes in direct contradiction with each other, and are also in motion.
Do I lead with the fact that the income of the average citizen here doubled in 12 years, a process that took 50 years in America? Or the fact that around 150 million Chinese people, the equivalent of half the population of the United States, still live on $1 a day? How does any expat answer the question, so what's happening in China these days?
So welcome everyone to Baidu. My name's Kaiser Kuo. I'm director of international communications here.
Kaiser's job now, and for the last few years, has been spokesman for Baidu, which is a big deal. It's China's biggest search engine, basically China's Google. He's their English language spokesman.
And here he's talking to a group of American MBA students. He does this sort of thing a lot in his job. It's an hour-long presentation that's part speech, part Q&A.
--any questions you might have, feel absolutely free to ask whatever's on your mind. We are very much on the record. So anything that you can say, I will either try to weasel out of delicately or will try to give you the most blunt answer that I'm able to muster.
Kaiser has to be delicate. His job has put him deeper inside a Chinese company than most Americans ever get. He's the face of one of the most important companies in the country, one that, in order to stay in business, works hand-in-glove with the Chinese government's strict censorship policies, meaning much of the time now Kaiser's speaking from the Chinese side of the chasm.
Kaiser starts with the basics, explaining how big the Chinese internet is, much bigger than most Americans realize.
By last count, a whopping 513 million people using the internet in China.
That's more than the US, Canada, and Mexico combined. And since Americans often mistakenly think Baidu is a government-owned and run company-- it's not-- Kaiser talks about how Baidu is a private company. It's dominated not only every American search engine that's tried to muscle in, but also recent attempts by the Chinese government to create a state-run competitor.
On a big screen, with help from his colleague, Betty, he does searches and shows some of Baidu's features. And then at some point, he gets the question, the one he always gets from foreigners.
Yes? In the back. Oh wait, you had a question.
I did. So we're staying at the Crowne Plaza. And when you log on to the internet, it says no Facebook, no YouTube, and I don't remember what else it said.
And correct me if I'm wrong, it's kind of-- what it appears to me that you guys have done, is kind of integrate those into your search. So she was able to find a video on Coldplay, which it was almost like a YouTube video. Do you guys really try to kind of push the limit against kind of what Big Brother tells you to do? How much power do you have to say--
Let me put it this way--
--no guys, let's look at this.
Like I told this gentlemen here, we are a consumer-facing company, so we do not labor on the illusion that they want to have, as you say, Big Brother telling them what they can and cannot see. So our interest is in providing the consumers with exactly what they want. Our interests are also with abiding by the law. So we have a line to walk. This gentleman over here had a question.
Internet censorship in China comes in a bunch of different forms. Let's say you go to Google, which you can still do in China, even though they famously pulled out years ago. They just relocated most of their servers to Hong Kong, which has different censorship laws.
So if you're in Beijing and you go on Google and enter a sensitive search term, for instance, Tiananmen Square, you'll get a full set of search results. But if you try to click on any of the links that the government is blocking, then your computer will get weirdly slow. And then finally you'll get a message saying that page can't be shown.
But things are different on other search engines. If you try Baidu or Bing or any other company that has its servers located on mainland China, lots of links come up, no matter what you search for. And you can access all the links.
But only government-approved sites will show up. You can't tell what's missing. It's seamless. That's because the government distributes lists of forbidden subjects to all these companies and to China's version of Twitter, which is called Weibo. And it's the company's job to self-censor, or they risk being shut down.
Then there are also, as you've probably heard, thousands of people patrolling the web in China every day, some paid by the government, others by the websites themselves. They block and remove photos and films and articles. Even more scrubbing is done by automated programs that look for anything forbidden or suspicious.
Sometimes the government demands that a site hand over information about specific people and what they do online, with severe consequences. A journalist named Shi Tao is serving a 10-year sentence on charges of leaking state secrets, because Yahoo helped the government identify him through his email account. There are new cases all the time. More recently, a woman was sentenced to a year in a re-education through labor camp for forwarding a joke.
So when some Americans hear that internet companies like Baidu agree to all this in order to operate in China, they get mad. They want to hear that the company's fighting back. OK. Here's the reality, though.
Yes, Baidu is the biggest, most powerful search engine in China. But the government is so vastly bigger and more powerful than Baidu or any other company or group of companies in the country. The government owns all the land, all the banks, all the TV stations, all the major newspapers. And it controls the army and the police. It does what it wants. And it doesn't have to care what anyone thinks. Here's Kaiser.
If you're not really profoundly conflicted by the things that you see here, then you just don't have your eyes open, right? I mean, living here as an expatriate, you're going to see things that will cause your blood to boil. But if you dwell in the house of indignation at all times, I mean, you're not going to hack it here.
