The unemployed American’s utopia

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Chinese Culture
Tags: , ,

Today New York Times ran a piece by an American named Jonathan Levine who recounted seeing his old self in Occupy Wall-Street protesters who are “fed up with the economic status quo in the United States.” To the protesters he had a suggestion. “I say vote — not with the ballot, but with your feet. Now that your encampment has disbanded, don’t just leave Zuccotti Park: leave America. For China. At least, that’s what I did. It was the best decision I ever made.”

He’s been in China for less than a year teaching at Tsinghua University and went on to emphasize China’s many benefits for foreigners (job prospects, hospitality, food, friendships with eager students) and then downplayed the problems. He said, ” For my money, CCTV News English, a channel offered by China’s major state television broadcaster, is more fair and balanced than Fox News.”

Fair enough – if you’re going to scrape the bottom of the American media bucket and compare it to China’s English-language station.

“Pollution is bad. Beijing, like much of China, is often enveloped in what local residents euphemistically call ‘mist.’ But there are nice days, too, more than you might think.”

Eh, alright.

“Many critics have rightly pointed out the shocking failures of the Chinese food safety system — the most famous being the tainted-baby-formula scandal of 2008. But what you may not know is that China meted out swift justice in that case to the perpetrators. That is more than can be said for the handling of many corporations in the United States that have harmed their consumers and remain unpunished.”

I saw a bit of my old self in Mr. Levine while reading. When I first came to China from the US, I shared his outlook for at least a year-long honeymoon period. Like him, I was fed up with the US in many ways when I left it. We’d re-elected George W. Bush, my home state of Kansas had revised its science teaching standards to cast doubt on evolution, and nothing constructive seemed to ever get done politically.

Now China…there was a place that got things done. I knew full well China’s political drawbacks, but still, it seemed an efficient and scientific alternative. And one would be coy to deny the automatic benefits being a western foreigner bring.

But as time went on, holes started getting punched in my naivete. The long-term effects of the pollution started to build up psychologically as I wondered just what years of living here were doing to my insides. Routine food scandals have also compounded in my mind. It’s all fine and good when perpetrators are punished after the fact, but that doesn’t give me much peace of mind when I put three meals and eight glasses of water in my mouth each day.

And sure, the perpetrators in the baby formula case were “meted out swift justice.” But it was justice calculated from a very simple formula: Does this help the ruling body’s ability to maintain control?

X amount of danger + Y amount of already public knowledge = Yes. So in that case, the event was publicized and the perpetrators punished.

But when this formula was used during the initial spread of SARS, the answer was no. Just as it is in many other routine instances like coal-mining accidents, protests over corruption and pollution offenses.

Like Levine, I was also disgusted with the Fox News’s of the West. They do indeed provide much of the poison in today’s toxic American politics.  But then I went to work for an English language media outlet in China (which will remain nameless). It quickly became clear that journalism and truth come second to providing the state’s definition of “social stability” and the nationalism needed to prop it up. I wonder when Levine can expect to open a Chinese newspaper to see an op-ed advising people to protest a broken Chinese system by moving to the US.

And while China is certainly incredibly hospitable, it starts to become depressing when you realize that, no matter how long you stay, most will always delineate your entire identity simply to “foreigner.”

In spite of all its setbacks though, China’s redeeming factors have obviously been more than enough to keep me here. It is a great place to live and undeniably has better opportunities for some people than the US does. But the drawbacks Levine mentioned don’t need to be downplayed…especially to those thinking of making a long-term move. I suspect the longer he stays, the more those things will begin to weigh on him.

It’s worth noting too that I’ve known Chinese who thought the US was a land of total equality where it’s easy to get rich. Then they arrived to learn it’s not nearly the utopia they’d imagined; so they returned home without looking back. Getting disillusioned with the home country and becoming completely gung-ho for the new one is a trap I’ve seen many fall in to.

  1. kingtubby1 says:

    I must admit my bs antennae perked up after my first two months in, and I was restricted to CCTV before discovering the joys of bootleg dvds. Watching CC news about a piece on Chinese uni students in Oz which used footage of Lancashire University. Recall being outraged at the time, but another few months and I was the complete cynic.

    Re: your experiences with the Party Secretary. The head of the local north Fujian PSB sat next to me at my wedding party, and he gave us a tour of the local cop shop via our return to the train station. Suggested that we join him for a serious evening resturaunt nosh up. I was given a dig in the ribs: No, we have committments. Apparently, the dude spent every day of the week dining out on the public tit and consuming massive quantities of booze.

    He must have enjoyed some local popularity however, since he put his hand out and the first passing car stopped and then drove us some 20ks to the train station.

  2. foarp says:

    Ah, the newly-minted Laowai, full of hope and expectations.

