Jerri is a friend of mine now living on the island of Jejudo in South Korea with her friend Lucy. Their first six and a half years in Asia were spent in four cities in China. This interview took place recently over Skype. Jerri kindly provided the photos.
My background is in finance and economics. In the States I worked for a publishing house which put out a magazine for senior executives of banks and another for the boards of directors of trading companies. I lived in Arizona but made monthly business trips to New York City. When 9/11 hit, I lost hundreds of friends and colleagues from other companies. I went to one memorial service at Carnegie Hall for 111 employees from a company of 160 and then to another one for 89 people. For the next six months, I listened to survivor stories every time I made a phone call. We were helping small and medium-sized investment banks get back on their feet, assisting with client information lost from their main servers and that kind of thing. By the time I left the States, I was so stressed out I didn’t know if I would ever be able to claw my way back to daylight. I was so depressed, angry, sad, and I had such mixed emotions about the retaliation by the U.S. government. I’ve always been a pacifist, but I really wanted revenge, and I didn’t like myself because of it.
Of course, I was irrevocably changed in many ways. I’d had friends who were richer than God but worked like maniacs to get more. But in the end all that money and sitting on the 109th floor of the World Trade Center didn’t do one thing for them. So ten years ago I realized that the things I was saving for might never happen, that if I wanted to see the world, get active and make a difference, then now was the time for it. I chucked everything: house, belongings, car and career. I just knew it was right. At the time I thought I’d only be gone for one year.
My first job was with a language school in the far north, not far from North Korea. We taught students with different amounts of proficiency from every age group. I also did some tourism teaching in hotels and restaurants. I loved it there. That was when all the state-run factories were closed down. It was economically very depressed. Everything was fueled by coal, so the air was black, black, black. No one spoke any English. You couldn’t go anywhere or eat anything if you didn’t know how to say it in Chinese, so during the first six months I learned most of the Chinese I know. People were not good at inferring what you might be trying to say if you got the tone wrong.
Most of the other expats were young Canadians fresh out of college who were so welcoming. It was the first time in many years that I’d been immersed in that age group. Canadian culture is different from American culture in that it didn’t matter to them that I was in forty-seven. We just became part of the group.
The ethnic background of that area was part Han, but more Mongol, with tall, big-boned people. They were super friendly, and the food was the best I had anywhere in China. China wasn’t developing very much at that point, not the way it has been in the last five or six years. People were really poor. They were used to having their housing provided and working at lifetime jobs in state-run factories, and suddenly they didn’t have that anymore. New industry had not yet come in to fill that void.
The first year and a half I made $500 a month in addition to the free apartment. Before I got there I thought there was no way I could live on that, but I discovered I couldn’t spend all my salary. I saved half of it. About two months into our stay, the SARS epidemic hit, and everything closed down. The school management said, “We’ll keep you on a stipend”—maybe $125 a month. “You’re free to leave if you want to. If you want to come back you can continue your contract.” There was a clause that you got extra money if you stayed. They let us remain in our apartments, but they said they didn’t know how long the school would be closed. It was about two weeks. All the foreigners lived in the same apartment building, so we pooled our money and had barbecues on the roof and laughed and talked and just had a good time.
In that area our free apartment probably wouldn’t have rented for $100 a month. It had been made from a big apartment cut four ways, only one of which had a kitchen. Ours was beautiful, two stories with a loft area, but no kitchen and running water only upstairs. It was fun, but not the way I would want to live the rest of my life. When we were working, we had several local hangouts, little Chinese restaurants where people were excited at having foreigners come in. They would let you point and guess how to say things. They got to know what we liked, so they would have it ready for us.
At this point I can’t imagine ever going back to the States to live. I think the lifestyle of an expat is much richer. Not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something new or see something I’ve never seen before. After ten years in Asia, I’m still learning something new every day. It’s difficult to live in a country where, if you speak the language at all, the culture is still so different that you’re always stumbling into other people’s sensitive areas, and they’re stumbling into yours. But it’s a completely different kind of stress than you have at home.
When I told people I was moving on to Zhengzhou in Henan Province, Shenyang people would say, “Why do you want to go there? Those people are criminals. They will steal from you. They will cheat you.” That was the stereotype of Henan, which was very poor.
