Advice to New Wai: Things I wish I learned 13 years ago about life in China

Let's face it: It's not easy to live in China. These days even a well-known...less than critical observer of China like Daniel Bell is being kind of critical.  Lots of people -- too many -- are leaving. But you know what, you can take away my Internet, cancel Earth Day, and even limit the amount of oxygen I breathe (although in fairness, that might be getting better...), but I'm staying. I first came to Beijing in 2002 and here I am still.

That said, there's a lot I wish I knew 13 years ago. This week I was asked to write some suggestions for a group of students visiting Beijing. It gave me the opportunity to jot down a few reflections on things learned, in most cases later than I should have but still...13 years is a long time and I hope I've accumulated at least some wisdom to go along with the steadily building accumulation of PM 2.5 material in my lungs.

There are a lot of people in China. No, seriously.

It’s the single defining fact of life for anybody who lives here, whether you were born in China or moved here from somewhere else. If you are an American, consider for a moment an alternate universe where the population of the USA was quintupled and then everybody was moved east of the Mississippi. A fierce competition for everything – a spot in school, a job, somebody to marry, a house, a seat on the subway, or that last dumpling – is a part of daily life in China.

What Americans feel is a “normal” amount of personal space and privacy is considered a luxury beyond the reckoning of most people who live here. Sometimes people can seem a little in a hurry or a little pushy. Perhaps you’ll see somebody cutting in line. At times like this it’s important to keep perspective: You’ve just joined the world’s longest-running and most competitive game of musical chairs.

Basically, for 5000 years, there were two guys: The one who waited patiently in line and the guy who got what he needed to feed his family. Even though China is developing rapidly, old habits die hard.

People will have made assumptions about you as a foreigner (especially an American) before you even can say “Ni Hao.”

In fact, if you do say “Ni hao” then you’ve already challenged one basic assumption held by many people in China: That the Chinese language is too difficult for foreigners to master or understand.

Nobody likes to be a stereotype, but it happens. Want to know what many Chinese think about us? They think Americans are pushy, entitled, aggressive, arrogant and tend to throw tantrums when things are just the way they want it (or like it is “back home”).

To put it another way: It’s as if when we go through passport control at the Beijing airport, the immigration officer changes all of our last names to “Kardashian.”

Now it’s not true that all Americans act like Kim and Khloe when they go abroad, and it’s not fair that many people in China paint all foreigners/Americans with the same brush, but hey…there have been just enough pushy, entitled, aggressive, arrogant foreigners who have traveled to China over the years to keep the myth alive.

We can whine about the unfairness of it all, or we can see this as an opportunity to fight the stereotype and rise above the cliché. China is one of the friendliest places in the world and, as my mother once said, a little bit of sugar goes a long way. Remember that the minute we do get angry, or pout, or start complaining about how things here aren’t like they are “back home” all we are doing is feeding the beast.

So I’ve learned that it’s always best to be a little too humble, a little too nice, a little too polite…and to smile a lot. When I do this, I can see minds change and old attitudes fall away as people start to question the stereotype...more importantly, the nicer I am, the easier my life becomes.

The thing is that in China, people generally won’t go out of the way to help you (even people we think “should” like waitresses, taxi drivers, or hotel staff) unless they like you. It can take a few smiles and some humility to get them to forget their prejudices and figure out how nice you are. Once that happens, however, you’ll find out that your new friend will go out of their way to help you.

People talk a lot about the power of guanxi (relationships) in China, especially in the context of business. But guanxi is not only signing a multi-million deal with an old school buddy, it's a way of life. Every encounter you have in China – from a new professional contact to the waitress who brings you your morning dumplings – is a moment to build a connection and make a relationship. With each connection you make, your life in China gets a little bit better and a whole lot easier.

Be careful not to mistake having 40 conversations with having the same conversation 40 times.

I hear it all the time: "I learn more hanging out at clubs than I do in Chinese class." No, you really don't. You become very good at introducing yourself, saying where you are from, and making the same stupid joke ("Do you like 涮洋肉?" which you use every time somebody points out you sweat a lot when you dance.) If you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again, it's time to branch out. Don't be afraid to open your mouth, bring the Zhongwen, and then epically fail. If you're not failing -- and I mean catastrophic failure of mindbending embarrassment -- on a regular basis, you're not trying hard enough. I've lived here a long time and I have at least one complete breakdown in my Hanyu communication a day. But I try not to make the same mistake twice.

Be patient. It's on the list.

Everyone is talking about how China is a rising economic and global power. (In fact, in a recent poll, 44% of Americans thought – incorrectly -- that China is the world’s largest economic power.) On the other hand, when you divide China’s economy by 1.4 billion, you get a very different number: 77. Which is where China sits in the global rankings of countries by nominal per capita GDP, right between Bulgaria and Botswana.

This is not to take anything away from China and it’s incredible trajectory over the past four decades. After all, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that China in 1978 (the eve of the Reform and Opening Era) made today’s North Korea seem like Dubai. In much less than a single lifetime, China’s development has completely transformed its economy and lifted millions out of poverty.

