I live in China. I came here in 2005, and except for the 2007/8 academic year when I returned to England to take up a Writing Fellowship that had been held open for me I've worked at the same university all that time. I came here as an ESL teacher, but now teach a variety of subjects, including literature courses. One day back at the beginning of 2005 I received two emails: one was from my youngest son, who was then in Costa Rica having a good time, and another was from a friend who was in China teaching English and also having a good time. I was in England, comfortable enough, but suddenly I felt like I was missing out on something that had to do with it's a big world out there; six months later I was here. What I knew about China at that point you could've comfortably etched on to a fingernail.
I'm not going to try and explain what it's like here. The first time I returned to England and everyone was asking me to describe what China was like I realized I couldn't do it. You can show the photos, tell the anecdotes, but something is always missing: the words "it's a different culture" don’t go anywhere near it. No matter how many times I say the people are wonderful, friendly and open, that the students are a delight to teach, that invitations to their homes to see their town and meet the family are endless, and how not everyone eats rice all the time …. to be honest, after six years I'm kind of bored even mentioning those things, because this is where I live now and it's all normal.
What is pretty true, though, is that most "foreigners" (by which I mean Westerners) living here for any substantial length of time probably should own up to a certain sense that they're escaping something, albeit in differing degrees. Many, particularly younger people, come here for "the experience", for sure, but even then it can easily become more than that. Foreign teachers especially enjoy a fairly privileged existence. Usually paid quite well by Chinese standards, and therefore having more than enough disposable income, they also benefit from the reverence the Chinese have for "the teacher".
But it's a bubble, and an escapist bubble at that. Some measure of guilt comes from living comfortably in a place where there are very serious issues, but we're 99.9 per cent unaffected by them, and we're also half a world away, literally, from problems at home, wherever home may be. We're privileged: you can't really claim that not being able to use Youtube and Facebook constitute major incursions into the quality of life, even though you know there's an important principle involved. And anyway, you can get those things if you really want them. The technology exists. When I read in the English papers that phrase "internet censorship in China" I can't help but almost smile: I'm not denying curbs on freedom exist here, nor the horrors that undoubtedly go along with that; all I'm saying is that the general everyday reality is somewhat different from what that hackneyed journalist phrase suggests. When the furore over the Nobel Peace Prize and Liu Xiaobo erupted, it didn’t make the Chinese TV news, or the newspapers, but in class one day I saw a student reading a photocopy of the story in The Economist.
All this is far from simple, and I've probably already upset a whole bunch of people who live a long way away and know more about human rights and being liberal than I do.
On a slightly different tack, one of the most disturbing issues I've come across is one that affects lots of young people here: China is a country where Confucian philosophy and "tradition" is still very strong and influential – it's "part of the culture" – and one aspect of that is of course the importance of family. So many young people here are faced with a problem largely beyond the western experience: brought up to respect family values and obligations, they find themselves studying and sitting endless exams to get a good job (that probably isn’t there) to earn money so they can one day both repay (literally, in some cases: with money) their parents for what they've been given but also care for them in their old age in a way that certainly doesn’t happen in my country. If you're thinking "Well, we care about our parents too….." believe me, this is a whole different ball-game.
It's perfectly normal here for young people to be faced with a future that involves a marriage more or less arranged by their parents, having children, and then eventually living with aged parents, and pretty much putting them first in ways that would have been and still are frankly impossible for me, as a Westerner, someone who left home at 19, to comprehend. For many young people here that poses no major issues, because this is what happens, it's what life is. But for many others it tears them apart, because while they've been raised with those expectations all their lives and will continue to live with them, they've also learned "western" independence and the desire to move away and do not what their parents and "society" expect, but what they need as free-thinking people. Western culture is a big part of their lives, and this is "modern China". But in very significant ways it's still old China. One girl I know – I say girl, but she's a woman of 24, a graduate, and very smart, with excellent English – seriously feels like she's living a life and is destined to for ever have a life she doesn’t want, a Chinese life lived for other people, not for herself. She's told me she feels doomed. Her parents wheel out prospective husbands on a regular basis, and I know her well enough to know she wasn't exaggerating how she feels. And I know other bright and intelligent young Chinese who are desperate (and when I say desperate, I mean desperate:) at having to make a choice that in reality is no choice at all: the parents always win.