You hear versions of this all the time here, not only from expats, but from the Chinese themselves. To make it day-by-day in China, most people try to keep a narrow focus on the world in front of them. Improve what they can, without getting overwhelmed by the bigger picture.
For an American epidemiologist I know, it means helping Chinese doctors fight the spread of HIV, even when the research draws on patients who've been rounded up by police. An American lawyer working to reform Chinese courts realized she couldn't start with the problem of torture in police custody. She had to start with an even more basic problem-- the fact that most people who go on trial never get a lawyer.
But no matter how careful anyone here is, the fact is that the lines are never clear when it comes to running afoul of the government. No matter how well someone understands China or how great their Chinese is, any expat or Chinese person can suddenly find themselves in a situation where they realize oh no.
I overestimated my own ability to deal with a Leninist state.
This is Kaiser's friend Jeremy Goldkorn, the expat from South Africa who co-hosts the podcast with Kaiser. Jeremy is as smart and knowledgeable about China as almost anyone. He's lived here for 17 years.
And for a while, he had a groundbreaking website that covered Chinese media and the internet. It became huge. Until one day after six years, it was blocked in China, just gone forever. An entire career plan shut down.
It was Jeremy's Belgrade moment, his version of Kaiser's band break-up after the Peace Concert. Except Jeremy to this day has no idea what he did to be shut down. Which post or posts pushed his website over that line.
The full set of rules the censors use are known only to the government. And the rules change constantly without notice. There's no book you can keep on your shelf and consult to avoid getting into trouble. And as Jeremy says, there's no hotline to call and ask, comrade, why did you censor my website?
I mean I was always fairly cynical about China. But after that, there was a certain part of me which is like so this is the way it is here. And I was kidding myself thinking that I could just be daring enough to be interesting, but not daring enough to not really get into trouble. And it was do I stay or do I go. I think I was basically just quite numb for about a whole year, just not really knowing what to do.
So you have these two friends, Jeremy and Kaiser, both Western expats in China, one of whom has found a way to coexist with the government censorship, and the other who got hammered by it. So it's not surprising that Jeremy's take on China's censorship regime is different from Kaiser's. Kaiser, like a lot of expats, says that he sees the present for what it is. But he sees momentum toward better things. Here's Jeremy's take.
I mean, I broadly agree. But I think for the last two years, I've been a lot more pissed off about the censorship in China than he has. The things that should be black and white sometimes become a lot more blurry and a lot greyer. And people are less aware of the fact that there is, about certain things, a distinct difference between the way things are done here and elsewhere.
Yeah, I mean, this is where I think it gets really interesting. Because I feel the longer I'm here, that the more I'm comfortable saying, oh this is complicated. You got to understand the whole picture.
And every once in while, a friend will stop me and say, wait a second. That's not complicated. It's just not OK to refer to internet censorship as internet regulations or internet management. And I do forget that. I mean I think I do.
Yeah, I know what you mean. I think once you get to know China, you do, yourself, tweak. You make allowances. You think that certain compromises are OK. It's a big country. There are too many people, too many poor people. It can't be run obviously the same as Norway or Sweden or even the United States.
I mean, I think it's one of the fundamental problems facing Chinese society right now is, the bar for everything is so low. Nobody's surprised that there's poison in the milk, because there is. And this is China, therefore that's the way it is. Therefore what are you going to do about it. And everybody's kind of fatalist.
As an expat in China, when you hear yourself using a government-issued phrase like internet management, or chalking things up to China being complicated, it can feel like a failure. Or at least not the kind of understanding you set out to acquire. You spend so many years studying and adapting and trying to cross that chasm, to glimpse the world from the Chinese perspective, to finally get inside China. And when you reach the destination, you have to remember not to forget where you come from.
What are you making?
Kaiser's making breakfast for his two kids, seven-year-old Guinevere and six-year-old Johnny. His wife is Chinese, a native Beijinger he met while he was in Tang Dynasty. Kaiser's kids are growing up in China with a dad who talks to them all the time about the US, just like Kaiser's parents raised their kids in the US and talked to them all the time about China. Kaiser's dream is to someday live half the year in China and half the year in the United States.
But an even more basic dream of his is that the animosity between the two countries stops getting worse. He said that the main thing he loses sleep over now is the relationship between China and the United States. I asked him if he meant it literally, whether it really keeps him up.
Yeah. It's literal. I mean it's-- one thing that I can't do before I go to bed is look at the comments sections on any story related to China, because of just the viciousness that you're now seeing on both sides. It's so depressing to watch this chasm opening up. I feel like the more they know about each other, essentially, the less they like each other.
