Black and White Program

An American in China

August 8th, 2008 by John Eastman

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This is John Eastman. I am here with Michael Jonas who lives and works in China. Okay, can you confirm for me how long you have been living and working in China?
JONAS: Sure. I have lived and worked in China for about three years.

And you are doing what there?
JONAS: Mostly teaching English, although I taught music as well.

At university?
JONAS: Well at what they call colleges because there there’s a big difference between a college and a university. I taught at colleges and middle school as well.

In what cities in China did you live and work?
JONAS: Well, first I lived in Dujiangyan and then I lived in a city called Kunming in Yunnan Province and then third, I lived in Guilin in the Kwangsi province. I lived in three different cities in China.

Where are you living now?
JONAS: Well, technically I am living in the states because I don’t have plans to go back. The last place where I lived in China was Guilin.

Can you describe that area? What is the housing and transportation like?
JONAS: Guilin is a tourist city actually, to the Chinese, maybe it is one of the most famous tourist cities. The housing, in the city, I think is the big difference between there and here in America. There is nothing there comparable to an American suburb. There is no such thing as a house with a yard there– almost everybody lives in an apartment and the buildings are all fairly stark– big concrete boxes to live in, without any effort to make it nice.

They build it cheaply and to allow for the greatest amount of inhabitants. There is not a lot of thought given to making it look nice. I guess that’s the way that they have been building since the Communist revolution. As for transportation, I will just say that it is something there that I enjoyed. Three years there and I didn’t drive a car even once, which is nice. All of the cities have good bus systems which are very cheap. The one downfall is the buses can be extremely crowded, and the city of Guilin did have a subway and their taxis but their traffic is very interesting– a big difference from here. You don’t see an endless stream of cars on the road– you see people walking, people on bikes, people using carts, and even sometimes horses and some big trucks and tractors– and you may see a car or two.

And if the primary means of transportation is public, does that hold true among the various classes, whether you are a student or a businessman or a factory worker?
JONAS: Sure, of course, I think some people in America hear the news that people in China are buying cars but that is just the wealthy class. The students that I was teaching were, basically, mostly from towns outside of the city I lived in or from the countryside. If I’d asked a class of 30 students “who has a car?” it would always be nobody. It’s just the wealthy class in the city. There’s a big difference and— recently I was hearing about Beijing– a lot of people buying cars there— that’s something that I want to note too, that there’s a huge difference between cities like Beijing and Shanghai and where I was living. I was in the southwest which is further inland. There’s a gap between rich and poor. There is a gap between the eastern cities and the western cities as well as the cities in the countryside. In Guilin I don’t think there are as many people buying cars as Beijing. There are some, but they are usually owned by people with high positions.

Were there any significant personality traits among the Chinese people that you interacted with that stood out to you?
JONAS: Let’s see. I hate to generalize but one thing is– I don’t think this is a national trait– but there are extreme feelings of nationalism. One thing I admire, people really care for their families, and there is a strong sense of the family unit there. Generally, people in China say that we Chinese are hospitable and sometimes it’s true, I think. If you are a guest in China, they are very hospitable to you. But the way somebody treats a stranger on the street may be much worse than the way I am used to seeing strangers treated. In China, people don’t say ‘excuse me,’ ‘ thank you’ and all of these things but then if you’re the guest, they’ll bring you everything you need and make you feel like a king.

Why do you think that it is that way, if you were to speculate?
JONAS: It’s part of the culture. I don’t know exactly how that started, but it’s definitely a cultural trait.

I’d like to talk about some of the economic boom that’s happened there in the last five years or so. Since you have been there, have you seen evidence of the benefits of the economic growth?
JONAS: Yes, I think so. I see the evidence but it’s not reaching everywhere. When I am on my holidays in China and I travel and if I’m in a tourist destination, the other travelers, they’ve all got a lot of money with them, and actually I stayed in cheap hotels and do everything cheap; they travel in style so I can see that when I travel there. There are some teachers at my school– a couple said yeah, I want to get a car and they think they’re going to be able to in a few years.

