Life after China

 

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

 

 oz

 

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 – http://chinadigitaltimes.net/space/Category:Grass-Mud_Horse_Lexicon.

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.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3D2eh4xehc4

Coming next: Leaving China

ROUND EYES, BIG NOSES

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

Beijing’s cold wars

CHAPTER SIX of “Commie wage slave,” in which capitalist running dogs battle runny noses

 

The result of one dust storm on the floor of a patio at my Beijing apartment.

The result of one dust storm on the floor of a patio at my Beijing apartment.

 

Smog obscures the view of anything more than one block away from my Beijing balcony.

Smog obscures the view of anything more than one block away from my Beijing balcony.

A month after arriving in Beijing, I gave up wearing contact lenses. The grit in the air made it too painful.

Some of it was sand blowing in from the encroaching Gobi desert. But much of it was pollution in the form of particulate matter big enough to scratch eyes and clog lungs.

In winter, the air in Beijing is especially dangerous. Cold-weather demand for heat greatly increases the amount of dirt spewing from China’s coal-burning power plants. Combine this with fumes from an astounding level of car traffic running on low-grade gasoline, and the result is sickening.

By January, the expats at China Daily had turned into mucus factories on overdrive. For days, we were forced to breathe through our mouths, carry big boxes of tissues everywhere and try to sleep sitting up, since any attempt to recline brought on coughing fits. We could feel the stuff bubbling in our lungs.

Those who smoked fared even worse. Some developed chronic bronchitis.

All of us needed to take a few sick days. To get them, we had to go to a China Daily-approved doctor and get a certificate attesting to our illness.

Imagine the fun of this, feeling sick as a dog but having to haul yourself up, stumble out into the cold and hail a cab to drive you the whole two blocks to the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, our designated healthcare provider. Like everything else in Beijing, their blocks are huge. Walking two of them while sick was to be avoided.

There was almost another block to walk at the hospital, where the wing devoted to treating foreigners is at the far end of the place. Supposedly, the staff speaks English. In reality, they know a few words. They can ask whether you speak Chinese or Japanese. Mostly, they gesture and point when communicating where you should go next.

Your first stop is at an intake desk. The workers there wear face masks. As soon as you tell them you have a runny nose and cough, they hand you a mask and insist you wear it.

It’s amazing how much of an impediment that small piece of cloth can be. Your face gets very hot because your breath is trapped under it. Just enough escapes out the top to fog your glasses. It’s hard to make yourself heard, especially if a scratchy throat and cough already have played havoc with your voice.

It’s cold in the hospital. The nurses and doctors wear sweaters and jackets while they work. Garbage has blown in through an open door. It just sits there. Sunken old couches and chairs line the hallway outside the doctors’ offices. This is where you wait, breathing into that damn mask.

The doctor, a nice woman, sticks a tongue depressor in your mouth and tells you to say “ahhh.” Then she pulls out a stethoscope and listens to your lungs – right through your clothes, even if those include a thick sweater and bra. She wants blood drawn, gives you a piece of paper and points towards the nurse’s station. The nurse points to the cashier.

You will go to the cashier every time a doctor wants a test done or a medicine prescribed. Nothing is provided until you’ve paid for it in cash, upfront. When you have a receipt for payment, you go back to the nurse’s station to proceed with the test. Then, prescription in hand, you once again go to the cashier. Receipt in hand, you can go to the pharmacist. She speaks no English at all.

Our Chinese colleagues routinely warned us to insist on prescriptions for Western medicine, not “TCM” – traditional Chinese medicine. For colds, this would include herbal teas, miso soup or concoctions containing cinnamon twig, ginger root, kudzu root and licorice.

Their pharmacies were fascinating, with big glass jars of chrysanthemum flowers, mulberry leaves, forsythia buds, lavender seeds and rosehips, among many others. There were boxes of teas, bottles of honeys and tablets made from fruit, leaves, flowers and bark for everything from weight loss to “Heat-clearing and Fire-draining.”

Glass cases displayed bones, antlers, claws and horns, many of them from endangered species.

