3. Final Reflection

You’re Chinese, why don’t you speak Chinese?

I’ve been getting this question since the first trip to China that I can remember when I was eight. After people got over my strange appearance and learned that I couldn’t speak Chinese fluently, it was always the first thing I heard. This country has a way of claiming people as its own even after generations of ancestry removed from the homeland. This question, which often disregards the fact that many Chinese families have been in the US since the 1800s and have no need to speak Chinese, comes from a different conception of citizenship based on culture and shared ethnic ties, that stands in contrast to the multicultural conception of citizenship that I’m used to in America. (Though China has many national minorities,  the largest ethnic group and the biggest cultural power is still the Han).

What’s interesting to me is how that question has changed. In 2006 people used to ask it with an air of lightly disappointed chagrin – especially my Chinese family. Didn’t I know that Chinese would be the most important language in a few years? This year I heard it with a tone of frustration and a bit of disbelief. Chinese is popular, and China is the most powerful country in the world, so why don’t you know the language already? Whenever I meet with new people in China, after they ask me where I am from, the next question is always about my language skills. People ask me why I didn’t speak Chinese as a child. Sometimes, if my mother is there, they question her parenting.

But it was on this particular trip that I heard something for the first time: the idea of “爱国,” or loving one’s country. This probably means I haven’t been listening. But for some reason, in the few trips I’ve made to the country between 2006 and 2016, Chinese people never came across to me as especially patriotic before. Yes, there is the CCP, and the government-sponsored yearly culture showcase that is broadcast on CCTV, and there is the CCTV broadcast itself and the very patriotic national news – but I never connected this overtly patriotic national media to the thought processes of the average Chinese person. I always thought that Chinese people found the concept of overt patriotism funny, maybe even American. Yet here I was in a circle of professors and students, talking uncritically about the concept of love and loyalty to one’s country (even one’s ancestral country). Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention, but I think it has something to do with China’s economic and political rise.

On Change

The funny thing about the Nanjing Population Training Center is that its umbrella organization – the National Health and Family Planning Bureau – dissolved earlier this year. I think in May. Therefore the place that I worked for had to go through a scramble to change its focus in the few months before I arrived. They seemed to do it well. By the time I showed up to work, everything from the organization’s research projects to the focus of the presentations it gave to healthcare workers was geared toward healthy aging.

This change seemed to affect the professionals who gave the talks as well. I met a professor who, until a few months ago, had been doing research focusing on gender inequity among rural females. She switched over to aging studies recently.

Though I am just an outsider looking into a system that is far too opaque and complex for me to understand, I think I may have witnessed the change in family planning policy from a microscopic perspective. It affected everyone from average people to the university professors and researchers with whom I spent my time, who were all helpless to resist this change.

I had an illuminating conversation with Zhu Laoshi about this change. She is from the Hui ethnic minority. I mention this only because she was the only Hui person I have met on this trip. She was a quick-witted, fast-talking woman in her early thirties, who also believed wholeheartedly in the Chinese government’s ability to take care of its people. She explained to me the problems with the new family planning system (not everyone wants to have two children, but now there are more older people than ever) and described the disparities in quality of life and educational attainment between rural and urban youth. She also was honest about China’s problem with pollution. But she was convinced that all of these things were getting better.

To me, this seemed sad at first. How could she trust the authorities to protect the interests of average Chinese when she had no control over what they chose to do? But then I thought about my experiences. I stayed in a hotel and training center paid for entirely by the Chinese equivalent of the department of health – meaning that up-to-date health information was disseminated to eldercare workers all around the country. I visited a new model for a holistic health care center, a pilot that was intended to be spread to the rest of the province if it was successful. And I saw my grandmother get a CAT scan for only 200 yuan out of pocket.

All this is not to say that everything in that country is run correctly – but I learned that there are other ways of caring for people than in democracy. And the concept of a government that is fair to its people is not exclusive to a Western democracy. When I was in China, I witnessed a healthcare system that was actually meant to care for people – and that represented a belief in a common right to health that I just don’t see in the US.

2. Work and Play

I have many coworkers. There is Sun Laoshi – the original founder of this organization – Huang Laoshi, the current boss; Zhu Laoshi, a professor in her 30s who is the one I talk to the most; and Duan Laoshi, a recent graduate. There is also an array of younger recent college graduates who run the trips to eldercare homes and health centers for the training center.

The array of different life experiences is interesting. Sun Laoshi is one of the most amazing people I’ve met: Originally from Nanjing, he focused on population research in his studies and rose to found this entire program. Though he retired last year, he still is heavily involved in coordinating research projects for the organization. He’s an older man in his late sixties with the energy of someone much younger. He shows up at the office often to check on the workers, whom he knows by name, and to make sure that I’m fine.

us pre-radicalization

An excursion with Sun Laoshi and family

I’ve experienced incredible generosity at the training center. Every worker in the complex knows who I am now. Many of them, even the staff,  have introduced themselves to me and offered their help just in case they needed anything. The people I work with are willing to pause in their work to teach me a new Chinese phrase or answer my questions. And Sun Laoshi comes every weekend to take me somewhere. I really feel that I am among friends.

