Finding Contentment in Mainland China

In 1984-86 I taught at Xiamen University in Fujian Province, China. My friend Jim is now teaching in the province to the north of Fujian. When we did this interview over Skype in July 2011, it was clear that some circumstances in China had changed, like technological and economic growth, but others, such as the living conditions of Foreign Experts and the behavior of people in public places were much the same as they were twenty-five years ago. (Jim has kindly supplied the photos.)

Jim’s Story

Heading out of town

It was great moving to Asia at the age of 50. I needed a change. Now, Toronto—my home town—is multicultural, with about half a million Chinese and some of the world’s best Chinese restaurants. In my opinion you shouldn’t move to a country if you don’t like the food. I really liked Chinese food and culture—Japanese and Korean culture too, but not as much, and I wasn’t too crazy about Korean food. Some of the worst horror stories were from people teaching English in Korea. The Japanese seemed more uptight,  and because of history I felt more sympathy with the Chinese, who didn’t invade Japan and kill 100,000 people. Although I believe around the world—everywhere—most people are good.

I wanted to go somewhere warm, without snow and ice. In Taiwan the weather is hot and humid and rainy like Florida. You can go without a jacket almost twelve months of the year. I like the night markets and being able to roam the city, anytime, day or night. I never saw any crime there, or in China. They have the best subway system I’ve ever seen. It’s just amazing—very convenient and very crowded.

I went over on my own to look for a job teaching English. I’d talked to people who’d been there and who advised against signing a contract without seeing the workplace and meeting the people. In some ways what I got was a good job. I mean, they paid on time, and they were fairly professional. I think it was a good place to be for my first year.

To get a job in a college or university I needed a graduate degree. I only had a BA, so I taught at an “institute,” an English-teaching business offering classes for adults who want to improve their spoken English, mostly evenings and on weekends. Their biggest selling point is having foreign teachers. In fact, this school was in a prominent location on the corner of a busy downtown street, with big, glass walls so people outside could watch all the foreigners at work. To me it felt like a car showroom.

It was like a fitness center which charges for the use of the facilities. A student paid and was allocated a certain amount of class time, without having an assigned class. The students could just show up, and they’d be put somewhere, not in the same class as before and sometimes not even with others at the same level—although they did try with the proficiency levels. But I liked teaching, and I think I’m suited to it. I like people, and I’ve been trying to learn Chinese, which helps me relate to the difficulties the students might be having.

I was there for a year, and I found it quite exciting. I met lots of nice people, both foreigners and Taiwanese, and traveled around. I took my first trip to Hong Kong. But the first six months I had a lot of culture shock. In Taipei there’s McDonald’s and Starbucks, but even buying a coffee can be challenging when you don’t know the language. The frustration would turn me into an ugly foreigner—or arrogant foreigner. I’d often get angry and upset about things like noise. Taipei is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and Taiwanese and Chinese people tend to be so loud it would drive me crazy. The politics also got to me, the anti-mainland fear-mongering with daily items in the newspaper about an imminent attack from the People’s Republic. I found myself taking the Chinese side, which the Taiwanese didn’t like very much. It’s a little better now that the separatists have lost power. With time I’ve gotten better at handling my frustrations.  I think traveling and living here is making me a better person. I try to accept that things so, instead of getting upset that I didn’t get what I wanted, I enjoy what I did get.

After a year in Taiwan, I went back to Canada and lived in Vancouver for two years. I had a job working with homeless people, which was very depressing. I’ve seen far more homeless people in Toronto and Vancouver than in Shanghai. In mainland China you don’t see much poverty, although it is here. But most people seem to have something to eat and a place to live and a job if they want it. China seems to be trying to make life better for everybody, including the poor whereas in Canada it the attitude often was that if you were poor or unemployed it was your own fault. Like two months ago there was a news story here that they were going to double the minimum wage.

After another nine months in Taiwan I moved to the mainland, to the prosperous Zhejiang Province, the province north of Fujian and south of Shanghai. I’ve be here two and a half years. Officially, I’m a Foreign Expert at a college. This contract will run out in about six months, so I’ll have to decide whether to stay here or experience another place. This is a small city of about half a million people, with about ten Westerners. The weather here is like Tennessee. It gets cold in the winter, but we seldom have snow. The summers get into the nineties. We’re a landlocked city, but outside of town there are some beautiful open spaces which remind me of Canada—but with food growing everywhere. I just took my motorcycle out there this afternoon.

