Four Chinese Cities, Part 3

View from Jerri’s apartment in Shenzhen

Jerri’s story

Parts one and two deal with Jerri’s experiences in Shenyang, Zhengzhou and Shanghai. Jerri kindly provided all the photos.


In Shenzhen I did very little teaching. Interestingly enough, I had one semester at a Korean international high school. It was a boarding school for Koreans whose parents wanted them to learn Chinese and develop Chinese relationships—or just wanted to send them somewhere else. So I went from being surrounded by Chinese to this little Korean enclave right in the heart of Shenzhen. The attitude of the Koreans in China—and I think in a lot of places—was that they were superior to the Chinese: better educated, more sophisticated with better music, better television shows, better clothes and better hair. The boys were all about their hair.

You could watch students interact and see the little hierarchies within the school. At the top were the boarding students who had received their earlier education in Korea and whose families were still there. Then came the kids whose parents were working in China as expats, running factories or something. Below them were those whose parents had been in China so long that they were born there. On the bottom were the few who were half Chinese. I felt really sorry for them because the bullying was horrible and open. “They’re dirty. They’re not real Koreans.” I taught a brother and sister. He was born in Korea, while she was born three years later after the family had moved to Shenzhen. They had the same parents, but the sister was of much lower status.

Shenzhen was the fastest developing city in the country, springing up from a tiny fishing village into a huge metropolitan area. It was unbelievable how big that place was, how wealthy it was and how high people’s expectations were. Many millions of college graduates flocked to Shenzhen. The college graduate entry-level for good jobs was so saturated that when I left Shenzhen last year, every week you heard of some student who had migrated to Shenzhen. His parents had spent all their money sending him to university, and he was planning to get a good job and send money back home to the family. Then he got there and couldn’t find a job. There was suicide after suicide because of the shame of being unable to fulfill family obligations.

Shenzhen was so completely different from the rest of China. To me it was like California when I was a kid, way more liberal and open, where all kinds of things happened that never would back home. If there was a sexual revolution in China, it started there. These shy, backward kids left the farm and all the rules, and they were away from family and the inhibitions that family ties bring. It was the new China, but in terms of culture, it was my least favorite place to live. It had no culture of its own. However, people came from all over, so you had food and crafts and language from every region. The Chinese loved the newness and the excitement, but I found it all surface. One of my friends described Shenzhen as a giant, metropolitan city full of peasants. There was still the spitting on the ground, the urinating on the street, the strolling out on a busy, six-lane highway—all the stuff you saw in the rest of China but which made your head spin in a modern glass-and-steel city.

A lot of Hong Kong people went to Shenzhen to live or retire or buy property, while Shenzhen inhabitants dressed like Hong Kong people in designer clothes, but you could tell they were not from Hong Kong. Mainland Chinese didn’t wear the clothes the same way. They didn’t have the same confidence and ease with their financial security. It was like they were dressing up and playing a part. Only Chinese born in Guangdong Province were allowed to cross into Hong Kong. If you weren’t from there, you could go to your home village for a special permit which allowed you to go twice. The permits were very expensive, so there was still prestige in being able to go in and out of Hong Kong.

I had friends who said they couldn’t tell the difference between behavior in China and in Hong Kong, but I walked across the border and immediately felt I was in a different country. The behavior of the mainland Chinese also changed to some degree—less pushing and shoving, no hawking and spitting. [In Hong Kong there was a fine for spitting on the street.] At one of the crossings in Shenzhen the subway system was actually run by a Hong Kong company. You got on the subway in Shenzhen, then got out, showed your passport, walked across the river, got your passport stamped in Hong Kong, and then got back on the subway system. There were the same signs, the same trains, but a calm and a quiet like the decibel level had dropped.

On the train to Hong Kong

The first thing I always did was pick up the South China Morning Post at the Seven-Eleven before hopping on the train. In China there was no way you could read a newspaper on the subway. Someone would be grabbing it out of your hand or knocking it into you. There wasn’t enough space to open a newspaper, even to read it folded over. In Hong Kong you could actually sit on a seat, open the Post and read real news, not the propaganda you got in the government-run China Daily and Shenzhen Daily. When I lived in Shenzhen I would go every couple of weeks.

