My biggest surprise has been that we are not learning hanzi (Chinese characters) straight off the bat. Everything has pinyin romanization, and we write the answers to homework as pinyin. For someone learning Chinese outside of China that would probably be helpful. Certainly it is invaluable for learning the correct pronunciation, but it's also a little bit strange when you are in China and surrounded everywhere by hanzi. I am not as intimidated by Chinese characters as i was 2 months ago. I am quite sure trying to learn hanzi in parallel would impede my spoken-Chinese progress, but at the same time learning hanzi is critically important to being able to operate in China. Even if i can speak "high" Mandarin with perfect tones, the local dialect is Cantonese and even the Mandarin accent i am being taught is different to the Mandarin i have heard around the rest of the country (it's a hard Beijing accent where every second word ends in a rolling "arrrr" sound). It's not uncommon to see Chinese communicate with one another using hand signals and sometimes written language, since that is mutually intelligible even when the spoken language is not.
Despite the intensity of my in-class learning, i am still not getting much Chinese practice out and about beyond the usual ordering of food. I am definitely getting more comfortable ordering in different ways and asking questions about if the dish is vegan/vegetarian, but it's still quite superficial. I have to remind myself, i've only been at it a week. I did have one big success, and that was a long conversation with the clerk at the front desk of the hotel.
This week i have mostly learned numbers, dates, how to introduce myself etc, but i also learned how to ask for a discount. I know from speaking to my teachers that an apartment here shouldn't cost much more than about 2000元 per month, but all of the (furnished) apartments marketed to laowei start at around 5000元. Fair enough, 5000元 is about 630€, which is a bit more than i was paying for my unfurnished apartment in Berlin. Doesn't seem too outrageous to me, and to anyone coming from a major city in North America it's probably downright cheap. But i am very conscious of not wanting to be a part of gentrification, even though this is a city that is so new there is nothing to gentrify. The point is, having immigrants come in and pay 3x the local price for an apartment is not going to improve the lives of normal people in the city - you're just making landowners rich. Since i am not yet a good enough speaker of Chinese to talk to a Chinese landlord and get that 2000元 place, i decided to stay at my hotel.
So, my first real life test of speaking Chinese. Talking down the price of my hotel room. This is a budget hotel, one of the several budget chains in China that is operating in a similar space to American chains like Super 8, Motel 6 and so on. My room has no windows, because there is a surcharge for a room with windows. The whole room is a polished concrete cube with no frills. The shower and toilet are inside the same cubicle. But it is clean and it has a desk and breakfast is free every day. The clerk offered me a "discount" but upgraded to a window room for 7200元. I countered and asked for 6000元 if i stayed in the same room, which is about 15% off list price. I also asked if i can get laundry done while i stay here (coin laundromats are vanishingly rare in mainland China). She called her boss and confirmed a bit later that they could do 6, and give me free laundry service as part of the package. It's a lot of money to spend on a room with no windows, and i am 100% sure that if i shopped around and negotiated harder i could have found a better deal, but i am still proud of myself because it was my first little negotiation i did almost entirely in Chinese and without any outside help.
Because, friends, i am getting a lot of offers for "outside help". From expats. The suburb i am staying in is well-known as an expat enclave. I was talking to an expat who has been here 30 years and he said back then parts of Shekou were gated off and exclusively the domain of expat workers. Nowadays it is as "open" as anywhere else in China - there is relative freedom of movement and you can rent anywhere, but the expats still largely choose to live in this small corner of Nanshan district, and they turn their nose up at districts like Futian and Luohu (where i stayed last time). The more remote districts (mostly outer suburbs with factories and residential blocks) don't even warrant a mention. So, despite being in a hotel with a primarily Chinese customer base, and staying in the part of Shekou where there are plenty of Chinese street vendors and grocery stores, a few blocks away it is laowai central. And - because i am laowai - it appears i automatically have an unsolicited network of people who will go to bat for me. It's creepy.