    Me, I thank my lucky stars that I lived in Taiwan for a year before coming to the mainland and got all that “Way-hey! I can get drunk for cheap, work 20 hours a week and [all the other added benefits] here!” stuff out of the way there. Otherwise I might have said a bunch of damn-fool things about the PRC as well just because, from the point of view of a 20-something FOB laowai, life in China can be pretty sweet.

    Which isn’t to say it’s not pretty sweet from the point of view of the 30-something wannabe China-hand either, it’s just that you become conscious of the drawbacks as well. You also become more aware of what life is like for people who do not have the protection of a foreign passport.

  3. It was a weird article – the kind of arse-dribble you expect to read on eChinacities rather than a reputable newspaper like the NYT. I guess standards are falling as they expand coverage, lay of sub-eds, etc. Churn, churn.

  4. Lorin Yochim says:

    I suppose virtue must be of necessity. But still, isn’t the more common foreigner trajectory in China, love, then hate, then go home/stay and be bitter or finally pull your head out of your ass and assess as best as you can something you’re poorly positioned to understand?

  5. Potomacker says:

    Thanks for flagging this recent piece of nonsense.
    I think we all have known or gone through this starry-eyed, overly apologetic phase, but can somebody please tell me how such a poorly sourced and narcissistic essay ends up on the pages of the NYT of all places? It truly makes me question how much of a dead-end job Mr. Levine was in that drove him to land a plum teaching gig at Tsinghua, BJ. He worked at ASC advisors, a private hedge fund. Is he suggesting that there is no future in money management?
    According to his own linkedin page,, he didn’t last a year at his first job (apparently) out of college and yet he was able to get published by the paper of record after having been in China for less than a year? Somebody has ample guanxi even if he doesn’t want to admit to it. Is it any wonder that he feels so at home in the PRC?

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      One does wonder at these things. One also wonders at the meaning of “lecturer” in this particular case. He does have a masters degree, but one would assume that Tsinghua can demand higher credentials than that these days.

  6. Levine’s article annoyed me every which way but loose – yes, he’s here teaching but in a Tier 1 instituion in a Tier 1 city with a decent income to support him. Most teachers here aren’t and they’re stony broke and China is no land of opportunity for them at all.

    There was no attempt at balance or fact for the piece, just an idiot laowai waxing lyrical as the honeymoon phase of his minor culture shock runs its course. An article from somebody living in the back end of beyond earning 4,000 RMB a month would have been a more accurate picture for most of those rushing to China…

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I’d love to see someone do an analysis of those unemployed Westerners charging off to China. Not the adventurers, mind you. God knows there’s enough of that to fill a thousand blogosphere slop troughs. More like those who run off for “the back end of beyond earning 4,000 RMB” only to find themselves with no way home because they’re even less qualified to work than ever. Talk about downward mobility. As for myself, once this damn Ph.D. is finished, I think I’ll run off to Tsinghua to teach English, too!

    • foarp says:

      I don’t know if foreign teachers in China can really be described as “stony broke”. Back in ’03 I did well enough on 3K Yuan a month, and although prices have gone through the roof since then I understand that uni teachers are now making 7K – which is still more than three times what the average taxi driver is taking home.

      Is China a ‘land of opportunity’? I certainly can say that my career was done no harm at all by living in China, at least not compared to most people I know my age back in the UK (many of whom either never got a real job, or got a great job straight off the bat but have spent large parts of the intervening time unemployed) . Living and working in China meant I got my job at Foxconn (yes, I know, but I worked there before all the scandals came out) , which meant I could pay for my masters, which meant I got my job with a patent firm in Japan, which meant I got my present job in Poland. It means I can speak Chinese and know at least something about how things are done there.

      I can’t say what would have happened if I had stayed in the UK. That said, I really can’t think it would have been that great, given that people I know my age and younger who were very smart, dedicated and got great jobs on graduation, then got laid off with all the other young folk back in ’08-’09 are now taking jobs making half what I do because they’re all that’s going.

  7. kingtubby1 says:

    There is no such thing as ‘lecturing’ in China, at least in the traditional sense that I am familiar with in the social sciences.

    Sino institutions are good for engineers and thats about it, and engineering is the catch all discipline for the clueless majority.

    Wouldn’t get out of bed for less than 15,000 pm in a second tier city.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      That’s my impression too, Tubby, for foreign teachers in the university anyway. It should be said that there are some good foreign scholars working in something like that capacity in China, though. As for 15000, maybe in a second tier city, but you’d be sleeping awfully late in a 3rd tier joint.

  8. CCTV News English was so boring that in less than two weeks, I had to stop watching it. It may not be as openly biased as Fox but it certainly was far less amusing.

  9. asdfasf says:

    “reputable newspaper like the NYT”

    Surely you jest. The only good thing I can say about NYT is that they are slightly less obnoxious than Fox News.

  10. asdfasf says:

    Liberals in the US are just as brainwashed as the Conservatives they call brainwashed.

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