Western medicines are very hard to find and very expensive when you do find them. It’s cheaper and safer to have them bought in America and shipped over. Chances are much better you’ll get the real McCoy, instead of an ineffective knockoff.

For some reason, the Chinese are particularly wary of antihistamines. They also regard blowing one’s nose into a tissue as a disgusting Western practice, while Westerners are appalled by the Chinese habit of emptying one’s nostrils right on the street, snorting clear first one, then the other.

One of our Australian colleagues had the bad luck to be hospitalized with appendicitis. It had to be removed.

During his stay, he was required to pay cash every day before midnight. He would throw a coat over his pajamas and, holding his fresh stitches together, tramp all the way out to the street where he could withdraw yuan from a bank ATM, then hobble back to his hospital bed.

Even though we had insurance from our employer, the best healthcare solution was the same as for those back home with no insurance – don’t get sick.

Coming next: Round eyes, big noses

Honorable-mention model worker

 

CHAPTER FIVE of “Commie wage slave,”  in which I learn how not to do my job

Image result for model worker china images

China Daily’s website was housed in a modern 10-story office building that didn’t contain a single Western toilet. A Chinese toilet, for those who don’t know, consists of a hole in the floor, possibly inside a stall that might or might not have a door. Users place one foot on either side and squat. The modern apartments I saw in Beijing typically had Western toilets, but public buildings, restaurants, parks, attractions and public bathrooms often did not.

One of my biggest accomplishments in China was to get through a whole year without using one of these squat toilets. I made free use of the Western toilet in the coffee shop just down the alley, where servers were accustomed to seeing foreigners dashing in for that reason. The two-percent, cultural-DNA difference here was a sign cautioning users not to throw toilet paper into the toilet. A wastebasket was provided.

We couldn’t enter or exit China Daily buildings without flashing our employee ID badges in front of the electronic eyes by the doors. It was said that those issued to Chinese employees also recorded the times of their entrances and exits. I don’t know what kind of monitoring took place in the office, but my Chinese colleagues liked to take cigarette breaks in a spot they thought was one of the few places they could talk without surveillance.

The offices themselves looked like Western cubicle farms, except that 99.99 percent of the heads bent over the keyboards were black-haired. Ours had a conference room with comfy chairs, a huge table and an awesome sound system (which younger staffers sometimes commandeered on weekend night shifts, cranking up Beyonce while dancing, singing and imbibing.) There was an attractive break room with café tables and chairs and a refrigerator. The water dispensers in every office provided hot water for tea or instant coffee. Most Chinese staffers brought their own carafes of loose-leaf tea.

The building didn’t run heat and air conditioning during the weekends, when some of us worked. When it got close to 90 degrees, someone would run out and get popsicles for everyone. Fans would be set up in the aisles.

Unlike newsrooms in the West, sites of workplace discussions and joking around, this office was quiet as a library. Nobody spoke; everybody texted. Most appeared to be in their 20s or 30s.

With few exceptions, nobody ever spoke to me even to say so much as hello or goodbye. If spoken to, most were polite but not talkative. This may have been reluctance to try speaking English, difficulty understanding it or worry about being seen conversing with a “spy” (as American employees were assumed to be).

Journalism, Chinese style

My main job was to fix the English in the mobile news reports, but every department sent me items, from the paper’s newsroom to the special advertising sections.

The Cultural Affairs department sent long, tedious articles touting tourist destinations: “Cultural Relic” (in this case, the Great Wall) “prepares to handle more tourists.”  Columnists sent editorials, some of them anti-American rants. The web site sent news stories.

Any foreigner on duty got bombarded with editing requests. The strangest I saw involved tidying up a letter from a Chinese businessman to former president Bill Clinton. Having been denied a visa to the United States, the businessman tried to persuade Clinton to intervene on his behalf. He must have had enough money or clout to ask a favor from an upper-management editor, who in turn thrust the letter upon one of the Chinese reporters to translate it from Mandarin then get the English corrected by one of the foreign staffers.

There was no assignment Chinese employees could turn down. Walls between journalism and advertising, personal gain and professional ethics simply didn’t exist. And in a country with far more people than jobs, nobody wanted to risk their own by saying no to a supervisor.

