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A Year In China: Part One

With the way China is now portrayed as the superpower of the next 100 years, I had the idea that I was cramming into an old jalopy with Hemingway, Woody Allen, and Owen Wilson on course to our version of the roaring 1920s. A sad, polluted, hobbled, suicidal hyper-industrialized version of those fondly remembered days. I might as well give the game away and say that China will not be a superpower nor a new economic empire, and the reason we think they will is found in the insecurity of our American deficiencies.

What you’ve heard is true and more. The children wake up at 6 am to study, they are in school all day, and they come home to study more. On the weekends, they got to have fun because they were with me… their English teacher. They kick ass on tests and I don’t know if they showed me their sixth grade math problems in class as a means of interacting or as a means of asserting dominance. Joke’s on them, I can’t do math and they proved nothing. (It was an embarrassment, is what I’m saying.)

So yeah, maybe the SAT scores in the Southern U.S. would be the same in English or Mandarin. The real counterpoint and proof of my thesis statement was found in a simple two-part writing exercise that I assigned to my fourteen-year-olds:

Question one: What do you do after school?

Question two: What do you do on weekends?

Ten kids – boys and girls – and ten identical responses:

‘I do homework.’

‘I play computer games.’

I mean verbatim. The creative scarcity really is just that. Some days the responses made Hollywood look original, and recall that a lack of creativity usually makes for a John Carter economy.

However, this seems to work very well for the culture. When rote memorization plays a large part in their lives, they come to expect everything outside of academics to operate on a similar unchanging principle. Ridiculous, right? Not to them. They are aware of inequality and impoverished areas of the country, but such areas are often fatalistically thought of or not thought of at all. For this reason, there is a pervading, institutionalized hope unlike the rare apocryphal flashes I saw in Mexico and India. It’s the unusual satisfaction of a hope that has been rewarded. The men and women I spoke to have the utmost confidence that their families will be made richer in correlation with China’s growing riches, and there was not much I could say to dispel that. Even the modest old shopkeeper or the guy who fries the noodles wouldn’t have been within ten miles of a paved road two decades ago.

This brought on a maddening ontological question that wrapped me up for my whole stay in China: what is delusion, truly? The idea of an American middle class is delusion. (I recently asked my father what he thought constituted middle class and his opening number was one hundred thousand. As in five zeroes, and he’s probably not alone in thinking that.)  Trickle-down wealth, equal taxes even for job-creators (i.e. what a fucking business is supposed to do), and mutually beneficial legislation is delusion. The Chinese government is not benevolent, I know that. But again, I’ve seen a wide, wide spectrum of hope, from the wealthiest in America to the Dalite in India whom are literally untouchable to upper castes.  The urban Chinese I saw were happy, nearly without exception, and they weren’t all stepping out of BMWs.

History. If you have a giant rock in front of you, I suppose it’s possible to blast through it with dynamite. That’s how we, or I, imagine history, and inaccurately so. When something wasn’t right, we rallied and whooped and hollered until we busted right through the rock as a united people.  In China, they don’t avoid history because the history they know was handed down from the government; to avoid it in some way would be to challenge the State authority. Instead they maneuver around the rock like it’s not even an inconvenience, apart from any and all history with Japan. What do I mean? More stories.

I dated a native whose family was evicted from their house by the government, as was the whole neighborhood. We visited the neighborhood, which had been turned into gift shops, as though it were an historic landmark. ‘Old Wuxi’, it was quaintly called. This girl held a small hope that the government would return her to prosperity, without much of a reason why or how.

Or my favorite microcosm: we traveled 26 hours by bus to Hunan to teach in the village. The bus wound through the mountain, down dangerous muddy roads, and around corners that must have had skulls at the bottom. Every villager made this drive to get into the nearest town, which was another network of deadly roads. And it was funny because not fifteen feet from their village was a busy six-lane highway; the government had just never bothered to build an off-ramp.

