Saturday, August 15, 2009


This morning, I asked Qian if there is a Chinese idiom for "swimming upstream." I don't know why, but this seems to me exactly the kind of phrase that the Chinese would have an idiom for. She gave me a four character phrase, but she said it isn't an idiom per se. The phrase is 逆流而上 (ni liu er shang).

The reason I asked about this kind of a phrase is because after reading an article about Americans coming to China for work the other day, I have the feeling that Qian and I are about to leave a relatively smooth and calm brook and are about to begin walking upstream in a substantially stronger, and possibly raging, river.

From The New York Times:

BEIJING — Shanghai and Beijing are becoming new lands of opportunity for recent American college graduates who face unemployment nearing double digits at home.

Even those with limited or no knowledge of Chinese are heeding the call. They are lured by China’s surging economy, the lower cost of living and a chance to bypass some of the dues-paying that is common to first jobs in the United States.

"I’ve seen a surge of young people coming to work in China over the last few years," said Jack Perkowski, founder of Asimco Technologies, one of the largest automotive parts companies in China.

"When I came over to China in 1994, that was the first wave of Americans coming to China,” he said. “These young people are part of this big second wave."

Read On
Over the past couple months, I've talked a number of times on this blog about my apprehension about returning to the States at this particular time (I think I laid out a lot of the reasons well in a comment on this post). Qian and I know that this is a terrible time to be leaving China and going to America. But at the same time, it's something we really have to do right now.

In a selfish way, it angers me that some of the brightest minds in America, and the rest of the world, are now focusing their attention on China. I want to, in a way, keep the country "mine" and want to have my unique experience of being in China for more than three years stay a really remarkable thing.

But, of course, this is a ridiculous feeling for me to have. I'd be a fool to think that intelligent people from around the globe wouldn't want to come to China to take advantage of the situation that is being presented right now. And in another way, China is going to be a much better place the more that foreigners come here and the more exposed its people get to the rest of the world. The benefits of foreigners coming to China now will affect both the country and myself positively in the future, I feel.

So, overall, this article above and hearing about western people finding success in China are good things. It's just that reading stories about westerners becoming quasi-economic refugees and leaving the States when I'm a few days away from heading back to America gives me some conflicting feelings.

Anyone who's read my blog with any frequency the past few months knows about my disillusionment with a lot of the aspects of American life and about how I feel that the economic crisis is not a little blip on the ever climbing path of unlimited and unrestrained growth. I have serious concerns about the direction America is headed and particularly about what Qian and I are going to do with ourselves upon our return.

Saying all that, I'm confident that, despite the bleak economic scene in America, we are going to end up being alright.

A week or two ago, Qian's parents, Qian, and I got together for a formal dinner where I, essentially, asked for her hand in marriage. At that time, Qian's dad grilled me a bit about what our plans are and how we're going to survive in America. I feel like my response was one of my all-time most awesome uses of Chinese ever (her dad, of course, does not speak English).

He told me that Qian is there only child and that they are worried about her being on the other side of the planet in a country with a struggling economy. I assured him that I'm strong enough and resourceful enough to both take care of Qian and provide her a decent life in America. I used my life in China as an analogy. I asked him to remember the first time I met him a year and a half ago and how crap my Chinese was and how much I didn't understand about China and its customs. I then talked about where I'm at now both with my Chinese and with my general knowledge of how China works. I pointed out to him that I'm now a manager with ten people working underneath me at the school I work at and have done a good job at adjusting to life in China. I told him that I will get things done in America and will do them well.

After I finished my minute or two of talking, he flashed me a huge smile, stuck out his hand, and said "OK!" We then gave each other a very firm hand shake. Apparently I'd convinced him that I'm 厉害 enough to marry his daughter. That conversation and the look on his face throughout the conversation are things I'll never forget.

The things I said to him were all strong statements and ones that I'm going to have to back up. I'm confident I can though.

Qian and I are about to 逆流而上, yet we are committed to living in America for at least two years (when she can receive a green card) and possibly much longer if things are going well. We're both a combination of nervous and excited. Us going to America is scary and it is a gamble. But I truly believe that we're about to embark upon a fantastic journey.


Charlie @ Discovering Mandarin said...

Firstly, Congratualtions Mark!!!

Good luck 逆流而上. I am not so sure that there are all those many jobs that your referenced article talks about as it seems a lot of people are also becoming unemployed.

I have just started learning Mandarin and also feel like I am 逆流而上.

If you don't mind I think I will use that as my 'proverb of the day' tomorrow on my blog.

