Why I’m sticking with China

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Why I’m sticking with China


Xi'an in China: sure the city is polluted, but there's more to it than that, says Marjorie Perry. (Image: Jamguo)

Mark Kitto recently wrote an article in Prospect explaining why after 16 years in China—during which time he married a Chinese woman, had two children, and ran his own business—he is returning to the west. He outlined several factors that have compelled him to leave the country he once loved. China is no longer the exciting place it was when he first arrived, full of optimism and a new vision for the people. It is now a terribly polluted country, rampant with corruption, clinging to xenophobia and nationalism, and consumed by lust for money. As a foreigner who has lived in China I have experienced all of these issues and yet I do not share Kitto’s pessimism. In fact, I am planning to return to China to live there for several more years.

Kitto’s concerns are well-grounded. Pollution, for instance, is a huge problem. I remember first coming to study in Xi’an in 2009. I knew that Xi’an would have a dry climate. During the journey from the airport to the university, however, it seemed as though we were driving through a fine mist. I soon learned that this phenomenon was the haze of pollution hugging the city. For short periods of time it loosens its grip, long enough to remind everyone exactly what they are missing: blue skies; vitamin D; clearly defined shadow and light.

As for the modern Chinese urbanite’s love of money, I recall one particular conversation with two other women with whom I had done some modelling. (I definitely do not possess model-caliber aesthetics—but foreigners are a rare commodity in China so I was invited). The star of the photoshoot, an official in the Chinese government, was an equestrian aficionado, and that afternoon we were photographed with him on horseback. Returning to the city, it seemed to be a competition between the girls to see who could come up with a more accurate figure for this man’s net worth. “He owned how many horses?” “Did you notice what kind of car he had?” “His watch looked new—and I’m sure it’s not his only one.” You get the picture.

I have also met China’s highly nationalistic fenqings (“angry youth”). One evening I joined a friend and several of her colleagues for dinner. For the duration of our meal the man to my left berated me over “America’s treatment of China.” He told me how America was wrong to meet with the Dalai Lama; how we should remove ourselves from China’s internal affairs and abandon Taiwan; how we should recognize China’s rise and leave it be. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways.

All of the above examples are not flattering to China. So why am I so sure I want to go back?

What draws me to China is the opportunity to witness the country’s great evolution. Although I am grateful that I was born American I admire China’s long and winding history. Following the events in China, one has the sense that the country is on the cusp of change. Protests seem to expand in scale and have a real influence on government decisions. The copper alloy plant that was the subject of popular opposition in Shifang will no longer be built. The “national education curriculum” will not be implemented in Hong Kong. The Open Government Initiative, established in 2009 by the CCP itself, also seems to show progress in terms of enabling citizens to access information.

Another development encouraging me to return is the appearance of Weibo—the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. I am sceptical about Weibo bringing western-style democracy to China but I do believe that it allows the average citizen to make his or her voice heard. It serves as a forum for the relatively unfettered discussion of current events. Although I can observe and participate from my current American vantage point, I want to be on the ground in China, hearing the actual xiaodaoxiaoxi (news through the grapevine) and contrasting this with discussions on Weibo.

Admittedly there are concerns. The fact that Xi Jinping disappeared for an extended period without official acknowledgment is worrying. This man is presumed to be China’s next leader and yet, in stark contrast to the information available on American presidential candidates, very little is known about him. The recent trial of Gu Kailai and the drama surrounding the 18th Party Congress also highlights China’s corrupt legal system. Gu Kailai’s effusive praise of China’s courts was ludicrous. “In order to uphold the sanctity of the law,” she was reported to have said, “I am willing to accept and calmly face whatever judgment I am given, and I also expect a fair and just judgment.” Who can swallow this? What does it do to a nation’s psyche to be in a situation where the people know the government fabricates such things and the government knows that the people can see through it? How long can a people endure such absurdity?

These two contrasting forces—one towards openness and public participation and the other towards opaque government control—are what make China fascinating. There are so many good people in China. People with ambition and creativity; people who have suggestions for how their country can be guided in the best direction; people who are proud of China but also recognise its shortcomings. China is in a transition period, with all the pollution, corruption, and social unrest that comes with change. When I look back on my life I want to be able to say that I saw firsthand the development of the world’s most populous nation and most ancient civilization.

In Xi’an I saw things that I found abhorrent, but I comforted myself with the knowledge that I could always return to America. No one was forcing me to stay. In the end I wanted to remain in China because I wanted to know more about what China was like and what it will be like. I still do. I’ll let you know when I find out.

