SheLeads Summit 2021, a creative conference for all professional females working in China to celebrate female leadership

Sitting at my desk this morning at an uber early hour, I challenge myself to choose something of the maelstrom to tell you about. There is always so much to choose from. There’s the urban environment, which the New Hampshire girl revels within, this Bladerunner-cum-reality. There’s the natural environment, which one sees as green patches along the grid, whilst looking down from the fifteenth floor of one’s faculty building. Then there are the people, so many many people, most of whom one tunes out, head down, or held high, moving forward.

There is always so much to choose from, but the ‘so much’ sits upon a liminal layer…being processed. I am always processing the information. But there is something which stands out from the rest, from all the work to do, and all the impressions I ratiocinate between my own culture and the one I live and breathe here in China. What stands out right now is the SheLeads Summit 2021 which I signed up for last night. I also became a registered member of SheLeads International last night.



This is Anita. She founded SheLeads, and I met her at Never Brunch Alone a few weeks ago. We were ten women that morning, most of us new to one another. Meeting nine new friends at one time, making a speech to introduce myself, and eating brunch in a new location for me…it was all overwhelming. Anita was powerful, and I was glad to get to know her a bit better afterwards, as we drove to an afternoon event on effective listening.

On Friday night, we’re going to meet up to celebrate the third year anniversary of SheLeads. It blows me away to be a part of a network like this in China, a nation which was once a matrilineal society, thousands of years ago, but has since been, as with much of the world still today, a patrilineal and patriarchal society. Talk about cutting edges…..

I look forward to learning from women here, to networking and gaining insights into the Chinese business world. As co-founder and CEO of Yanlu Arts and Culture, I am hungry for knowledge about how various sectors interact, and really excited to do so from a new perspective, that is, an empowered woman’s perspective.

Oh the obstacle course of starting a business in China right now…

I know, I know, you’re like What? I thought this was an academic-tilted Chinese culture and lifestyle blog written from an expat perspective. Well surprise surprise, now it’s a doing-business-in-China-as-a-foreigner-during-seriously-tense-times blog, too.

our first sign…
let us know what you think, we’re still in the design-phase

Yes, I did it. Finally my dream is coalescing, the dream of helping my own country and it’s potential big brother (just kidding), I mean it’s potential ally in saving the earth sphere from unfitness-for-human-existence, My dream is help the US and China to get along for just long enough to actually help humankind evolve, rather than devolve. It’s a kind of private-sector cultural diplomacy, to make up for the dearth of public-sector cultural diplomacy.

I came to China in September of 1999, and slogged through the English teaching machine for ten years, teaching myself Chinese and how to think well enough to write down what I think. That last bit took a lot longer than I thought it would, and I’m still learning how to un-think so many thoughts I grew up around…thoughts about exceptionalism, thoughts about capitalism, thoughts about norms when it came to truth, goodness, and beauty. Then in 2009, I tested into an MA program in Classical Chinese Literature at Sichuan University, which turned into a PhD program, which then turned into a full-time faculty position.

I love going to work in a building that looks like this.
It was Chinese calligraphy that got me into all this trouble in the first place…my first love.

So, fast forward 22 years..and with the new book I’ve been writing, on the relationship between culture and the New Silk Roads…I realize that if you want something done the right way, well, you’ve got to find a good business partner, build a good team, and do it yourself. Fortunately, there are a lot of other great organizations here in China as well as in the US, and reaching out to other people who rely on culture first to save human civilisation is an enjoyable process.

What’s not enjoyable are the hurdles. Oh my goodness is it challenging registering a business here. Opening a bank account as a foreigner, even though I’m an A-level foreign expert, is like pulling teeth. It took me three afternoons of three hours each to finally get a personal account, in order to open a business account with the Bank of China. Before they realised I speak fluent Chinese I could hear them accusing me of money laundering, or of just wanting to get my money out of China. As if wanting to save money I’ve hard-earned and paid copious taxes on should be a crime. But I’m not complaining. I’m just expressing. It’s not easy. But it’s doable.

WeChat is open in China to new users again!!!