Good luck with everything.


Anonymous said...

A couple of sites like Danwei and China Law Blog slammed that article as a story that gets regurgitated every few years and from what they have seen, there has not been this "huge influx". I don't, I'm not there, but I can understand your dilemma. From what I know about you from your blog your gonna be ok back here in the states but your in for a big challenge. Personally, with the political climate here and the skyrocketing cost of living, I'm looking for a way out, and indeed this is horrible timing on your part, but you will be up for the challenge. Don't really know how much long term potential is really there in China as so much seems to depend upon guanxi and the culture still seems to frown upon outsiders coming in and being 'too' successful. Will be interesting to watch Qian's and your adventure back to the states and see how it all works out. Good luck man.

Ramesh said...

Mark - pardon my longish comment; can't help express a point of view.

Firstly the article, as the others have observed, is old rubbish. They all refer to "pre crisis" examples. As you know today, there is actually a net drain; there appears to be net reduction in foreigners staying here.

Secondly, it needs an outsider to say how great a country the US is. Every citizen is unduly harsh on his own country. I am an Indian who's worked in quite a few countries including the US and now in China. There isn't a place like the US, even in the midst of the recssion. Sure things might be temoprarily difficult, but the spirit, the openness, the inventiveness, the adaptability and the sheer dynamism of the US is not even remotely matched by any other country. All the positive press about China, is of course mostly justified, but if I stepped back and look as a neutral, I will any day bet on an America in recession that a China in boom. China, or any other country, has decades to go to catch up.

So while I wish you and Qian all the vesy best in the US, perhaps I'll suggest that for an honest couple, with good values and a willingness to work hard, there is no better place in the world than the US - even in the midst of a recession. I think that you'll find "swimming upstream" actually very pleasant.

Mark said...

Thanks a lot for the nice comments guys.

@Charlie, go ahead and use this as your proverb! I think it's a good one!

@Hopfrog & Ramesh, you know, I had a feeling the article was a little weird. It didn't gel too much from what I've heard, but at the same time, I don't live in Beijing or Shanghai and don't know what exactly the situation is there. I'm also involved in the ESL industry which is a lot different from what the people featured in the article were doing. So I figured that there might be some truth to the fact that well-qualified Americans are having tons of opportunities in China. But it sounds like those people are running into a lot of the same problems everyone else in the world is at this time.

I appreciate your guys' encouragement.

Hopfrog, I think you should come over here to live for a while at some point. Although I've been in China, I understand what you mean about the political climate and costs of living problems of America. From the comments you've left on this blog, I think you'd have an absolute blast living in China.

Ramesh, I appreciate the encouraging words you have about America. I can tell from your blog and your comments on my blog that you are a very level-headed guy. Your endorsement of America, despite its current woes, make me feel better about what we're about to undertake.

I like your comment at the end - "I think that you'll find "swimming upstream" actually very pleasant."

I'm really going to try to take this approach with going back to the States. I hope that I can infect Qian with it a bit too.

The next period of time in our lives is going to be tough. Work is going to be hard. Getting on our feet is going to be hard. But I think that if we can take a big picture view of the whole thing, it could actually be a very special and meaningful time in our lives.

Again, thanks for the great comments. You guys are always adding quality insights to this blog. They're always appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I really loved those comments Ramesh, sometimes it takes an outside objective view to help us realize that there is still a lot of good here in the states. We get beaten down so much from foreign opinions of US that we stop believing in those things that were the basis for the country's success. Granted, I think the last administration caused us to justly lose our luster, but I was still very refreshed to hear those comments.

Mark, I would have an absolute blast in China but my wife is really fighting me on this one. She isn't thrilled about going back anytime soon and I am really itching to do something like you are doing. She says I can go off to anywhere in the world and teach for a year, as long as its not China. I don't know what her hangup is but when I press her on the issue she seems to fear the aggressiveness of Chinese women toward western men. So even though it is a country where Men vastly outnumber the women, and I have sworn that it would be impossible for any girl to take me from her, she won't relent. So right now I am thinking about maybe going off for a year to Central or South America, any ideas?

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your marriage and new family life!

I just thought I'd offer some lengthy commentation. I moved with my wife and 5 mo. old son from Japan to the USA back in the beginning of June. I knew the timing wasn't great, but we filed the paperwork before the economic meltdown and the $1000+ in total expenses was a lot for me to just throw away. So we made the move, despite my hesitations about the economic situation.