Normally, I had about two hours of work during the 2 p.m-to-10:30 p.m.  shift. About 3 p.m. and about 9 p.m., one of the Chinese editors would send me the latest mobile news report, destined for cell phones and other portable devices with Internet connections. It consisted of top news stories summarized in single paragraphs, mixed with headlines, human-interest briefs, photos and jokes. Each item was published in English and in Mandarin.

To Western minds, the logical way to do this would have been for us to write the English-language snippets, and for the Chinese to write them (or translate ours)  in Mandarin.

But we weren’t trusted. The bosses feared we’d try to slip pro-democracy messages into the copy, so the Chinese staffers prepared both versions, and their limited grasp of English showed.

Problems arose because they insisted that both versions match word-for-word (as if that were possible) – at least, that was the explanation given every time I tried to tighten the writing or reorganize the material, such as putting the most important fact first.

Western newswriting aims to be crisp, succinct, accurate and informative. Chinese newswriting is squishy, vague, wordy and open to interpretation. The element put at the top is the name of any official who wants to be credited for something or who attended an event, along with that person’s always grandiloquent title.

If an item contains news the government considers favorable, it’s shamelessly hyped. If it’s news that might cause a loss of face, it’s suppressed for as long as possible. Items that fall into the vast middle ground, where it’s unclear if something has major support or opposition, get the squishy treatment.

Part of this wordy vagueness, I gleaned, is cultural, related to the structure and use of languages I don’t speak or read. But a very big part is that it’s dangerous in China even to state an obvious fact. Someone powerful might take offense. Chinese reporters and editors have been fired and jailed for what they wrote or published.

So I learned to look first at the end of every article I was asked to edit, knowing that anything newsworthy would be buried beneath many paragraphs of inane quotes from people with long titles. Real news had to be tip-toed up to, quietly.

On a nuts-and-bolts level, one of the most common problems involved future and past tenses. Mandarin doesn’t have this feature, relying instead on context to convey such information. It wasn’t unusual to see an article simultaneously describing an event as happening now, about to happen and having already happened, which clearly called for some editing.

But any such effort on my part, which I thought of as doing my job and, incidentally, making them look good, always prompted head-shaking, heavy sighs and exasperated instructions that I couldn’t do that. If I changed the English version even a jot, the Mandarin version would have to be rewritten. Nobody explained why this couldn’t be done.

Although my Chinese colleagues supposedly had many years of education in English, most couldn’t understand the questions I asked while editing an article. This included top editors. I tried phrasing questions in the simplest terms, such as, “Does this mean black or white?” They’d answer, “Yes.” The only options left were to guess at what was meant or delete the murky language, which of course triggered protests.

Reports were compiled from the Chinese news service, Xinhua, and the websites of British, Indian and Australian newspapers, never American newspapers. Thus, they contained words and expressions such as “bourse” (stock exchange), “lorry” (truck), “thrice” (three times) and “in hospital.” Although American English is the global lingua franca, the paper clung to a type that sounded to Yankees like it might have been spoken by Dickens. American staffers fought a constant battle against this, always losing to the greater numbers and enthusiastic sabotage of the Brits, Indians, Aussies, Canadians and Kiwis on the staff, who would promptly change American words back to Britishisms after copy left our hands.

Another source the Chinese in my department used was the website Urban Dictionary, a compendium of American slang. Thus, the pseudo-word “recrap” appeared in – of all places – the Better English column in this example: “How did the meeting go?” “Allow me to recrap.”

This wouldn’t have been a problem if Chinese readers could be assumed to understand the term as cheeky slang and a play-on-words. But given the dismal English abilities of highly educated Chinese news staffers (who more than once have reprinted articles from The Onion because they didn’t realize it was satire), it wasn’t safe to assume that Chinese readers likely to be even less able with English would get that.

I spiked “recrap” three times – “thrice,” in China Daily terms. It still appeared in print.

Another gem that showed up in the Better English column was the term, blanket drill: “When I get out of the Army, I’m going to do the blanket drill from dawn to dusk” (although the writer probably meant from dusk to dawn). Not mentioned is that it’s a military euphemism for masturbation.

