This is a story of hope-not the typical apocalyptic appeal to justice and deliverance from Dust Bowl fields in the orchards of Oklahoma-but a story of another type. This is a story of experiencing transnational work in a globalized world.
I grew up with an idea of limitless horizons, a graduate student at one of the prestigious UC universities and received teaching and research assistant grants as I made my way through the college maze of majors, course offerings and career assessments. My academic strength was the ability to read and memorize anything I put my hands on. I read philosophy, sociology, law, science even medical texts. I read books by Upton Sinclair, Studs Terkel and Barbara Ehrenreich. One day, I inadvertently attended a session where an articulate and knowledgeable historian discussed the growing disparities between the rich and poor in America. He was a fascinating speaker who could talk down the occasional heckler and attention-monger. His speech resonated in my mind and I asked someone about his book which I went out and bought at the first opportunity. “The other America” by Michael Harrington seemed to describe many changes I was witnessing and I highlighted the following passages:
Living out in the suburbs it is easy to assume that ours is, indeed, an affluent society.
This new segregation of poverty is compounded by a well-meaning ignorance. A good many concerned and sympathetic Americans are aware that there is much discussion of urban renewal. Suddenly, driving through the city, they notice that a familiar slum has been torn down and that there are towering, modern buildings where once there had been tenements or hovels. There is a warm feeling of satisfaction, of pride in the way things are working out: the poor, it is obvious, are being taken care of.
The irony in this … is that the truth is nearly the exact opposite to the impression. The total impact of the various housing programs in postwar America has been to squeeze more and more people into existing slums. More often than not, the modern apartment in a towering building rents at $40 a room or more. For, during the past decade and a half, there has been more subsidization of middle- and upper-income housing than there has been of housing for the poor.
I have never forgotten these words and how affluence can be a false impression that can be deciphered when you look beneath the surface.
During my early years in a PhD program. I worked, I studied, and I wrote and even was a mystery writer for my professors. With years of study on the horizon and uncertainty about job security, I decided to change gears. I had wanted to gain international work experience and decided to leave the collegiate lifestyle and moved to Asia.
For some this transition would have been jarring but I had made many Asian friends in school and I had a keen interest in learning about how business was done in “developing” cultures. I was able to live with a friend and initially worked as an English/business teacher, and took on part-time jobs of writing, editing, and translation. I even completed a Master’s degree in International Business in Japan.
At first, I had planned to stay long enough to finish my business degree, but days stretched into months and then into years. I ended up staying and working in corporations and serving as a linguistic advisor at a United Nations office.
Working abroad gave me a different perspective not only on work and quality of life issues but also on business practices and the process of globalization. There were many US and European multinational corporations moving into Asia, largely attracted by the rising living standards of the local economies and a strong belief that they would be able to penetrate the foreign markets within a short-time horizon. I witnessed the arrival of the large food manufacturers, fast food chains, medical device makers and then network, IT and computer firms closely followed by securities and insurance companies who moved into the Asian markets. All came in with gusto, and a cocky attitude of commercial manifest destiny.
The US MNCs usually hired locally. So even if you were fluent in the local language you were considered ‘not local enough.’ It was unclear whether this was the “real” reason or whether they wanted to gain “social currency” by appearing to be friendly to local hires. On one occasion after interviewing for a position, I was told to return to the US and apply for a job there instead of interviewing in the local labor market. The reason, I was told, was that in the US I would be considered a “true expat.”
Luckily, I was able to find work in Japanese companies. In Japan, I worked hard but then, so did everyone else around me. My bosses did not eat in separate dining areas, often came to the same social events and, as I found out from my co-workers, did not receive a salary that was 10 to 20 times my earnings power. I respected that aspect of Japanese business culture – which is typical of the Japanese culture. There is a reduced distance between Japanese workers and their superiors as well as among different social classes. This is borne out by economic indicators, particularly the Gini coefficient, which measures the statistical dispersion of income and ranks countries by the degree of income inequality or wealth. On this index, Japan comes in at the lower end of the ranking among countries in the developed world.
