In February Spring Festival is THE major holiday in Chifeng City in Northern China where I was living and teaching in 2008 but the shops are closed so when, Mark, my Chinese tutor invited me to lunch with his family I jumped at the chance to have a big meal with a Chinese family. The restaurant was packed with large tables, all seated with several generations. Only my host and his daughter spoke English and I had never seen this family before. The oldest brother wanted to talk; Mark translated.
Why did I come to China? He wanted to know. “My passport says I’m an ‘investor’ and I’m investing in the most important thing China has, her children. As a teacher.” I pointed to the 3 children at the table. He looked surprised- they were all girls, not considered much of a person in China except by their families and maybe not even then. It is only 100 years since they bound girls’ feet.
His 69 year old mother was there too – looking much older but she had survived the 70 million who died in the 20th century including 30 million of starvation. She is lucky to be alive. Mark said his brother was a people-manager and very good at it. He wanted to know why I came to China. I replied, “I have no cat, no dog and no husband, not even plants to water so I decided to come here.” Of course that was not a good enough answer, so he pressed on.
“I had some Chinese students in the Philippines,” I said, “and they were so good I wanted a whole classroom of good students.” How much do I make? He wanted to know, a common, though rude question for foreigners. I’ve not responded to many people this, but I felt it appropriate here. “Not one single fen,” I said. (The fen is so small the government took it out of circulation. I used to have a few and now I wish I had saved them.)
He looked surprised, which I knew he would since money is “it” for the Chinese, the Bottom Line is always the Bottom Line. I can live on my pension from the United State, I said, not using the word social security because they don’t know what it means – pension they understand. A Chinese senior’s pension would not allow him to travel to America.
Also, Chinese people must give the government $50,000 before they go to the United States. If they do not return home the money is confiscated for good. One assumes that the Chinese people believe we must also put up a large amount of money, but I never mention that. They do provide a nice apartment for me in a nice section of town.
He then asked what were my plans for the next 10 years. My reply: “I will stay in China as long as Beijing allows me to do so.” He didn’t ask what I meant by Beijing, but my inference was that either my government or his could throw me out. If a shooting war breaks out in the Pacific I would immediately pack my bags.
I told him I wanted to open a business, mostly to feel him out regarding such an unusual idea, which would help local companies work better with Americans. I asked him – “Did you know that you must say goodbye when talking on the phone to Americans? (The Chinese just hang up. This is disconcerting.) Otherwise they will call you back and ask if you were cut off.” He did not know this.
I also said that we do everything by contract and have all money placed in escrow. He didn’t ask me further on that, possibly he didn’t know the terms, even in Chinese.
The elder brother then wanted to know if I was planning to lose weight. I pointed to the groaning board and said, How can I lose weight when I am surrounded by such wonderful food? So far they have broken two cardinal American rules – no remarks about money or weight!
At this point I am feeling very amused about the whole exercise. Does he know he is being rude or is he trying to goad me into losing my temper? The Chinese have so many notions about Americans, most of which are not true.
He then wants to know why I wear makeup and have my nails done. I can’t think of any response to this and simply said, Why Not? Of course he is not accustomed to elders working at my age. (He is also not accustomed to women of any age speaking to him so directly and without fear.) Mark said that in his large company of 6,000 people women are routinely retired at 45, which in America is the height of the earning years and personal value to the employer. This makes so much of China’s statistics a lie. (Who was it said … lies, and lying statistics?)
By taking huge portions of eligible workers out of the economy they can claim full employment. In actual fact, because of forced retirement, probably 20% of the country is unemployed by American standards, and we have record unemployment figures those days. When we compare China and the US it is not apples and oranges, it is apples vs. duct tape. It does not compute.
Mark then told me his brother was the “governor” of a town about 1/2 hour north of here. This implies that he is high up in Communist Party affairs. Non-communists often apply for these jobs and have the qualifications but they will probably not get them. I assume we would call him a mayor. Everything in China is about illusion, of democracy, or wealth, of knowledge but most of that is a thin veil. The Mayor of Chifeng City is now under house arrest for pilfering $50 million (not Yuan but dollars) so he must be a lesser official. There are many more levels of political jurisdictions in China than we have in the USA. I realized then that all my comments and opinions had been politically correct.
The topic turned to American politics, which proved to be nearly impossible, as they only knew a party line and had no basis of reference. Many of their facts were wrong or partially true. They thought, for example, that because I was in China I was not voting in the Presidential election, because I had not voted in the Primary. Would that my home state, North Carolina, actually HAD a primary that was early enough to be taken seriously!!!
But this is the usual thing here – they have only shards of knowledge and not enough to paste together to create a whole concept. And they looked astounded when I said I preferred the black candidate over Hillary! Black people have no credentials here and two years ago I was specifically told not to bring any black teacher with me to China. And that pretty much ended the questions.
Whew – I was kinda glad the grilling was over. When he left me off at my apartment I threw a final volley – when you go on a diet, I said, I will too.
Oh I just love it here!