Kaiser has created a life for himself in China that ignores the chasm, a life where it all fits together. Americans who understand China, Chinese friends and family who understand the US. And especially his kids, on their way to being totally bilingual and as bi-cultural as he can make them. Looking at them it all seems possible. In that way, he's very Chinese and very American.
Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer at The New Yorker. And he writes a blog for them called "Letter from China."
Coming up, the gossip in a tiny little village on the other side of the world. Our "Americans in China" show continues in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Two: Beautiful Downtown Wasteland
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, "Americans in China," what's it like to live there for years and years and what they see that we back home have not seen. We've arrived at Act Two of our program., Act Two, Beautiful Downtown Wasteland.
There are so few farmers in the United States that in 1993, the census stopped counting the number of Americans who live on farms. At the time, less than 2% of the population lived on a farm. Less than 1% now works full-time as farmers.
But in China, despite the vast migration to cities in recent years, more than half the country, half of all people in China, live on farms or rural areas. Michael Meyer is a writer whose first book, The Last Days of Old Beijing, detailed his three years living in Beijing's oldest neighborhood. Lately, though, he's been writing about living in rural China, specifically in the village that his wife comes from.
In the movie Caddyshack, Rodney Dangerfield says that he and his partner Wang bought some property behind the Great Wall-- "on the good side." Manchuria, where I live, is on the other side, a place where exiles were once sent to the land beyond the pale. Today, the region bordered by Mongolia, North Korea, and Siberia, is more prosaically called Dongbei, the Northeast. And I live at its heart in a village named Wasteland.
It's actually quite beautiful. Two dozen homes that in summer look afloat on emerald green rice paddies and bound by a sea of snow in winter, when temperatures fall to -20 and the sun goes down before 4:00.
No one can say for certain where the name Wasteland comes from. It could be a trick to keep away outsiders. Wasteland's neighboring villages include places named Lonely Outpost, Jong's Smelly Ditch, The Dunes, and Mudtown. There's also Big Wasteland, where they grow organic rice and whose residents consider themselves a cut above. I never go to Big Wasteland. That's the funny thing about a village-- no matter how small, it becomes your entire world.
Wasteland is a bedroom community of sorts. There are no traffic lights or even stop signs out here. Just single-story brick homes backed by outhouses, and two corner stores which double as mah-jong parlors at the intersection of Red Flag Road. Lonely Outpost is where the nearest services are. In a town of 1,500 people, three miles south, where I volunteer as an English teacher at the middle school.
The walk there from Wasteland takes me past the anti-aircraft gun used to seed clouds for rain and the new organic farm slash hot spring resort that fills with city folk on weekends. There's a Christian church, feed and fertilizer stores, a bank, and a shop selling tabloids and self-published circulars with titles such as Intriguing Stories and Strange Affairs.
It answers questions such as will our capital be moved from Beijing? No. Did the 1989 student protest movement fail? Yes. And how many people were killed during the Cultural Revolution? Lots.
When a stranger sees me walking, the first question is not what country am I from, but [SPEAKING CHINESE], to which family do I belong? The Fangs, I say. My in-laws still hold title to land here. And it's where my wife spent her childhood. She now works as an attorney in Hong Kong, and I shuttle between China's far north and far south to be together.
This arrangement, of course, is a big topic of conversation for other Wastelanders. They can fill hours talking about other people's lives, punctuated with dialect such as "enna" for "yes," and for gasps "ay-ya, wat a my-ah" literally "oh, my mother." They tell me all about my wife's past, hector me about my present, and speculate on our future. Ay-ya wat a my-ah, they say. When are you going to be a father? Enna, you can't do it from up here, when she's down there.
In urban China, the sight of a foreigner no longer causes a crowd to gather and stare. But in the rural half, people still approach me with friendly, cautious curiosity, the way you might if a giraffe wandered down your street. I read that the comedian Steve Martin used to hand autograph seekers a signed name card that confirmed the person had met Steve Martin and found him to be warm, polite, intelligent, and funny. I've often thought of making a similar card to present with a silent smile, answering the usual six questions asked of me in this order.
One, I'm an American. Two, I've been in China a long time. Three, I was born in the Year of the Rat. I'm 1.86 meters tall. Four, I do not have a salary. I'm a writer. Five, Chinese is not hard. It is easier to learn than English. Six, yes, I can use chopsticks. We eat Chinese food in America too, but often it's expensive and orange.
On rare occasions, someone starts me off with a curve ball. A gruff construction worker sidled up to me last week, hard helmet in hand, to ask if anyone has ever told me my beard is beautiful. Once, a gentleman in a business suit, standing on a country lane, wondered if morality was more important than wisdom.