Teaching in Zhengzhou in central China was one of my favorite experiences because I taught college students. I love that age group. What was then called Shengda College of Economics and Trade of Zhengzhou University wasn’t really part of the university, but a private college founded by a Taiwanese man whose family was originally from Zhengzhou. He owned several private schools in Taiwan. He had paid to be affiliated with the university in order to get students because otherwise no one would have enrolled. The students I taught didn’t make the grade to get into state universities like Zhengzhou, so their parents put them into this private school so their diplomas would say that they graduated from Zhengzhou University. [According to Wikipedia, when the school was founded in 1994 under the program to expand higher education in China, regulations required new colleges to find “mother schools” to supervise them. The other sources given below say students paid tuition five times higher that of the state universities.]
The students were amazing. They came from dirt poor families in the villages, all agricultural areas, and they were so grateful for this education. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere. They worked hard every minute. They had two sets of clothes, and at night they hand-washed the one they had worn that day, and the next day they wore the other set. Even in the bitter cold winter they took cold showers because hot showers were more expensive and none of them could afford it. The electricity was turned off in the dorms at 9:00 at night. Once I asked a student whether he’d had a good Spring Festival [the month-long Lunar New Year vacation]. He said it was okay, but they had just stayed in bed the whole time because it was cold and the only heat was the fire under the kang [the brick sleeping platform heated from below by burning straw or coal].
In the States students from a poor background might want to hide that. But these kids were proud, they loved their parents, and they wanted us to meet them. They wanted to show us what their life was like and what their homes were like. A lot of these places still had no running water. But the families were just so genuine and so warm in welcoming us into their homes, giving us gifts and hospitality we could never hope to repay.
When I first came to the campus in the fall of 2003, only a handful of student had mobile phones. Only one student had a computer. But the economy was improving rapidly. When I left a year and a half later, every student had a mobile phone, and over half had computers. When computers became available the parents wanted their college kids to have them. The students were all the brightest in the extended family, the only ones given the chance for a higher education. Sometimes whole villages had pitched in because for the rest of their lives the college graduates would be sending money home to those who had helped them. The pressure was tremendous though. The students knew people were making huge sacrifices for them and that they had to live up to their expectations.
From that school one of those students went to the States to get a master’s in economics and then a Ph.D. in agricultural economics. She’s teaching at UCLA now. Another one studied technology in Germany. He’s still there. Another one is in Australia. I know if you saw them today you would have no idea what background they came from.
One of my students was born in Xinjiang in the far west of China. Her grandparents were from Zhengzhou, but just by virtue of the fact that they were landowners during the Cultural Revolution they were sent off for reeducation and relocation, and all of their land was confiscated. Eventually the family made it back to Zhengzhou. I was interested in how many previously powerful families have managed to regain as much power as they’d had before. They were educated people, and perhaps the people who gained power during the Cultural Revolution didn’t have the education, knowledge and ability to hold onto it.
Shengda College is no longer affiliated with Zhongzhou University. I heard the Taiwanese founder was no longer willing to pay for the affiliation. [According to the articles cited below, in 2003 a law was enacted stating a diploma could not bear the name of a university the student had not actually attended.] Nobody told the students. Their parents had sacrificed for years so their diplomas would say “Zhengzhou University.” It meant the difference between a successful career and a mediocre career. When their diplomas were handed to them without it, they had no idea this was coming. 12,000 students rioted and destroyed this little campus in the middle of nowhere. Within an hour the army was there trying to shut down the protest. An hour after that the students had broken all of the windows in all of the buildings and destroyed what for that area was a state-of-the-art library. Within 24 hours the situation was under control. I could understand the students’ reaction, but it was a really sad thing.
The riot was in the spring, and we had left the preceding Christmas. We started hearing about what was going on from students and from faculty members who were still there, but within three or four hours all the Internet connections had been cut so students could no longer post online. The authorities cut off all communication and wouldn’t let anyone leave. One of my students was accused of being the ringleader, and her dossier was black-marked. [This is the document which follows a Chinese citizen her whole life] and her national ID. After that she worked for a while in a little business I had, but she was never able to get another job. Now she’s back on the farm with two children, the second of which had to be paid for because she wasn’t allowed to have two. So the riot was a big deal.