China: The Early Years

When accustomed to living and giving one way, it’s tough to change to another. This month, accept a new way of enriching your Chinese relationships.

0915_Culture TellerWhen I was a kid, we walked ten miles through raging blizzards, in bare feet, just to go to school.” That’s what I think I sound like when I talk about my early experiences in China. There’s a special bond among expats who’ve been in China more than 20 years, because we’ve experienced stuff that more recent arrivals are entirely unaware of. It’s not that I think your struggles in China aren’t real—they are, and I sympathize. But I think there’s also need for a perspective, of just how far China has come in just two plus decades.

I arrived in China August 15, 1993, in the beautiful Qingdao. China had barely started to open its doors, and foreigners were not only rare (there were about 20 Caucasians living in Qingdao at that time), but a target of both curiosity and distrust. The former was a natural result of seeing foreigners who were, to local Chinese, incredibly exotic; and the latter was a result of active efforts of the government.

Every time a Chinese person came to visit me, they had to register at the front desk with their ID. If they visited more than three times, they’d be reported to local authorities, who would visit them to inquire as to why they had spent so much time with the foreigner, and what we had talked about. The first time I was invited to a Chinese home, we were interrupted by a knock, which turned out to be the police.

They’d been informed by the elevator operator (who at that time was usually the informal security/gossip for the building) that a foreigner was visiting a Chinese apartment. It turned out that if I wanted to visit a Chinese home, the Chinese person first had to go to the police station to get permission, stating the date and time of the visit, and the purpose. So we learned that if we wanted to talk, we went to a restaurant or a public place.

I ended up quarantined for two days, until an expert was brought in who assured them that it was, in fact, just a sunburn.

Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of life at that time was the two different currencies—RMB for Chinese, and FEC for foreigners. Most places you went charged two different prices. The latter was, of course, almost always higher. Fortunately, they did away with this system in 1994.

Sending and receiving mail was a chore. Not only did it take two to three weeks each way, but it was often opened and read by Chinese authorities. I had a subscription to Time magazine, and inevitably I’d find some articles ripped out by censors. Curious as to what I was missing, I took some of these magazines home and compared them with the originals. To my amusement, turns out most of the pages that had been torn didn’t contain sensitive materials, but rather advertisements with attractive, scantily clad women. Some Chinese censor somewhere was using my mail to build up his soft porn collection.

And if you feel uncomfortable because people stare at you in China today, just think what it was like back then. Some people stopped in their tracks and stared as if they’d just seen a dinosaur. Many stopped and pointed the way they would at a zoo. A few (usually the older ones) even backed off in fear. The first time I got a hair cut, the barber couldn’t get over my blond hair, and decided that it was that color because of the food I ate (and if I ate more Chinese food, it would turn a natural black). When he finished, he swept it up and sold small bundles as good luck charms. Even then, the entrepreneurial genes couldn’t be repressed.

Then there was the time I got a really bad sunburn, with blisters and everything. I went to the hospital for help, but the doctor took one look and decided I was suffering from some weird “foreigner’s disease” (turns out that Chinese turn dark purple rather than bright red when they get a sunburn, so he’d never seen anything like it). I ended up quarantined for two days, until an expert was brought to assure them that it was, in fact, just sunburn.

So yes, compared with life in your own country, life in China can be a challenge. But take a moment, to appreciate just how much, and how quickly, China has changed in just 25 years. And it’s still changeing For those of us who’ve been here a long time, it’s often that process and pace of change that we’re so addicted to—going back home is almost impossible simply because it seems so slow and boring by comparison.

0415_culture teller2John Lombard has worked in China since 1993. For the last 15 years, he has trained multinational companies in cultural intelligence, was a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and has founded two companies and one NGO in China.

For solutions to confusions, send questions and observations to cultureteller@test.heredg.com.