Unpacking China

I spent my last semester in Hangzhou, an hour bullet train ride outside of Shanghai. An academic advisor described Hangzhou to me as “Shanghai on vacation.” It is smaller than Shanghai and has a more relaxed culture, but the features are pretty much the same— each as a body of water, malls, and a booming economy.

I was quite confident that after having a semester in baby Shanghai that this semester would be an absolute breeze, but I was wrong. When I came to Shanghai, I already knew how to use Chinese apps, the Shanghai subway, and felt pretty well-adjusted to Chinese culture. However, there are certain challenges of living in China that just don’t go away no matter how much time you’ve spent in the country. For me, a lot of these challenges have been intellectual.

Last semester, I was bound to a Chinese language pledge and didn’t get much of an opportunity to interpret a lot of the cultural, ethical, and even situational challenges that I grappled with while in China. Many of my questions stemmed from comparison to the Western context. All of my professors were Chinese and because of media censorship in China, many of my concerns related to issues and information that was censored in media and sensitive to discuss. Within my cohort of American students, we lacked the language skills to be able to tackle a lot of our burning questions. Because I had a VPN to allow me to access Western news, I was able to read about the Muslim internment camps in Xinjiang, op-eds about the societal effects of social credit, or environmental atrocities in western China. But I couldn’t really talk about any of it.

This semester, in my Davidson course and independently with my peers, I was able to unpack a lot of the questions I’ve had sitting in my brain for the past 8 months. But just because I was able to talk about it more, the uncomfortable feeling remained of knowing all this information while the rest of the country does not. The odd frustration of absolutely loving the country I’ve been living in for the past year, but disproving of its institutions doesn’t go away. This semester, I was able to take an upper-level political science seminar, conduct independent research on how public information is used in China, and learn more about civil and corporate law in China through an internship. These opportunities only served to open up more questions.

Studying China comes with an impossibly steep learning curve, and although I’ve been studying the language for six years and have spent a year in this country, I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface. To me, that’s incredibly exciting.

The Last of Beijing’s Hutongs

My first experience in China was for a two-month internship with the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. Knowing that I would be somewhat overwhelmed as a nineteen-year old, on my own in China, with a second-grader’s proficiency in Chinese, I chose to live in an Airbnb in an expat area called Sanlitun. It had all of the comforts I’d feared would be missing from my summer in China—H&M, an English-language bookstore, pizza. It was unexpectedly easy-living. But after two weeks in what was essentially New York, I decided it was time to graduate and experience what I thought was the real China.

Using Airbnb once again, I found a heavily-refurbished lofted hutong 胡同 apartment. I chose to stay hutong after reading about the historic courtyard residences in a book about an American-born Chinese woman coming to China for the first time and staying with her Beijing relatives in their vast courtyard property. I would soon learn from curiously peering into neighbors’ windows and from reading a very different book about hutongs, Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing, that hutongs had lost their luster. My Airbnb hutong was nothing like the homes of most Beijing hutong-dwellers.

Flash forward to last week, when our Davidson in China group traveled to Beijing, and one of our activities was a tour of a hutong neighborhood. Our tour guide prefaced this tour by saying that hutongs were once a symbol of grassroots Beijing upper-class lifestyle that existed outside of the imperial city, but are now seen as a symbol of national shame. Most hutongs today accommodate multiple families, and do not have modern heating or plumbing. According to our guide, most have been poorly maintained and expanded, often with whatever building scraps residents have found. Over the past decade, as China seeks to earn its reputation as an advanced and modern nation, the CCP sees hutongs as a stain on its image. Many have been torn down and what maintenance is performed is not done with preservation and restoration in mind.

Despite the party’s view of hutongs, they are still an object of fascination for many tourists. As Beijing begins to look more and more like the cities of the developed world, and wide roads and skyscrapers replace courtyard homes and alleyways, hutongs present tourists with the quintessence of China that they’ve read about in books and seen in movies.

The Linden Center: Pioneers in Sustainable Tourism

We spent the day in Dali before taking a thirty-minute bus ride to The Linden Center in Xizhou 喜州, a small Bai village about one kilometer from Erhai Lake.  I had no expectations for what The Linden Center would look like. It was a weird concept—a Chinese protected heritage site turned into a luxury hotel. It sounded so contradictory to tradition. And to top it off, it was run by an American couple, who I assumed were just chasing profit and the Chinese consumers’ pocket books. As we walked down a cement road to the Center, a long-haired man in baggy clothing approached us. “Hi, my name is Brian Linden,” he said. I soon learned that all my assumption were completely baseless.

He brought us down the road to a sprawling courtyard mansion, surrounded on three sides by vibrant-colored rice paddies. After we settled into our rooms, Brian sat us down in the courtyard and told us his story. Brian had come from a poor Chicago background and was brought to China by the CCP on a scholarship to Beijing University. Without exaggeration, he credits the Chinese government with changing his life. Because of his time in China in the 1980s, Linden was awarded prestigious opportunities working with American media companies and was eventually accepted as a PhD candidate at Stanford University.

Brian and his wife Jeannie have dedicated their time in China to championing sustainable tourism that respects and preserves local minority culture. They work tirelessly on their own ventures, while committing to support local businesses and communities as well. The Lindens’ boutique hotel, which has no more than 20 guest rooms, employs 55 local staff members. The kitchen offers dishes made from local ingredients and guest activities often engage the Xizhou community. I came to learn that the courtyard we were sitting in was only one of three sites that comprise the Center. The other site consisted of higher-end, family style suites. The third site was primarily used for housing students. The Lindens host hundreds of students every year to teach about their business practices.

