The time is approaching when my family and I will leave our mountain retreat in the heart of China. This year will be our last complete season running the Lodge, the coffee shop and restaurant we set up six years ago. The children’s education, a last stab at a proper career, and the next revolution mean that we’ll be leaving China and heading to England soon.
I have lived and worked in China for 15 years. I first came here as a student almost 30 years ago. I have lived in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, the three biggest cities, and for the past six years in Moganshan, one of the smallest villages. In the cities I shortened my lifespan by smoking and drinking to excess, stepping outside and breathing, and trying to build a “China business.” In Moganshan I might have earned a few years back thanks to the mountain air, the spring water and an annoying—for my wife—bicycling habit I picked up to replace the smoking and drinking. I’ve also done very little real work, verging on bugger all, which has been good for the state of mind but not so much for the retirement fund. At least life is cheap in the Chinese countryside, and the Lodge has been a small but ample gold mine.
I have begun wondering what it is I’ll take away with me from China, apart from our bags—I doubt we’ll be able to afford a container. All I can come up with is this: self-reliance. Juche, as the North Koreans call it. Maybe I’ve been in the wrong country.
When I was a student in Beijing there was no entertainment, so I produced a play. When I started out as a freelance writer in Guangzhou there was no one to write for, so I set up a magazine. It went on to cover all three of those big cities. Once I was established, in the words of the Financial Times, as a “mini media mogul” in Shanghai, I didn’t fancy golf so I looked for a fencing club. There wasn’t one so I started it.
All part of growing up. Happens all over the world, to all of us. We learn and put our knowledge into practice. Quite so, but of those three above, all I could do with any competence before I came to China was hold a sabre. The country has given me an opportunity to try myself, to learn, and—to be honest—to bluff and get away with it. That’s what a developing country has to offer, and one that has developed so fast offered in spades.
I’ve witnessed amazing transformation in China, but now the country really has changed. The sense of adventure has passed. It has stretched the “developing nation” concept to the point of ridicule. The excitement is over. When you can’t trust a teacher, when you can’t be sure of owning a business, and when (at last) pundits begin to wonder at the strength of the foundations of the whole shebang, it’s time to move.
But when I come home I’ll still be grateful to China for all I have learnt here. I just hope that the man from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs doesn’t get upset when I invite him out for dinner, thrust a bottle of cognac and a prostitute at him and tell him I did the same for his boss yesterday.