And this money that seems to be at play, this is something that’s new that maybe you had not seen in the first year or two that you were there?
JONAS: That’s hard to say. The first region I lived in is actually the poorest region that I lived in, and the place I lived in the last year is a little better off than the first place so I can tell as soon as I visited there, it is hard for me to really say if it has changed a lot in a couple of years.

Are the areas that you have observed where it is far more obvious that an economic boom is taking place?
JONAS: Of course, well I was just in Beijing before I returned home to catch a plane and I spent a day there, and there’s a big difference between Beijing and rural provinces. Usually in the eastern coastal cities, Beijing and Shanghai you can see the skyscrapers that they are building, the way everything works in the city, people are sort of acting more civilized in traffic.

And do individuals there speak of their economic upturn? Does it come up in conversation that they’re doing much better as a country and as individuals, and they’re doing much better economically?
JONAS: Actually, sometimes I will bring that point up and then people always say “but we are still poor.” It is more often they say that kind of thing, especially people in the countryside. Sometimes I try to hint, the future is in China, or the future is in Asia but I still hear the same kind of response about the economy. I think it depends on who you talk to because I think not everybody is getting in on this.

What is the air quality like in the areas that you have been in?
JONAS: I actually chose to live in the places that I did because they had some of the best air quality in China. The last city I lived in, Guilin, doesn’t have factories; doesn’t manufacture things. It supposedly has good air quality for China but you don’t get many days with blue skies and many people there blame it on the weather. Which also happened in the first city I lived in Dujiangyan where there’s one day of blue sky per month and people said the air is very clean and they said it was a weather problem also. So in Dujiangyan I believed it; it made sense because it lies in a basin just east of the mountains near Tibet and they said that the clouds accumulate every day that you have a gray sky. In Guilin they said the same thing so it’s hard to tell if that’s the pollution problem but I couldn’t. Again I wasn’t in the major cities but I was in Beijing the night before I left and I could really see it there. That’s very different from where I was living.

Is there a lot of manufacturing going on in Beijing?
JONAS: I don’t know exactly. There are lots of cars and I always hear about different things they’re doing. I think they are closing down the factories for the Olympics. I don’t know when that started or if it already did start. When I was there around mid July, it was sunny, I could see that the sky should appear more blue. If you look straight up then all around, you could tell. If you are looking at buildings in the distance, they are hard to make out. You can tell it’s a big problem there but I haven’t been in a big city in America like that when you compare to America and the city Guilin where I lived again it’s just hard to tell. I live in Pittsburgh now and to me the sky is very blue every day.

In your interaction with Chinese people, what’s is their opinion of Americans?
JONAS: That’s a good question. Well, some think Americans are arrogant. Someone on the bus told me they often have this kind of opinion and it has a lot to do with the education. Ever since the Communist Revolution they have been learning about capitalism and how evil it is. Education is very nationalistic, especially in view of America. I even have some textbooks that brought out that. I think the word is arrogant, that is very common.

Are there positive opinions as well?
JONAS: Sometimes, it’s funny, when I have a conversation with someone asking me where I’m from and I say America. Sometimes people say, “Oh, I like America” and I ask them why. The most common answer is “oh, because of the money” or “because America’s economy is the biggest.” Those are the usual reasons why they like it. Every once in a while I meet someone who says that they admire the freedom there– but that’s one out of ten and the other nine say “oh, the money.”

I think what happens is that the more educated people are, the more likely to have thoughts of Americans being arrogant. I think the longer they stay in the school system there, the more they develop these views and it’s kind of sad to me. I realize that as a teacher– sometimes I have a really bright student that just at the end of the semester I realize that they mostly have twisted opinions because they’ve been studying their Chinese textbook. So sometimes you meet some peasants in the countryside and I tell them I am from America or they just see that I’m a foreigner and they gives me a thumbs up and are happy about that and maybe they have respect for that and they would like to live in a country like that.

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