In China there are different levels of college and university, and students qualify on the basis of their marks and test scores. My school is one of the low-ranking ones, owned by a corporation whose specialty is construction and development. About three-fourths of the students are boys who are learning building and things related to that. Most of my students are girls majoring in business English and hotel management. Nowadays the students aren’t assigned jobs like they used to be. After they finish their two-year course they have to go and get a job. They get some help, but mostly it’s up to them. A lot of my students want to have their own businesses.

There’s a lot of capitalism and a lot of money. In this small city there are two or three Rolls Royces, a lot of BMWs and Mercedes and Audis. I’m sure 20-30 years ago it must have been different. [no private cars, just owned by the work unit]. Even ten years ago there weren’t many cars. It’s just really amazing to see things change before your eyes, with buildings going up and people getting cars for the first time. On the other hand, China is building a lot of railroads and the bigger cities are having subways built. That’s one thing about the political system: they can decide to do something and do it on a big scale.

At the college many people belong to the Communist Party, which is just a way to make contacts and get ahead, like the Republican Party. Every class has a monitor. I’m sure they report on me, but I can’t read or write Chinese. Maybe ignorance is bliss. On the Internet we can’t access certain sites like Facebook or Youtube. There are so few foreigners that it’s probably very easy for them to monitor us. We’re registered with the police, they know where we live and work, they know everything. I don’t have a problem with that because I’ve got nothing to hide, and it also keeps me safe. A few times it’s looked my mail was opened, but I’d never be able to prove it. On the other hand, in the United States and Canada studies have been done about employers spying on their staff.

Most of the English teachers are Chinese who teach reading and writing. The two native speakers do spoken English. Every week we have an English corner, where the students can talk about anything they want. In class I focus on getting them speaking. I tell them they’ll become better at English by doing it, like learning basketball. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes. With time I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work. Each class has about forty students, so it’s hard to spend much time with an individual or with a small group. A small number want to learn, and some who have no interest. I see my job as helping and encouraging them improve. The college is on holiday now, but I have one student who calls almost every day to talk for five minutes.  Unfortunately, not very many would do that, for many reasons: they’re not interested, or they’re too shy, or they don’t want to impose on me, or they’re afraid they’ll make mistakes.

A lot of things are similar to home. Almost every kid at the school has a cell phone, many have computers and the rest have computer access. All the teachers and students use an instant messaging system called QQ. I have students keep in touch on QQ. Students from two years ago who are doing business in English, if they come across something they don’t understand will send me a message, and I’ll help them sort it out. We also talk occasionally by telephone or on Skype. I don’t think I could live here without modern technology. The downside to life here is the isolation. I don’t know how people did it years ago, but even though I spend many hours in the computer I sometimes wonder if my quality of life wouldn’t be better because without it, because then I’d be interacting with people face to face or reading books.


My starting salary was 5,000 RMB [$774 USD] a month, which according to what I’ve seen on the Internet is around average. In Canada that would put me below the poverty line, but I also have a nice, free apartment, and it would be no problem living her on 1,000 or 2,000 RMB a month. My last Canadian job didn’t pay much. I was always in debt and just working to pay bills. That was true even when I had a business and a house and a car. But at this stage of life I’m not trying to save to buy a house. My focus is on having a decent life now. I like to travel, and in the past few years I’ve taken the best trips of my life. I had two months in Canada, a week in Hawaii and three weeks in Thailand. I feel I’m in the right place at the right time, given what I have and what I can do. China badly needs foreign teachers, and the students appreciate my being here. In Canada I spent forty hours a week in the office, and my employer’s attitude was that I was lucky to have a job. If I didn’t like it, I could leave. I got two weeks’ holiday a year and not necessarily when I wanted it. Here I have three months off and have money to spend on holidays. If I can keep on working, I’ll just stay in China.

