Spots of Time

May 16, 2004

Crash Course China

This is the last email I will be able to send that won't have Chinese "eyes" watching. It will explain a lot about my upcoming emails and columns, and the lack of too much personal opinion, especially with regards to sensitive topics. China is going to be a wild ride! :) Melanie

Let the Negotiations Begin (Again)

Never accept a compliment - modesty is paramount. Decline a gift at least two or three times before accepting. Present your business card with both hands - slightly bowed. Never give a gift wrapped in white or black - the colors of death. Leave some food on your plate. Slurping and burping at the table are acceptable. Red is an auspicious color. Whoever first pours the tea at the table is responsible for pouring the rest of the meal. Don't criticize the government - you could end up in jail or worse.

In less than 5 hours, I will be on a plane to Beijing, People's Republic of China, and the realization that I know less than nothing about China, its history, its people and most especially, its customs has just dawned on me. So, I'm cramming.

Truth is, I wasn't 100% sure I was going to China until 24 hours ago, despite purchasing my plane ticket, securing my visa, and assuming I had a teaching job all arranged. That was my first mistake - assumption. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Back in December 2003, my friends Aaron and Jordana got teaching jobs in China. While their initial week was a bit of a nightmare, sorting out where they should be and getting out from under the paws of the Chinese headhunter (who promise one thing and delivered another) they eventually settled into a good job, living with a nice headmistress and her family, and teaching conversational English to Chinese kids between the ages of 8 and 15 years old. As I had expressed interest in teaching before they left, they casually mentioned my name to the headmistress. She was interested and that's how the ball got rolling.

Five months later, after back and forth emails, negotiations about teaching time, salary and expectations, we had come to an agreement. In exchange for 5 weeks of teaching, I would receive a salary, room and board with her family, and the school would pay my round trip ticket to Beijing (from Bangkok). I thought everything was arranged and went about confirming my travel arrangements.

Then, 48 hours ago, I got an email from the headmistress, Miss Zhao, saying she would not be able to pay for my whole plane ticket, as she had previously agreed, but only half of it. Oh, and by the way, I should consider myself lucky as my teaching salary was 20 times that of the Chinese teachers. None of this had been brought up during the previous five months of negotiations.

In my 18 months of work/travel, half of which have been in Asia, one of my biggest "issues" is the concept of re-negotiation. I don't mind bargaining, I don't mind haggling - its all part of playing the game. But, when someone says, "Ok, this is the price, or the deal, or the agreement" and then, at the last minute says, "Actually, we can't do this anymore," my blood begins to boil.

Though my mind was clouded I still had the presence of mind to wait before writing back and instead wrote to Aaron and Jordana explaining that I thought Miss Zhao was playing dirty. Aaron wrote me back quickly, saying he knew he should be sympathetic but that the whole situation was just so damn funny to him. "What's funny is that you thought the agreement was over," he said. "The agreement is never OVER. It just changes. If you say, 'Is it 10 o'clock?' and the Chinese say, 'It is 10 o'clock.' That doesn't mean it's 10 o'clock. It means, 'Let's start discussing what time it is.'"

After reading his email, I knew that my teaching experience, if it did work out, was going to try my patience like nothing else. Significantly more calm, I emailed Miss Zhao back, playing my own hardball but attempting to communicate in the Chinese way - non-confrontationally - which eventually brought us back to our original agreement. At least, I hope so. Her last email to me said, "You can trust me because you are a friend of Aaron's and I am a friend of Aaron's." This made me laugh until I read that among the Chinese, relationships and connections are paramount, and a friend of a friend is an important thing.

