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

Culture Paves the New Silk Roads

And if it doesn’t, it should.

When I flew to Bochum, Germany back in April of 2017 to teach a course on the political semiotics of arts criticism in China, I was unaware of how influential this five week long visit would be upon my intellectual and thus professional endeavours.

It was a small group of seven bright German students as well as one Chinese student, and I was able to pay special attention to what the students were most interested in. Early on, then, I grew aware that the students were fascinated by two central concepts, one was a notion in aesthetic theory; and the other was a sociological one.

Chinese aesthetics boils down to a trinity of ‘truth–good–beauty zhen shan Mei真善美.’ For our purposes here, I’ll just explain that the German students were blown away by the idea that, for the Chinese, beauty is not possible in isolation. That is, unless beauty is also good, and also true; it is not beautiful. Which then begs the question, at which point in Western aesthetics did something obviously ugly, even horrific, become beautiful? At which point did the unjust and villainous also grow beautiful, or at least desirous, to look at on television? This I’ll save for another day; but answering these questions requires looking into the history of Western art, especially at Modernism, with its abstraction, and rebellious anti-heroic. In the West, something can be untrue and even evil, yet imbued with an awesomeness that draws our attention to it, whether it is in a museum, on television, or in front of our eyes on the street.

The other notion which caught the attention of both my German students as well as the one student from China; was that of ‘cultural’ discount.’ This notion arises out of a study of cultural economy, which can’t be examined outside of the context of the political economy of culture in China. What we were looking at was the phenomenon of cultural products decreasing in value as soon as they exit Chinese customs, or Chinese cyberspace, or other Chinese cultural contexts. And when I say Chinese cultural contexts, these contexts are themselves contextualized necessarily within Chinese political and economic contexts. This is because Chinese State control over its cultural products is total. Even along its own margins of control, that is, in grassroots (in popular culture) or avant-garde (in the fine arts sector) pushback against official ideological cultural products; even in these voices, acts, and cultural commodities of resistance (such as an artwork by Ai Weiwei), we see an impression of the State cultural edifice. Thus, when these products, be they works of art, movies, comic, or books; even if they are translated, enter into another market; they decrease in value, suffering from a ‘cultural discount (wenhua zhekou 文化折扣).’

What shocked me most of all, having been in China for most of the prior 20 years, was how unfamiliar my German political science and international affairs students were with the connection between culture and politics. They were even more alarmed by the connection between economics and culture. I was moved to redesign my curriculum in situ, so that it focused more on these two notions, one aesthetic and the other sociological. Only when these two notions were thoroughly grasped would we be able to move forward with discussing and examining how Chinese art critics coded their treatment of artworks in ways that helped their articles get published in magazines, journals, online platforms and books within China. Note, by ‘helped their articles get published,’ I do not mean this in the sense that it made their articles more appealing, only that this helped their articles not get flagged as sensitive or otherwise problematic to the State’s cultural officers.

I start with this.

In my next entry, I will explain how this course, and the shifts we made mid-stream, changed my intellectual, and thus professional trajectory in the field of Chinese studies. Hint: It has to do with my title here, also the title of my forthcoming book with Palgrave MacMillan: Culture Paves the New Silk Roads.

Then in another future entry, I’ll start laying out some of the field research I gained both this past semester as well as in winter semester, 2019, when I taught ‘Culture Paves the New Silk Roads’ to classes of over 200 Chinese students, in China. Of particular interest will be presentations on the subject given by student focus groups. Also interesting, was how other focus groups presented on Classical Chinese canonical texts, such as the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji 史记), Book of Odes (Shijing 诗经), Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋), and the Classic of the Way and Virtue (Daodejing 道德经). Very interesting, how the ideas, language, and ideologies of these ancient texts resonated with discussion of China’s rebuilding of the ancient Silk Roads in a wholly new geopolitical context.

Triple-Decker China

Characters by Wang Xizhi 王羲之(303–361 CE), Chinese general and calligrapher.

