Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Monday, January 10, 2011

Seven Years in China 

Seven years. I am sitting here in the Lush thinking about the seven years that have flown by so swiftly since that day in January of 2004 when I flew into Beijing from Los Angeles to begin my China life.

So much has changed, and so much has remained the same. As I look around me, I see the same place I saw seven years ago. But so much has happened between then and now, and, although I cannot by any means say that I "know" China, it does seem that I am starting to get my arms around it.

I came to Beijing to fulfill my promise to establish an Oracle (database) program at the Software College of Beihang University. I had hoped to set up the program, and then implement the means to continue the program after I left. I accomplished the first part, but not the second. I grew up with non-native speakers, and started teaching English to high school kids when I was about ten years old, so I think I was uniquely suited to design a program that would allow Chinese students to transition into an English language learning environment in a way that would not be like hitting a brick wall. I did this by setting up a testing system that enforced reading of the text, and then conducting a classroom discussion of the content that rewarded students for taking the initiative to participate in working through problems in front of the class.

But the courses I was teaching require specialized skills that are not that easy to obtain on the kind of salary the Software College is willing/able to pay. They will still be teaching many of the same skills (although the program will almost certainly be short on vendor-specific software skills), but they will not be taught in an English language environment. So I failed to achieve the second part. The program basically died when I left.

When I moved to Beijing seven years ago, I had kinda figured it would take me fifteen to twenty years to accomplish what I wanted to do in China. I didn't say that very often, though, because the next logical question would be, "What is it you want to accomplish?" I didn't know for sure. I guess that is the part that has changed the most. Before I came to China, I had thought to set up some kind of non-profit organization to do relief work in Western China. I think that's the main reason I didn't even respond the first time I got an email from Beihang University (in response to the resume I had sent to the Director of Software Colleges, who was referred to me by the Asia Pacific headquarters for Oracle in Singapore).

I found out after I got here that it is very difficult for a foreigner to set up an NGO in China. I visited the offices of the China Development Brief (which has since been kicked out of China), which had a handle on all the NGO's in China, and they told me that every NGO in China has to have political supervision from some sort of government agency. I think you can imagine it would be very difficult for a foreigner to persuade a government agency to assume oversight of his organization, and thereby be responsible for any politically incorrect actions by that foreigner or his organization.

But there's more to it than that. When I went to Sichuan after the earthquake in the summer of 2008, I saw first hand how difficult it is for a foreign NGO to get involved with a problem that the government strongly prefers to handle by itself. I worked with an informal unofficial effort set up by a house church. There is no way I would have been allowed into Beichuan as a member of an international NGO. Even the folks I did go in with, who had established a relationship with the PLA (People's Liberation Army) that allowed them to get past the police checkpoint, pulled over to the side of the road and had me get in the back seat before they reached the checkpoint.

So after 2008, I was much more inclined to turn my focus outside of China, and I think this is good. Chinese young people need to get involved in reaching out beyond their own country, especially given China's strategic location vis-a-vis so many needy areas of the developing world.

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