As we went on to build our social media platforms, we turned first to the biggest here in China. As in, if you don’t have a public business on WeChat in China, then you’re not doing business. So imagine my sadness when I found out that as a foreigner, I cannot open an account. Then imagine my sadness again when my business partner (who’s a Chinese national) told me that, while she could open a business account for Yanlu Arts & Culture, WeChat had shut down registration for new users. What a Saturnine feeling that is. To be young and nascent, and yet to have doors close on you.

But it’s over now. The South China Morning Post reports that WeChat is open to new users once again, and my business partner is on the case. We must take advantage of this window of time. The door could close again anytime, as Tencent (Wechat’s parent company) takes great pains to avoid the fate of Didi and Alibaba, both recently heavily penalised in China’s new tech and internet regulatory moves on its own domestic markets.

It appears that checked capitalism is not as fun, romantic, or utopic as Western (champaign) Marxists make it out to be. It’s hard. Really hard. To try and build a dream with big brother watching over us. Not complaining. Just expressing.

So that’s it for me for today, back to the book. Stay tuned for more adventures…blow by blow.

Return to China

Caught so soon in a confluence of cultural forces.

I managed to fly back to Chengdu, China in late April of this year. It took four weeks from door to door. One week to travel from Bellingham, Washington to Los Angeles, where I took my COVID tests, got the green code from the LA Chinese Consulate, and got on my flight. Then there were two gruelling weeks of quarantine in Guangzhou, followed by an even more gruelling week on campus here in Chengdu, where conditions felt as if existence, itself, were an afterthought.

Since arriving in my apartment, which had to be cleaned from top to bottom after my cat had permeated my home with the smells and feel of multiple nervous breakdowns, I have had her spayed, and gotten myself physically recovered, as well, from the adventures of the past 18 months. I was just returned home for a winter holiday in the US when COVID struck, and everyone knows the story moving forward from that point…

Here are just a few photos from the past few weeks, of exhibitions and screenings I’ve attended, of classes I’ve been teaching, of the medicine I’ve been taking, and the streets I’ve been reconnecting with. I’m still struggling with keeping on schedule with the book I’m writing, Culture Paves the New Silk Roads, so I daren’t overextend my time here in this blog entry. Let these pictures speak their thousand words each. I shall return with more focus and generous explanation. Soon

Black Dot Focus

Black dot focus in Chinese Universities

One of the best moves I ever made in the early ’90’s was studying kenpo kickboxing at a studio in midtown, Ventura. I did it because I had been feeling increasingly nervous on the streets of this sleepy tourist town which, when the LA-sters weren’t up for the weekend during the bonny months of spring or summer; were overrun with meth addicts taking over its beaches and frontage streets. I liked to walk alone, but I didn’t like the feeling of being vulnerable. So I signed up for kenpo.

Barbara, the owner of the studio taught me the concept of white dot/black dot. In this cognitive model, black and white have less to do with the actual color of a dot, and more to do with the mind’s attention or focus. When the mind focuses on a single object or experience, ignoring its context; this is known as ‘white dot focus’; and when the mind, through training, learns to focus on context, on all that borders tangentially upon that single object or experience; then it’s called ‘black dot focus.’

In the case of kenpo, black dot focus trains the mind’s eye to see not only the striking arm of our opponent, but also the torque of our opponent’s neck and torso, the position of her feet, the gleam of victory or fear in her eyes. It also trains us to see not only our opponent, but who or what is behind her; in order to preempt threats entering from peripheral angles of the scene.

In the case of teaching at a Chinese institution of higher learning, the principle is similar. Let me explain.

Having read for my MA and PhD at Sichuan University, after a hiatus of two years, I was invited back to join the faculty. Thus professors I had learned from then became my peers, and many of my peers in the classroom now sat beside me at faculty meetings. Although I knew many of the actors in this play; the learning curve has been so steep I have constantly been falling behind, held back from that sweet spot where one feels confident and good about a job. There have been slews of challenges, the greatest of which is now working remotely, from 6,246 miles away, due to COVID-19.