Nevertheless, today in Beijing and Shanghai where we zip past the Bentley dealership to grab a Starbucks before we head out to a high-end duck restaurant or maybe a rooftop tapas bar, it can be hard to remember that China still has a long way to go. More importantly: People in China are well aware that the country still has a long way to go to catch up with the developed economies of the world. That’s why it’s important for those of us from other countries – and particularly those of us who were lucky enough to grow up in a developed economy – to be aware of how criticism or complaints about China might sound to people who live here.

China still has many problems…but these are problems which, for the most part, are already on the “To Do List.” Too often, foreigners (and I’ve done this too, guilty as charged) focus on what China hasn’t done, what it hasn’t figured out, what it still needs to fix rather than on the incredible strides made in what, in world historical terms, is an infinitesimally short amount of time.

It’s easy to understand why many people in China get frustrated when it seems like all the world focuses on is China’s problems as if people in China weren’t already keenly aware of those problems already. As the author Peter Hessler recently put it: “Why do foreign correspondents [in China] only write about the bridge that collapses and not the thousands of bridges that don’t?”

This isn’t to say that China doesn’t have serious problems. It does. Bridges do collapse. So do schools sometimes. These are real tragedies that deserve our attention. But here is a list of things that do not qualify as a tragedy:

  • The waitress can’t speak English.
  • The public bathrooms smell funny.
  • People stare at me.
  • The farmer’s kid who just moved to Beijing doesn’t know who to make a proper margarita.
  • The streets are dirty.
  • People spit. In public.
  • That guy cut in line.

It’s only natural – a well-documented sign of culture shock actually – that we compare our new environment, usually unfavorably, with what we left behind. But remember that despite all of the problems in China, people here are as proud of their home as we would be.

It’s okay to think critically, but before we complain or criticize let’s consider how our criticisms might be understood by our new Chinese friends.

KEYS TO SURVIVAL: Patience, Sense of Humor, Perspective, Sense of Humor, Understanding, Sense of Humor Sense a theme?

Of all the keys to surviving in China the most important is a sense of humor. China can be a funny place. Whether it’s for 3 weeks or 13 years, every day in China you will walk out your door and see something that day you have never seen before. Usually something that makes you say: “In any other country, that would seem strange…”

Also, China finds us funny. Or at least if finds me funny. I have come to accept that I’m a source of constant mirth and amusement for my Chinese friends, family and neighbors…and that’s BEFORE I open my mouth to speak my version of Chinese.Here’s the thing: If you can’t laugh at yourself and the mistakes you make and the weird situations you find yourself in during your China experience then this can be a rough place.

Who doesn’t succeed in China? It’s the dude who takes himself WAY too seriously. The person who thinks people are constantly disrespecting them. The guy who can’t find the funny when things don’t go their way. It’s the person born with an indignation circuit which fires at every slight – perceived or real, because the truth is…China can give you a lot to be indignant about.

I’ve met people who have an indignation circuit that fired at everything. Every injustice. Every outrage. Every trivial indignity. And the result is that they – and their circuit – burned out completely and they bailed, or they stayed and tried to drink the pain away in a Sanlitun speakeasy.

Here’s an important lesson that I wish I learned sooner: If I walk out my door in the morning and I run into somebody who JUST. DOESN’T. GET. IT. Well that’s sad but then again there are dicks in every country. If at the end of the day all I’ve encountered are people who JUST. DON’T. GET. IT. Well…then it’s time to realize that I might be the dick who doesn’t get it and I am need of an attitude adjustment.

Or to summarize even more briefly…the basic rule of getting along in any foreign culture: Don't be a dick.

China is a pretty safe place.

It's one of the few positive things about living in an authoritarian one-party state run by guys so paranoid they make your neighborhood meth head look like a picture of Zen calm.

That said, it’s important to use common sense.

At night, go out and come home as a group. If you’re getting ready to leave and there’s one person in your group who wants to stay and hang out by himself or herself with their new best friends “Elder Brother Wang” and “Uncle Li,” put them in a hammerlock and get them in a cab.Similarly, no matter how annoying your friend is at the bar and how she won’t shut up about her boyfriend or her ex-boyfriend, do not just flag a cab, hand the driver the hotel card, deposit her in the back seat, and wish them both a good night. Stick together and watch out for each other.

Why I'm Here...

China can be a challenging place to live and visit. But it’s also one of the warmest, friendliest places I’ve ever been. You can go from "just met" to "best friends for life" in a single conversation, and once you’ve made a friend, Heaven and Earth will be moved to help you when you need it. Once we start accepting China for what it is rather than what it’s not or what we wish it would be, that’s when we realize what an amazing opportunity we have to engage with one of the world’s most dynamic and exciting countries.  I was trained as a historian, and in history there are certain moments which intersect with certain places to create eras. Think: Victorian London, 1920s Paris, 1950s New York. Well, that moment and that place is right now and in China and I want to be a witness. Think about it: Where else could a lover of history watch the kind of historical change that took decades in the rest of the world happen in just a few years and right before his very eyes?

China may not be the easiest place to live, and the Internet still sucks, but there's nowhere I'd rather be.