What then is freedom?
The power to live as one wishes. Marcus Tulles Cicero
Marcus hits the nail on the head concerning my experience of living in China. It's one of those strange contradictions we love about the Middle Kingdom that for all the bad stuff we read about Communism the reality for us expats is somewhat different.
We have the freedom to be who we want to be. Didn't like yourself back home? Hell, you can make up your own biography and tell the story of your life to every other barfly you meet. You can be the man or woman you really want to be. We are anonymous; no one knows who you are or where you came from. And to be frank no one cares – most friendships are here today - gone tomorrow, sort of affairs. Most of us in China have an edited past we trot out in conversations. Things we don't want our newfound pals to find out about us. Those things that set us on the road to China - and keep us here. Failed marriages, failed businesses, failed careers, failed personalities. We can then impress our newfound best buddies with the tales of our travelling - fiction or non-fiction - who cares? If it's a good story its worth repeating. Let me tell you about the wonderful times I have had wandering around lonely as a cloud through S.E. Asia with only bar girls as company. Or the great money I was making in Korea. Or that time in Cambodia when... recounted a hundred times to the similar faces, in similar bars all doing similar things to maintain our sanities.
There are many other freedoms. The UK has one of the largest totals of CCTV cameras in the world. The British Security Industry Association (BSIA) estimates there are between 4-5.9 million cameras. In the UK I am constantly being surveilled. This is for my own safety I am informed. In China I can go about my legal business without being filmed and analysed. This is a joy. There’s a weightlessness that goes along with this freedom – it can make one feel a little giddy. The positive side of CCTV in China is all the road junctions are monitored and in the event of an accident there will be film. But still I remain giddy - the iron cage of rationality has not imprisoned me yet.
At work, I am not being constantly micro managed. I get on with my teaching with little interference. We all know our classroom practice gets fed back to the managers and parents through the spies in the classroom. I have never found out who my classroom snake in the grass is but whoever it is they seem happy enough with what I do. So I enjoy my work and get to be creative and feel I am helping my students get to the foreign universities they dream about.
The consequence of the freedoms I enjoy in China is a lack of stress in my day-to-day life. I can do what I want, go where I want to without having to constantly look over my shoulder or worry that my 'performance' targets are not being met. For me that is a massive plus in my life. That ‘freedom’ does not give me the right to break Chinese law though. Let me quote my namesake Robert Burton (1621) here – ‘When they are at Rome, they do there as they see done.’ Many foreigners ignore this maxim parading about as if the laws of the country do not relate to them. For instance, our local police come to the campus (where I live) once a month to check up on us. They are friendly and chatty, they do not want to enter my apartment, they are just checking everything is okay. A British colleague told me I should refuse their visits as it was a 'bloody cheek' and this would never happen 'back home'. I think he has been away from the UK for too long and is out of touch with what is happening in the world.
Other expats work illegally, drive motor vehicles illegally, take and sell drugs, despite the very severe penalties should they get caught doing so. It's like they live in a bubble of 1st world privilege that saturates a colonial mentality evidenced by the way the use racist language to speak about their friends and colleagues - 'chinks, slopes, chinky, japs, gooks and other racialised ethnic slurs.
China is not without its idiosyncrasies. Many of the things expats hate are things that are culturally different to the ways we think things should get done. As a sociologist I am more patient, understanding we can get too ethnocentric about the way life is lived here. One thing that irritates even me, Dr Laid Back, is that last minute management thing when they call, 'Oh Dr Rob there’s a meeting tomorrow do you have a PPT for it?' 'What? You just this moment told me, how can I possibly have a PPT ready?' - 'Oh Sorry.' Or your phone rings at 7:48am 'Dr Rob, you have a class, where are you?' 'I'm in bed, my first class is this afternoon.' 'No Dr Rob we changed your timetable, you have a class now. Class A Room 3.' 'But no one told me.' - ' Oh Sorry.'
Yet the Chinese teachers suffer the same problems, for less money, I am told it’s a management thing whereby they expect employees to jump to their slightest whim to show commitment to the employer. I still don't get it though and it’s annoying.
This forments within many expats a resentment that allows them to witter on about 'Oh we didn't do it like this in my last school' or just ignore last minute requests from the people who pay them. It's as if we are so much better and worth more than our Chinese teacher colleagues who have little say in how their employer treats them. It annoys me that some expat 'teachers' (I am using the word 'teacher' advisedly here because some people I have met in schools are plainly not teachers) think they can swan up to class, fill their 45 minutes with something or other they might have put together at the last minute, and swan off down to the local bar for another evening of telling each other the same stories they have told each other a hundred times.
That attitude breeds an arrogance (not far removed from the racism mentioned above) where we can blame the Chinese for all the things that go wrong with our easy life. How often do we hear - 'Oh the bloody Chinese, they haven't got a bloody clue, bloody idiots.' I will admit I have fallen into the same trap myself – it’s so easy to push the blame somewhere else, mindlessly disregarding that this is their country and their systems. We are the visitors; we are the aliens, the immigrants, and the refugees if you will. It is WE who are different - not them. We are the Laowais.
This is my sixth year here and I am not yet tired of the Middle Kingdom. I will be here for many years, my adventure is not ending - I will continue to live as I wish.
Happy New Year.
Dr Rob Burton