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.

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.