Marjorie Perry is a Program Associate with the China Program. She has spent four years studying Mandarin and hopes to become an “old China hand”

  1. September 18, 2012


    Your writing touched my heart.

    • September 25, 2012


      I am new to Prospect, i can very surely say i will be regular through smartphone apps. I have enjoyed reading, almost every article and opinionator here.

  2. September 19, 2012

    tan shuiquing

    I enjoyed reading your article and I must say that the only reason I would ever return to live there is to satisfy my curious mind. I too wonder how the country will grow and change. But when thinking of the pollution, the corruption, and the possibility of a government and society such as depicted in The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung, I am scared. Not only for China, but for humanity.

  3. September 20, 2012


    “…one has the sense that the country is on the cusp of change.”

    A fortune cookie prophecy, if ever there was one. Problem is that change, like “living in interesting times,” is not necessarily for the better.

  4. September 21, 2012


    very green. all foreigners go through the extended honeymoon period. and then its hits you and it is all over. you can never be an old china hand – by definition, they were the folk who roughed it all those year’s ago. If you never shopped at the Friendship Store with FECs, the you are not an old china hand.

    look back at this article in five year’s time and be embarrassed of how naive you were. But enjoy the ride though – China is nothing of not interesting (although way less than it used to be).

    • September 22, 2012


      Bingo on the green/naive points. One doesn’t aspire to be an old china hand and real ones are recognized for their wisdom by their peers but never refer to themselves as such or claim to be experts.

      You’ve obviously been there but it makes it harder for your juniors to accept your view if you are too proprietary re the acquisition of that wisdom. Just a nit.

      Please share more of your insights. Especially those along the lines of: “at first it seems that…but then one learns that…”.

    • October 3, 2012

      Fei Lisha

      I want to second your opinion. I think that Kitto would have agreed whole-heartedly 16 years ago. I moved to Beijing in 2009 as green as can be… in love with a new culture and never knowing what surprises each day might bring. When I realized that I was sick all the time and had a terrible cough for over a year due to the pollution, I knew it was time for me to go. There are so many things that I love about China. Unfortunately, I see the quest for “economic interest” destroying much of the environmental and cultural beauty and uniqueness.

  5. September 22, 2012


    Marjorie’s optimism is a quality and she’s undoubtedly made many genuine mutual Chinese friendships. I’m glad she didn’t get sucked into bashing her own country or “the west” by her angry fenqing acquaintances.

    She hopefully is beginning to realize that these emotions stem from insecurity. A toxic mix when combined with hubris and an utter lack of self-awareness.

    Many folks from other countries have gone through phases where this mindset prevails. Internationalists from every country abhor it. The more you believe that your country is different, the longer it will take to learn and escape the tyranny of this mindset.

    The frequency of the use of the term “foreigner” is a great indicator of modernization. Do your host country a favor: don’t perpetuate it, use a specific nationality or say non-Chinese. Ditto for “westerner” or “the West”.

    Political agendas aside, all countries are in their own journey from their own traditions towards a shared, universal and global modernity.

    • October 7, 2012


      Very good points. Everytime I visit China I am always struck by the big Foreigner signs at immigration. On the Hong Kong side, it says Visitor. How much more civilised.

      • April 6, 2013


        And in the US it says “Aliens”…..

        • August 22, 2013


          BAM! I don’t really understand this eagerness to “become Chinese” that has elicited so much attention towards how non-Chinese are addressed formally. It is NOT an immigrant country to begin with. Would you ever think of becoming French?

  6. September 23, 2012

    Mary Gallivan

    I must agree with a poster above that it seems impossible to become an Old China Hand. Foreigners working in China can read a lot of foreign-sourced guess articles about the future of China. They can observe physical economic development, like building construction, traffic growth, mass production in factories. But they can’t know what is happening in central and state governmental circles. All a foreigner can do is work conscientiously and make friends with chosen Chinese people around them. Let the international China watchers writing in the New York Times and other publications get on with their prognostications and analyses for whatever they may be worth. The Soviet watchers in the 1980s failed to predict the fall of the Soviet bloc. Astrology is an inexact science, like history.

    • October 7, 2012


      I personally feel that it is easier to follow China from the outside, unless you are really fluent in Chinese, living in China cuts you off from a lot of information. In the UK there are often excellent BBC documentaries on China which we can not get here fo example. Even in Hong Kong, we still have not seen Ai Weiwei’s documentary Never Sorry, though my friends in the UK saw it weeks ago. I gave up trying to watch Youtube in China. I miss good bookshops, newspapers, magazines and contact with the non-brainwashed.
      Of course I agree that studying elite politics is just guess work, but the system itself is more observable.

