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.

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