Life after China


CHAPTER NINE of “Commie wage slave,” in which I leave the Middle Kingdom to go home




Not a day goes by that I’m not happy to be home from China.


Every time I breathe the clean air and enjoy the blue sky of a sunny day; every time I use water from my tap without having to boil it first; whenever I wander the Internet with no restrictions, or read genuine news written by unfettered journalists, or just stand at my kitchen sink doing dishes without having to bend over because the countertop is too low: There are countless moments when I savor and appreciate everything I took for granted BC – Before China.


I expect that to continue for the rest of my life, along with a fascination for the country that developed during my year in Beijing. That year, the longest of my life, was a true character-building experience. I’ll always be glad I did it and even happier that it’s over.


Hobbled as I was by being illiterate in Mandarin and burdened by the silly suspicion that Americans were spies, it wasn’t possible to get close to any Chinese. A few of my Chinese co-workers, however, went out of their way to make me feel welcome and comfortable. A couple of them even had me to their apartments for dinner or for a lesson in making dumplings.


The latter was truly humbling. My hostess and her friend deftly filled, shaped and crimped shut dozens of dumplings in little time. My few, misshapen, lumpy and leaking, looked like things that might come out of an occupational therapy class for people with numb fingers.


The biggest difference between Chinese and Americans is attitude. The Chinese, after the national traumas of invasion and occupation, revolution and civil war, political terror, starvation and oppression, have no idea how good life can be. They know too well how bad it can get, while Americans are clueless about how many blessings we enjoy that aren’t obtainable in many countries.


My year in Beijing allowed me to pay my mortgage and save up a year’s worth of income. The money saved up turned out to be especially important, a fact that became brutally clear as soon as the customs agent in the San Francisco airport asked, What is your occupation?


“Unemployed,” I had to answer.


But that didn’t stop me from going straight to a concourse restaurant and happily spending $20 for a genuine cheeseburger, fries and a beer. The next day I’d start practicing frugality, but that day, I celebrated with guilt-free indulgence I’d spent a year earning.



Behind the Great Firewall

CHAPTER EIGHT of  “Commie Wage Slave,” in which I learn about the language of dissent in China

 An image of the mythical Grass-Mud Horse, symbol of Chinese resistance to censorship

Since Americans were thought to be universally rich, our explanations about being in China because we couldn’t get a job back home probably didn’t sound believable to our co-workers, which must have bolstered their suspicion that we were spies.

Never mind the fact that most of us spoke little or no Mandarin. Plus, it’s hard to imagine what kind of secret information anyone thought we could glean from editing news-like propaganda that was controlled and censored by state authorities.

But their assumptions about us have been shaped by generations of distortion and very limited access to information. The Internet doesn’t appear to have changed that yet.

As it has elsewhere, the digital age has created countless jobs in China. Unfortunately, many of them involve maintaining the Great Firewall. Untold thousands monitor websites, email and even text messages for forbidden content. Some write pro-government messages for bulletin boards and social sites.

At China Daily, expats ran into the Great Firewall all the time. It includes bans on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, limits on content for websites and authorized search engines, plus constantly changing and secret lists of forbidden search terms. All Internet traffic into and out of China is closely watched.

Since authorities never publicize which words are forbidden, it’s easy to run afoul of their censors. Our Internet connections would disappear for a few minutes the first time we used a forbidden word in a search. If it happened again, we’d lose access for up to a half hour.

If the website we were trying to access contained a forbidden term, we’d get a “site not found” error message.

Sometimes you could guess which words might trigger this. When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, for example, the word “jasmine” became a forbidden search term because of the phrase, jasmine revolution. Too bad if you were just searching for a local place to buy jasmine tea.

The Great Firewall so limited access to information from outside (and even inside) China that it wasn’t unusual to learn about events in Beijing from international news outlets – which, of course, could only be accessed with the aid of a proxy server that was outside the country. Expats equipped their own computers with these services. Thus, when Google threatened to leave China rather than censor its searches, we found out by reading the New York Times online that Chinese were leaving flowers, stuffed animals and notes of support in front of the company’s Beijing office. No word of this reached Chinese media.

tank man

For a few hours during this tussle, it was possible for Chinese to access anything on a Google search, a novel and brief experience. The term “Tiananmen,” for example, brought forth the haunting photograph of the nameless Chinese man who confronted a line of tanks on their way to threaten thousands of demonstrators in central Beijing. It’s one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century. Most Chinese have probably never seen it.

We wondered, of course, whether there might be tiny cameras or listening devices hidden in our apartments. I never heard of anyone looking for them, much less finding one. But there’s no question that our computers at work were examined. It wasn’t unusual to sit down at the start of a shift, boot up the computer and discover that files were missing or rearranged, put in new places. No effort was made to hide this; making it blatant was most likely a deliberate part of the intimidation factor.

The longer we were in China, the more paranoid we became. The very atmosphere of the place made it inevitable. Thus, when democracy activist Liu Xiabo won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize after I had already left China, Renee emailed me from Beijing. There was only a subject line: “Did you see who won?”