  7. September 23, 2012


    I’ve been in and out of China for over five years now, and I found Mark and Marjorie’s articles though-provoking. I find interesting, however, the idea of a conversation about whether or not it is “worth it” to live in China, or any other country, for that matter. Perhaps I will be called naive and impossibly idealistic for this, but it seems that conversations of this nature inevitably focus on what the country in question can do for me, on what I can gain from it, whether or not it provides a sufficient “return on investment”, be it financial, intellectual, or otherwise. I admit that I often look at my life here in China that way, but I always find greater fulfillment in the rare moments in which I am able to consider not what I might gain from this country, but what, however small and insignificant, I might I give to it.

    • September 27, 2012


      Thank you for saying this! I’ve lived in China for over five years, and have lived in Europe and South America, as well as across the United States. Every country on earth has disease, corruption, poor education, pollution, etc., though obviously in varying degrees. First of all, as long as we continue to think along these lines of “countries” rather than “our planet”, we will continue to see distinction, and continue to judge. When we can finally see that these distinctions are imaginary, and that we are one, we will begin to turn our vision outward, and begin to think, “What can I do to help?”

      • January 14, 2013


        Amalia’s comment is a rarely found wisdom. Hope more and more people living on this planet will be embrasing this way of thinking.

        • June 15, 2013

          The China Hand

          Au contraire, Amalia’s comment is idiotic. See, there are these things called “scientific instruments” that measure air quality. They say that there is a lot more particulate matter in the air in China than in most other places. So yes, while there may be pollution in other countries, China is one of the worst offenders.

          To throw your hands up and say “nothing is wrong here because there are problems in other places” makes you nothing short of a useful idiot at best, and a moral coward at worst. It is akin to saying all is well in places like Iran just because of the (once-in-a-century) electoral farce in Florida in 2000.

        • June 15, 2013


          it’s a hippie or idealist way of looking at the world.
          if you apply this to communist china, then you will be terribly mistaken.
          communist china is a regime that defies logic and reason. maybe comparable to that of north korea and cuba.
          but the bad thing is they have a huge and destructive population that will put humanity and environment at stake.

  8. September 23, 2012


    > I remember first coming to study in Xi’an in 2009.

    Stopped reading right there. You just can’t compare the depth of insight Mr. Kitto must have from seeing the development all the way from the 90′s.

    To become an “old China hand”, you must first spend some time there and look around.

  9. September 24, 2012


    I agree with Sigs. Depth of insight is key. I think we all go through the same stages and at the end either leave or come to some sort of grudging acceptance. She will be embarrassed of what she’s written in five or ten years. Of that I have no doubt.

    My own China/Taiwan/HK experience started in the 80s. It seems as if my memories are a dream state because of the changes. I can’t even go back to where I first was-it doesn’t exist anymore!

    Just because of the way it was back then you had to be a “believer” to even be there. My tongxue all knew a good deal of Chinese history and context and we all really wanted to believe in a new Tang Dynasty-like era where being Chinese was more a state of mind (like being an American) rather than a blood lineage. I completely agree with Mr. Kitto’s one word for those times as being “optimistic.” The excitement and the hope was palpable. You could literally feel it.

    I think almost all of us there drank the Kool-Aid. But for better or worse, the average Chinese (and I’ve found this all around the world) prefer to idealize the Song and their bloodline from the Yellow Emperor. And so that is how a being a “Chinese” is defined. Accordingly, we will “never be a Chinese” and never could be.

    I think therein lies the problem. After having been so optimistic (albeit naive) and feeling a part of something greater than ourselves, some of us react like spurned lovers in our disappointment. We’re angry that we will never be really accepted regardless of our language level or understanding (or for having spent a large percentage of our life there). We will always be the outsiders. We can never “understand.” And it hurts.

    And it is in some ways ridiculous. When I first returned to North America, I had twenty-something ethnic Chinese kids telling me that I didn’t understand China, and that I never could! “Chinese” who had often never been to China! It was irrelevant to them that I had lived there longer than they had been alive, that I could speak the language, that almost all of my friends were China-born Chinese, and that until I left the Borg, one of the proudest moments in my life was when my laoban (boss), in front of hundreds of his employees (and my co-workers) publicly stated that I must have been a Chinese in my last life. Now I think it’s bizarre…but I was definitely proud at the time.

    It’s ironic that people like myself, who should be China’s greatest non-Chinese defenders, should be so blase and pessimistic. But there it is.

