Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why I Came to China...

Though I resent that I need to explain myself repeatedly, I often am asked why I came to China as a 36 year-old member of the Massachusetts' bar, leaving behind a successful nonprofit and a thousand friends. This is some semblance of an answer/reflection.

What is clear already is that waiguoren come here for a vast array of reasons, some innocent (even naive) and some nefarious and pathetic. If I fall into either of these overly broad categories, it is the first. I never took Chinese history, never read any Pearl Buck, and knew next to nothing about Asia until two months ago, except what I had gleaned from years of carefully reading James Fallows' pieces in The Atlantic. My short-term Mandarin tutor in the weeks before I left leveled the charge that the title of this blog, Waking Green Dragon, was Orientalist. Admittedly, I came here almost tabula rasa with a certain naivete about the Middle Kingdom.

Here are my reasons:

1) To Observe Communism with Chinese Attributes

A fortnight or so before setting out for Asia, I broke bread with a dear, old friend from high school. In high school, he was the Young Republican, slightly corpulent and more slightly stooped, who reminded us that we would all be middle-aged some day. Irreverent, funny, and anachronistic, he was an independent thinker who cherished the role of Devil's Advocate. An unapologetic hard-drinking Irishman, he has grown into a man who would seem more comfortable in  the bawdy houses of 19th-Century Tammany Hall  and New York City's Five Corners than the country clubs and resorts of white shoe Bostonian lawyers.

After graduating with a joint degree in law and business from Boston College and practicing at the highly-esteemed firm, Hale & Dorr, for a few years, he tried his hand at the greatest ruse known to man, called "working for a hedge fund start-up." That went nowhere to my delight...for his soul. He has now landed on his feet, working as the legal hand for a business that, for all intents and purposes, sets up phone answering services for corporations almost all, if not exclusively, "off-shore." His work may bring him to China while I am here.
I came to China, in part, to observe the economic and political system here, inextricably linked as they are in any modern or modernizing nation. I am filled with the propaganda and official hates, the stereotypes of Americans about this paradoxical Middle Kingdom. I wanted to see for myself what "communism with Chinese attributes" looks like.

2) Success is Not Measured in Column Inches

Chuck Matthei, mentor and friend until his death from cancer in 2002, told me at eighteen never to write a resume, which was advice that I promptly ignored. The meaning of his counsel has always hovered on my shoulder like the angel that Chuck, as broken as the rest of us, often was. He meant that we should not make an official accounting of our worldly accomplishments for such an exercise is asked for only by The Man who makes little boxes out of ticky-tacky and to do so is, ultimately, vainglorious. I did not disagree then, nor could I now, despite my hundreds of LinkedIn "connections."

A new friend here--an Army vet from Alabama--asked me recently how somebody who had appeared on The Colbert Report and innumerable times in the New York Times could leave for China in the midst of such worldly success.

In truth, I was burned out by a US tax system, payroll laws, thanking a donor eight ways, and the sundry other unreasonable expectations incumbent upon any ethical nonprofit manager. Chief among my complaints was a Board of Directors, comprised of my nearest and dearest friends, that stubbornly refused to grow and was incapable of adequately compensating me or the bevy of overly generous consultants upon whom we invariably came to rely. Still, the pecuniary failures of Project Laundry List, which may yet re-invent itself with new leadership and a board invigorated by the departure of its now cranky founder, would not in and of itself been sufficient cause for me to throw up my hands.

Most importantly, I felt like I was stagnating in my calling and we, to an extent, in our mission. More and more North Americans each year seemed to be installing dryers, despite symbolic victories on the "right to dry" stretching from Hawaii to Maine, Ontario to Fort Launderdale (sic). Commitments from "socially responsible" American corporations looking for some juju by their association with us fell short of what was promised and/or of our expectations. Projects like the production of a documentary and the planning of a bike tour across America dragged on or became so unwieldy that I could not contemplate many more weeks of sitting in front of a computer, running a quirky, off-beat movement over the impersonal Internet. My own corpulence and stooping lay on the horizon. Upon returning from a two week bicycle expedition to give a speech at St. Lawrence University, it was clear that I could not re-charge my batteries if something did not change.

I wanted to come to China, because I read in the Washington Post that the citizens here, largely, have not acquired dryers even in the rising middle class. To generalize again, the Chinese are materialistic and, therefore, cannot imagine ruining, desiccating their clothes in the hot drier. Furthermore, they cannot fathom spending energy on something that can be done just as well with a rack, a line, a bamboo shaft. I want to develop the guanxi with government officials and executives at Haier (world's fourth largest manufacturer of appliances) so that the ship never leaves the harbor here. I learned, in the United States, that once people see something as essential or liberating them from the drudgery of housework, it is hard to turn back.

3) Good-bye, New Hampshire! Good-bye, America, and your crazy politics

In October, fresh from my primary defeat for a local House seat (I ran on a socialstic sounding platform of reducing the work week, obesity, and depression), the general election loomed and I found myself less involved than ever before in campaigns and party politics, because I was deeply disenchanted with the Congressman in whose campaigns I had enthusiastically participated in the past and with the general tenor of the conversation in my party. I did not want to share in the blame for the coming, apparent disaster, either. 

On November 2nd, disaster struck with the election. In early January, the first act of the newly elected Speaker was to permit a motion that handguns be allowed in the State House, where fourth graders come on field trips. Hours later an impertinent, laughable attempt to remove a sitting Democratic member of the House was underway. The victim of this absurd fiasco, which even Jonathan Swift might not have imagined, was the executive director of the NH Democratic Party. His crime: supporting earmarks so that a shipyard would remain open.