The Walls Have Ears

Around this same time, Aaron's girlfriend, Jordana, wrote to me about being careful about what I write and say while I am in China, as most likely my room is bugged, my movements watched, and my phone calls monitored. EXCUSE ME? I really thought she was kidding, so I wrote her back, half-joking, and asking if she was serious. Below is an excerpt from her email to me:

"Aaron and I hung out with this English teacher from another province who is one of Miss Zhao's cousins and she leads us into this green room in her father's house and, NOT SHITTING YOU, says, 'We can speak freely in here. This room is not bugged.' Aaron and I literally fell to the ground. And we thought about the conversations we had had in our room. From then on we only talked about things when we were outside where there could not have been any devices. We took walks everyday (even in the cold) so we could discuss the interesting craziness of communism and the horrific history."

As I mentioned before, I know less than nothing about China. Until I met Aaron and Jordana, I had never heard about The Gang of Four, vaguely understood that there had been an event known as the Cultural Revolution, and "might" have been able to pick Chairman Mao Zedong out of lineup. Maybe. So, this email kind of freaked me out.

I started doing some research and buying some books on China. Aaron had also told me to watch what I write while in China, and said he'd heard that 8,600 Internet cafes had been shut down since February of this year. I decided to do a little research on this topic, as it was near and dear to my own heart (and website).

According to my LP guide to China, one site you can't access in China is I'm not sure how long the BBC has been a restricted site in China, but I found an article from the site, dated June 16, 2002, that might explain why so many Internet cafes have been closed - or at least, the "official" reason why they have all been closed.

According to the article, the mayor of Beijing ordered the immediate closure of ALL cyber cafes in the capital after a fire killed at least 24 and injured 13 in one of the city's unregistered Internet cafes. The major is quoted as saying, in response to the fire:

"From now on, Beijing will not encourage the development of internet bars," he said. "From today, all internet bars should stop operation and departments concerned should stop issuing licenses."

While the death of two dozen young people is certainly a regrettable occurrence, am I the only one who thinks the Mayor's responses were a TAD bit reactionary?

In a USA Today story from 2002, among the Internet controls in place in China today "are those that order service providers to screen private e-mail for political content and also hold them responsible for subversive postings on their Web sites." It also says that "under the rules, general portal sites must install security programs to screen and copy all e-mail messages sent or received by users. Those containing "sensitive materials" must be turned over to authorities. Providers are also responsible for erasing all prohibited content posted on their Web sites, including online chat rooms and bulletin boards. The new rules include a long list of banned content prohibiting writings that reveal state secrets, hurt China's reputation or advocate the overthrow of communism, ethnic separatism or 'evil cults.'"

The BBC article also said that the prolific number of unregistered cafes has to do with the tight controls the government keeps on "unhealthy" information - pornography and political material sighted as examples. Analysts also say that the Chinese youth are going to these illegal cafes because they are "lured by the freedom of anonymous Internet access." I wonder if it is the freedom of anonymous Internet access or the hope that their emails won't actually be read and reported to the authorities?

In the US and Europe, privacy experts and some consumers are up in arms about GMail, a new mail service from Google that is said to be similar to Yahoo! or MSN Hotmail, but with 500 times more storage space. According to new sources, American and Europeans are concerned that Google's targeting of advertisements based on the content of emails sent (whether you are a GMail member or not), and the policy which allows them to keep copies of email even after a user quits GMail, are invasions of privacy. According to one source, "there is a definite creepiness factor" (in a company having copies of your private emails).

And, I would have to agree - whether you live in China or America. Though, there is one big difference. If someone copies my emails in the US, and they happen to include criticism of the government, advocate the ousting of the President, or seem otherwise damaging to the US reputation, this won't land me in jail or worse. In fact, if you are Michael Moore, doing just this will make you a bundle of cash.

However, I don't believe there is a similar law in China. And, when in Rome (er, Beijing)...

What all this means for me, is that I will be practicing my own self-censorship, at least during my time in China. While I strongly believe in freedom of the press, and an individual's right to express herself, I also believe in following the rules and regulations of the country in which I will be a guest. While I will continue my columns from China, they will focus only on the (approved) facts - about Chinese history, government and culture, as well as my personal teaching experiences. Any potentially "unhealthy" information will have to wait - until a time or in such a place when such expressions are considered healthy.