When I arrived in China 17 years ago as one of the country's first Peace Corps volunteers, I actually couldn't use chopsticks and spoke Spanish, not Chinese. The first sentence I learned to say was [SPEAKING CHINESE], I'm an American.
In Wasteland, the words still elicit a smile and the assertion that America, mei-guo, literally "the beautiful country" is just that and very rich and very powerful. While China is still backward, but developing and also would invade countries for oil if it could. And is it true that American farmers own their own land?
But along with admiration for the US, there's also admonition. Last week, a farmer on a bus sitting with his chicken between us announced, "Nixon was the best president your country ever had. It's been bad ever since." I am asked why my president bullies other countries and meddles with Taiwan. People wonder in the same wounded tone why the American Indians were pushed off their lands, and why Lebron James left Cleveland to play for the Miami Heat.
I laugh at these assumptions, but compared to what Americans ask me when I say I live in China, it sometimes makes me wonder which is the developing country. But China is far, Americans often say. How can you live so far away? The Chinese are different than us, Americans often assert. But they want to be like us, right? They are the next superpower. And most passionately, they ask what about the toilets?
Stop, I reply. China is not far. Nowhere is far with Skype and nonstop flights. Chinese are just as self-effacing as Americans and have a similar sense of humor.
China is the next superpower? Wake me when urban tap water is drinkable, when an ambulance will come when called and can make it through traffic, and when there's transparency in government, law, and the finance sector, to say nothing of a civil society, environmental protections, freedom of speech, and-- but usually by now, the questioner's eyes have glazed over. And I miss being asked simple questions, such as whether I can use chopsticks.
Lately, people in Wasteland ask me about the economic crisis and if that is why I live in China. Echoes of when Chinese felt sorry for me as a Peace Corps volunteer, wondering what sort of country sends its young people overseas to work with strangers.
China is clamoring to reduce its rural population and urbanize. Previously, farm workers migrated to cities. But now the city is coming to them, through an expansion of municipal borders. Wasteland was recently added to the Guilin city limits.
A new billboard towers over Red Flag Road pledging to "build the Northeast top village." A few months ago, workers had gone all through the night pouring cement under klieg lights to finish widening Red Flag. The new road is double its previous width, and as straight and smooth as a runaway. City cars and tour buses heading to the hot spring resorts speed down it at 60 miles an hour leaving a jet stream of trash-- empty Panda Brand cigarette boxes, and bottles of rice wine, along with broad sheets of stock tips, real estate flyers, and fortunetelling booklets.
Villagers, however, are concerned with other signs, like the ones advertising Eastern Fortune Rice, a privately held and government-backed local business that built the hot spring resort. It's also buying locals' rice crop and hiring them as laborers.
My older neighbors worry that their paddies, once farmed collectively as a commune then tilled independently, may slip from their control and into the hands of the company. A rumor has it that even Wasteland's name will change to Eastern Fortune.
In Wasteland for the first time, a skyline is taking shape. There are cranes and the shells of five-story walk-up buildings. Eastern Fortune Rice is offering apartments in exchange for farmers' homes, which will be razed and the land converted to paddies, leased by the company for an annual fee.
The project's billboard shows a pearling stream, renamed the Revered Gentry River, crowned with lotuses, bordered by willow trees and apartments featuring indoor plumbing and central heat. The people in this future scene sit on benches and stroll under trellises with children and lovers, wearing blouses and skirts and t-shirts and jeans. They look and act nothing like Wastelanders, at least not yet.
Through marriage, I have various distant relatives in Wasteland. The one I'm closest to is Sanjo. I have known Sanjo for a decade. He is 67, a rice farmer, and the head of a household that includes his wife, three children, and assorted grandchildren and cousins. The door of his one-story home is often banging open and shut from visitors. And the white pekingese that keeps watch out front has barked itself hoarse on occasion.
Last summer, Sanjo had a stroke. Two fingers on his left hand went numb. And he walked to the clinic in Lonely Outpost.
I was out of town when this happened. And on my first day back, I woke at 6:00 in the morning and walked the mile to his home to find Sanjo had already biked to the clinic for a daily dose of medicine. I walked two miles to the clinic.
Young nurses in starched white uniforms I had only seen on television shows as a kid ask the usual questions. And I roam the hall looking in doors for Sanjo, robotically replying American, a long time, Year of the Rat, 1.86 meters tall.
