Monday, November 19, 2012

The 18 Months of China: A Retrospective

So, looking back at the last 3 years of my life, I've realized it can be pretty well divided into 2 approximately 18 month halves:

1) The ~18 months from December 26, 2009-->May 7th, 2011. We will call this the most important 18 months of my life, educationally speaking

2) The ~18 months from May 7, 2011-->November 29, 2012. We will call this the China months

The story of part 1 is well-documented in this blog, but to review: December 26, 2009, I got onto an airplane with one of my best friends to venture out to Asia. 36 hours later I was in Tokyo, and the ensuing 5 months I learned about life. I was on exchange in Hong Kong, traveled all over Asia, met the most amazing people in this world, learned how to prioritize, and learned how to enjoy myself while also getting important things done. From there I went to an internship in the Netherlands, where I learned to do office work with office work people from all over the world. I learned about passion in seeing the Dutch root their football team to a 2nd place finish at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. I learned to cope with culture shock, something I hadn't experienced in Hong Kong. I learned to keep in touch with said amazing people I met in Hong Kong, even though they may have been a country, continent, or half a world away.

After this, I went to Colombia to meet one of the most special people I knew in Hong Kong, where I learned how to make the most of a relatively short reunion with close friends. From Colombia, I went home to the most intense academic year of my life, which included a semester with 26 credit hours of courses (15 is the norm). I took my learning to prioritize in Hong Kong and put it into practice during this time, in that of all my time at Illinois State, that 26 hour semester included not only the best social life, but also the best grades. This was a crucial 18 months that ended the day I graduated, May 7, 2011.

Part 2 started the very next day, when I got back onto an airplane and flew back to the most beautiful city on this planet, Hong Kong. I was in Hong Kong and China for a month for a consulting project. Here, I learned to be a leader. To apply pressure to people when pressure was needed, to use the power play. I learned to utilize people's strengths, minimize their weaknesses, and get the most from them. From there, I returned home for a few weeks before returning to Beijing, where I learned to cope with truly remarkable adversity. And it was back to the US....but not for long, as I returned to Shenzhen in November 2011. During the past year here in China, I've learned to keep my mouth shut, listen more than speak, but also to not back down to adversity. I've learned some Chinese. I've learned what it's like to be the only white guy in an office of 60 Chinese people. I've learned a lot.

And now this is all coming to an end, as I head back to Chicago in a week and a half to start a new cycle.

3 years ago, I would have had no idea what the ensuing 18 months would have contained. Nor would I have known on my graduation day what those ensuing 18 months would have contained. Just as now, I really have no idea what these coming 18 months (or for that matter, 18 weeks) will contain. But I would like to take this opportunity to summarize these past 18 months in a few stories, memorable events, and general themes that I've encountered.

Undoubtedly, the most important thing I have learned during these 18 months centered around the world's 2nd largest economy is anyone reading this blog: you are NOT poor. Or unlucky. The man has not screwed you over. Your life now is probably quite good. Even if you're reading this from your dungeon of a basement in Detroit, Michigan, odds are your life is infinitely better than the majority of people on this earth.

To clarify--by developing country standards, China is a juggernaut. They have superhighways, amazing airports, skyscrapers the likes of which you cannot imagine, and a relatively good social welfare program that provides reasonably OK education and healthcare to 95% of its 1.3 billion people. Compared to places like India, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Indonesia, poor people in China are remarkably well-off. And yet, compared to you and me, they are still what we would call decrepitly poor. I've learned here to appreciate, to an ungodly extent, the fact that I was born in the largest economy in the world, speaking a language that opens more doors for you throughout the world than anything else you have on your resume. I've learned to be grateful for what I have.

I've learned here that being on the outside looking in is really not so bad. To clarify--as I mentioned a moment ago, Hong Kong is the greatest city in the world. Living in Shenzhen, being only 1 hour from such a city, was initially a curse. Something of a "so close but so far" idea. I would go into Hong Kong on a weekend and return to Shenzhen, always dejected in trading the gleaming skyscrapers and their reflection off of Victoria Harbor, the palpable pulse of places like Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok, the views from the peak, the classy liveliness of SoHo, for the relative grayness of Shenzhen. It was heart-wrenching.

However, after a few months, I noticed something interesting. I grew quite fond of having everything in Shenzhen cost less than half of its equivalent in Hong Kong. I learned to love the fact that I could go into just about any bar or club, no matter how classy, wearing shorts and sandals, and not have to worry about feeling underdressed. I learned to appreciate my surroundings. And consequently, I've not made a leisure trip to Hong Kong in months, but for going to meet friends who happen to be passing through the fragrant harbor for a weekend trip. Indeed, perhaps being on the outside looking in is not so bad.