China was the most exciting place I’ve ever lived in. There was always something strange happening. The Chinese would make decisions I would never consider making. If I were trying to solve a problem, I would look at all the options, even if I were just trying to get across the street, I would look at the crosswalk and the traffic stops and the lights—although the traffic didn’t necessarily follow the lights—and decide when a break in traffic would allow me to cross. But the Chinese would just stroll out into the street, causing cars to blow their horns and swerve to avoid hitting them and bicycles to zip around cars and almost hit the pedestrians. It was insane. I could see no thought in it at all, but there must have been some because far fewer pedestrians got run over than you’d think if you saw how they behaved in huge metropolitan areas.

In Shanghai and Shenzhen I had a small business, a database of the boards of directors of the top companies in China in different industries. It contained all their background information: where they went to university, what companies they’d been affiliated with, their résumés and contact information. As a foreign business person wanting to do business in China, you might want to talk to someone in Shanghai from a bank of a certain size. You could put the parameters in and it would give you everyone who fit your demographic. Or maybe you knew someone who graduated from Beijing University, and you wanted to see who that person could help you make contacts with. The database would supply information on everyone in that industry who had graduated from Beijing University.

The magazine I used to work for in the States brought groups of directors over to China, and we matched them with a similar-sized company so they could have private discussions about joint ventures—that kind of thing. We set up the venue for the meetings and made all the arrangements. When a group was coming into town, things had to be perfect. You don’t take the director of a large multinational out to meet the director of some tiny company out in the middle of nowhere.

My Chinese staff—I had two young women working for me—could not solve problems. So I said once, “Okay, this project has to be finished today no matter what because we have three more things that have to be done, and they can’t be done until this is 100% complete. I’m going to do something else. If you run into a problem, call me.” They agreed. The next day when I went in, it wasn’t even half finished.

I said, “What happened?”

“We didn’t know what to do.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

“We didn’t want to disturb you.”

“Now I’m disturbed. Now I’m really disturbed. We have all these people coming in, and now there’s no way to have everything done when they get here. It’s not going to happen.”

Even though I was really more a friend than a boss, they could not imagine placing that phone call. So we were all set with the invitations, but they couldn’t go out. Their question was actually about a very simple matter. Things like that happened all the time.

I was always astounded by China, fascinated but also overwhelmed. It was hard because I was never certain I was making the right move. It was a difficult place to live. People would push in front of you to get on the bus. On good days it was fun to stand back and watch, but on bad days I wanted to beat them with an umbrella.

I don’t feel angry at the West or harbor negative feelings toward it. I just don’t want to live there anymore. The value system is different from what I grew up with. I don’t want to live with the new value system anymore. I don’t care about the things that are important to people back there, like having a fancy car. My thousand dollar car is just fine. I don’t have to have the biggest house. I don’t even want a big house. I don’t want to give up my freedom to pay for expensive stuff. I’m out of touch with the television shows and the actors. If I watch any television from the States, it’s just network television.

This is internal, I believe. What’s important to me when I’m overseas is completely different from what’s important to me when I’m there. I think it’s the influence of television advertising and seeing what my friends have. In Korea I don’t feel any of that. If my clothes are different from somebody else’s, well, so is my hair color and my eyes and everything else about me, so it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to fit in anyway.

One of the last times I was home I went to one of the big warehouse stores like Costco. As I walked through the store, I wanted everything I saw. Luckily, I didn’t have a place to put it or a way of getting it back to Asia. I wanted to plant those beautiful flowers in my garden, even though I didn’t have a garden. I wanted the biggest refrigerator with the greatest electronic ice-maker, something I would never think of here. Whatever I saw, I wanted. It was culture shock. I was laughing at myself the whole time.

I also get bored in the States. If and when I do retire, I won’t have enough to live on there. I might be able to get by, but it wouldn’t be a lot of fun. Occasionally Lucy talks about going back. If she really wanted to, I would, but I can’t imagine returning to a full-time career. It’s hard to find a job that’s both challenging and not stressful. Whereas here, even though teaching English is not my best thing, I find the students are amazing. There are always a couple of students who are really cool, really interesting and fun to be around, people I can continue to learn from.