    • September 26, 2012


      If you wanna be – dont try – just be

    • October 7, 2012


      I drank the Kool-Aid too in the 80s, and before that i believed Chinese socialism was good and Soviet socialism was bad…
      my proudest moment was after publishing an article in Chinese suggesting Pinyin should gradually replace Chinese characters, a Chinese reader published an article saying I could not be Non-Han because only Han Chinese make such extreme attacks on their culture. He even called me a jiayangguizi, or fake foreign devil, after the one in Ah-Q.
      You can never be Chinese, but you can be father or mother of a Chinese, and then be lectured by them. Fascinating.

    • February 9, 2013


      When you are a guest in someone’s house – you do not forget that you are a guest.
      That is all there is to it.

      If you marry a Chinese, have children, let them stay in China, they marry and have children – slowly it will become the home for them.

      You are a guest – there is nothing surprising about this.

  10. September 25, 2012


    Two words: Na-ive

  11. September 26, 2012

    yamabuki Zhou

    Since time immemorial older people have been telling younger people that they are naive and inexperienced. But this is not the bad thing that the old people make it out to be. I’m glad she’s going to attempt to stick it out in China. We need people like her to witness and take part in the ongoing culture of change in China. This is her path for now. Why try to discourage her with your words about her naivete. She is following her own path in spite of her knowledge of China’s shortcomings. More power to her.

  12. September 27, 2012

    Scott Ballantyne

    Not being Chinese: Why I don’t leave the country I’ve come to love.

    Mark Kitto’s excellently written article, ‘You’ll never be Chinese: Why I’m leaving the country I loved’, brought me to compare our very different lives here in China. I’ve been here for over 17 years and whilst I do have scores of experiences which would surely be equal to Mark’s, I do have an overall completely different set of feelings about living here.
    So, I drew a sort of comparison to his life and to mine here. Similarities do exist – I have a Chinese wife and a ‘joint venture’ daughter, for example and I was involved in education for 3 years (though in my case as a lecturer and in his as a student). Perhaps the most noticeable differences occur because of the commercial routes we took. I have spent most of my time here employed by multi-national corporations; I have always lived in cities; Mark went into journalism and into business in a small community.
    Mark found himself in high profile, or high interest for government officials, situations: journalism and a foreigner in a small community whereas I have been able to remain relatively unnoticed. Where I have been directly involved in working with government departments it has been in contributing doing voice-overs for government promotional videos or for education and these brought me little or no limelight (they don’t even put my name on the video cover as narrator). I represent the British Government as a Consular Warden (an unpaid position) which brings me into minor contact with Chinese officials and then only when they need my help to resolve a problem.
    I was once instrumental in persuading a local government to move a whole village from the top of a mountain in Fujian to the bottom of the mountain and near to a town, but this was so that the children of the village could go to school and so that the lives of the villagers would improve. In this case, I got nothing but politeness, cooperation and thanks from the government officials involved.
    You may be forgiven for thinking that I am naïve, or that I’ve been lucky (maybe I have) but I’m not a young man (due for retirement in a few years time) and I certainly do not see China through rose coloured glasses.
    This brings me to touch on how life’s experiences form our judgements and, more importantly perhaps, our feelings. My experiences in senior management positions have given me a different set of views to those of someone in journalism. Today, I run an international company in Guangzhou where I am the only foreigner, where I respect all my staff and where I am able to work in an environment where the idiosyncrasies of local bureaucracy are frustrating but manageable – and I have yet to hear of a place in the world where such bureaucratic influences do not play a role. In truth, I suffer more ‘administrative’ issues with foreign government visa sections when wanting to send my staff abroad than I do with local government here.
    Corruption – sure, it’s everywhere. Self centred attitudes – sure, they’re everywhere. Inequalities – all around us. Bias and prejudice – see it every day. The key thing to feeling about things is how you let those play a part in your life, perhaps on one’s attitude to it. Of course, things are not fair for everyone, just as they are equally unfair in all other countries of the world, but I do not allow such things to dictate how I feel about life and where I live. Until they directly affect my family or my friends, I’m able to partition them off into my mind, filing them under right or wrong, but still able to get on with my day-to-day life. Is that selfish? Perhaps, but it does help me have an attitude that enable me to help others too. I do my best to live in the country of my choice the best and easiest way I can and I find little wrong with that.
    Almost every day I read British newspapers on line. Try reading the Daily Mail and finding something to rejoice about – there’s not much. So if I returned to my homeland, the UK, would I be any better off, would there be less injustice, would I be happier? I know I wouldn’t. In China I am still sought after for my skills even though I am over 60 years old – I could not expect that in the UK. In China I’ve been able to give my family a far better income than I could have earned in UK. In China, I experience so many people wanting to learn from me that it gives me a great sense of being, of worth. I’m not sure I’d find that in the UK.
    Yes, I baulk at the homework I see my daughter having to do, but when I take her to UK my friends and family comment on how well educated she is for her age compared to their children. Yes, I hate the Chinese banking system; I don’t like being pushed in front of in the Metro and when waiting for busses and taxis; I don’t like having to question the reason I’m invited to this dinner or that event knowing the host just wants to use me, usually; I don’t like kow towing when government officials come to my company; I don’t like having to buy private vpn so I can reply to Facebook messages; I don’t like the air traffic control delays on 80% of the flights I take ( a regular thing for me) but I have learned to live with them and not to allow them to darken the joys I get from living in China. I know for sure that if I go back to live in UK, I will find lots of things there to not like, too.
    I am British, I tell anyone who asks me, and many who don’t. I’m proud of being British and I have no desire to be anything else. 17 years in China has not changed that for me. I know I cannot be Chinese but then I don’t want to be. Not because there is anything wrong with being Chinese but just that I happened to have British roots and see no reason to change nor deny that.
    Mark Kitto has a responsibility to make a good life for himself and for his family and he has decided that he can do that better living outside of China, and there is nothing wrong with that. I made the same but reverse decision when leaving the UK and coming to China and I stay in China because I still believe I did the right thing. As long as I can make myself and my family happy then I will, if I can, live here for the rest of my life. If I cease to be happy and believe that I cannot change that then I will, like Mark, also leave. The way I feel now – and trust and hope I will feel in the future – then I will not be leaving China.
    I wish Mark every joy with the changes coming in his life and hope that he can find the happiness we all deserve but I also want readers to know that there are many other foreigners here who are happy to stay – many of them are friends of mine and they all seem to want to stay. Then again, none of them are journalists and they all live outside of the spotlights in cities.