She feared that if she had mentioned the Nobel Peace Prize or Liu Xiabo, her email might not have gone through. Or, someone at China Daily might have detected it and alerted the powers-that-be about the need to monitor her communications (if they weren’t already). Maybe someone in the IT department or one of the countless monitors paid by the government to spy on communications, looking to curry favor, would report it to higher-ups. We don’t know how realistic these fears were when applied to foreigners, but they were raised by living in a place where advocating freedom of speech is prosecuted as subversion and even a word in a text message can lead to punishment. The possibility of unpleasant repercussions seemed plausible.

Nonetheless, Chinese netizens have found a way to use the Internet for robust debate, criticism and mockery of their government. Their solution is to use code words based on homonyms.

Thus, when they want to refer to the government or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), they use the term “grass-mud horse.” In Mandarin, this sounds almost like the phrase, “fuck your mother.” Once you know that the CCP calls itself the mother of the people, the meaning of this code word is clear.

The grass-mud horse first appeared in 2009 and became a huge hit. Videos quickly appeared of the grass-mud horse battling the river crab, a code word that sounds like the propaganda euphemism, “harmony.” When censors have scrubbed forbidden content from a Chinese website, netizens say it has been harmonized.

Other code words are less obscure. June 4, for example, refers to the day Chinese tanks and troops attacked unarmed democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

For a thorough look at how Chinese netizens and dissenters use code words, check out the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon at the website, China Digital Times, by clicking on this link –

Also interesting is this video about the Grass-Mud Horse. If you watch to the end, it’s easier to understand. The language is foul, but indicates the level of frustration.

Coming next: Leaving China


CHAPTER SEVEN of “Commie wage slave,”  in which I learn how very foreign I am to one-fifth of humanity

A China Daily employee with her daughter and her grandmother

A China Daily employee with her daughter and her grandmother



Beijing, as a nation’s capital, is home to its most prestigious universities and bustling with business people and tourists from around the world. So it surprised me how often I was regarded as an alien species.

I walked for miles in a nearby park almost daily without seeing another Westerner. When riding a bus or subway, or strolling through the campus of a nearby university, or shopping in a food market, places that swarmed with overcrowded Oriental humanity, it was very rare to see an Occidental face unless I was in the embassy zone or near a tourist attraction.

At times, this was a little unnerving because people stared at me all the time. Even in neighborhoods accustomed to seeing foreigners, Chinese stared at me openly and constantly. I figured they rarely, if ever, saw any female foreign devils as tall as me.

After a while, I could gauge the likely response if I smiled and nodded at someone who stared. People who were middle aged or older simply stared back, their faces blank. They grew up during a time of closed borders, Cold War and national paranoia about hostile Western powers.

Those in their thirties or so generally smiled back. They’re more aware of the world outside China, less fearful of it and often eager to see it.

The high school kids next door to China Daily appeared too shy to catch my eye. Very young children would turn their faces away and hide or even cry as if they’d seen something scary. Chinese parents must tell some awful stories about barbarians.

Their less pejorative terms for Westerners are “round eyes” and “big noses.”

We must indeed have looked immense. Chinese are very small, slender people. Even when wearing their heavy winter coats, the young security guards at China Daily looked like I could have picked any one of them up and snapped him in half with a good bear hug.

Buying women’s clothes off the rack was not possible for me and many other Westerners, unless we went to a store that catered to Russians. Even when we had items custom-made by tailors who supposedly had much experience with Western tourists, we couldn’t get clothes that fit. My friend Annette, who is slender enough to almost fit into Chinese clothes, went with me to a shop at the Silk Street Market, a well-known tourist destination. She wanted a suit and I was after a coat. We picked out patterns and material, were measured, paid for the items and were told when to come back for them.

Apparently, the tailor couldn’t believe what his measuring tape told him. Our new, custom-made clothes were too tight. Since the material for my coat had been cut too small, I was stuck with an ill-fitting cashmere coat that I ended up selling.

The contrast between American and Chinese women was startling in other ways, too. When something amuses a well-mannered Chinese female, she’ll softly titter while holding one hand over her mouth. The sight of American women laughing out loud, and without covering their mouths, appalled them. We seemed to them like braying donkeys.

We also had no inkling about how to behave with superiors. If I needed to ask my supervisor a question, I addressed her by her first name, instead of using her title and last name. When clinking glasses during a toast at office dinners, I failed to make sure my glass was lower than that held by someone higher up the food chain. My ignorance about these basic points of Chinese social etiquette simply seemed like bad manners.

Western women were just too large, too loud and too direct by Chinese standards of femininity.

Chinese men kept their distance from us, but Western men eagerly dated Chinese women. Western women watched these romances with distaste, knowing that when the man moved on, his Chinese ex would face disgrace and disapproval. To Chinese parents, it’s pointless and even harmful for a girl to date anyone who isn’t a possible husband. Chinese girls who aren’t married by age 27 are referred to as “leftovers.”

My status as a never-married woman with no children was regarded as freakish. No Chinese was so impolite as to say so, but you could almost hear them thinking, “A fate worse than death.” What I regarded as freedom and welcome solitude, they considered a pitiable state and an irresponsible lack of familial duty to my parents, who surely expected grandchildren.

That my parents never pressured any of their children to marry and reproduce would be unimaginable to Chinese parents, another shocking example of barbarian (meaning non-Chinese) behavior.


Coming next: China’s Great Firewall