What has been a big punch in the gut going to the bar here is the realization of how many expats are raging conservatives. Monday after school i went for a drink at an expat bar because - as i have mentioned - expat bars are the only bars that open early in China. I was happy just to sit by myself and review my work, but the bartender "helpfully" introduced me to another solo drinker at the other end of the bar who turned out to be a Brexiteer. I cannot fucking even at a guy who dated a Polish woman and has traveled extensively talking about how Angela Merkel is stomping all over his sovereign rights and immigrants are ruining his country. I was just fucking aghast. So i drank more beer to try to make it go away. I thought perhaps he was just pulling my leg. But, no. Straight-up, Trump-loving, Brexiteering, white nationalist douchecanoe representing the UK and teaching English language all over the world. And then he started on the generalizations about "Asian girls". The problem is, even when you tell these guys to their face that they are being racist and xenophobic and that they are riding on so much privilege it's ridiculous they still turn around and pat you on the back and say "see you next time" because there is this unspoken assumption that all expats are going to be friends in the end because that's just what we do. Wut?
I mean, i guess it's the village effect. In small towns and villages you get this vibe where everyone in the village feels like they have a shared destiny. Even though there may be individual disagreements and strong clashes of political opinion, at the end of the day you all have to live together so you just get over it. The problem is, not calling out this sort of behavior and making clear that these views are completely unacceptable in a civilized society is exactly what empowers hate criminals and right-wing terrorists. It's not enough to say that if you support Trump then "oh well, difference of opinion". No. He is an out-and-proud misogynist and racist. He has never spoken out against the neo-Nazis who commit violence in his name. He has never shown remorse for his despicable sex crimes. He is shamelessly, transparently corrupt. He has no compassion for anyone and shows no sense of humility. You don't get to wriggle out of supporting that kind of person by claiming difference of opinion.
And yet... I keep going back and hearing the same thing. From black and white. From American and European. Some of them are a little more nuanced - besides the nationalists there are thankfully still a handful of libertarians and neocons on the right - but all the ignorance is tiring to put up with. This week's big news has been North Korea, and the one opinion shared by all - even the hawks - is that Trump is dealing with the situation in a way that is extremely bad for everyone in the region. Local expats are well aware that they can't do anything about their president's verbal diarrhea leaking out all over Twitter, so they are resigned to wait and see. But everyone is hoping we go back to the impasse of the past few decades, where Kim spouts some threats, then we give his people some food, then he shuts up again for a while. It might be banditry, but rather pay off the bandit with a few sandwiches than risk the lives of millions of innocent people in a nonsensical war over whose dick is bigger.
Friday night i realized i should not go drinking on Friday night any more. Instead of the old, retiree expats who have reached the age where they understand the best thing to do at a bar is tell jokes and funny rambling stories (i.e. not get into political debates), in rolled the foreign hustler brigade. The expats who famously have no particular job that can be determined. They work in "property" or "offshore banking" or "import/export" or something vague and sooner or later you need to pee and the bathroom door is locked and wahey it's like being in Berlin all over again with people sneaking off in groups to powder their noses. Except it's not dirty ravers, it's guys with Rolexes and smart shoes and tired stories of celebrity and money and can i roll my eyes even harder? I also got hit on by a very charming divorcee who - despite being a woman - did not seem to understand that groping people at a bar is sexual harassment. I will never understand people who go to bars to get laid. What a waste of a fun night out on the piss. Though, it wasn't really fun. I often nurse my hangovers with regret, but this night really was a bit of drinking with the dregs.
Eventually i got to talking with an anti-Trump hipster type who hustled me away to a different bar with less bros, but by that point i was so blitzed i turned around and headed straight back to my hotel. He was working in an industry that at home might be considered "social justice warrior" work, but here in China his employer is a private company and not a public service. It reminded me of my last job, where we were ostensibly writing software that helps improve the lives of workers but in reality all the companies we were selling to were the misogynist, racist, venture-capital backed who's who of Silicon Valley. If you are selling cupcakes to Hitler, is it still okay to be happy that you are just selling cupcakes? I don't know.
