American Living and Working in China

What is Life Like, for an American in China?
 I am often asked what its like for an American (non-Chinese), to work and live in China, and although I have lived in Shanghai for several years, my answer has evolved over time.

In the beginning it was new and exciting. I was very enthused in learning about the mysterious Far East, delving into its 5,000 year history, understand the culture and customs. Suffice to say, I had all the expectations you would expect…it was far away from my American home, a foreign land, a new language and of course, it is a third world communist country, so there was a certain amount of trepidation.

The first year to year and a half, like many before me, I was challenged with cultural and social customs that were completely different than I expected. When living in America, I enjoyed eating Chinese food…who doesn’t? But the food, in China is far different than the American Chinese food which has been tailored to appeal to American taste.

Over time I became used to eating this new and often unusual food, much of which was totally unrecognizable, but never have I gotten used to seeing dog on the menu, nor has rat meat on a stick been a favorite, but then again, I came from the wealthiest country on the planet, and not everyone had it as good as I did. I found that eating in Chinese restaurants was very difficult, as the Chinese had a very different idea about table manners than I was accustomed too. They would often spit out bits and pieces of what they were eating, i.e. chicken bones, shrimp shells and or whatever else wasn’t suited for swallowing. They made no effort to cover the orally projected unwanted items, and much of the time they ended-up wherever gravity dictated, sometimes on your plate or clothing and often on the floor. Eating with their mouths open, food falling out is typical. Seeing a patron who had eaten and drank (beer/liquor) too much and throwing-up as they stumbled from the dining table in an effort to get to the restroom on time, became all too familiar.

Often business conducted with Chinese is done over a meal, followed by going to a Karaoke club. The “clubs” run the gamut from rather nice to sleazy, most being the latter. In all cases, along with renting the private room, for singing, you are provided with a selection of female companions from which to choose. The services these young ladies provide range from fun entertainment to outright prostitution and its most often just a matter of how much you are willing to pay as to you receiving a nice companion, or an over night house guest.

The first of these business dinners I attended was in a rather nice club. We were escorted to a large comfortable private room, rather like a “living room” in an American home. The furniture consisted of leather lounge chairs and sofas, as well as a large screen TV and audio system and of course a menu from which to select your favorite music to sing along with and a couple of microphones.

Soon after finding a place to sit, a long line of young women were paraded into the room, and positioned in front of the customers, and each person was asked to make a selection. Not a very comfortable moment for me, but what choice was there, and after all, all I was going to do was talk. After the selections were made, in came the beer (beer is cheap and is usually the only drink available), and fruit platters along with an assortment of nuts, and the singing soon began. As I was looking about the room, I noticed a very large plastic pail in one corner of the room. It was the size of a small child’s backyard wading pool, and I thought what the heck was this used for? A couple of hours later I found it’s purpose as the first of my Chinese hosts stumbled toward the tub, where he threw-up, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stumbled back to the couch and resumed drinking. That was pretty much it for me; it was time to go home. From this experience forward, I accepted very few dinner and Karaoke invitations and made sure the meetings were as brief as possible, always trying to find an excuse to avoid the Karaoke experience, but sometimes it just couldn’t be avoided.

I suppose this type of behavior is some sort of Chinese male bonding, but to me it was revolting and offensive. I felt empathy for the girls that are forced to work in these places, and by forced, I mean there is likely no other way for them to earn money, just not enough jobs to go around, especially for women, and often their families pressure them into this kind of work so they can help support the family. As for what the poor girl has to do to earn money, i.e. sell her body, is of no importance to the family, as they just elect not to think about it…there is just no other way to survive.

You also discover one of the only ways to survive in business, is through bribes and corruption (QuanXi). Every Chinese person expects to get something out of a deal, from the person that collects trash to business executives, and most certainly all government employees. If you’re having problems getting something done, no problem, just find the right person and bribe them. Bribery is so prolific, it isn’t even considered wrong, it’s expected, and if you are unwilling to accept bribes, you are considered stupid. Absolutely everything revolves around money; there is nothing else of importance. If you want a business contract, no problem just find the person doing the purchasing, exchange some cash and the contract is yours and no one will complain. Don’t want to wait for that business permit to be approved, not an issue, just pay-off the person in the government office handling your application. No matter what the problem may be, a little grease (money) will solve it. Even at the hospital, should you not want to wait, there is a VIP entrance, sure it costs more, but there is NO waiting. Imagine, walking into an emergency room at your local hospital (in America) and telling them you don’t want to wait, and offer a little cash as an incentive!

Once while walking around, I noticed there were very few churches in China, not that I expected to find many, as during the Cultural Revolution, the communist party did all they could to eliminate organized religion, but that was 50 years ago and things had changed. Where are all the churches I thought to myself? And then I began to smile as I looked around and saw a bank on almost every block…these are the churches of China…money is their god and banks are their place of worship. Was I being facetious? Of course, but still there is some truth to the idea.