While residing and working in Japan, I was treated as a ‘strange’ foreigner as there were few women working in international business and fewer foreign women working alongside the overworked and underpaid Japanese ‘salary man.’ I was asked by one of my bosses, whether I wanted to work in a ‘female position’ or a ‘male’ position and although I didn’t understand what this meant at first, I eventually began to understand the dichotomy.
At that time, Japanese “tea servers” were women in the company, who came and worked in the company until the right husband came alone and she moved on to her family raising career. I opted for the “male” position which meant I stayed on until the boss left and if he left early, all the “males” followed him out the door to a procession of watering holes and nightclubs until the manger dropped over from exhaustion and inebriation and we loaded him into a taxi and then returned home. This happened at least 4 times a week and, as a foreigner who could hold her liquor, I became known as the gutless foreigner.
When I was offered a position to work at a UN office, I jumped at it and was able to work in government position writing, editing and researching. During my tenure at the UN office, there was unrest, civil disputes and coups taking place in different regions in Southeast Asia. At one point even my office was targeted by a bombing and although no one was hurt, I realized that even work in a safe area can be perilous. .
While I enjoyed the work and was learning more than I would have ever learned in the US, I did acknowledge that, as did Rumpelstiltskin, there comes a time when you want to check back with your family and find your roots. Looking at my life calendar, 10 years had passed and I decided it was time to return back to the US
I didn’t know exactly what I would do when I arrived at the San Francisco airport but I thought that I would be able to find something in international business and hoped that 10 years of first-hand experience in working in fast-growing Asian markets and knowledge of a couple of foreign languages , would make me attractive to internationally-oriented employers.
Disappointment was right around the corner. Unexpectedly, US companies did not find my credentials to be “sufficient” for their job requirements. My educational background and family pedigree did not seem to match their candidate profile. As one manger put it, “Asia is a male-oriented society and females may have difficulty overcoming the gender barriers.” Although I countered that I had actually experienced and overcame these “gender” hurdles as evidenced by my work experience, the job offers were not forthcoming.
Luckily I did eventually find work in a R&D laboratory at a Japanese company in Silicon Valley and was able to support myself enough to go through law school at night. It was heady days in the Valley and if you worked at a computer company or start-up, you were a slave to the company marketing and launch cycles. I spent many nights working the midnight shift and spent weeks with very little sleep.
Attending law school (at night) was a risky decision because the law school tuition was high but I thought that if I wanted to be “employable” in the coming Internet wave, and be able to distinguish myself, I would have to be knowledgeable in Internet law or have a sound understanding of employment law. So I slogged through four years of weary law school classes.
Again, time was not on my side. I graduated from law school as soon as the Dot.com bubble burst and I went through a period of mergers, layoffs and gut-wrenching bankruptcies. Sadly, I found myself without good job prospects and a high amount of school debt. These were difficult times in Silicon Valley. The Dot.com burst saw a number of communication companies go under. One of the companies I worked at was closely linked with WorldCom, which was later identified as engaging in illegal accounting practices and fraud. Another of the companies I worked for called a general meeting where only 3 of us were instructed to stay in the room. The three of us looked at each other with growing unease as everyone else filed out of the room and met in a general assembly room. Later we found out that we were the only employees that were being retained as all the rest had been fired at the general meeting.
After two years of going through the boom and bust of the Dot.com fallout, I realized that I could not continue on this continuum of volcanic employment eruptions. My resources had been tapped out and my savings depleted. I had accumulated handfuls of worthless stock options for companies that no longer existed. I was now in a pool of, laid-off technology experts, computer programmers, IT managers and overpaid accountants and lawyers sinking in a glutted job market.
After these years of “job search” unsuccesses, I decided it was time to return to Asia. Although I didn’t have solid job prospects, at least, I thought I would be able to find gainful employment that was more stable than what I was experiencing in Silicon Valley.
This time I went to China, a place that I had visited before but not resided. Life in China was like living in an amusement park with a constant retinue of new visitors and eye-catching sideshows. Things were moving fast and the economy was on full throttle. Even if you were a drop out in the US – you could find employment as a teacher of English, American geography or as a “market consultant.” of unknown credentials.