I will admit that even after my initial judgments about the Lindens and their hotel were shattered, I was still somewhat skeptical of Brian’s continuous praise for the Chinese Communist Party. A major part of why the Lindens are allowed to conduct business on a Chinese heritage site is because of Brian’s amicable relationship with the CCP. During his introduction to us, Brian told us how he felt indebted to the CCP for giving his life meaning after he first came to China. He joked not to think he was “brainwashed” by the government. I will note, however, that when I asked him where his allegiance to the government ended, Brian sternly denounced the CCP’s use of censorship. Brian is definitely in the camp of thinkers that believes China deserves a peaceful rise in global power. In his early life, he was let down by American social welfare programs and the Chicago public school system. But once he came to China, he was able to make a name for himself.

Our group’s stay at the Linden Center gave an interesting perspective for some of the students who might feel overwhelmed by the cultural differences of a Communist country. Brian and Jeannie are not dissenters of democracy, but rather open-minded entrepreneurs.  Brian’s story is not political. He came to China because they saw value in him, and he has dedicated his life to teaching others to value China as well.

Bai-style reflecting wall in The Linden Center


Internship at AmCham China: Beijing Post 2

I arrived an hour early to my first day of work at the American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China, or AmCham China. I arrived at 9, the doors didn’t open until 9:30, and I wasn’t expected to arrive until 10.  I was given a brief tour of the office, introduced to the other interns—all of whom were Chinese—and I was shown to my desk. I sat there for a while, nervously refreshing my email every few minutes.  After about an hour, I got an assignment: polish the English for an event advertisement. It was only about 6-7 sentences, so it didn’t take long. That was my only assignment that day.

My official role was to provide support for the company’s Training and Professional Development services and its lecture events. This meant preparing advertisements for the events, calling attendees, managing each event’s budget, facilitating the check-in processes, and taking notes at each event.  

By the end of my internship, I had helped to run about ten events, some more general professional development events and some programs more tailored to an attendee’s specific line of work. I also helped to facilitate events with a few speakers, such as David Dollar from the Brookings Institute and a prominent Beijing executive coach named Gao Lin.

The most valuable part of this internship was getting to connect with so many people working in Government Affairs roles in the commercial sector, a career path that I was highly interested in when entering into this role. A lot of our training sessions were tailored to Government Affairs practitioners who worked for consulting firms or American MNCs operating in China. After this experience, I’m more interested in exploring experiences in other sectors.

Pictured with the US Ambassador to China at AmCham’s Annual July 4th Party. 

AmCham’s lobby.

My Chinese business card to use for collecting Fapiao and exchanging contact information with members of the Chamber.

Arrival: Beijing Post 1

There was a Chinese woman at the San Francisco airport during my layover who couldn’t speak any English. After about a minute of watching her futile attempt to order a drink from Starbucks using hand motions and grunts, I intervened. “What would to like to buy?” I asked her in Chinese. She looked at me with a puzzled stare and, after a moment, responded with a pronounced Beijing accent. I ordered her a large black coffee that, to the best of my understanding, she had requested. When she received her drink she looked frustrated and disappointed. Oh well… I tried.

I’ve taken four years of Chinese— three years in high school and two semesters at Davidson— and for three and a half of those years, my professors have been Taiwanese. I was warned that the Beijing accent would be different from what I was used to. Characterized by a lot of mumbling and the addition of a harsh rrrrr to the end of a lot of words, I knew to expect a lot of confusion.

I joked to my parents on a phone call home that each taxi ride I took on my first few days in Beijing was like a game of roulette. I would dictate my location to the drivers, but I had no clue until my arrival if where they were taking me was actually my desired location. I’ve come to appreciate the Beijing accent. It’s forced me to listen more intently, speak more clearly, and pay better attention to my tones. I am keenly aware that to them, I talk funny, too.

Almost everybody I’ve spoken to in Beijing has given me the same puzzled look as the woman in Starbucks. I guess they’re just taken aback to see a wairen (foreign person) speak Chinese. I live in 三里屯 (Sanlitun), which is a large expat area. Although restaurant workers and store clerks are accustomed to interacting with foreigners, many of them do not speak any English. The area is very commercial. There is a mall at every corner and restaurants that cater to the tastes of the neighborhood’s foreign residents. I’ve actually had to do a bit of research to find good, authentic Chinese restaurants that aren’t just tourist traps. A good rule of thumb I’ve learned is that if the sign is mostly in English, I probably won’t find many Beijingers eating there. For my first completely solo abroad experience, Sanlitun was a good area if I found myself tired of hot pot, zhajiang noodles, and jaozi. But I don’t expect that to happen!

I didn’t begin my internship until ten days after my arrival in Beijing because of the national holiday, Dragon Boat Festival. I took that time to do the bulk of my tourist activities in the city, but because I didn’t know when I’d be called into work I hit the ground running as soon as I arrived. I was able to hit many of the big destinations within my first three days: Tiananmen and the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Beihai Park, Olympic Park, and Wanfujing Snack Street. I loved riding the metro to each destination. Though a city of 22 million people, I immediately felt very immersed in the ebb and flow of transit in the city.