    • October 8, 2012


      Although my experience is more similar to Mike than yours,  I identify with some of your sentiments. At 48 I also prefer to stay in China, although I have made my home in Hong Kong, where visas are far easier to get, and which has the advantages of a good legal system, universal medical coverage and freedom of information, as well as being close enough to the mainland for frequent visits. Food in Hong Kong is safe to eat and the air pollution is better than the mainland, and the government is more open about the problem. The education system is better and the Hong Kong people have just forced the government to abandon mainland style patriotic education,which is known in Hong Kong as brainwashing and quite rightly so
       After spending so many years learning Chinese, which is of limited use in the UK, I don’t know what I would do there  now, or if I would receive any assistance for my disability, given the current economic climate, if I could not find work. Also it might take some years before I re-establish my residence in the UK. In Hong Kong I get work teaching English and also write articles in Chinese for some of the Hong Kong magazines which are banned on the mainland, one day these magazines will be unbound and my readership will increase exponentially. Many Chinese have a certain curiosity about non-Chinese who have mastered or partially mastered their language party, because they cannot understand why anybody would want to do such a thing. But outside of China a non-Chinese who has spent years learning Chinese is generally considered to be simply weird.
      In China my skills still have some value. Foreigners are still relatively rare in most parts of China and simply being a native English speaker with a degree still guarantees a job. Plus although the Chinese government is repressive I have lots of kind intelligent Chinese friends who have a great sense of humour too, because you can’t survive in a place like China without a great sense of humour, and I love talking to them. The fact that I have bothered to learn their language also means that many ordinary Chinese who cannot speak English can talk to me openly and I have many interesting conversations with taxi drivers and masseurs who are far more outspoken in their criticism of their government than western China watchers. Back in the UK I wouldn’t be able to afford to travel by taxi or have regular massages too! I get satisfaction from speaking the Chinese language just as I once did from playing a musical instrument. Chinese is grammatically simple but flexible and full of witty phrases. Chinese food is also healthier on the whole than British food and Hong Kong has the second highest life expectancy in the  world although that may be changing as the effects of air pollution accumulate.
       I feel just as frustrated as Mark by China’s retreat from reform but I do not feel it is necessary to abandon it entirely as long as Hong Kong retains its high degree of autonomy; by living here I can keep a foot in China while spending most of my time in a city which is far more civilised. I don’t want to be Chinese either, because I know it’s impossible and wanting something which is impossible would just make me miserable. 
      Like you I’m happy and proud to be British, I’m proud of my country which although in economic decline still has the world’s most popular authors and musicians amongst many other things to be proud of. With my British passport I can travel easily around the world; with a Chinese passport I would need to apply for visas for everywhere, even Hong Kong where mainlanders are only allowed to stay for seven days under present rules. I can also live and work in 26 European countries and as if that is not enough, if I really wanted another nationality I can get Brazilian nationality quite easily because my daughter was born in Brazil. Brazil is far more welcoming of foreigners than China. Brazil recognises dual nationality so I would not have to give up my British nationality too do that. Brazil, like China, is a huge country with great potential but with a free media and a democracy of sorts, far far less environmental pollution and a culture which values sport,  leisure and the pursuit of happiness more than just material acquisition – a very pleasant change to China if I ever needed one.