On some level, the naivete in China isn’t naivete. They just haven’t practiced deception in the same smiling, calculated Western way. I’ve been deceived by Chinese businessmen; it was none too subtle. They were silent, awkward, and fumbling about it– they might as well have told me they had five aces. So if you realize you’re being lied to and they know you know you’re being lied to, is it delusion to accept it or is it a weird form of truth? These are the things you sometimes think about when you’re alone for a year. It was all a headache; and had I been there twenty years, I’d have given up the line of thought, which explains a lot.

To be precise, their happiness bothers me. I know that’s a super American stereotypical thing to say, but it’s true. I couldn’t be happy in China without figuring out their m.o. It became a weird war of the political ideologies. Like, follow me here: I grew up learning they were brainwashed by the government into believing the party line. Lo and behold, I arrive and that’s more or less accurate. Yet their semi-recognition of this fact makes ‘brainwash’ less accurate by definition, and their social status improvement validates the propaganda. Not just doing well, but doing what America has pushed as a platform ad nauseum since the dawn of freedom circa 1776: the middle class. The dan wei are rapidly being transplanted into the cities; factory conditions are often horrific, but if we’re going there, hello American Industrial Revolution. And hello current iDontCare generation, whom is very much a part of the Foxconn work conditions essential to iOS7’s release. Are they Communist, or are they the U.S. at the turn of the century? And if they have the secret police, what do we have now?

I didn’t so much become a sympathizer to their fucked up cause – domestic abuse is above fifty-seven percent and there’s a litany of environmental and human rights disasters – as I did revert to incessant literary theory for poor comfort. China was hard to get used to because I had to learn a different language, and it wasn’t just Chinese. I had to re-learn my own language and how I defined moral precepts. Like the things I mentioned above, you can’t understand how far off your American definitions are without the proper contrast or, more frighteningly, complement.

Living in China was like being the last person in the room to know a secret. Things are supposed to be explained and rationalized to you. ‘That’s life’ is just a thing stupid, jaded people say because feel they ought to say something. I say it a lot. But the Chinese do live with virtual certainty in the unspoken word, and it isn’t stupid or jaded. Being American, I need an answer or I need to be lied to, so that I can call you out on being lied to and demand another answer. The Chinese don’t seem to need answers to their large-scale concerns. For instance, we had elections that were not too far apart, during which I immediately assessed my own opinions about Obama and Romney. I gathered my friends’ tempered opinions and was bombarded with my family’s opinions. But for the life of me, I couldn’t get a straight answer from the English-speaking Chinese citizens about their new President. ‘Too soon to say’ was the only answer I got; and so they moved through the world, patiently waiting for a time when they could evaluate their new leader. (JK about patiently waiting, their ability to queue is terrible. But they were pragmatic about politics. Or nervous. I don’t know.)

And please don’t mistake ‘China moves around the problem’ as some great philosophical thumbs-up for them. I saw many approach ‘problem-solving’ like a broken Roomba approaches a wall, particularly in bars and restaurants.  I merely mean to tell you that ‘Fuck It’ was not a rebellious mantra for them. The way they drove, the way they queued, the way they ate, and the way they faced inconveniences was a subconscious, nigh-robotic ‘Fuck It’ that was to be admired and gazed upon. Boss is giving you grief? Fuck it. Teacher is being demanding? Fuck it. Parents and grandparents are systemically inserting you as the fulcrum of the family’s future with no concern for physical or mental strain? Fuck it. Fuck it. Fuck it.  ‘It’, of course, being ‘your resentment towards them’. It wasn’t apathy. It was ‘Fuck It, On To The Next Unreasonable Standard’ and it was a divine, relentless feat of endurance to watch. They cried only sometimes.

I live in LA now, where I hope to have a small, reliable cadre of friends surrounded by heaps and heaps of ingratiating bullshit. With success as a screenwriter, I may find lots of nice things said about me, but they’ll never have the resonance of what the Chinese children said. The natural respect for teachers – above and beyond anything I’ve seen in America – was part of an idolatrous mezcla arising from their first exposure to the West. It’s important to leave the United States every so often, if only to see that we aren’t evil in everyone’s eyes.

*Part 2 coming later*

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About the Author

Chris O'Toole (Colorado State '12, Chapman '15) recently finished a Screenwriting MFA. He has written for Livestrong, CBS, and other publications. Love, hate, and job offers can be sent to: