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An Expat Comes Back From the Homeland

After a one month stint in the Twitter detox clinic in beautiful, sunny Jersey City (no, seriously), I returned to Beijing to find that China kicked the infinite improbability drive up to 11. The Party might delay Xi Jinping’s ascension, the Philippines has always been an inseparable part of China, and oh yeah, a blind guy pulled a Steve McQueen on state security, but I can’t really bring myself to write about any of it, for three reasons: first, I’ve reset to zero in the China Cycle of Funk*; second, unlike when I started blogging back in the Cretaceous Age (2003), there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to smart commentary and reporting on China available on the Internet, for free; third, although in cases like the Bogu/Heywood kerfuffle we may never know what’s what, I can feel Twitter and Google Reader beckoning to me: What new developments are there? Did they find Bo Xilai’s secret fembot army that would’ve been buried with him in his tomb? Has Ai Weiwei base jumped nude into the US Embassy? Did Chen Guangcheng get to second base with Hillary? I need to know! And that seems more like compulsively picking at a scab than keeping up-to-date.

I never knew China without the internet, but the internet is just the latest delivery system for the information crack that expats invariably get hooked on. Raised in countries where speech is comparatively free and governments understand the rudimentary basics of public trust and information flows, we can’t help ourselves when we end up immersed in a Newspeak environment where officials try to pummel us into weary submission by hypnotically repeating the world “relevant.” Before the internet, the typical delivery systems for information and mutual commiseration were (and still are) caffeine and alcohol. But as so many of us remember when we travel back home, that shit is not good for you. There’s a fine line between being informed and being obsessed, and from time to time we cross it. We quit our jobs, even if we really can’t afford it, because we can no longer deal with the logic pretzels, jingoistic human robocalls, or toddler-esque outbursts that some Chinese employers or clients serve up whenever they encounter a nuanced political event, or even worse fail to commiserate with us when together we encounter obfuscation, bureaucracy, connivery, or just incompetence that stands athwart the completion of some basic task, like fixing your air conditioner.** We get soused or hyper-caffeinated or fat on overpriced cheeseburgers washed down with Watney’s Red Barrel*** and rage against the machine in chorus and five-part harmony, which in fact isn’t really more emotionally mature than the fenqing pouting and foot-stomping we look down on. We’ve all felt it, and I imagine most of us have seen at least one or two colleagues or friends get crushed or nearly by it.

The reality that I don’t think we grapple with quite enough is that living here is hard. It’s hard living in a political environment that resembles something like Lord of The Flies re-enacted by drunk nursery school children, and even worse to realize that we’re impotent to do anything about it. In some ways its harder for mainland Chinese, since for the most part they can’t leave, but I think there’s a case to be made that its harder for us since as non-natives our immune systems didn’t develop any resistance to the various strains of astonishing bullshit that flourish here. Americans, in particular, with our almost vicious insistence on a partially-imaginary egalitarianism, are hard hit. This isn’t simply a matter of democracy and free speech, it goes down to the personal relationship level too. While the US of A may have a rather large Gini coefficient and a storied history of people owning other people, when I walk into Best Buy in New York City there’s an unspoken agreement that while I might be a billionaire (I am not) and this service person works at Best Buy, she’s a human being with dignity and a sense of humor and deserves to be treated with respect, and she’ll do her best to get me what I need. And if I don’t, she’ll chew me out and her manager will ask me to leave. Service culture in China, on the other hand, is often based more on feudal lord-serf relationships, complete with melodramatic decrees and groveling along with the occasional peasant rebellion, and we’re never 100% comfortable with it, although who doesn’t like to have their every whim taken care of? Maybe it’s easier if you’re Russian.

Where was I? Oh right, so since we get served far more than the FDA recommended daily serving of brain-melting nonsense here, its wise to cut back on the political news. All things in moderation, because if there’s one thing China is not, it’s moderate.

*As Will has previously mentioned, the Cycle of Funk was one of the great lasting contributions of the Talk Talk China blog.

**Key phrases for mainland Chinese who must work with testy, emotional foreigners that will calm them: “Dude, that sucks”; “That’s unbelievable”; “No fucking way”; “I hate that shit.” With these, you too can be a Laowai Whisperer.

**I started this post thinking I was Palin begging for mercy, but by the end I was channeling Idle.


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