  13. September 29, 2012


    you failed to mention how this guy had a multi million dollar business stolen from him. The business environment is shaky, and even with a contract like Apple had, they had to pay what was essentially a $60 million extortion fee

  14. October 1, 2012


    Really interesting article and many varied responses…I think when the whole thing is boiled down when making comparisons between country systems problems seem to arise when there is no effective independent legal system separated from the governing executive.

    Then again, I guess look at the USA and it`s homeland laws, imprisonment without trial, rendition etc, it`s control of the communications system and daily spying on it`s citizens.

    Look at Western central control of their banking systems and the transfer of power and money from the middle class and poor to the elite…the corruption of information systems to give first mover advantages to a tiny percentage of individuals in the know at the expense, generally of the community at large.

    I feel I am better off under this system, but I also feel that I am getting less better off as the years pass by.

    I am not so sure when I look at the functioning of Western democracies that there is such a large difference between the way they appear to be heading and where China may be when we meet them, on our way down the path we are being taken.

  15. October 7, 2012


    I enjoyed this article, China is certainly a fascinating country to me as well and I also enjoyed living in China and observing changes for many years,unfortunately most of the changes in the last five years where negative and eventually they began to impact on me personally.  When I came to china I was employed by several companies simply because I was a white face with the convenient ability to speak some Chinese, they used me for a few months and then found an excuse to terminate my employment. None of them could provide me with legal visa although they all promised. One company created a International Association for the promotion of wine culture and appointed me International director in order to tempt Chinese people into buying their wine but then halved my salary after five months and told me to earn the rest as commission selling wine coolers. Another company told their clients that I had formally worked as a butler to the Queen of England and I would be overseeing management policy if they bought a luxury apartment. 
    Then my family joined me and we moved to Hong Kong because I believed that it would be a better place for them and I could continue travelling frequently to the mainland to work, however just a few weeks after moving to HK the Chinese government suddenly changed its visa policy, doubled visa prices and stopped issuing multiple entry visas for six months making it impossible for me to visit regularly. 
    After that I worked for a foreign company in China who tried to make money from sponsored fun runs and nearly completed processing my work visa after seven months but the lawyer told me that I had better not sign a work contract because then I would be more protected.  The company refused to finish completing my work visa so I had to leave the country and return with a tourist visa and have no legal rights to claim compensation for termination of employment. A few months after that an old acquaintance, a writer and member of Chinese independent Pen  Centre was arrested and harassed by the Chinese police, they stole his computer and used his e-mail account to send me a Trojan horse virus. That was the last straw and made me wake up; how can you continue to live in China and observe it as a fascinating cultural experience when your friends are being arrested and intimidated simply for writing and publishing reasonable calls for freedom of speech and democracy on Internet?
    You never know when China will suddenly change its visa policy on foreigners again. I would say that it is dangerous to invest too much time living and studying in China. I do believe that one day China will be a much more democratic country with freedom of speech  and information but it could take decades if not a century and in the meantime, incremental improvements may actually make things worse; since the large number of brainwashed chauvinistic fascist xenophobic Chinese who are currently suppressed by the government and a semi-democratic China would actually be one where these people would express their fascistic tendencies more freely. It’s a scary thought but China may actually get worse before it gets better

  16. October 8, 2012

    Uncle Jeebers

    I’ve been here for 13 years and it is closing its doors, laws against foreigners are getting stricter, and yes, it is certain, you’ll always ? be foreign ?, i.e., a laowai. You’ll constantly have to renew your visas, no matter how many years you are here, if you own property or not, or if your Chinese is really good. So I see some of the positive points you post here, but really, what’s the point? You’ll never be accepted as a member of the community. And that means never. I seriously don’t encourage you to invest in such a colonialist conspiracy situation.

  17. October 13, 2012


    I am surprised the editors of prospect thought this article would provide balance to Kitto’s. The first sentence and commencing in 2009 is not an expert vantage point to put up against one who has achieved more than most and who seen more than almost all of us.