Last semester I taught online, as everybody did, whether in China, the US, or anywhere in the world. But this semester China has COVID-19 seemingly all worked out, and just last week, undergraduate students at Sichuan University were called back to school. The measures being taken are legion, with all students in quarantine as I write this. Each student has a teacher in charge of their case, and biodata is collected daily on 38,000 individuals. Students coming from sensitive regions of the country are asked to take a COVID text within five days of leaving their home, and when they arrive on campus are placed in a special quarantine buildings, tested, and kept apart from the rest of the student body. Once students arrive on campus, they will not be able to leave campus again until further notice. Classes will resume at the end of next week, in person, with classes also being broadcast online for students in outbreak areas.

My last cancelled scheduled flight to China was in March. A faculty administrator in charge of foreign faculty had found out about my impending arrival and forbid me to get on that plane. That was when numbers in the US were ballooning, only the beginning of the mass debacle our country still presents to the world, half a year later. Two weeks ago I put in a request for the infamous PU letter, a letter given by the Chinese Foreign Ministry which provides the only means for an American to cross the Chinese border. The letter costs USD $1,500, and is only the beginning of a costly and complicated application process, which requires getting a whole new visa; as all visas given prior to March, 2020 have been cancelled. So the 3 year multiple entry residence permit in my passport is useless to me now.

Yesterday I received two pieces of news. One–my request for a PU letter has been denied, for the time being. Sichuan University is unable to provide these letters for Americans. Two–classes can be taught online and in person; but cannot be taught online exclusively. However, my class has not been cancelled. The college hopes that I will find another teacher in our Chinese Classics department to teach the class for me.

Enter: White dot focus

My mind shifted into extremely goal-oriented white dot focus mode. I had to find a teacher to replace me in the classroom. Now this is pretty big ask, and I don’t know anybody well enough to ask it. So I reached out to the director of our department and told him my situation. Let me explain the hierarchy. There is the University’s Education Department, which answers to the Central and Provincial government. Then a secretariat heads our entire College of Humanities as a representative of the CPC.  Then there are four deans of our College, and administrator of foreign faculty, and then the Director of our department. I received my notice through the administrator of foreign faculty, who received the notice from all the levels above him. This is all a lot to manoeuvre, and both needing guidance and not wanting to overstep, I could only think to reach out to the Director of my department, who set up my class in the first place, thinking, with white-dot focus, that he would be the person who could handle this situation. However, he was the only person who couldn’t help me. Precisely because he’s in charge of all the teachers in our department; he wasn’t in a place to command or even suggest any given teacher to take on the work of replacing me in the classroom. His job was to color within the lines, and anything outside the lines has to be handled through informal channels of interpersonal relationships.

All these communications are being conducted in Chinese, which stresses me out. Nothing stresses me out more than bureaucracy in a foreign language. I am the first non-Asian to graduate from our department; and I’m the first non-Chinese faculty member in our department. So none of what I do I is precedented, even before COVID hit the fan. I mention this because I want you, my dear Reader, to understand how much I was hoping my white dot focus would achieve results.

Enter: Black dot focus

When my director declined to help me, and refused to communicate officially on my behalf with any of the departments, administrators or secretariat above us in the hierarchy; I panicked, and dizziness began to cloud my vision, as rage and frustration gripped my trachea. Focused on a single white dot of expectation, upon a logical node of hierarchy, I had failed.

Then it dawned on me. I would reach out to the one professor in our department who had acted just the slightest bit warmer towards me, since I entered her course on the Chinese canon as a first year masters student, back in 2009. She is in retirement transition now, knows the ins and outs of things, and surely she could provide some insight. She did. She explained to me why the Director had been unable to help me. She offered to go to the Dean of the College and ask for clarification. She offered to fill in for a few weeks, until we could figure out how to move forward.

Which is when the knot of frustration loosened in my throat; and my focus began to expand outwards from the original site of expectation. I began to see peripheral elements at play here. How the community of my faculty is a rich resource, and that we all face these unexpected challenges together. My mistake has been trying to handle everything by myself, or through my direct superior. My professor, who I’ll call Prof. Li, was able to help me precisely because it was not her job to do so. I was entering the world of Chinese affairs known as guanxi 关系 [systems of connections], of backdoors and human connections. I am becoming indebted to her, and this is only the beginning. As my awareness of the situation grows and my black dot focus expands to include the periphery of my own predicament; I began to think of ways in which I can help my colleagues, so that when the time came to muster courage and make my ask (again, in Chinese); I will have a valuable contribution to offer in return.