The paper also ran a Better Chinese column for foreigners trying to learn Mandarin. One of the examples raised alarming questions about why anyone thought a foreigner might need to understand these phrases: “Why do you refuse to confess? Someone else has already told us everything.”

The only time I managed to keep something inappropriate from publication was when the Chinese expression “iron cock” appeared in an article destined for the newspaper. It disappeared after I explained, partly with pantomime using an index finger springing stiffly upward, that the English translation pertained to a particular quality of male sexual anatomy.

It’s possible that these exercises in questionable taste simply reflected attempts by bored staffers to have a little fun. Since we couldn’t communicate well, I’ll never know.

Polishing the prose

At Western-style news organizations, my job would have been that of a copy editor, who looks for logical organization, completeness and accuracy as well as correct grammar, style and spelling. But in China, my job title was “polisher.”

This aptly describes the severe limitations of the job and the role of Chinese news media.

Although masquerading as a newspaper, China Daily is licensed, monitored, censored and used by the government for propaganda. That’s true, more or less, of everything the Chinese publish or broadcast. The paper’s resemblance to a genuine newspaper, and to the practice of journalism, is superficial.

Orders arrived daily from the propaganda authorities, cynically dubbed by Chinese as the Ministry of Truth. These described which topics, events, words and expressions were forbidden or mandated that day, how stories should be presented and what angles should be emphasized. They often included travel bans for reporters to disasters, demonstrations or riots. An on-site censor reviewed articles before publication.

I never saw these orders while in China, which considers them state secrets, but stumbled across their existence occasionally when I started writing columns for the newspaper and website. No topic was off-limits as long as these words never appeared: Taiwan, Tibet, Dalai Lama, democracy and separatism, the Chinese euphemism for independence movements in occupied “autonomous regions.”

If editors suspected something I wrote might trigger the censor to prohibit publication, they gave the column an innocuous and misleading headline. It saved the censor from having to read the entire item and the editors from having to scrape up something to fill the space at the last minute.

They didn’t hesitate to run columns about censorship, surveillance, corruption, greedy officials or suffering citizens, probably because few Chinese could read them. Publication of them gave visiting foreign English speakers, who might pick up the paper in a hotel, the misleading impression of a government confident enough to allow carping. These columns never attracted comment. The few Chinese who could read English were unlikely to risk publicly approving criticism of authorities, and it’s also likely censors deleted any.

For a column decrying the Chinese habit of public nose-picking, however, they allowed more than 440 comments to be published. A few applauded my screed, but many more accused me of cultural imperialism or a dastardly alliance with the Dalai Lama.

A Chinese co-worker quietly asked me, late one night in the almost deserted office, whether it was true that American news media were not censored. Yes, I said.

Really, he asked, none at all?

How about China Daily, he asked, can you buy it in the U.S.? I’ve never seen it there, I told him. “The government probably prevents it,” he said, meaning the U.S. government.

From his viewpoint, that’s a logical assumption. It might have perplexed him that the U.S. government would see nothing in China Daily to suggest it ought to be suppressed. He wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

Less is best

After several months of hearing exasperated sighs and seeing any corrections I made changed back to the original errors, I finally stopped trying to do anything but fix spelling and add punctuation. This delighted my Chinese editor and co-workers, but left me with a lot of empty time during my shifts.

I’d check my email, polish the afternoon mobile news report, cruise the Internet and maybe write a column, but that still would leave four or five hours to fill before the 9 p.m. report. Over time, it became clear that as a foreign expert I had leeway not enjoyed by the Chinese employees, and I began to use it.

At first, I had been scrupulous about not taking more than one hour for dinner. By the time I left China, I routinely took three or four hours, running errands, shopping and hanging out in some restaurant over dinner and a few beers.

Nobody ever said a word.

It took a while for me to reach this point. But guilt for taking advantage of my status diminished under the growing realization that the professional standards I was used to didn’t apply there. At China Daily, where only the appearance of journalism exists, trying to use notions of accuracy and fairness led to bafflement and frustration all around, as almost every skill I thought I’d been hired to provide was rejected or ignored.