  18. October 24, 2012


    This is not even a response to begin with. I mean these examples of horse-riders and angry students… What the hell? And well-reasoned criticism vs purely private enthusiasm about somebody who doesn’t really even start to live in China other than a students life to begin with… This is nothing more than a weibo comment – let alone a magazine to publish this…

  19. December 19, 2012


    It is interesting seeing the struggle and alienation of westerners in the land of of the east. I guess in the end xenophobia exists everywhere. We should learn from each other that xenophobia sucks, next time you see a foreigner in your country be nice to them, you never know when you will be a foreigner yourself.

  20. December 22, 2012


    It’s interesting how experiences of non-Japanese living in Japan are similar to non-Chinese living in China. The similar refrain – “you are not ……therefore you cannot understand us”. A book written in the 90s about Japan – was called the Enigma of Japanese Power. The premise that in the country there is no one who is responsible. Like the imperial palace in the middle of Tokyo – a vast empty space surrounded by a moat. Like Japan, China collectively and as individuals lack self awareness – other awareness.

    China has been described as a autistic nation. Poor strategic thinkers – this is a country conquered by backward nomads who ruled it for centuries. It doesn’t learn from other countries, don’t learn other people exist. Doesn’t learn how to negotiate with other people – have back and forth with them – as European culture was formed and Indian culture and most cultures around the world. Your have neighbours.

    I fear for the future of North Asia.

  21. December 22, 2012

    Uncle Jeebers

    in my original comment the chinese characters did not display. “lao” in laowai means “always” and “wai” means foreign, i.e., their most popular way to describe a non-chinese is as an “always foreigner”.

    it’s great to keep your own culture (if you have one), and limit immigration to those who assimilate well and contribute to society. but what china wants is a constant and regular source of scapegoats for their internal troubles.

    • March 3, 2013


      actually, ‘lao’ means old, or venerable (as in ‘lao pengyou’, old friend, ‘laotouer’, old man). you are talking about ‘lao’ as something that is annoyingly repeated, as in ‘lao darao wo’, it is only translated as ‘always bothering me’, mot-a-mot would be ‘he is old in bothering me’

      the character is written with the two radicals meaning ‘hair’ (mao) and ‘changing colour’ (bi, a corruption from an hua, change), ie the one with changing hair is old.

      look in Karlgren’s dictionaries, one of the foremost authority (even among chinese people) in classic characters’ meaning and explanation

      when you wan to say always, you use ‘zong shi’, not ‘lao’.

  22. February 22, 2013

    Alex Leibowitz

    I think some of the responses to this article are unfair. For instance, why can’t this young woman aspire to be an “old hand”? She didn’t say she *is* an old hand — she said she aspires to be one. It seems like the equivalent of aspiring to be wise. Sure, you don’t *ever* say your wise, but there’s nothing wrong with saying you want to be wise. She’s interested in China, and her aspiration is to stick with that through the nitty gritty to the point where she can be said to have the same level of experience that Mark has.

    So you talk of waking up from a honeymoon period and leaving China, and I want to know — do you think that people who are currently living the dream had better wake up and leave?

    I agree from reading the original article that it requires a special perseverance and perhaps optimism, if not a level of self-delusion on the scale of Ah Q’s, to actually settle in China permanently as a foreigner. What’s missing, I think, is consideration of what can be gained from living in China for 5 or even 10 years.

    We all come to China for our own reasons. Lots of us are trying to escape from some aspect of our own country we didn’t particularly like. I have the sense that some people come looking for love. Some people (and it sounds like Mark was one of them) want to take advantage of and participate in the Chinese economy, such as it is, or else has been.

    I came because I wanted to learn more about Chinese culture and the Chinese language. The day I become fluent in Chinese is the day I’ll be done with China. But I think there’s a lot to be said, as this article states, for seeing things from the ground — and if you want to learn a language, what is more revealing than going to live in the country where it’s spoken?

    We have different aims and we observe different things — so I don’t think you can advise someone point blank whether she should or should not live in China. And people living in China do have their dreams — but people living anywhere must. If you’re going to take to writing you could at least have the courtesy of Lu Xun and respect the dreams of youth.

    So I guess it all comes down to this: when you wake up from your dream, when you decide you’ve had enough of China and it’s time to leave, do you wish you had been awake all along? Do you view the time you spent as wasted?

    Let people enjoy their dreams while they can.

  23. March 5, 2013


    As a fairly ‘old hand’ I have to agree with above comments saying the author is quite ‘green’ and there is nothing wrong with that.

    However there is something I would say. To give a bit of context, I am perfectly fluent in Chinese – including reading and writing. This comes as a result of over 20 years of dedication and patient learning motivated by my love for China and Chinese people. I had always been in the past bravely defending China against criticism that was more than often without solid foundations else than some ill sensed politics.