I’m just an ordinary middle class person, maybe lower-middle class, but in my mind I’m like Walter Mitty, wondering why I’m not rich and famous. Because we’re so few foreigners, being here is like being a rock star or a minor celebrity. Every time I go out, people stop and stare, and little kids point and say, “Hey, there’s a foreigner.” It can occasionally be annoying, but most of the time I get a kick out of being special.

Part of the culture shock came from getting questions westerners would consider rude. You meet people, and in less than five minutes they’re asking you how much money you make and how old you are and if you’re married with children or why not. When I arrived on the mainland I was surprised at behavior like people spitting right on the floor inside—men and women, but the men were worse—but here it’s accepted. Before they spit, there’s the loud hawking, clearing the throat of phlegm. [At one time the loud noise was believed to ward off devils.] In restaurants, they’ll spit bones out on the table. And screaming to their friend across the room. Smoking is allowed everywhere.

Duck heads

In China people are learning to wait in line. Younger and more modern people are getting more used to the concept, but it’s common for someone to cut in front of you. Bus and train stations have physical barriers and security guards who try to enforce the rules. In a hospital I went to, patients sign up and wait for their numbers to appear on the electronic board. There was a nurse at a counter supervising, but people still pushed ahead. It was bizarre. One patient might be talking to the doctor while three or four watched. In western countries we have this thing about our personal space and first come, first served. But here, if I’m a fast food place where people are pushing ahead, I push also because otherwise who knows how long I’ll have to wait. I find that strange, but also sometimes very funny.

People blow their noses out on the street by holding one nostril shut and then forcing the mucus out, which is accepted. [Chinese are repulsed by the idea of using a handkerchief and putting it back in your pocket.] I think that’s one reason the Taiwanese who have never been here think mainland Chinese are like animals. Even now the word “peasant” is in common use. People keep the habits they’ve had for many centuries. [After Liberation, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, having bourgeois habits was dangerous. Peasant/worker behavior was in.] I see so many things that would make westerns wonder what was going on. Babies don’t wear diapers. They have like a trap door open in the back [split pants], so when they have to pee or poop a parent will hold them so they can go on the street [in the gutter. Parents also whistle as a signal for the baby to pee]. There’s no toilet paper in restrooms, even in fairly decent restaurants in Taiwan. So I got in the habit of always having tissue paper with me. [Which you need to do anywhere in Asia.] My first year in Taiwan I was bothered by things like that, but now I’m just used to it.

I call China “the opposite world.” For example:

* Toronto is very multicultural. Here over 99% of the people were born in China.

* Driving here is crazy. Traffic lights were just introduced a few years ago. People often drive right through them. There are no stop signs, unlike all the four-way stops we have in Toronto. People are not required to stop, but most people slow down and see if anyone else is coming and then weave in and out.

*In Canada there are so many safety restrictions, like mandatory seat belts and government-approved car seats for children. Here people drive on motorcycles carrying the baby in their arms.

* In Canada you have to have lights at night and wear reflectors on your bikes, but here half of the people on the road at night have no lights. People walk down the street with no street lights, wearing black.But here people try to cooperate and work together. I don’t want to hit anybody or get hit. When I do see accidents they’re minor, just a little bumping into each other and no personal injury. [China has the highest rate of fatal traffic accidents in the world, but that fact is unlikely to appear in the state-run media.]

* In Canadian parks it’s an absolute no-no to throw litter on the ground. We have a saying, “Take only photographs, and leave only your footprints.” Here people throw garbage around everywhere, although there are garbage cans around, and many people employed to go around to pick it up. Near my college they’ve been building some beautiful parks which are kept clean. Of course, one of China’s biggest challenges is pollution. My students talk and write about how important it is to have clean air and water. A lot of the motorcycles are electric now to cut down on pollution, and they’re investing a lot in wind and solar. They’re launching huge projects and learning very quickly.

* The values here are amazing, and it’s not just lip service. Many of my students have stood up in class and said, “I love my mother, I love my father.” At home you’ll here students say, “Man, I hate my parents. They’re divorced, and my father lives in another city.”

* The Chinese love their country, and they’re proud of it. I really think the government is trying to make life better for everyone. Education is very important. A lot of new schools are being built, as are new homes and new train systems and subways. The Chinese want to catch up with the developed world, they are catching up. . China has a huge military, but I believe it’s for defense, peace keeping and disaster relief.