As I listen to an interview this morning on NPR about international leaders’ reactions to recent US elections; China is first. Takeaway: China is noticeably absent from the list of nations such as Canada, UK, and India that have officially extended congratulations to the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris campaign. What’s the reason? Beijing is exercising extreme caution, as is Russia; neither country willing to engage until President Trump has conceded the race.

Let that be the top and bottom bun of my triple-decker China burger. I want to draw your attention to three patties in the middle. Kind of rude, I know, to allude to such a majestic civilisation as something I can put in my mouth and transform inside me. However, ten months trapped on North American rim of the Pacific have emboldened me. I feel confident enough to imagine myself as the agent of an ontological ecology of self; one integral enough to claim organic integrity. Digesting experience is a metaphor.

Experience is complex, levels within. I quickly sketch out three ways in which I’ve known China this past weekend.

One. In my research. Writing a book on how Chinese culture paves the New Silk Roads; this weekend took me to Beijing in China, Islamabad in Pakistan, Kabul in Afghanistan, Ankara and Istanbul in Turkey, Djibouti in Djibouti, Duisburg in Germany, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Damascus in Turkey, Jerusalem in Israel, Astana in Kazakhstan, Moscow in Russia, Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Dubai in the United Arab Eremites, and Singapore of the Republic of Singapore. I looked at how Chinese creative and cultural industries are making inroads into each of these cities, and discussed my findings.

Two. Over WeChat and a couple of email accounts, I interacted with three graduate students I advise; a few other grad students I mentor, the kinds of students who are so bright you just want to give them more light; a translation team I manage; as well as faculty and administration at my university. Aside from this and on the same platforms in addition to Facebook and Instagram; I interacted with Chinese filmmakers, painters, and poets, discussing projects; theirs and my own.

Three. This morning I awaken, open the Sam Harris Waking Up app, and meditate for 20 minutes, then pause to consider what next to do with my consciousness. I’m up early, I have time. What is the best use of it?

Calligraphy it is. My ink, stone, and brushes are ready on my work table, I pull out the roll of rice paper and peel off a sheet, set my computer down on the floor along with the keyboard, mouse, and mousepad. Then in its place, I smooth rice paper on the table, holding the corners down with pieces of polished stone, put another piece of paper underneath, to absorb moisture. My cloth pad is back in China, so paper will do, albeit wasteful. On my iPad, I open up the Wang Xizhi 王羲之(303–361 CE) zitie 字帖, a book of example characters done by the Eastern Jin poet, calligrapher, official, and general. A quick google search on Wang Xizhi, in English, provides no information about his life, only his reception history, five hundred years after he lived, in the Tang, and through today. A quick Baidu (top Chinese search engine) search conveys first of all the man’s name, his style name, other eponyms, his place of birth, the names of his parents, as well as titles and officially held government positions. My mind has transformed, and indeed, this is the information I now consider important. His life’s work drives his art, not the other way around.

Placing a bit of water in the stone, grinding slowly in a circular motion with the ink stick, doing so until the viscosity and thickness of the ink expresses itself as ready, I then dip my brush into the ink. I have been remiss, forgot to rinse these brushes after my last use, over a week ago. They are hard and rigid, but after rinsing in warm and then cool water, they soften and clear of ink. After selecting the page in Wang Xizhi’s zitie from which I will copy out characters, place brush against rice paper, and begin the first character, xiao 晓 (realisation), my consciousness is still and attenuated.

Three very different experiences, or layers to experience, of China. It’s interesting to listen to NPR about China’s reticence in recognising the results of our election; however, this is just the top and bottom of a triple-decker burger, veggie or not, called ‘understanding China.’ One could experiment with other layers to understanding China…research into its millennia of political, economic, scientific, and cultural exchange with cities throughout Central Asia, East Africa, Central and Eastern Europe; actual Chinese-language interactions with Chinese students, intellectuals, and artists today; and the very immediate and, of the three, most informative experience, early on a Monday morning before work, play with Chinese brush and ink on rice paper.

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.