Sanjo lay in a room with four platform beds, each occupied by a man on his back tethered to an IV line. A ceiling fan pushed the limpid air, and flies buzzed against the screen windows facing the village street. Rumbling dump trucks blared their horns as they passed, sending plumes of dust into the room. When the saline bag emptied, a patient yelled at the top of his voice [SPEAKING CHINESE], change medicine.
Sanjo's eyes lit up as I said hello and patted his arm. There's no hugging in Chinese families. A man with a hand bandaged in white gauze slung around his neck asked where I had gone for a week. And I said to write about California, where airplanes seed rice paddies from the sky. The men were skeptical and silent, before one who had taken a liquor bottle to the eyebrow shouted [SPEAKING CHINESE]. A starched nurse entered and said, our clinic must look really poor to an American. The kind of reflexive embarrassment a foreigner often hears in China.
The Chinese countryside is beautiful, but poverty is poverty, no matter how picturesque. And Lonely Outpost Clinic is, by all measures, poor. But it is also well supplied, attentively staffed, and affordable even for a farmer. Still I wanted to pay for Sanjo's care, but how could I say, in a room full of people, that he should not worry about the bill?
Paying in China represents more than a financial transaction. Merely picking up a restaurant check often leads to tableside scrums, climaxing with hand slapping dashes to the register to toss down money first. Paying is a show of respect and a deposit in the ledger of favors that balances relationships.
As a newcomer, let alone a foreigner, this account is all but closed to me. Sanjo knew the men in the room his entire life. He lived through six decades of history with them.
When I meet people in the Northeast and get around to asking their age-- it's not polite to ask an older person directly-- I immediately subtract the number from the current year and flip through a mental history book of what the person has lived through, with chapter headings that include Chinese Warlords, Japanese Occupiers, and the Puppet State of Manchukuo. Soviet soldiers, and then the Communists and campaigns such as land reform, the Resist-America Aid-Korea War, the Great Leap Forward, and collective farming.
Those bold headings can blur the individual lives lived in between. The sister of my housemate, Mr. Guan, once pointed at the water well in our backyard and casually said our father was a teacher and threw himself down that during the Cultural Revolution.
And that's when I get lost in China, still, despite knowing the language and culture, and, frankly, I know more about this region's geography and history than many locals. But I haven't lived it, and so will always be apart.
My opinion, my very being, can be deleted by anyone, even a four-year-old child, with a simple [SPEAKING CHINESE], you don't understand. [SPEAKING CHINESE], you are a foreigner. Well, duh, I think. But it's true. I'll often miss these unspoken cues-- when to pay, how to pay, when to praise, when to criticize, when to curse, when to laugh-- that may not impact that day, but may alter the ones to come.
Like my visit to the clinic, after which Sanjo's family let it be known, via a third party, that I was not welcome for our usual weekly dinner at their home. Why? Was it about money? About face? About a joke I made or something the clinic staff said? I was, and remain, baffled. But this is common in a village, where resentments steep like tea leaves.
The next day I carefully mention the encounter to a neighbor. Social networks are still analog here. She clucked and said, everyone calls Sanjo "chod-sze"-- slippery. That's been his nickname for decades. You can never tell what's going on with him. Just go back to his house and pretend nothing happened.
So I did, carrying as an offering a bag of Lonely Outpost luxuries such as Oreos, peaches, and chrysanthemum tea. Nothing was explained, but that night I ate dinner seated next to a friendly Sanjo on his kang, munching flash fried pork and garlic stems, while kids ran in and out, the door slammed and the Pekinese tried its best to be heard.
Like teachers, writers are worthy of pity in China, even out in the sticks. But I know the trouble my presence causes, cutting a wake across the surface of village life. China's distrusts the single traveler, the person without a work unit or even a name card, especially when the person is a la-wai, an old outsider, as foreigners are often called. And with reason-- we can always leave.
Chinese doesn't use tenses or differentiate between singular and plural. So one la-wai is the same as six la-wai. But in situations such as this, in a town so small, where I am a visitor, teaching, sure, and invited to weddings and funerals and New Year's dinners, but a guest always. I know how to describe my numbers. Just as there is a murder of crows and a school of fish, in China, even in the middle of Wasteland, the foreigner is always a hassle of la-wai.
Michael Meyer, reading excerpts adapted from the book that he's writing about life in rural China. It's called In Manchuria. And it will be published later this year.
Well, our program was produced today by Miki Meek, our senior producer Julie Snyder, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon is our office manager. Production help from Matt Kielty, music help from Damien Graef, from Rob Geddes.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, we keep trying to get our program onto the BBC. And we have these meetings with executives at the BBC. And Torey ruins every single meeting by blurting out in the middle--
Oh, they're so cute. Oh, look at that cute foreigner. That's so adorable.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI. Public Radio International.