At the same time, though, I find it difficult to live here, not just because I have a lot of work. A life in a combined hotel/office complex is by nature transitory and chaotic – because people are in and out over the course of a few days, I can’t make connections with them. And though the other workers are extraordinarily kind, the office setting doesn’t allow for much time to socialize. There are also the physical conditions. The office itself is lit with fluorescents and all water is hot since it’s freshly boiled. I have little time to get up and move around because the work goes from eight until five with only a break for lunch. There seems to be a social pressure on the workers to stay at their desks for this whole time.

I say this not to complain, but to reflect on the incredible disparity in quality of work-life between the US and China. In my experience working in China, bosses were able to set contracts to pay their employees for 40-hour workweeks, then require them to stay late whenever they wanted, without overtime. I saw the worst example of this in a previous experience working in Guangzhou. Luckily, this time around was better. I did not witness any wage stealing, though my coworkers did stay late (one person, a woman seven months pregnant, would regularly arrive at seven and leave at 6 that afternoon). Though this was her choice, I wonder what influenced her to make that decision. She was a new worker who had only been there a year. She might have wanted to prove herself. I remember her deference to the other employees and her tendency to stay to work during lunch.

The social interactions I did have were stilted. Conversations with my closest coworkers were like games of charades. When my boss asked me about my work progress, I was only able to smile and nod. I realized over and over again that as adequate as I thought my Chinese was for the every day, it was not even half sufficient for a workplace. And academic writing is almost completely out of my grasp.

However, it is getting better, little by little. I’m becoming more used to the social atmosphere of this place. I’ve learned how to be helpful around the office when I can’t be talkative. And I know more words to describe what I’m doing. Time can only tell if it gets less awkward or stressful.

fun with sun


Nanjing: Arrival and First Few Days

I am interning at the Nanjing “Population Statistics Training Center” – aka, an organization that trains professors, researchers and graduate students in new population statistics, ostensibly to do translation work on population statistics, but the reality is much different than what I expected. I’m only a week into my internship, and I am pretty sure that this will be the most important thing that I will learn in my time here. China and Chinese culture has a way of constantly defying my expectations, even though I consider myself an insider. And if it has done so in only a few days of working here, I should expect and prepare myself to be continually surprised.

The trip down here was very easy: it was a half-day’s train ride to Nanjing from Changsha, and my contact, Dr. Sun (the retired former director of my program) picked us up there. We went immediately from the train station to the hotel and then to a feast. That’s what happens here when there are “honored guests,”and I’ve been to China many times before, so I was unsurprised – but it was still awkward being one of them.

At first, the professors around me had no idea that my Chinese wasn’t as good as theirs, and were talking very rapidly about specific issues in population aging with me. This kind of talk fell into a complete gap in my vocabulary, since I had never used most of those words before! And when they talked quickly, it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d been using words I knew: I just didn’t understand. I had to ask them to slow down, which made things a little better, but then led to a common question: “If you are half Chinese, why don’t you speak Chinese?” I pulled out the old reasoning: that children growing up in a two-culture home tend to gravitate toward the culture that they are immersed in outside of the home – it just has more power over them. I joked that Chinese just wasn’t popular. The current boss, Dr. Huang, said this in response: “可是中文现在非常popular!”and I thought that was funny and couldn’t disagree. But she was also making a statement on the growth of China’s economy and power on the world stage, and this made me think a little (I’ll talk about this more in my final reflection).

The second day went better, thankfully. A trip was organized to a community healthcare center in the south of the city – a new model based on providing care from the beginning to end of life, including prevention, physical therapy, and psychotherapy, to people who lived in the surrounding neighborhood. It was newly built – it had only opened in 2015 – and was the first of its kind. The facilities were better than any hospital in the US, but I also think that this concept of including preventative care hasn’t caught on in many countries, so this was something I’d never seen before. Unfortunately, it was the first of its kind and the only one in the area; there were plans to expand similar community health centers to all around Jiangsu province. I was very impressed, but it brought up questions of access and exclusivity for me, ones that I unfortunately didn’t have the language skills to ask. I still don’t know if people from other communities are allowed to use this center. Hopefully though, this program expands to the rest of the province soon. Here are some pictures from the health center!

The health center check-in. After paying a very small fee to be included in the system, people can use it continually.

*and a hidden toilet!

A hospital bed with remote camera and swiveling functions


On the third day, I finally got situated in my room – there was a hassle over this at first, because the first option would have been sharing a four-bunk-bed dorm with four people. I was reminded of the way that service workers live in China: not well. I felt a bit spoiled asking for other options, but I also needed more privacy to be comfortable and sleep properly. I ended up booking a stay in the hotel for a month at a discounted rate (fun fact, the office where I work is also located in the hotel building). Now I live a floor above the office, which couldn’t be more convenient. It’s honestly a bit ridiculous how easy everything is.

The environment outside of the hotel/office building is beautiful. Nanjing is one of the prettiest Chinese cities I’ve ever been to, and my neighborhood has lots of food options and plenty of places to shop. I am also staying across the street from Xuanwuhu – a beautiful lake which is a great place to run. I go walking through the park around the lake as often as I can.

I thought the lake was smaller than it was and ended up running around it for two hours. Don't be like me

玄武湖 aka Xuanwu Lake


Sun Yat-Sen is basically the father of modern China. China's Dad.

The forest at 中山陵 aka the Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum. It’s a beautiful park.


All in all, I’ve settled in – and I’m enjoying the work, the slow and calm pace of life here, and the chance to learn Chinese in such a peaceful setting.