During the first year your body will be assaulted by germs and pollution, regardless of having all the recommended vaccinations. You will find yourself easily catching colds and many experience breathing problems, mostly due to air pollution. You soon find out where to receive medical treatment, but are horrified when you go to the hospital for the first time…it is dirty and equipment is old and worn. When the doctor examines you, you take note that he never even washed his hands, nor does he wear rubber gloves. You struggle to make clear to the doctor your symptoms, but find that his English is not that good, and as of yet you haven’t learned enough Chinese to explain physical problems, so there is a lot of pointing, nodding and head shaking. Typically if you are suffering from lower intestinal problems, you will be given an IV to replenish fluids, but again, the nurse doesn’t wash her hands, or wear gloves, and you didn’t see the package being opened that contained the needle, so you become nervous…what about HIV?

The only positive thing is when you get the bill, typically under 40 US dollars for the entire visit and treatment, but you wonder if the treatment placed you at greater risk than your original malady.

As an American you are used to space, but in China, people are constantly pushing and shoving. They are coughing and sneezing literally in your face, and as you walk down the sidewalk you hope to avoid being splattered by people who seem to have a constant need to spit. The first time you see someone urinating in public you are taken back, but in time you will get used to seeing them defecate as well. You dread going to a public toilet, because it’s consists of a porcelain bowl in the floor, no place to sit, you need to squat, hence the term “squat toilet”. When you reach for the toilet paper, you realize there isn’t any, nor is there any running water, soap or paper towels to wash. From this experience forward, you will remember to bring toilet paper and waterless hand sanitizer wherever you go.

Because you don’t know your way around, you do a lot of walking, good for your health, but also very dangerous. Crossing the street can be life threatening, as cars will never stop for pedestrians regardless of the light being red or green…it’s every man for themselves, as you are nudged by cars, their horns blowing and people yelling.

It won’t be very long before you see a pedestrian or bicyclist run over and killed, it happens often, although I never have been able to accept the lack of feeling and concern of those who look on at the mangled bodies, never lending a hand to help. No ambulance sirens will be heard to rescue the injured person, the truth be known, in over 5 years I have only heard ambulance sirens a few times, and I am sure it was because the person in need of care was some government official.

As an American, the Chinese are rather accepting of you being from America, but you will be confronted by many Europeans, especially Germans, English (UK) Australians, Canadians, etc., who will go out of their way to defame America, and or insult you in anyway possible. Being an American becomes a slight liability, so in mixed groups, you are inclined to avoid the topic of “where are you from”. Much of this ill will is because of President Bush and the Iraq war, but many are just jealous of the position America holds, in the global scheme of things. As for me, I will not apologize for being American, nor will I tolerate abuse, dished-out by these smarmy cretins! You soon learn the Chinese have already figured out what you are likely to do upon moving to China, based on the actions of your predecessors, which is, find a job, find a bar, and find a Chinese girl friend. To a large degree, the Chinese are right, as there is no shortage of foreign alcoholics in China, and I know of zero marriages that have survived in China, between to foreigners, so the Chinese girl friend idea must also have validity. For most men, the temptation is over powering, and Chinese women are often beautiful young and more than willing to stake a claim to a foreigner, after all, their life style will likely improve because of the income difference between a foreigner and their Chinese counterpart.Note: Sometimes Chinese girls will refer to the Chinese girlfriend of a foreigner as a “long hair dictionary”, not particularly faltering, but true enough, as a Chinese girl who can speak English can be of great assistance to a non Chinese speaking foreigner.The first question I ask, when a fellow American asks me about moving to China is “are you married?” and if they say yes, I tell them to consider seriously, that if they make the move, the odds of their marriage surviving is very, very low. The temptation for men to stray is difficult to overcome and the tolerant moral codes in China don’t discourage this type of behavior. In fact, it is very common for the man in a Chinese coupled marriage to have a girl friend on the side, and this is most often tolerated by the wife, although I’m sure she isn’t too happy with the idea. It’s simply part of the Chinese culture, where the man is in charge and women are there for his use and pleasure and never considered an equal.

After being in China for awhile you will begin noticing things aren’t really what they first appeared to be, i.e. construction although new, is poorly done and the standards are terrible. The apartment that seemed so nice when you first moved in, you can’t keep warm in the winter, because the heating system is undersized, and not having double glaze windows and no insulation adds to the problem. When you complain to the landlord, your complaints fall on deaf ears, and you learn to live with the cold of winter and the heat of summer. Still you think I got a great deal on the rent, a brand new high-rise building in the States would be unaffordable, but not in China, and then you discover that the occupancy of the building is rather low, and as people begin to buy the units, they need to be built-out, and the pounding noise of construction goes on non stop 24/7 and it becomes impossible to get a good nights sleep. You complain to building management, but they will do nothing, because they have been bribed to look the other way, or worse, they just don’t care and ignore you, usually the later. You have now learned your first valuable lesson; be very careful when selecting a place to live!