At first I worked in a business college teaching business English and later taught international marketing, debate and accounting. Teaching in China was a learning experience. Even with a business and law degree I was unprepared for the experience.
There were “monitors” everywhere, video cameras, cell phone screens and human surveillance. There were few “standards” of what and how to instruct the students other than to give a good impression when the Chinese parents were within earshot. Despite these inconveniences, I became focused on teaching students who were noticeably intent on learning all they could about the US and international lifestyles.
Many of the schools were shams. In many of the “pay to go” schools, there was no prepared curriculum, no real testing and no measurable index of performance. Most of the students registered their desire to be tested with a multiple choice examination and helpful guidance as to the test contents was demanded. In writing exercises, the students tended to go on Baidu (a local search engine) and drag and drop their findings on the page not even taking the time to determine whether they had dropped the same paragraphs two or three times on the same page.
After two years of “instructing” in public schools and private institutions, I jumped at the offer to work in a Chinese law firm that specialized in intellectual property. I found this appealing because it gave me an opportunity to apply some of the knowledge and experience I had worked hard to acquire in my Silicon Valley days.
The first days at the firm were exciting but eventually leveled off to long stretches of rereading over patent claims and proofing documents. While I liked the firm, the employees seemed distant and even resistant to the idea of a foreign employee (again, I was the only foreigner). I decided to keep a low profile and stayed away from the lunch places and gossip corridors as much as possible.
My sense of timing was remarkable. This was a time of unprecedented change in China. The Olympic Games preparation was under way and construction sites popped up everywhere. This not only caused traffic inconvenience but noise, air and people pollution. Security was intensified and every foreigner, within a radius of the capital became “a person of interest.”
It seemed that overnight, all subways were fitted with metal detectors and every time you used the subway you would have to pass through a metal detection machine. After each month passed by, there was a new regulation coming from the Bureau of Security All dogs in the city had to be under 2 feet. No driving cars on certain days. All foreigners in night clubs were subject to random searches. Panhandlers were to be removed from selling on the streets. Any discussion of the Chinese soccer team should be avoided because the sport was plagued by corruption, gambling and under-the-table dealings and inspired national shame for their persistent loses in national competition. Pigeon flying had to be curtailed. Over a period of weeks, all stores were ordered to stop selling knives (kitchen or otherwise) because knives had been used in an incident that had occurred outside the city.
In contrast to the sharp rise in security, construction safety and building codes were generally ignored I found myself in the midst of a pre-Olympic construction dustbowl. While sitting at a cubicle on the17th floor of a building adjacent to major Olympic construction – I began to wheeze, cough and developed symptoms of eye inflammation. I eventually went to a Chinese doctor and was informed that my eye irritation could be the result of air pollution or the result of contamination from counterfeit eye cleansing products. Either way, I realized the construction debris was coming though the unfiltered air vents of the building and I was being subjected to cocktail of soot, organic hazardous material, heavy metals, acid aerosols and dust contaminants. While I resided in Beijing, the recorded amount of pollution increased by 50 percent.
China is experiencing unnerving pollution problems. A survey found that a third of the nation is regularly soaked in acid rain and half of the cities have registered the impacts of acid rain. In some of the areas I toured, the limestone buildings were disintegrating due to acid air. The airborne sulfur dioxide and particulate matter derived from coal combustion, coal-burning power stations and coking plants. In the cities it is also caused by construction and increased automobile usage. In Beijing, it is compounded by dust from the sand and dust storms in the Gobi.
I brought up the issue of pollution problems and health hazards with a Chinese friend after explaining that I had stopped outdoor running in the city. He nodded and said, “There is always a positive and negative side. At least the pollution reduces the amount of methane in the air and makes it harder for my wife to find me.”
Out of sheer determination and curiosity about how China would apply the brakes of change, I continued working at the law firm and teaching.