My only failing now is to not already, much sooner and before I needed it, having expanding my focus beyond the white dot. My job as a faculty member in a Chinese university is not just to fulfil my contract obligations and be there for my students. In my role of faculty member at a Chinese university, there is an ecology to nurture. We are all in this together. When something outside the ordinary happens, we have to color outside the lines for each other, because the institutions are not flexible, and the hierarchies are inscrutible. Fortunately I have nurtured some relationships through the years; but I should have done this morning, noon, and night; from the very first day I began. In China, in a university as everywhere else, it’s about community, about relationships, about give and take, and networks of mutual indebtedness. By the time I get teachers lined up for the next few months, to hold my class in place until I get there (oh, Lord, please open those borders); I am going to have significant additional workload, as I work to hold my place in the guanxi equation. In the meantime, I am understanding what I can do to help my colleagues, how I can help them in ways that no-one else can. That is, I am finally prioritizing my contribution over my personal achievements. All this time I’ve been feeling ragged, just fielding curve balls and figuring things out on my own. Now I understand that we’re all in this together. I just hope it’s not too late.

 

 

moss

I wish I sat down that first day back, as there was definitely some crimp in my thought, some misshapen forming thing in my mind, a lens through which I espied China. But I was busy arriving. Busy being tired, just stacking moments on top of one another in the haze of coming to this foreign home of mine since 1999.

I arrived on Monday, September 1st, and I took pictures that first day. This spoke to me, phenomenally, of if its eminent unimportance. In other words, it struck me as important.

Chengdu weather usually enjoys extremely levels of moisture and humidity.

Chengdu weather usually enjoys extremely high levels of moisture and humidity.

This is moss on concrete by a drainage pipe. The drainage pipe you see in the upper left hand corner descends seven floors from the rooftop of building number thirteen. Building number thirteen is one building of nearly fifty much-the-same buildings in our xiaoqu 小区. In English you’d call it a huge gated housing community. Built in 1980’s China, this xiaoqu is an example of brutalist architecture. Cement blocks placed on top of each other, to form seven stories, cement phorms comprising floors, walls, everything except doors and windows which are supplied a la basic.

This protruding sections of the building are enclosed balconies. Often kitchens are located within, allowing for appropriate ventilation during the cooking process.

Protruding sections of the building are enclosed balconies. Often kitchens are located within, allowing for appropriate ventilation while cooking .

An example of Brutalist architecture, the prevalent mode of building in China.

An example of Brutalist architecture, the prevalent mode of building in China.

Windows are often of blue tinted glass to keep the sun out and they either slide or can be pushed outwards to open. Their frames are single two inch board with an awning made of either plastic or canvas arching over them. In some cases the awnings are just steel frame remains of what was whole years ago. My bedroom awning window is in tatters, which doesn’t make any difference, except to my morale.

bedroom awning

As the drainage pipe pictured in my moss picture descends from such a tall height, water tends to collect in this corner between the first and second units of our building thirteen. Rain water, of which there is plenty in our city, collects at its worst along this whole front side of the building making it slick slick slick. Myself and a couple of my friends have wiped out on our bikes trying to ride along the pavement there. You can see how damp it is. The asphalt is darkened with moisture and the moss is a fluorescent healthy green. This moisture, hitting above eighty percent humidity most days throughout the year, forms lichen along the walls of many buildings throughout the city. I wonder if the Bauhaus architects who came up with the international style and those who modified it into the Brutalist school of architecture took time and weather into account. Perhaps they thought… “No, don’t paint or adorn the buildings in any way. Rather let the elements and configurations of time and space be pictured on the buildings themselves in the most apparent manner!”

Majiang parlor.  Usually spelled Majhong, this game is loved by local people in the city of Chengu as well in the surrounding countryside.

Majiang parlor. Usually spelled Majhong, this game is loved by local people in the city of Chengu as well in the surrounding countryside.