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