The snow has melted and the cherry, magnolia, and peach blossoms have peaked. Tulips surround the ankles of Chairman Mao’s grand statue at the university gate, and more and more undergraduates can be seen strolling around the campus (in pairs) in the cool evenings. All the central heating systems in Beijing (so they tell me) have been turned off, and it’s officially springtime in north China.
This spring is a springtime in my career. Since mid-February, I’ve been lecturing on Business Computing and teaching an English class at China Agricultural University, one of the elite universities in Beijing that has its pick of the brightest and most dedicated young people from a nation of 1.3 billion. Teaching university students is stimulating and rewarding, and I have the good fortune to be doing it in one of the most exciting and dynamic cities in the world.
There are many things one could say about the capital city of China, but “boring” isn’t one of them. This city of 15 million features glossy modern office towers, massive temples, serene parks, man-made lakes and ornamental gardens, pedestrian shopping streets offering international fashions, and one of the most impressive palaces in the world – the Imperial Palace or “Forbidden City”. Beijing is impressive not only because it has economic activity to rival New York’s and cultural cachet comparable to Rome’s, but also because of how quickly it is growing and evolving.
Some say that the national bird of China is the crane – the construction crane! Tens if not hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have been imported from the countryside to build and re-build the future of their country. On CAU’s campus alone there are at least three projects going at full speed, including one of the sites for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. The atmosphere in this city is charged with optimism, and rightly so – most of its people were born in oppressive poverty but now have access to the whole world!
The Beginning of The Story
After attending USC in Los Angeles, I went to work as website developer for Disney. When the Internet economy “bubble” finally burst in 2001, my job was not in danger, but I was tempted by a lucrative buyout offer and decided to take the money and run. I wanted to go overseas and see something of the world before I got too old, and for no particular reason except that my ex-girlfriend was teaching there, I chose Taiwan. Taiwan is Taiwan and Taiwan is a nice place, but I began to realize that the real treasure I’d stumbled across was the opportunity to learn Mandarin Chinese.
A year older and wiser, and already competent to make small talk in Chinese, I headed back to the U.S. to get my MBA. I focused my studies on doing business in China, spent a semester in Hong Kong, carried out a summer internship in mainland China, and graduated with lots and lots of ideas, a long list of contacts, but not much experience. It took me two years of trial and error to get back to China on a solid footing, but here I am, and the future is bright!
Something In Common
This may sound funny to your readers, but I think that being from Maine helps me to understand Chinese people.
Like Maine, mainland China consists almost entirely of rural towns and small cities, with only a small fraction of the population in major cities. Like Maine, most Chinese are sensible and modest, with close-knit families (especially because most have only one child). Their culture has a great historical tradition of education, so even the small-town people have a fair standard of literacy and basic learning. While your sophisticated Europeans and New Yorkers may get along fine in Singapore and Hong Kong, where all the talk is of what you work for and who you’re wearing, I find that Beijingers are much more like me – basically small-town folks who’ve come to the big city with a mix of awe and bewilderment. Like me, they’re excited by the myriad opportunities an international city holds, and like them, I often feel humbled by my simplicity when in conversation with Really Big People who work at Really Big Companies.
And you really do bump into those kinds of People all over the place here… they know where their Really Big future will come from.
Over all, I’d describe Beijing people as dreamers who see only possibilities and don’t believe in glass ceilings. After all, those who come to this city have already seen their dreams fulfilled beyond their wildest expectations – perhaps growing up in a village, winning a place in school in the provincial capital, attending university in a second-rank metropolis, and ulimately landing their first job in the capital. My story, the story of a Mainer abroad, is something along the same lines.
Joseph Clark hails from Rangeley. He currently teaches at China Agricultural University in Beijing, China. He writes about his life and adventures at www.joeclark.net.
Do you know someone who has been living abroad for at least a year who might like to share their experience? Send an e-mail to Rex Rhoades (firstname.lastname@example.org).