    But then, it is not that I, like Mark Kitto I guess, have awaken from a dream, and none of us I think and hope are regretting for one second all our time there. It is that we have witnessed our beloved country and its people change. No I am not Chinese, but part of heart is. And that heart was broken, and broken, and broken again by that changed China. Then when it came to the point that I no longer saw a hope for the next coming years, I left and felt lucky that I could.

    What is happening in China is not China specific though, I feel that the general direction our world is taking is wrong. And I can only understand that when bad things happen, I do not want to witness it, I want to be somewhere I will feel safe.
    Unfortunately in China, a foreigner will never be safe in such events and even an easy target. You need to go back in history and see how it was always true. What happened to the foreigners, or the mixed children, or the spouses of foreigners in the 60′s and 70′s ?

    Let people enjoy their dreams yes, but let us not be blindfolded by what’s really happening there which is most sad for those who really love China, no matter if they are Chinese or not.

    I once read a manifest from a Chinese online that said : ‘In my country, talking good about my country means being a good patriot’. I can’t agree more with this, and sometimes saying something ‘bad’ is being a true nationalist.

  24. March 16, 2013


    These commentary have been wonderful reading, though as someone who has never been, an overall depressing picture is being painted. I am considering moving to China so that my 13 year old daughter and I can learn Mandarin. Can we do this in four years? Can she, who is much younger do it? Will she as a dark skinned African American teen, be able to have a healthy social life? Will I as an educational consultant with a doctorate in education be able to find sustainable employment? Is there somewhere I can go to speak to people who may have answers or insights on these questions. By the way, the reason I want us to move there and learn the language is because the US is so headed in the wrong direction, that I don’t think there is a future for a young person without some international credentials.

  25. June 15, 2013


    Interesting that westerners like Marjorie wants to stick in China while everybody in China us trying to leave this sinking ship that is modern China. I don’t blame her, because she always knows she can return the the US if things go wrong. Most of the people suffering under the Communist regime do not have this luxury.

    Based on this fact alone, I can conclude that Majorie is just like one of those “bourgeoisie bohemians” who come from a comfortable background but want to sample the “down the dirty” to enrich her otherwise boring life back in the Western civilisation. I can relate to this because some people are more adventurous than others. It also the only reason I can think of that explains why some westerners volunteer to live in hellholes like China and India.

    But for those who cannot escape the brutality of a ruthless regime and suffer countless perils ranging from horrendous pollution and dangerous food to abusing of human rights and brainwashing propaganda, all they can do is to live as stoically as possible with no hope in the future, and humanity as well. The westerners would never be able to relate to this kind of misery.

  26. October 9, 2013


    Unfortunately no one in the world can guide or offer the current leadership advice on how best to run China because no one in the world has experience in managing a country of 1.4 bn Chinese who would quickly revert to the warlordism of past times once the jackboot comes off.

  27. December 13, 2013


    China is under a system of government that is not we in the west are attracted to: We enjoy our freedom and individuality too much. We know when we come to China we can get out when we feel we’ve had enough. So our curiosity or our affection for the Chinese people or China lures us to come to this country knowing this escape route.
    For some of us we even have ideals of contributing to the improvement of this country for the people of China: It is certainly a noble and admirable motivation. However, not everything we do, regardless how good our intentions, bears fruit that we like. Life is like that! But I would not conclude that we have failed.
    Even if we feel China is going downhill with all her problems: pollution, over population, lack of human rights, seemingly lack of humanity-the buck is their god. China would somehow survive, as she has for thousands of years. Outlasting others as before.

  28. January 28, 2014


    I can’t imagine living somewhere like China and India – I am not a pioneer and am use to a straight forward existence in the west. Corruption is everywhere but I think, especially in UK/USA it only really exists when there is something of value up for grabs. On a daily basis, unless you are careless or stupid or very very- you can avoid getting robbed.
    But the opportunities to be had in countries like India and China makes them very appealing – start a company and sell a product in India – get some large company to buy it from you from 10 times what you invested – instant millionaire. But – go to India, live and work with Indians – unless you are willing to grow an extra head – you can’t do it easily. But then – nothing worth having comes easily :-)

    I think I can see the evolution of China from the safety and comfort of my NY apartment and wherever else I am living. I don’t think it’s worth living in unbearable pollution, corruption and constant fear of having my shit taken away from me just to see the changes in a country. If I am not accepted, why should I live there?

  29. February 6, 2014


    I have now learned everything I need to know on this subject from the comments section of this article. I love the internet…

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