At first, I’d send copy back to reporters with notes such as, “Please ask your senior editor about the underlined sentence. It may be libelous.” Or, “Please verify the accuracy of the claim that 9 million people attended the 15th annual Tianjin Special Industrial District Weekend Expo.”

This must have bemused the Chinese reporters (if they could understand the questions). I hadn’t yet learned that China doesn’t have a functioning legal system, so concerns about libel were pointless. And accuracy was far less important than putting a good face on events.

After a while, it seemed futile to continue beating my head against this wall. I could quit clinging to insistence on meeting my standards or spend the remaining long months vexing my Chinese co-workers while I fumed. I chose to let go.

Not every Westerner managed to reach this point, and those who couldn’t, suffered. Renee, for example, volunteered to update the style manual. She spent countless hours of her own time working on it under pressure of an unreasonable deadline demanded by editors, only to see it ignored, then discarded. Annette gave weekly classes on news reporting and writing to Chinese staffers who never would be allowed the chance to fully use them.

Sometimes the Chinese staffers suffered, too. One of the British copy editors became notorious for the shrill tantrums she inflicted on reporters for their poor English or sloppy reporting. Inept though their English might have been, they understood the insulting tone of her shouted criticisms.

What we didn’t realize was that our presence at China Daily was really just for face. Chinese businesses that managed to employ Westerners gained tremendous prestige. There were Americans in Beijing who got paid to pretend they worked for Chinese companies, being shown off at dinners, trade shows or conventions while collecting big per diem fees for just nodding and smiling.

That’s what we were at China Daily – Western window dressing. Our real job was to bolster the appearance of success. The actual substance required for it, beyond nodding and smiling, wasn’t wanted.

After a few months, I stopped pestering reporters and editors with questions they couldn’t understand or making changes I knew would be rejected. No doubt as a result of my more cooperative attitude, the department head told me I had been nominated for one of the paper’s yearly Model Worker awards. Although I didn’t win, they gave me a small bonus, a book of movie coupons and a gift certificate to the Japanese department store Ito Yokado, whose grocery kept me in baguettes, butter and cheese for a good while.

Coming next: Cold wars

 

Home, sweet home

CHAPTER FOUR of  “Commie wage slave,” in which I learn to bake biscuits in the living room

Chinese gym class

Every morning at 7:30, the gym teacher at the high school next door and nine stories below would begin bellowing commands into his bull horn at the uniformed boys and girls lined up before him. About 200 of them, in identical blue-and-white outfits, did calisthenics to his barked instructions. He seemed to equate authority with volume.

He was deafening even when the sliding glass doors to the patio of my Beijing apartment were closed. Having worked a shift ending at 10:30 p.m., I resented being jolted awake so early by his racket.

I learned to fall back asleep despite the irritation he always aroused, getting accustomed much more quickly to the violently surging whoosh of water through the plumbing whenever someone upstairs flushed or showered. All the pipes were outside the walls, which greatly enhanced the sound effects.

Once up, I’d bake biscuits from scratch in the big, counter-top convection toaster oven equipping the apartment and brew Swedish-brand coffee from Ikea.

My Chinese colleagues would carry their personal bowls down the elevator and across the parking lot to the newspaper’s cafeteria, where they’d breakfast on rice porridge, fruit or steamed buns. Most also carried an empty storage container for stocking up on whatever was available. They used the company cafeteria, with its very inexpensive food, as a grocery store.

I’d slather honey or peanut butter on my biscuits. The Chinese would sprinkle seaweed or pickles on their porridge, or bite into a bun filled with red bean paste.

Most China Daily workers lived in one of the two apartment buildings inside the company’s fenced, gate-housed compound. To enter, you needed a company ID badge, which hung on a neck cord. Building staffers in the gatehouse and in the apartment offices, as well as security guards at the newspaper entrances and exits, kept an eye on everyone. Although English-speaking foreigners filled many of the apartments, none of the building staffers spoke any. This was a challenge when you needed to report a loss of hot water or a broken appliance, so it was one of many chores our employer’s foreign-worker minders handled for us.

