Ok, I have it all pinned down...
Yesterday all the fragments of my angst coalesced. Developing a coherent perspective that kind of helped me put my thoughts to rest: Why China doesn't work for me.
Through talks with my friends and husband I realized that even among foreigners there is not a voice for people who are discontent here. It's always hushed. It's always, "Just leave if you don't like it," and that's the extent of it. Many foreigners are wary of speaking ill of China. Many of them have stakes here — a community they lead, a business they run — so avoid risky statements.
Another thing is that China does a very good job of convincing everyone that they're somewhere special. The newspaper I work for — an English-language paper — is targeted at English-speaking Chinese readers and it is more like socialist doctrine and commentary printed on oversized paper. It is NOT news. (I don't even want to elaborate on each point of non-journalism I encounter in a day as it is too big a chore.)
They put a lot of effort into developing the soft power and "culture" of their cities. I've started calling it the Shenzhen Kool-aid for where I live. For the expats I tend to meet, it entails a LOT of drinking and socializing. I actually have absolutely nothing against that sort of lifestyle, (maybe someday when I'm content and middle-aged it'll be my thing too), except that when it's in this particular environment where we are cut off from the opportunities, options and knowledge we would normally have access to, it acts as a sort of blindfold: Here is fun. Take a peek elsewhere and see how very inconvenient life is for them. Many foreigners are teachers — my husband and I are not — making a lot of money working reduced hours of 25-30 hours per week, and their school covers such things as rent and utilities so that they don't have to do as much as speak to a landlord or learn the language. Which again is completely fine — one must grab the best opportunities presented to them — except when it becomes quicksand.
I don't think that I am alone in being discontent yet ending up living here five years. Firstly "just leaving" is not that simple. Secondly, without a perspective on what it means to dislike this place, thoughts about leaving are quashed or cooed away every time they come up.
So without further ado, here are my three reasons.
1 Hygiene standards: I have never seen such little respect for public space. I grew up learning that how you treat your home is how yours guests will too — i.e., if it's tidy, they'll keep it tidy, and if it's messy, they'll keep it messy. So the link between self-respect and cleanliness is there for me. Well, people pee and poo outdoors regularly, not to mention spitting which is also practiced indoors at subway and high-speed train stations. It is normal practice for establishments to let dirty plates and trash sit on tables indefinitely; people just eat around the filth. About two weeks ago I walked past a bush my dogs had really been interested in for days and got a nose-full of foul odor. I peered in to find a dead cat bloated up to the size of a beach ball. The smell was ungodly. I went over to the complex guards less than 30 feet away and told them about it, to which they said it's "not their job." Not even their job to find someone to help remove a DECOMPOSING CAT in a place that just had a virus outbreak? The cat was so near and smelly they were actually standing, working in the odor and apparently fine with it. I could understand if it was a dead cat in bushed on a road with no nearby houses. But this was three feet from a busy residential sidewalk and complex entrance.
- This brings me to the sub-point of 1 — Normalized animal cruelty. I mused yesterday — What if being an animal lover is an evolutionary advantage? It would deter you from eating any and every species, lowering chances of catching and spreading new diseases. Everyone thought that people who fight for animal rights are so pie in the sky (of which I am one; I am a local animal rescuer) — "Humans have problems that need to be solved first." Now look — a pandemic. People love to cherry-pick culture for good and exotic and sexy parts, make it a fun conversation piece. However every culture entails bad points too, of which traditions of consuming species at random while not having a high-standard mindset for raising and keeping them can be one. Having standards for how animals are treated and listening to people who care about that may not be so fanciful after all. How wildlife trade is linked to coronavirus. So whereas before I may have been obligated to make this point separate from my issues with hygiene, I think now we can agree it's related.
2. Intellectually under-stimulating:
This begins with the nature of my work — always one-sided, poorly elaborated, and predictable views (quick, easy, and gratifying to digest for those who like it). Alternative views do not exist. The habit of not expanding how you might actually feel on certain subjects pervades the culture, even among expats.
And even with VPNs, the type of information and opportunities you have access to are affected. For example, the field I am going into — psychology — is completely unendorsed here. They would call it "Western psychology" and that it is simply unfit for Chinese people. (An "us-them" mindset is just presumed.) I can guarantee Chinese mental health workers do not use valid constructs as a basis for treatment but are only permitted to work on the basis of what the Party promotes. Beyond this, western mental health counselors and psychologists cannot obtain a work visa to practice and serve the foreign population in China. Only foreign psychiatrists — doctors who prescribe medication and are not necessarily trained in therapeutic approaches — are legally permitted to work in hospitals. (Of course foreigner mental health "professionals" DO still work and provide services here more or less under the radar.) Notice the marks around "professionals." The result of not having professional standards for English- or foreign-speaking mental health professionals in China is that there is an influx of poor quality services and unqualified people calling themselves all sorts of titles. There is one man here who holds a Sociology PhD who calls himself a Psychologist. In the U.S. where I'm from, it takes a Clinical Psychology PhD PLUS 2-4 years of supervised practice AND obtaining a license BEFORE you can call yourself a psychologist. The strange effect of barring off information is that it promotes misinformation and keeps professional and intellectual standards low. The fields of psychology and mental health are just one example.
You will also remember the major issues I had in commencing my psychology coursework due to not being able to access the textbooks I needed. Thankfully, I finally got ahold of them 2.5 months later than hoped for.
These are JUST examples from my personal life. I highly doubt I am the only one whose mobility, options, and just plain intellectual growth and stimulation are stunted living here because of its particular peculiarities.
3. Foreigners are not given a dignified place in society. When I first came to China, I was open to all who wanted to take a photo with the foreigner or practice their English. I thought it was the least I could do to promote diversity and respect for all people in such a homogeneous and cut-off country. Oh boy, how I was wrong. I was not promoting diversity but rather the place that foreigners have as zoo animals or novelty items here in China. I gave up going to my gym because of how many people stopped to watch me work out and interrupted me to say hello, as though I am their granny or kindergarten teacher who they happened to run into at the supermarket. I actually caught on video a Chinese woman I had never met before stopping to sit down and watch me do an exercise for one minute straight (I was recording my form for a trainer friend). My point is, it's so pervasively accepted that foreigners exist for your consumption and entertainment that the one day I recorded myself at the gym, I caught someone shamelessly staring at me.
There are certainly people for whom this point is not an issue as they enjoy the... special status.
I could go on if I wanted to get into policies that promote all of the above or touch upon racism, lack of mobility, lack of lifestyle options, and nationalism. But for me those are all fringe issues.
By the way, all this is not to say that I like or endorse what goes on in my home country either. It's just that, in my home country, I will have the option to mind my own business (not working at a propaganda machine and able to move on to fields other than copy writing), engage in productive activities of my choice (as someone who needs a lot of intellectual stimulation that has ended up being something academics related), and actually have lifestyle options other than living in a high rise and where grass is a rarity.
I can see how China can be great for some people. A lot of mothers I know, for example, love it here and are invested in keeping that view. However, people who are at a stage in their life where complacency or contentedness are not warranted should not be discouraged from exploring how they feel, what they're experiencing, and having a voice. So here's mine on the subject.