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.

Sophastre on the Silk Road

Identity Labor

China is a destiny, a growing, and a torture all at once. The expectations of ‘identity labor‘ required of living in skilled contexts in a foreign country, well…it adds character.

This isn’t going to be a long entry, just a milestone, a rock placed in just such a way by the side of the road so as to mark one’s progress.

I met a new friend online. During these days, weeks, and months of COVID-19, I imagine many of us have met a new friend online. It’s a special way to enter into the existence of another. Seemingly random, easy to dispose of should it no longer serve our own daily narrative, and yet; more often than I could ever imagine; incredibly rewarding at times.

My new friend was asking me why I had bound my own life so inextricably with the rise of China, why I had spent twenty years working in its education sector, getting my graduate degrees there, and even now working a job remotely, from my desk here in Bellingham, WA, at a Chinese university.

I got the sense when my new friend asked me about my China-pull, that what she really wanted to know is when it would all end. When would I come to my senses, and just get back to my own culture and society once and for all. So I answered her in a way that expressed the pros and cons of China for me.

China made personal growth inevitable. Just the passage of time, itself, offers ample opportunity for growth. There is the growth one goes through in a developing nation, dealing with aggravation and inconvenience of systems that arise from wholly other logical imaginings of the world. With no privacy, faulty utilities, lack of consumer goods, and no-one who understands or accepts you for who you are; living in a foreign country can take its toll. Hence the growth. It takes vitality and will towards personal transformation to live gracefully in a foreign society. So the torture…that’s the growth factor. I am not complaining. After all, I signed up for every minute of this.

Life in China has changed a great deal in the course of two decades. Water, electricity, gas, or internet are still prone to outages, because the infrastructure is being renewed constantly. However; there’s usually notice, so one can cook one’s meal early, or wash the dishes before the water is turned off. Maybe the notices were always there, but now my Chinese is good enough to read them. The consumer goods are all there now, too; as the world’s supply chains lead inevitably, either in manufacture or consumption, to Beijing; or Hong Kong, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Xi’an, Chongqing, or Chengdu. I used to ride around on my Flying Pigeon bike for an hour and a half looking for a cup of coffee; at last falling into a hot cup of rich aroma from the McDonalds on the priciest commercial street in the city. Now, I can take out my phone, open the Waimai app (similar to Doordash or Yelp), and have any number or flavor of coffee sent to my door within 17 minutes.

Coffee (or anything) door-delivery is very convenient in China with apps such as Waimai 外卖

Another thing that has changed, and this is key, is my role in China. Twenty years ago I was a common English teacher with a B.A. in philosophy. In other words, I had no skills whatsoever to make a living with in my own culture; so I used the cultural capital I had at the time, one of the most basic skills I acquired early in life–that of speaking my mother tongue–and hawked it for the monthly salary of 2300 RMB. Back in 1999, that was about three hundred US dollars. After ten years of that, during which I taught myself a number of disciplines, including how to speak, read, and write in Chinese; I tested into graduate school. Shortly after beginning my MA in Chinese classical literature, I began moonlighting in the fine arts sector as curator of Chinese performance art. Thus, for the past ten years, I’ve been moving through and living in skilled contexts. At school, my conversations with colleagues and teachers are about high-level knowledge at the breaking edge of Chinese philosophical, metaphysical, aesthetic and literary achievement. In the community, my conversations with, interviews of, articles about performance art, painting, sculpture, installation, film, television, and arts management all require lexical dexterity, with every new conversation bringing into my life a new word, idea, value, or reference point.

The work which aged me, sickened me, and drained me of most of my life force in moments of self-doubt; has been the work of ‘identity labor.’ Doing a quick search online, either in google or in an academic data base; the notion is unsurprisingly bound up with discourses on ‘performativity.’ Without going any more deeply into defining or explaining what the term tends to mean, I will express how identity labor feels to me. It is exhausting.

“Well, why can’t you just be yourself?”

“If they don’t accept you then to hell with them.”

In China, you are never yourself. You can never say the words that arise naturally within you. You can never sit in the seat that feels right, or wear the clothes that express who you are. Of course, you can do all of this, and more; in fact many discover new potentials of who they are by transcending not only cultural norms in China; but cultural norms as well. If you work in skilled contexts in China, you are who you are in relationship to others. What you say does not mean what you said. It means what it means in relationship to the last thing you said, and just importantly to the next thing you will say. You may not sit in the seat with the best view, next to the person you want to get to know, or with the best airflow. You must sit around the table in a social or professional hierarchy, in a spatial milieu.

While mainstream media and China pundits are busy condemning or condoning ‘China’ as some monolithic thing which we can or can’t accept; Chinese people are awakening within highly skilled contexts, and ideas arising out of rigorous practise and thoughtful contemplation. Knowledge workers and symbol creators are coming of age in a feedback loop between grassroots social, political, economic, and cultural development; and a highly centralised central government which tempers diversity of social, political, economic, and cultural messaging. Its this foil, between the top-down and the bottom-up, that I attend to.

I think it’s important we support the artists and scholars of a (re) emerging cultural power.

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.