The apartments in my building were comfortable enough. Foreign singles had one-bedrooms to themselves, with a living room, dining room, kitchen, bath and two screened patios. All were furnished with basics: bed, desk, chairs, small dining table, living room coffee table and a television with two English-language channels that got mostly snow.

 Every item – wastebasket, desk lamp, cleaver – was carefully listed on an inventory signed by each resident upon arrival, and just as carefully checked when we left.

Foreigners always supplemented the meager furnishings with household goods purchased at Ikea and WuMart, the Chinese knock-off of WalMart. (I tried futilely to find anything with a WuMart label to bring home.)  I bought a sofa, floor lamp, fan, CD player/radio, a wok, a few pots, a Dutch oven, a comforter, a tabletop ironing board, a couple of plants, knives, silverware, glasses, plates and a coffee press. I looked in vain for a large serving fork and a potato masher. A large fork probably wouldn’t have made it past Chinese mail inspectors, but a friend successfully shipped me a potato masher. It got a workout at Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays.

While single foreigners enjoyed their privacy in these apartments, two or more Chinese employees were crammed into the same one-bedrooms. Unlike the foreigners, they also had to pay rent and utilities, and on much smaller salaries.

The closest place for groceries was a 7-11 just across the street, part of the American chain. Instead of coffee, it sold hot soy milk. It smelled inside like fish, not hot dogs.

Shou Hang grocery

A block away was Shou Hang, a small grocery slightly bigger than a convenience store. This is where we bought Jackie Chan frozen dumplings, peanut butter, wasabi crackers and an excellent locally brewed beer called Beijing.

chicken footI bought my first Chinese chicken there, a fryer all wrapped up in plastic just like at home. I didn’t know its claws still were attached, neatly folded up underneath and tucked out of sight. They made a startling appearance after the bird had been in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. When its legs relaxed, out sprang the feet.

 A couple of typical Chinese markets several blocks away offered stalls selling produce, household items, meat, fish, grains, nuts, spices, condiments, steamed bread and buns. Also nearby was a big Japanese department store, Ito Yokado, which had a large Western-style supermarket in its basement. This was the closest place to buy a good baguette, high quality butter from Ireland or Denmark and cheese, pasta and whipping cream. For more exotic Western items, such as chocolate chips, we trekked to one of the groceries in the embassy district specializing in hard-to-find and high-priced products from home or depended on care packages from family and friends.

It was easy to recognize the Ito was a supermarket. But as with apes and humans, who share 98 percent of their DNA in common, the remaining two percent makes all the difference.

Ito had the usual departments and many of the same kinds of products. Signs over the aisles were in English as well as Chinese (or in one case, Chinglish; over the aisle with Western foodstuffs, it read, “Anticipate to Western fashions adjust.”) There were metal shopping carts and a row of checkout counters up front, piles of produce and cases of frozen foods.

But that other two percent of cultural DNA turned Ito into a whole different animal, a phenomenon Westerners experienced over and over in China. There were bathrooms, but no toilets; restaurants, but no silverware; faucets, but no drinkable tap water.

The meat department featured carcasses as well as ribs, chops, steaks, ground meat, organs and extremities such as chicken feet or pig trotters. Not everything was recognizable. Since reading labels was not an option, I mostly stuck to chicken to avoid accidentally bringing home donkey or horse. Tanks in the fish department contained live eels and turtles, while fresh squid, octopus and dozens of kinds of whole fish were spread out on ice.

Clerks staffing each department acted like carnival barkers, hollering come-ons over one another to customers. In each aisle, uniformed staffers loudly spieled the attributes of the toilet paper or pet food they were supposed to sell. A moment’s hesitation or any accidental eye contact would trigger a relentless onslaught, a cacophony of commerce.

My Beijing kitchen was barely bigger than the bathroom. It contained a small one-bowl sink, a few cabinets, about 24 inches of counter space, a cooktop with three gas burners and a rather primitive washing machine which got only cold water. The clothes dryer consisted of metal poles running along the patio ceilings, a feature of almost every apartment in Beijing. From any sidewalk, looking up at an apartment building, the most prominent feature of the balconies was clothing hung to dry. The absence of dryers probably explains why stores stocked bins of lint rollers.