It was my first experience working in a government-affiliated Chinese firm and I had to constantly adjust to the cultural nuances. I was sometimes called into the director’s office and asked about my feelings about my job, my life and even personal matters. I would usually say a few comments and say that everything was going OK. I felt uncomfortable about these sessions and talked about it with a co-worker who said that it was quite normal for a good Chinese manager to discuss personal topics with the employee. As she explained it the boss should act as a kind of father figure and often asked about personal questions, family matters and even provided match-making services to those seeking a marriage partner. I became used to preparing a ready “problem” that was easily solvable so I could at least say something to the director during our meetings.
Another custom that I found particularly vexing was the habit of the noontime nap. At the strike of 12:00 noon music would come through the firm audio systems and most of the workers would quickly run to the canteen eat and rush back to take a nap. It was not unusual to return to the office overrun with mats and blankets on the floor and the air filled with shrill snoring and croaking. After an hour the clock would chime and the workers would rise in semi states of stupor and shuffle back to their desks. Although I was told many times that this was common practice in large Chinese companies, none of my friends had this same experience. One noon I caused a stir by suggesting to one of my co-workers in my area to skip the noon time nap. She was furious and did so. However, I could not convince her cohorts to do the same and as I led a group of visiting foreign attorneys through the office I had to explain why there were corridors of sleeping workers, some with slippers and night caps napping under, over and near their work stations.
While I worked at the law firm I continued teaching part-time. This was for job security and because I felt sequestered and removed from the everyday reality of China. In the schools, there were few barriers against the currents of change and working in the classroom gave me a window to the Chinese education system and a rare view of the educational escalator of upward mobility.
The Chinese education system is as impenetrable and aging as the Great Wall. In order for foreigners to teach in the classroom they must abide by a myriad of censorship rules. Basically there is avoidance of the silent subjects. By and large, foreign teachers should avoid discussion of anything political, historical, sexual, religious, ethnic and controversial. This leaves a smattering of topics open for in-depth discussion and is one of the reasons why Chinese often turn to the subjects of economics and food.
Even for a foodaholic the continual barrage of digestive issues become overwhelming. I often heard about the common topics of provinces and their foods, ethnic foods, foreign foods, the best times to eat food, and how chopsticks should be arranged to make foods more savory,etc. One of my colleagues would commonly raise the subject of foods and which foods reminded him of his friends and give us detailed descriptions of why and when.
The non-stop discussion of foods and economics stood in stark contrast to the uneasy silences that occurred when people would bring up censored or forbidden topics. I found myself avoiding discussion of themes such as air pollution, falsification of numbers and national statistics (although Chinese commentators remark about the veracity of the same numbers) and international relations. Since I had been a student in Japan and Taiwan, I was told to avoid mentioning it as this would cause student resentment. It was also mentioned that I should not discuss legal issues such as intellectual property problems, sexual content, malfeasance of corporations and even historical time periods and numbers that related to these time periods. In one cram school I was required to have the students complete a report on pollution and climate warming. When I searched and pulled up numbers that indicated China had become the number one carbon- emitting country, the students showed instant discomfort. When I went into the computer lab and searched online with the students, articles on the subject had been removed. I realized that many of the Chinese college students were unable to retrieve current data on many current subjects because their systems had been “Green damned” – censored by the Great Firewall.
As the Olympic Games came and went, I continued to teach at Chinese colleges and finishing schools while a series of events unfolded at the law firm. At first, there was a noticeable change of direction. The law firm newsletter that I was writing came under increased supervision and censorship. Even writing about current legal cases and numbers came under review and editing. The law firm director seemed to be away from the firm on frequent trips or doing “other business functions.” I noticed that my company duties were becoming fewer and meetings dramatically reduced.