One of the things I first noticed was that my hands were always dirty. I thought it was from handling money, as most business is transacted in cash, but discovered it was because everything I came in contact with was filthy. I was constantly washing my hands, my clothes became dirty very quickly and it was necessary to do heavy cleaning in my apartment everyday because of air-born dirt. Even the filter in the heating and air conditioning unit needed to be cleaned every week, and the tap water left stains in tub shower and toilet, and of course, you never drink tap water, you bought bottled water for drinking and cooking. But you are suspicious that the bottled water may not be the “real thing”, as you see on the news of case after case of bottled water being sold without being filtered, and even labeled with International brand names, copied of course.

If a foreigner can last the first year plus, they have a good chance of surviving longer, but many don’t make it the first year, life is simply too different from what they are used to. After you have been in China for a number of years, it is very easy to spot a foreigner that has newly arrived, just by talking a few sentences, it’s always the same, very positive at first, like a newlywed couple on their honeymoon, but soon reality sets in as does culture shock, and just like you were, they are fish out of water.

Some foreigners elect to live in gated communities surrounded by other foreigners, and others venture out into the community and try to fit-in as best as possible, which is what I did. I found the gated communities hideous and wanted nothing to do with them. I felt what was the point to living in a foreign country, and then stay in a secluded community. These “gated people” tend to be the least knowledgeable about China although they will certainly have opinions of the Chinese, which are typically negative and often condescending. For those of us who have ventured-out, life is far more challenging, but also interesting.

For me, the most egregious hurdle to clear was regarding the lack of morals and ethics…there are simply non-existent. Doing business with a Chinese company is a lesson in corruption. Even when contracts are signed, they are typically not honored, and almost always, the Chinese will continue to negotiate, after the contract has been agreed to. When your obligations near end, be prepared, because a total and complete payment will not be made, there will always be negotiations, in which you will have to give the Chinese business some additional discount, even if you did more than you were obligated under the terms of the contract. If you’re not pleased with the outcome, too bad, as the Chinese legal system will never settle claims in the interest of a foreigner. If you are in a business that requires bidding, be aware that a Chinese competitor will take a job at a loss, and try to find a way to compensate for the shortfall, so there is no such thing as a fair and competitive bid process. In addition, the bid solicitor will only consider two things, 1) the lowest price, so don’t consider that you are offering value added services, or better quality goods, this will be of any leverage, 2) if you are successful in bribing the right person, you will be awarded the contract.

China doctors still perform third trimester abortions, and abortions by gender selection, although the government has tried to curtail this behavior, by not divulging the gender of an unborn child to the expectant parents, a simple bribe is all it takes to find the answer. As boys are still preferred to girls, and as Chinese couples are still guided by the one child per family rule, many parents will opt for an abortion based on gender alone.

It is sometimes reported that children are bought and sold in China, and for most foreigners this is a hard concept to believe, and we often elect to consider these reports as negative propaganda, that is, until you approached and asked if you want to purchase a new born child, a which point your reaction is one of horror and disbelief, but the fact remains, it happens all too often.

The tragedy is that Chinese really love their children, but often they often can’t care for them, they are just too poor. The tragedy is compounded by the lack of education regarding birth control, just as there is very little education regarding AIDS/HIV, although China has made some progress in this area, it is still a daunting challenge to reach the masses of poor people living in rural areas, and they are the ones that really need the help.

Those living in rural areas, the bulk of China’s population there is an absence of education, many being functionally illiterate and their lives are guided by old traditions, to and including arranged marriages, which is the norm. Life is hard for most people in China…hard and there is little hope for them. I can assure you, that their parents never told their children, “when you grow-up, you can be anything you want to be, a doctor etc”, for them their futures were trapped in the soil of the farms they live on, never to be free, and to only know a life of struggle. Think about that the next time you go to the big discount store to buy those unneeded things that collect in your closets and garages, they were probably made by hands that will never have the pleasure of owning even the most basic things, you take for granted. It is very likely; they will live in a two room home, with three generations and no running water. Don’t be fooled by the pictures you see of happy, smiling Chinese children enjoying all the trappings of the Western world, because for most of them, there is little to smile about, and they know all to well, things will not likely get any better. To put things into perspective, for most, they are living a life at least 100 years behind that of the US…imagine yourself turning back the calendar 100 years, could you survive?

To be continued…buying “real” and not copied products, driving and a single guy meets, falls in love and wants to marry a Chinese citizen!



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