In July 2011, almost four years after moving to China, I returned to the United States to undertake an MBA at Duke University. As I’ve left China (for now), I don’t plan on updating FNiC any longer. For those of you who are interested in following my journey there, I plan on keeping an occasional blog: markhiew.blogspot.com. Through this blog, focused largely on business school, social enterprise and other related affairs, I plan on describing some of the challenges that non-profiteer/social sector folks like myself adjusting to the new world of business.
I started the “Flatnose in China” blog/email series in August 2007, as a young Australian/American-Chinese man about to embark on his first visit to China. Over the years, the blog has been an enjoyable way to share my experiences and thoughts with you, my loyal reader, as I went about the complex task of simultaneously ‘discovering my roots’ and ‘understanding China’ (to say nothing of broader existential struggles like finding a career path and breaking down cross-cultural barriers.)
My stint in China was, like for many other foreigners, an incredibly varied experience, with numerous moments in which I felt utterly intoxicated with the place, and equally many in which I longed to escape it. Among the things I will miss most:
- The food: It bears repeating that Chinese cuisine is not simply the gluggy, battered, “General Tso’s Chicken” Western-Chinese cuisine that one associates with paper take-out boxes and Kikkoman sauce. It is infinitely better. I will miss the diversity of flavors and ingredients and regional variations so readily available in Beijing, and which I have grown so fond of in my time there. In particular, I will miss the cuisines of the southwest, from Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan, and their fiery, delicate brilliance, as well as Chinese-Muslim cuisine, particularly that from the local Xinjiang restaurant across from my old office.
- The friendliness: Chinese people are, on the whole, very friendly to foreigners. They may not be the most subtle or well-informed on occasion, but they have shown great generosity, openness and curiosity to my foreign friends and me during my time there. One of my favorite memories of China is of long train rides, during which colorful conversations with strangers would unfold, giving me wonderful insights into the lives of locals from all walks of life (as well as much-needed Mandarin practice!).
- The freedom: This last one might seem counter-intuitive, but in many ways, life in China is a lot freer than that in America. Not in obvious terms, but more in terms of daily life. There is a lack of regulation which, while at times maddening (see: traffic), can feel really liberating, such as the first time one walks down the street drinking from a beer bottle (Americans always get a kick out of that, even though Chinese don’t actually do it themselves). As a young expat in China, one is also freed from the constraints one would normally have to tolerate back home (mortgages, family obligations, general society) while remaining outside the pressures that local Chinese face, as well as enjoying a standard of living far higher than that afforded in the West (endless meals out, affordable taxis, maids, etc.). It’s why some of my foreign friends are staying put in China: they’ve got good jobs, and they’re living the good life!
While I’m not trying to get into a long political rant here, I’ll mention a point that I made both at my work and personal farewell parties: In recent times, I’ve noticed a steady increase in insecure nationalism in both China and the US. Anti-China rhetoric continues to win cheap voter support for American politicians, and the country makes for a convenient ‘enemy’ figure in people’s own political narratives. At the same time, thin-skinned angry fenqing and Chinese exceptionalism (the notion that “China is different” and that foreigners “cannot understand China”) remain the standard in China.
If anything, my four years in China have shown that these caricatures of the other side are inaccurate and unnecessary. I’ve acquired a collection of Chinese and foreign friends who are actively helping to break down these artificial barriers and forge greater understanding between these two critical nations: indeed, between China and the West at large. While indeed very different, it is possible for Westerners to understand China (Peter Hessler is my favorite example) and it is possible, if not politically convenient, for US elected officials to demonstrate a more nuanced perspective toward US-China trade relations.
Hopping off of the soapbox, I’ll end by nothing that I will certainly be returning to China in the future, and am interested in finding ways to support mutually beneficial, sustainable growth between China and other countries.
20-something Australian-Chinese MBA student at Duke's Fuqua School of Business (Class of 2013). Previously worked in business education and international development. Interested in social progress, culture, travel, languages, joyful living.