On the 13-hour flight back to Shanghai, I passedmost of the time reading cover-to-cover two of the many new books Ipicked up over the holidays: JW's RCB and KCH's TAoP,both personal memoirs about the authors' experiences during the1970s-1990s timeframe, one living in China and the other in NorthKorea. Both turned out to be two of the best works I've read in awhile.
I don't want to be too specific about the booksthemselves in public, for let's just say that neither of them made therespective governments very happy with the authors, and I don't want to makeBeijing or Pyongyang's $#!+-list anytime soon myself. I'm suremost of you East Asia-interested folks out there can figure out thetitles and authors without too much difficulty, and I highly recommendboth of them if you haven't read them already.
Both differ in many ways. RCB isfunny and light-hearted for the most part, almost feeling like readinga novel, and talking about everything from politics to penissizes. In contrast, TAoP isa narrative that's unendingly grim, terrifying, and depressing. Yet, both have a lot in common -- the underlying theme being that of disillusionment, of being promised a utopian worker's paradise but finding a reality much different.
Beforeyou ask, no, my own East Asia sojourn hasn't been as bad as either ofthem. ;) The one year mark is coming for me, and I knowI'll be here. My original hope of staying "at least a couple ofyears" is still on my radar. Yet, their stories still resonatewith me, for I do admit that, like them, my East Asia reality has beentempered. The rose color has faded from my glasses.
Thisis not to point fingers -- I didn't go in with very many utopianexpectations for what I'd experience coming out here, and mostorganizations (both commercial and non-commercial) that send folks toChina, at least those I've had first-hand experience with, do attemptto drive this message during training and preparation. Still, the key word is attempt: forthere's no substitute for actually living itand learning by experience, no matter how much you've prepared, nomatter how good your orientation is, no matter how erudite you are inthe ways of this country.
To be more specific, being aChinese-American in China, I've learned many lessons thus far, but thegreatest isn't any specific fact, but rather along the lines of RCB'sauthor's closing sentiments... what I've slowly started to realize isthat I'm against dogma and close-mindedness from or towards anyviewpoint. Of course, there are a set of absolute core beliefsthat I adhere to, but as far as the ways of man are concerned, itreally takes being out there and doing and living it to reallyappreciate it and to have meaningful thoughts.
Whether it be an issue in politics, technology, or any other human field, what I value and respect is not so much the degree of opinion or the opinion themselves, but why and where thatopinion is coming from. My greatest pet peeves are talking headswho have no experience in what they're doing and yet pontificate andspout out their stuff as gospel... those who support country X'sgovernment/policies simply because they're a citizen of country X, andit's "the patriotic thing to do"... etc. On the other hand, Irespect RCB and TAoP's authors because they've lived it out, and while they do holdextreme views on many things in their writings, their experiences makewhat they say about the PRC/DPRK palatable, versus someone that's grownup in the USA all their lives (even though they might be very well saying the same thing).
Of course, I'll certainlyventure to opine on things I have no first-hand experiencein (eg, US involvement in Iraq) and have lively discussions but I won'tattempt to convert or claim I know what I don't, nor (dis)respectpeople more for (dis)agreeing with me.
Practically, a few newbies will be soon joining my community ofexpat friends here in Shanghai, and personally, sure, I'll give themadvice, I'll tell them where to get their bills paid or find some goodcheap Western food, where to find some nice clubs or bars... Butin terms of the big picture, I'm just going to let them experiencethings and learn for themselves, so that what they say and think about China can belikewise justified.
It's not something to be ashamed of... it'spart of the Process of learning and growing, and ultimately, everyoneis enriched by it.