Most importantly, however, I learned to follow one's dreams and trust one's intuition. After I returned home from Beijing after encountering the aforementioned adversity, I knew I'd be heading back to China. I knew I'd be heading back sans job, sans many job prospects, and sans any plans beyond "meeting up with Douglon at HK Int'l Airport and sleeping on his couch for some undefined amount of time". I had no way of justifying it, nor any way of knowing whether it would work out, I did it because it seemed to be the right thing to do. I have absolutely no idea where I would be right now had I decided to stay in Chicagoland and work, but odds are I would not be nearly as content with my current situation had I made that choice. And consequently, I feel like the idea of following one's dreams, doing what seems to be the correct choice, and going with your gut are some of the most underrated and underutilized things in this life. Be unconventional. Or don't, I can't say I really care either way, I'll just continue doing it.

Some other assorted thoughts, particularly interesting moments, and takeaways from the China Months:

The idea that Chinese people don't like the United States is one that I heard a fair bit before coming here. This idea is moronic. The Chinese name for the US, 美国, literally means "beautiful country". Had I really wanted to during this year, I could have gone out every weekend and not paid for a single drink, because by virtue of being western, you will be given free drinks in many clubs in Shenzhen. The average Chinese person really does seem to like the United States, although in regard to our government the sentiment is not quite so easy to generalize. That said, as a US citizen in China, I can honestly say that by showing respect and interest in the Chinese culture, you will almost certainly be well-received by most anyone. It's amazing.

On that note--Chinese people are some of the most hospitable and genuinely nice people in the world. Yes, in any major city in China you will witness children urinating in the street. Yes, you will see people hocking disgusting loogies everywhere. And yes, an overwhelming number of people smoke an overwhelming number of cigarettes. But despite many of their unpleasant tendencies in this regard, Chinese people are amazingly friendly. I've had many a home-cooked meal by coworkers and friends, and really cannot say I'd expect the average person in the US to be nearly as friendly or open to strangers from other countries. It is an amazing phenomenon, and one that I will not easily forget.

China is unequal as hell, but people don't seem to care as much as they would in the US. Don't get me wrong, the income inequality in China is becoming a more hot-button political issue, particularly with the recent change of power here within the Communist Party. But think of this situation for a moment: in Shenzhen, you see at least 1 Rolls Royce, Bentley, Ferrari, etc., pretty much every day. The country has over 1 million millionaires (certainly even more when you account for grey income). And yet, there are over 100 million people in this country earning <$1 per day. Mind you, anyone in Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing, etc., who is seeing all these flashy cars is not on <$1 per day, but there are still some cripplingly poor people here. For example, one of the company bosses in my office building pulls up to the place every day in a brand new, gleaming, beige Rolls Royce. Easily a $500,000+US car. And just across from the office is a row of dormitories for workers that are constructing yet another gleaming office building just across the street. These workers are likely on ~$400US per month. This income inequality is as blatant, if not moreso, than anything you'd see in the west. And yet, by and large, the people here seem fairly OK with it. It's an amazing phenomenon. I feel like if this were the case in the US, there would be Occupy Wall Street in every city. Interesting stuff, anyway.

Chinese political scandals make our political scandals look pathetic by comparison. Perhaps this is an unfair generalization, but during my time here, China was rocked by one of the most remarkable and star-studded political scandals in the history of the Communist Party. In short, Chongqing (huge city in SW China) Party Boss Bo Xilai was brought down in a corruption scandal. Bo was a remarkably popular but polarizing charismatic party leader who had previously been considered a real rising star in the Communist Party.

This would be a fairly major event, akin to the mayor of a major US city being brought down in a scandal. Big news.

But this scandal went even deeper than that. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested and found guilty of murdering a British man with whom she was allegedly having an affair, and who was allegedly helping to launder money out of China for the Bo/Gu family. The scandal took another bizarre turn not long ago, when it was revealed that the British man, Neil Heywood, was also allegedly involved with the British spy organization MI5. Among other accusations, Bo was also accused of paying $1 million to famous Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi (Westerners will know her from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as the main female villain in Rush Hour 2) for sex about 10 times. That is to say, $1 million per time. Ridiculous. Definitely makes the old Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair seem rather tame by comparison.

Obviously, these are only a few short examples of what living in China for 1 year will teach you. I can honestly say this has been one of the more interesting years of my life, and one that I am sad to see end, but as I learned very well after exchange in Hong Kong...all good things must eventually do just that; come to an end.

Anyway, this blog post has gone off on something of a tangent relating to the bizarre and interesting world of Chinese political scandals and income inequality, so I'll just go ahead and stop writing. In summation, I view the coming weeks as the end of yet another 18 month or so cycle in my life. I have no idea what the next 18 months will bring, including whether it will even bring about a logical chapter end 18 months from now as has been the case for the last 3 years, but we shall see.

More news to come as it develops. Most likely upon return to the US, I will post a decently long blog full of some of the more interesting pictures from these 18 months....with Chinese internet speeds being maddeningly slow, I will not be doing this now. Meantime, probably will write 1-2 more posts from Shenzhen, as I'm sure years from now I'll like to get some insight as to my thought process during this rather immense transition.

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