There were no ovens, but many of the apartments had microwaves. Mine didn’t, so I borrowed a big tabletop convection oven from another apartment. It was too large for the little counter top areas in the kitchen. But it fit just right in a big open shelf of the credenza the TV sat on in the living room. (The TV/oven combination made for a peculiar entertainment center.) The refrigerator stood in the dining room, as there was no room for that in the kitchen, either. The counter tops came to just higher than mid-thigh; I had to bend to reach the sink when washing dishes.

Because I was much taller than almost every Chinese, my knees couldn’t always fit under the table in a restaurant. Getting in and out of taxis was hard and sitting in the little metal box of a pedicab was out of the question. I appreciated every day that whoever installed the shower head had thoughtfully mounted it almost at the ceiling.

My two-block walk to work took me by the gatehouse and past a family of scavengers with an ever-changing sidewalk inventory of used furniture and appliances. They sold me a bookcase and delivered it for four bucks.

The route took me down the street half a block to the corner with the 7-11, then a left turn and one block down a busy, willow-lined street to the first alley. China Daily’s compound, including a big garden of roses, lilacs, gingko trees, poplars and benches, took up most of this area. On many weekdays during the lunch break, one of the American workers jogged around the compound, while a young Chinese woman moved about the freight driveway practicing graceful and potentially lethal moves with a sword. Always, the smell of sewage wafted through the streets. (This wasn’t true everywhere in Beijing, but it always was present in the China Daily neighborhood.)

Restaurants lined the alley on one side: two Western-style coffee shops, a Subway, a couple of Chinese restaurants, a Japanese restaurant, a pizza place and a noodle shop.

The other side of the alley was lined with parked motorbikes and bicycles. In good weather, the noodle shop, a China Daily hangout, set out tables and chairs. During the World Cup soccer matches, it wheeled out a television for avid fans who’d cheer late into the night. At least 100 watched night after night just at this one small noodle shop.

Usually street vendors lined the way: tinkers selling kitchenware, women selling socks, scarves or sweaters spread out on the sidewalk, people hawking bootleg Chinese and English-language books and movies, others selling small pets like mice, fish, squirrels, turtles and rabbits (presumably, intended as pets), or sweet potatoes and chestnuts roasted in big metal drums, pineapple chunks or candied fruit on long skewers.

They kept a close watch out for the local cops, called chengguan, a force of ill-trained bullies whose sole duty seemed to be enforcement of anti-sidewalk vendor codes. Rather than face confiscation of cash, destruction of merchandise and maybe a beating, vendors hurtled down the alley and scattered at the first sign of the chengguan.

bookseller

The bookseller pictured above was always on the sidewalk in front of the office. His selection of books in English sometimes included astonishing selections, such as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and Henry Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.”

When he stopped showing up, we worried. Had some English-proficient official noticed the inflammatory titles? We hoped not, but we never saw him again.

Coming next: Honorable-mention model worker

A harmonious and stable society

Mao

CHAPTER THREE of “Commie wage slave,” in which Mao is regarded as a Party crasher

 

 

 

 

My arrival in Beijing that September coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s 1949 victory in the decades-long civil war with Chiang Kai-Shek’s American-backed Nationalists. Every building in Beijing flew the country’s red flag bedecked with gold stars, and the city was plastered with posters in Chinese red depicting the Great Hall of the People at Tiananman Square with golden fireworks bursting overhead. Right in the middle of these giant posters, if you looked very, very closely, you could just make out a miniscule portrait of Mao Tse-Tung.

This was, literally, a graphic illustration of Mao’s reduced status among his countrymen. His embalmed body still can be viewed in a huge mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, but his infamous Little Red Book, once required reading for citizens and cadres alike, can be found in flea markets.

Publicly, nobody would admit that the megalomaniac Mao’s political purges and screwy development schemes had killed an estimated 70 million Chinese – during peacetime, no less. The current official line, that Mao had been 70 percent right, 30 percent wrong, was as far as anyone would go on the record within China.

Overseas Chinese, however, have penned enough memoirs and novels about living under Mao to comprise a genre known as “scar literature.”