Life in a “state under censorship siege” is a surreal experience. You can walk the streets and visit the restaurants but you’re always aware that someone is watching and recording. There is increased Internet censorship, temporary downtimes or permanently blocked websites and a rash of misinformation campaigns. Talking with foreign visitors, tourists and corporate transfers – I often felt the blanket of self-censorship descend Everyone would discuss the obvious and frivolous subjects of the day and if there was a slip and someone uttered an “out-of-bounds” topic it would be immediately followed by light laughter and a mumbled , “This is China…”
In 2010, I met with a New York college graduate who worked as an intern at a local radio station. She was fascinated at the frenzied pace of change that was happening in the urban centers of China. She gushed over the accelerated rate of change in the city and how the Chinese were experiencing phenomenal mass migration and underpinning it with explosive construction and urban development. She said she had experienced culture shock because she had been totally unprepared for the ‘modernity’ experienced when she arrived at Beijing international airport. While feeling some small inconveniences, she mentioned she felt right at home because living in Beijing reminded her of being in New York.
It was a comment I heard over and over again from foreign visitors and expats living in compounded communities or passing through urban metropolitan areas. Perhaps, it was because I had traveled throughout most of the provinces of China and had glimpsed the “other side” of the economic miracle. Or maybe the novelty of cosmetic change had lost its luster and I began to look at whether the backbone of Chinese society and its foundations had really transformed. I gradually became more aware of the increased intolerance to deep-seated change.
As the national holiday and Shanghai World Fair approached, there were more and more restrictions. Internet searches were being blocked and people were being made to use real names at the Internet cafes. I was receiving fewer emails (my Yahoo account was blocked for 3 months). Google had decided to pull up stakes. The reality of censorship hit home when my apartment was broken into and parts of my computer disappeared. Then I was visited by two foreign “consultants” who asked me about my students and requested their names and phone numbers as they wanted to recommend them to European schools for scholarships and graduate programs. I politely responded that I would have my students contact them at a later date. This episode was a wakeup call for me to watch out for friends and other acquaintances.
Even more disturbing events would follow. One of my law colleagues disappeared from circulation. I had run across him a few months earlier and then “poof.” When I tried his cell phone there was no answer. His absence was apparent in the law firm and when I approached his girlfriend she remarked that “he was a bad man.” I began to unravel the mystery of his absence when I turned on the TV and listened to the news commenter talk about a case of state secrets violation and four famous suspects. Piecing together the cryptic information I realized that one of the suspects on trial was my colleague. His sister, who I had known for a long time, informed me she was leaving the country and I never saw the firm director again.
After almost seven years in China, experiencing the Wenchuan Earthquake, 2008 Olympics, National Day and the Shanghai World Fair, I had decided it was time to leave the country. It had been a tumultuous ride steeped with highs and lows and unforeseen turns but through it all I retained my respect for the average Chinese worker – who had made the Chinese miracle possible.
My journey through global employment had given me years of overseas experience in developing economies, unforgettable memories of work and cultural clashes, exposure to dangerous levels of toxic environmental degradation, and first-hand knowledge of living in a country plagued by skewed and rising rates of economic disparity.
But this was not the end of my employment journey.
Upon returning to the US, I was invited to join a media company specializing on China and Asia.-related publications and journals. Since I had the requisite knowledge and ample years of relevant China experience, the job seemed to a good fit for my background and credentials.
On the second week, I began to notice that there were a number of meetings where local hires were not invited to attend. Later I was informed that the company policy was to publish books on a prepared list of subjects including anti-Tibetan themes, works on Confucius and his philosophy, The Fifth 12 Year Plan , and statistics on economic development and the Chinese model of reform. When I raised the idea of pursuing other subjects that could find a domestic audience, I was promptly ignored.
Usually office meetings were conducted on a one-to-one basis with the company president inviting an employee to his room, where he would produce an outline of his future (yearly) book plans and then make small talk about his perceptions of life in the US.
Lunch meetings were routinely scheduled at the end of the week and company employees would gather at a local (usually) Chinese restaurant where the company president would make a speech, all employees would cheer and register approval and then the “company representative” would select and order the food for the lunch.
At one of these events, my mind began to wander and I started to gaze out of the window displaying an undeniable desire to jettison the environs and relocate myself in another setting. The company representative asked me, “Well, what do you feel about returning back to the U.S.? What is your impression after being away so long?” I responded, “Strangely enough, I feel very little difference. Being here is just like being in Beijing.”