It is hard in the America of 2011, especially for an impatient radical, but for any person of modest intellect, who takes himself or herself half seriously, to abide the charade of our weakening democracy, which even as I write seems to be racing to cover up and undo human rights' violations. We have a President whose jingoistic State of the Union address seemed to come from the strategic plans of Wall Streets' giants--e.g., let the highly educated immigrants stay because they are an engine for economic growth just as our education system hemorrhages from a lack of creativity and a more fundamental lack of purpose. Income inequality, obesity, depression, drop-out rates, divorce are epidemics that Keynesian high-speed train projects cannot arrest.

A handful of Russ Feingolds, Al Frankens, Bernie Sanderses, and the holy, merry elves from Cleveland are insufficient antidotes to the bureaucratic spin-machines that our political parties have become. (George Washington warned against such divisions much as Christ warned against sects and denominations that cause splits in our circular, gray existence.) The corporate media, 24-hour doctors of vapidity roll out as news the tabloidesque "breast-feeding" scandal du jour. Sarah Palin contemplates being the rock star in chief. Sadly, whole hospitals of ophthalmologists may soon be needed for the eye-rolling in which even the modestly informed must now unavoidably engage, try-as-they-might to suppress it.

4) I am a dam fighter

Three Gorges Dam, by any account the largest hydroelectric project in the world, tamed the Yanghtze Jiang. In so doing, China's leading seismologists and hydro-geologists suggest that they may have, in fact, simply caged a dragon. The pooling of water--in places where heretofore twas never puddled--may cause tectonic shifts and earthquakes. There is not a friggin' thing that the Central Committee or even Mao or Buddha, reaching their hands from the grave, can do to put this genie back in the bottle, but we can stop before we do the same thing again in Turkey or on the Nile, Amazon, or St. Lawrence. I am here to bear witness to the hubris of our human race in its thirst for electric power. This week, my nose is buried in Simon Winchester's thrilling travel writing about his trip up the Yangtze. Fully one-twelfth of the world's population lives in this single watershed. It sheds a thousand times the silt that the Mississippi does.

I want to make a prediction, which should make believers in the Mayan prophecies tremble:
In the short term, Three Gorges Dam is going to cause geological turmoil on a scale that makes what happened in Haiti look like tiddly-winks. 
I am not such a mystic that I believe my simply saying such a thing will make it come true or I would not utter these words. In fact, I hope with all of my soul that I am wrong. Nevertheless, I want to be in China, but safely far to the north, when the dragon blows fire so that I can do humanitarian work with the victim's of our species' excesses. I want to bear witness and so I am turning to you, my readers, to expand the reach of this blog.

5) Mandarin 101

One of the very first things that my skeptical mother said to me, when I announced my plans to come here, was, "You could not even stick with Spanish for two weeks in high school. You were terrible at languages." I hated Latin and the queer men who taught in that department. I know that my mother is partially right (aren't they always) and that the only way I am going to learn any language is to immerse myself in it.

I am taking steps to learn the language because there is no question that the feeding, clothing, and entertaining of a population as large as China's must be done well for the sake of humanity and the abundant Earth. While the street signs in Changchun are also in English and few of my friends who do energy work or dabble in the capitalist ventures of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing have taken the time to learn Mandarin, I feel that you cannot truly understand a culture until you comprehend the intricacies of their modes of communication. I may not need to know Mandarin to be a competent world citizen of the 21st Century, but I want to know it.

6) The satisfaction of teaching

There are few jobs in the world that can compare to teaching--the daily satisfaction as you look out at eager students filling their heads with the skills and knowledge for tomorrow's world.


Whether to scold or agree, I hope you will take some time to comment on this post.


  1. It's interesting, Alex, that I didn't know much of this beforehand. It simply seemed to me that this was the right decision for you at the right time. I believe, as well, that there is an underlying weakness to many of the large scale social and technological engineering decisions of the Great Dragon. Will it turn around on its own tail and devour itself?I wonder about this all the time when hearing reports from friends who have been there on work projects.
    Here is something that gets me: China's government owned and taxed tabacco industry, the largest in the world, in a country that offers no health care and need
    needs to feed people.Things like that make me wonder about their future. We have those problems here but scale changes the outcomes, I believe.

  2. So, you were fed up, bored and wanted a challenge--seems fine to me! Bill and I have known many Chinese people and absolutely have loved every one of them. Enjoy!

  3. As you know and I have confessed- I had not planned to read your blog, but the headline caught my eye... after the countless discussions, you might imagine it would. Change and adventure, themselves, would have been enough; expanding horizons, boundaries and knowledge, more than enough. Becoming reaquainted with yourself, your abilities, your limitations, and your love for life and the world and its people? Priceless (to quote an irritatingly attractive ad campaign.)Enjoy and safe travels.

  4. my partner julian's parents went to teach english in china on a crazy whim in the 80's for many of these same reasons - it was an amazing and eye-opening experience for them. i look forward to hearing more about all you find there - thanks so much for sharing your experiences...grateful to be along for the ride!

  5. Congrats on the Colbert Report... though I try to watch as much as possible, it is still not very often and I was so excited to see your appearance!

    Regarding disheartening American politics... I'm currently working at the US DOT and sitting here, wondering if I will be paid in a week and half if the two sides cannot reach a budget agreement. Gone are the days of bipartisan "there are no democrat roads and republican bridges" to the current all or nothing, no compromises approach. That, compounded with what is happening in Wisconsin (billionaires bankrolling a public union busting governor?) is the stuff of The Shock Doctrine. Unreal. Hope you are enjoying China and spreading your message on that side of the world!


You are encouraged to leave your two cents.