Things are not pretty here in the USA. I'm on the east coast and I've never seen so many beggars and so many abandoned building projects. Even in the "beautiful" corporate world, employers are taking full advantage of recession, requiring full personality and even sometimes IQ tests at some places. (Yes, it is legal depending on the type of work you might be doing). I often lay awake thinking I should have just stayed in Japan in my horrible job there and worked the 80 hours a week because at least I was employed and independent. But then I look at my now 7 mo. old son and how much I've been able to see him grow since I quit that horrible job, and I recall that we made the move so that we could enjoy quality of life, and I do not regret it at all. I miss Japan, I miss Asia, and I miss expat living all of the time, but quality of life is the name of the game for me at the end of the day.

If you have some family to stay with who won't mind if you are there until you get back on your feet, you will be OK. You just wake up every morning, do the job hunt, shrug off the rejections, and keep at it until you find your proper place.

You have real-world experience in China which if anything sets you apart from the graduates. You many not get a dream job in a think-tank or what ever, but you've lived and worked and experienced more than the graduates. You and Qian are both young, and you're going to be OK. You're going to miss China like you've never known, but you wouldn't be making this move if it wasn't for the best, no?

Mark said...

@Hopfrog - That's really interesting on your Mrs.' objections. I would think that, in the future, if I tell Qian that I want to come back to China, she'd be thrilled. We'll see on if that will be the case though.

I don't think Chinese women are THAT aggressive. If you're in a club and are going up to girls, sure, you'll find aggressive ones. And I suppose in work environments there could be some issues, but I don't think it'd be a problem.

Of course, I'm preaching to the choir. It sounds like you understand that there wouldn't be any problems.

As far as other places go, I had a friend who had a good time in Chile for a while. I know that just from looking at a map, Chile seems like a great place. A long skinny country of mountains and ocean! Can't argue with that.

I've also heard lots of good things about Argentina.

I have no idea about how to get work down there or what the work situation is like though.

@Gaoshancha - Thanks for your comment. I appreciate hearing from someone who is in such a similar position (besides us not having a baby!).

We, too, are too invested in the process of getting to America not to go.

Your reaction to the States sounds a lot like what I'm expecting. Recognizing that it sucks in a lot of ways, but at the same time having some benefits and, overall, probably being a good thing.

I'm sure that we'll miss China a lot. I'm also sure that there will be things about America that will drive us crazy.

Thankfully, we do have a very supporting family. My parents, more extended family (I have a huge one), and friends are all eager for me to come back and for Qian to make the first trip there. I think we'll have a lot of support. I'm not underestimating how important these people in our lives are going to be.

Good luck to you, your wife, and your new child. I'm sure that, despite any problems, you're going to have an absolutely amazing time raising the little dude!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, definitely preaching to the choir which is what makes it all so strange. But I also remember the loons in River Town that were way aggressive with the laowai. It sounds like the run ins are rare, but the ones that are that aggressive really go overboard. Which, if I were ever to leave my wife, it certainly wouldn't be for that type. Well Chile is one of the countries I was looking into. I dunno, maybe I'll try the China angle again in a few months and try and get to the bottom of this. But hey, she really wasn't thrilled about me leaving for a year anyways, so by bringing up China she is more than happy to let me go somewhere else, so in a way thats a small victory. We have a great marriage I just need these kind of adventures in my life.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, just got done writing that post about saving face and the stock market when something hit me. Three comments today, sorry to gum up the works, but can you pass this theory, I'm about to lay out, by Qian and tell me if it might be the reason for my wife's stand against me going to China.

If I were to go to China for a year it would be in her province of Shandong as that is where we have discussed possibly retiring to and I thought it would be cool to check it out for a year to make sure I would like it. Well, if I were to teach in Shandong I would probably be spending time with her friends and family who I met when I was over there. I now have a theory that may somehow feel she is losing face by me going over there without her. Like people may think that we must not have a good marriage or she is not a good wife if I wanted to leave for a year. Thats certainly not the case and I can understand people would think that, but I also now think that and the concept of saving face may explain her stand on the issue. Thanks again.

Mark Carver said...

The new wave of Americans coming to China will arrive in a much different China than you or I have been in so your experience will always be unique. And personally I think it's cool that Americans are looking to China and elsewhere overseas for employment. If American companies are foolish enough to let bright young talent get lured away by sparkly things across the sea, then it's America's loss. Some may think that this will lead to subversive American colonization of susceptible nations, but I think that this will actually soften the American superiority complex, because as you and I and many others in China have witnessed, China gets under one's skin :-).

BTW, why are you leaving China? I know it won't be as dire in America as you might think but why now?