3 Things that Keep me Here in China

3 Things that Keep me Here in China

On the Edge of Another Lockdown

Reposted from Culture Paves the New Silk Roads

As the city of Chengdu skitters on the edge of another lockdown (the first and last one was a year and a half ago, ending in April, 2020), I go to bed and wake up thinking about fear. Sometimes I feel fear, but more often I’m thinking about fear. Thinking of the guard downstairs who pointed to my bare lips and then to his mask. Recalling the woman standing by the gate who scornfully reiterated his request. I saw only her eyes, and her eyes were full of fear. Fear of COVID-19, fear of getting sick, and fear of being shut in one’s apartment in a Chinese lockdown. 

We’re asked to wear a mask even going for a run. I’m just grateful I can still go for a run.

A Chinese lockdown is not like a US lockdown. It’s not split along blue and red lines, except for where ultra liberals and conservatives agree not to wear masks or refrain from touching the doors and aisles of as many public spaces as they feel entitled to accessing. A Chinese lockdown means you don’t leave your apartment, you don’t get out the front gate of your building, you don’t go shopping. There is a person in the community assigned to shop for you. The only time you leave your apartment is to go get a COVID test. Then you get to be squeezed together with everyone else in your community, waiting in line to get a swab up your nostril. This seems counter productive, but at least it keeps track of spread without allowing communities to inter-contaminate. 

With all this fear, it’s time to recall why I’m here. What keeps me here? Why did I spend nearly $10,000 to get back to China in late April? Why did I put up with three weeks of quarantine? Why do I remain, when so many of my fellow expatriates have given up on the China Dream, and gone home?

Reason #1: I am a control freak. 

That is, I have learned the power and vitality of learning to curb one’s enthusiasm. By enthusiasm here I mean that excess of emotion which leads to losing sight of who one is. It could be exuberant happiness, which overstimulates one and blinds one to what comes next. An ancient Chinese principle is that of dialectics, that of opposites operating in tandem with one another. After perfection: Chaos, as my late good friend and author, George Keenen used to say. 

By enthusiasm, however, I also mean excessive unhappiness, which leads to depression or letting go of one’s pride, ‘forgetting’ to pick up one’s socks, not doing the dishes before going to bed, not filling out that grant application… Control exists in a dialectic with letting go. Chinese philosophy, in particular Confucianism, practiced in all its forms from ancient Han Dynasty star-reading shamans to contemporary Communist officials, emphasizes ritual, caution, and care for detail in daily life. This, more than anything, keeps me in China. 

Reason #2: I love diversity

I can imagine this seems counter-intuitive, in a country where, as of 2020, 91.1% of the country is a single ethnicity—Han, and all the other ethnicities have the same color hair and eyes. Even the population of non-Chinese is dwindling now, with few expats willing to forgo being with their family members to work in China, unable to afford the costs or inconveniences of returning to China amidst COVID prevention measures. But this isn’t the diversity I’m referring to. I’m referring, and this may surprise some, to the intellectual and spiritual diversity still alive and well in China today. True, this diversity doesn’t amount to the ‘freedom of expression’ popular in liberal nations, as this diversity is seldom splattered all over social media as markers of identity-politik. 

The diversity I refer to is a personal one which can be unearthed only by slowly getting to know the culture and people of China. On a first meeting with most people, if you take the time to ask them their thoughts, they will share with you ideas which most closely resemble the headlines you read in Chinese newspapers or see on Chinese television. These tend to be conservative, atheist, nationalistic, and progress-oriented. However, when you start to learn about the history of China, and about the many schools of philosophy that have been cultivated throughout this history, one starts to observe how three major schools of thought—Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, work together to create a very interesting world view, shared by most Chinese people I’ve met. The inward nature of this diversity makes for very interesting people, people with depth, and character. It just takes a while to get to know them.

Reason #3: I love peace

I love peace. I don’t love war. I don’t celebrate the death-cult celebrated nightly on US television. I don’t stoke the flames of nationalism, either here in China or back in the US. My recent monograph, Culture Paves the New Silk Roads (forthcoming, 2022, Palgrave Macmillan), focuses on the need for cultural ties between nations, for open dialogue, and mutual understanding. When people know and understand each other, they blow each other up less. I see a dearth of understanding between my home nation and China, and with the opportunity that I’ve been given to first get my graduate degrees here and then to join the faculty of a top 10 Chinese university, I see it as my responsibility to help as much as I can to bridge the growing US-China divide. 

Using my own body and psyche as a cork in the dyke holding up the dam is growing old. I’m getting tired. COVID is not helping. It is getting harder and harder to answer the question, “Where are you from?” It used to be that on really bad US-China days I could answer “Canada” or “UK.” But even these answers are no longer convenient. I don’t feel very welcome, COVID is seen as an imported illness, and I am seen as a vector. 

This morning all teachers were required to show up for mass COVID testing, after just testing en mass three days ago

Let’s see how much longer I last. It’s a good thing Chinese culture exists throughout the world, and in my heart.

2 responses to “3 Things that Keep me Here in China”

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