According to readings from that genre, there probably isn’t a family in China that doesn’t have a horror story from Mao’s era. Everybody is likely to have an older relative who suffered persecution, arrest, torture, imprisonment, hunger, execution or starvation, or who survived by collaboration, betrayal, compromise or corruption. Here, briefly, is a small sample of what Chinese citizens endured under Mao:

-The Hundred Flowers campaign in 1957 purported to show that Party members with many different opinions could still be good Communists, and they were encouraged to speak up about its shortcomings. After fierce criticism and mass protests about official corruption, those who spoke up were labeled “poisonous weeds” and a violent purge began.

-The Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1960 was supposed to catapult China to First World status in steel production. Instead of creating big companies to run giant mills, Chinese citizens were ordered to build back-yard foundries and forge their kitchen woks and farming implements into steel. Almost all other labor ceased to keep these miniature foundries going 24 hours a day. While this consumed every scrap of metal in the country and produced an unusable product of inferior quality, neglected crops died, farming ceased and millions starved.

-The Cultural Revolution, 1966 to 1976, was Mao’s most destructive campaign. His purported goal was to reinvigorate revolutionary fervor. To this end, he encouraged college students and their younger brothers and sisters to fight the “Four Olds” – old ideas, old customs, old habits and old culture. Any thing or person suspected of promoting bourgeois, foreign or pre-Communist ideas (such as respect for elders and the value of education) was to be destroyed. Millions of young people organized into Red Guards and beat their teachers, ransacked libraries, universities and museums, invaded private homes to confiscate art and books, and rampaged through the cities until exasperated older cadres forced all urban youths into the countryside to labor for the peasants. Schools and universities closed, much of traditional Chinese culture and its artifacts were weakened or destroyed, family ties were decimated and a “lost generation” still suffers from those years of government-induced chaos.

Naturally, none of this was mentioned during the anniversary celebrations, which included the standard Communist Party display of military might marching past Party leaders in a gigantic parade of soldiers and weaponry down Beijing’s main boulevard, Chang ‘An. Average Chinese weren’t allowed within a mile of the event; they had to watch it on TV, but it’s questionable whether many did. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-Lt_vFZ73k

Most Chinese were celebrating the annual Autumn Festival, not the Communist Party anniversary. Along with the Spring Festival, it’s one of two national, two-week holidays when everyone in the country tries to go home to be with family. So twice a year, hundreds of millions of people swamp trains and buses for horrendous trips that constitute the largest human mass migrations on Earth. Jammed into aisles and shoved through windows to get on board, millions travel for many hours standing or squatting on their haunches, since there isn’t room to stretch out one’s legs. Many travelers don adult diapers rather than try to fight their way to overwhelmed toilets, which even under less crowded conditions are such that they’re used only as a last, desperate measure.

China Daily’s newer expats watched the televised parade out of curiosity. Two features stood out. One was the shock of seeing tanks and guns so brazenly displayed in the very location where they had last been used – against an unarmed population clamoring for democracy. (Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989). Expats concluded the whole point of the exercise was to remind Chinese citizens of why it behooved them to stifle any displays of discontent.

The other striking and slightly creepy feature, to Western eyes, were the countless rows of marching soldiers who appeared to be exactly the same height and weight. In other countries, this kind of precision can only be achieved with toy soldiers or as an illusion created by computer. But in China, with such a huge pool of possible recruits, it’s not that hard to find tens of thousands with the same measurements. They looked completely interchangeable, with no individuality.

That might be standard and desirable in any military. But such treatment also was extended to civilians, and it was oppressive. The expectation of being an interchangeable and quietly obedient cog with no individual rights was a very uncomfortable fit for Western sensibilities. China Daily’s expats, coddled as we were by Chinese standards, chafed against it.

So do many Chinese, such as nail heads, netizens and dissenters.  Others, such as migrants, ant tribes and princelings, epitomize the fate of the masses, are caught in it or have the means to escape it.

Expats were free agents in this game, called onto the playing field as needed and expected to move on when their contracts end. We weren’t really part of the team and weren’t expected to care deeply about our jobs. This, too, made for some uncomfortable moments among those who cared about ethics and standards in the practice of journalism.

Coming next: Making a home in Beijing