So, despite our very different values, all these laowai are eager to hook me up with work. They can find me something in their network. This, that, whatever. But i would not want to work for a private hospital or a private school or a property developer or an international playboy. I don't know how to square my personal politics with this sort of thing. I wouldn't mind working for a local tech company, but then i would need to speak flawless Chinese, and that won't happen for a long time. Leveraging the expat network is clearly the smart thing to do, but it feels so mercenary. I'm not here to make money at all costs.
I did meet another interesting chap the other day, not an expat. He was a Singaporean guy, a retired salesman in town to establish a Chinese outlet for his Vietnamese wife's small business. I think he missed his job, because he spent over an hour talking my ear off about how great Singapore is, regional politics, Vietnam, China, Hong Kong and North Korea. It was an extremely interesting discussion and it was excellent to hear from someone who can speak fluent Chinese and understands the local perspective. I think he would have been an excellent salesman. He knew all the tricks. Asking my name, remembering small personal details, then casually dropping them into the conversation later on, trying to flatter me. I really "bought" what he was selling, which in this case was visiting Singapore.
I've always wanted to visit Singapore. Especially since living in Australia, where Singaporean (and to a lesser degree, Malaysian and Indonesian) cuisine is very popular. I know Singapore is hideously expensive - probably even worse than Hong Kong - but going nuts at a hawker center is still very much on my bucket list. He was selling Singapore to me as the place to establish a base in Asia. As a small state, Singapore can't produce any raw materials on its own - not even enough for its own people - so it relies on tourism and trade and the knowledge economy to survive. He explained that - like Japan and Germany - Singapore has an aging population, so they need immigrants to keep their economy going. And a professional from Canada/Europe is a better catch for them than a south Asian immigrant. Hooray for white privilege. I guess their first choice might be an immigrant of Chinese descent, but if you are young and educated in mainland China today, you're probably more likely to make your mark working in the local tech industry than heading over to some tired old Fortune 500 branch in Singapore or Hong Kong.
Aside from its cuisine and business chops, Singapore is perhaps most famous in the west for having an incredibly repressive police state. "As bad as Communism, maybe even worse," E told me. But he said it was required. This is a mindset you hear a lot around Asia. Up until the 90s Taiwan had a military dictatorship. Hong Kong has never had democracy. China itself has been Communist-ruled for over 50 years. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore - they've all had iron-fist leaders. In the west - especially after the second world war - it is unfashionable to praise iron-fist leadership, but in the east there seem to be a lot more people willing to forgive it, or at least consider it an unpleasant but necessary step. People see a benefit to the long-term thinking of authoritarian governments that you don't get under the electoral system. Authoritarian governments can fund 10 or 20 or 30 year plans that really do end up happening. In "freer" countries, long-term planning stagnates because elections and partisan one-upmanship derail any major projects. America is held up over here as the perfect example of a country that has shot itself in the foot with so-called democracy - many people live in abject poverty and cannot even get third-world level healthcare, their infrastructure is 50+ years old, racism and social injustice is still rampant, mass shootings are a daily occurrence, there is a point-blank refusal to clean up the environment or fight global warming, but "at least we have freedom". When people living in a police state look at America today they don't see a shining city on a hill, they see a state at least as corrupt as theirs, and in many ways far more self-destructive, violent and unsafe. I wonder if it's always been that way and i didn't notice it?
It just occurred to me that perhaps that's why so many expats here circle the wagons. When you are confronted with a very different perspective about your own country, one that is not so flattering, perhaps it's human nature to become defensive and more nationalist. Sigh. Nations and borders are so fucking stupid. There was a great piece on CrimethInc the other day about it: Borders: The Global Caste System
In any case, it is really fascinating to be spending more time in a place like this and talking to people from the region. I really need to try control my alcoholic tendencies which leave me going back to the fucking expat bars over and over, though, because what i am learning from that group is far less interesting than random conversations had over hotel breakfast or in restaurants and on public transport. I am so happy i decided to come here and immerse myself a little more in the culture. I feel it's really feeding my "soul" and helping develop my views and grow as a person. I guess that's the best you can hope for from life. A few wasted nights rolling about with disagreeable expats is perhaps not too bad a price to pay for the experience.