Whether as colleagues, classmates, partners or friends, interactions with Chinese people are now a part of my daily life. While living in China I’ve made many good Chinese friends, and I’ve rarely come across those seeking friendship with ulterior motives. Below I describe three stand-out friendships with Chinese people that have challenged my ideas about modern Chinese society.
I met this 35-year-old divorcee at the local market near my home in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. While living in China, I’ve always wondered how best to get to know the locals in my community. I soon found one such way was to eat at the street barbecue joints. The grease and questionable hygiene standards mean it’s not recommended for a steady diet, but the food is cheap and the atmosphere friendly, so I dare say it’s okay once in a while.
One such night, a short man from the table beside mine pointed at his phone and gestured with his eyebrows. “Is this you?” he asked. He showed me a picture of another Westerner from the local area he had found through WeChat’s “People Nearby” feature. I shook my head. A few minutes passed before he turned again and asked if he could add my WeChat. “I just want to be friends with a foreigner,” he stated. He seemed harmless enough, so I obliged.
My next meeting with Li Jian Wen was in the same place. Over a plate of meat and vegetable skewers he told me about his hometown in the countryside of Jiangxi province. Like so many in China, he had moved away from his rural roots to find better-paid work in the city. He is part of a trend that culminated in 2012 when the country’s urban population outnumbered that of the rural for the first time.
Li Jian Wen told me about his job as a tailor. He worked at a Chinese clothing brand famous for making dresses worn by Peng Liyuan, the wife of president Xi Jinping. Through a Western lens it was easy to see Li Jian Wen as an oppressed worker, a cog in a giant corporate machine without any agency. He had to work six days a week and could be called upon during his day off to work compulsory overtime.
Once time, Li Jian Wen and the other tailors of the company were taken on a team-building trip, an event which I was fortunate enough to be invited along on. We climbed nearby Phoenix Mountain. With one employee at the front of the group carrying a flag bearing the company logo, it was more like a military drill than a day out. And of course, as Li Jian Wen confirmed, attendance was compulsory.
Li Jian Wen, however, considered himself lucky compared with others from his hometown. Many had migrated to other cities to work in factories. The low wages, unhealthy (and probably unsafe) working conditions and job insecurity, made working as a tailor an appealing prospect by comparison. I found Li Jian Wen rarely complained about his work, and when I asked him about working six days per week, he just shrugged and told me it was normal.
He never came across to me as a person who was “oppressed.” A similar picture was painted by American author Leslie Chang in her book Factory Girls (New York, 2008). Through her study of female factory workers in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan, she asserts that while their wages and living conditions are below par by Western standards, working in the factories offered these women independence, opportunities to learn new skills and a chance at career progression, none of which would have been possible in the villages from which they came.
In this respect, Li Jian Wen challenged the impression I had of Chinese workers. In his eyes at least, China’s economic boom had provided him with greater opportunities rather than led to his exploitation.
I moved to Zhuhai’s picturesque Qi’ao island in September 2017. Nestling among the palm trees was the Peking University Experimental School at which I worked as an English teacher. It was during this time that I met a 50-something full-time caregiver for a student with special needs.
Originally from Hubei province, Linda had been employed by Amanda’s parents to look after their daughter full-time. Linda attended Amanda’s classes, took her to lunch and also cared for her in the evenings.
From our discussions over lunch I found out that Linda was an avid supporter of the state of Israel and American President Donald Trump. This was not a coincidence. When we first met, she stated her devotion to the local Christian church in Zhuhai. “Israelis are God’s children,” she told me. Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognise it as the Israeli capital had won her approval.
Linda’s desire to convert me was unsubtle. “I hope you can believe too,” she said with a smile. As an atheist of 15 years, I had no intention of re-converting. I was, however, interested in learning more about Christianity in China.
Christianity has been growing ever more popular among the country’s urban middle-class. Some commentators assert that while many people’s material needs have been satisfied, there are those still searching for spirituality and meaning in life. Linda had found it in the form of Christianity.
I was invited to the local church where Linda was a regular attendee. It was a government-registered church, a requirement for religious establishments in China, located on the third floor of a worn-down apartment block in Zhuhai’s Jida district.
Around 500 or so attendees sat inside and listened as the minister read extracts from a government-edited bible. The government editing was clear to see; when I opened a copy I found sections entitled “history” and “law” as opposed to the usual bible chapters of “Matthew,” “Luke,” “Mark” and “John.”
Censorship was accepted by the worshipers, as was the constant monitoring of church activity. According to Linda, plain-clothed police officers regularly attended the Sunday morning service. They stood out, she told me, because they stayed to the side of the pews and stared without expression as the service progressed.
Getting to know a Christian involved with a legally registered church was insightful and challenged my preconception of modern China as concerned only with material gain. Although Christians only make up a small minority of the country’s population, they nonetheless reveal a growing desire among some of the urban middle-classes to find more to life than can be easily quantified.
With deep snow and temperatures as low as -20 degrees Celsius, China’s far west Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region could be a difficult place to live during the winter. The summer, however, offered warm nights during which locals would eat outside at the street barbecues. It was on one such evening that I met a 20-year-old ethnic Uygur Muslim by the name of Saleh.
An immigrant from the city of Kashgar near the China-Tajikistan border, Saleh moved to the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi partly for better work prospects and partly to escape his family with whom he had a troubled relationship. He made his way by selling kebab skewers in the Ergong district of Urumqi.
Saleh spoke Mandarin with a heavy accent but was able to communicate without difficulty with those in the mainly Han Chinese neighbourhood. The Chinese Communist Party has recently set up a project in which Uygur students are sent to study at schools in more developed Han-dominated east coast or southern cities. The aim is clear; to standardise Mandarin Chinese among Xinjiang’s Uygur population. Clearly this opportunity was never afforded to Saleh, however.
Xinjiang’s recent political turmoil has resulted in ethnic divisions between the country’s majority Han Chinese and the minority ethnic Uygur population. As such, political discussions were generally off the table between myself and Saleh, but he never showed resentment towards Han Chinese. Many of his customers were Han, his barber was Han and the majiang hall he frequented was run by Hans.
One source of malcontent among some of the Uygur population is the strict regulations for visiting mosques. While mosques are found in almost every major city in China, let alone in Xinjiang, those under 18 are not permitted to enter, and those who serve in public sector jobs, such as the police force, are banned altogether from any practice of religion.
Like much of the Uygur population in Xinjiang, Saleh was strict when it came to eating halal meat, but lax when it came to drinking alcohol. Other than the sacrifice of a goat for the Muslim festival of Adha, or Corbon as it is known in Xinjiang, he appeared to show little devotion to Islam, whether through personal choice or through a desire to integrate more into ethnic Han Chinese culture. He never spoke of visiting a mosque, as far as I can remember.
Even if he wanted to be a more devout Muslim, that opportunity has since surpassed Saleh given his recent completion of training for the Xinjiang police force. He now serves as a member of the Swat Team (tèjǐng), and is no doubt held by the government as a success story of integration in the region.
My preconception of Xinjiang was of an ethnically-divided region in which Han Chinese and Uygur Muslims rarely interacted. While this is still true in some respects, Saleh has challenged this notion by showing that integration is indeed possible.
Learning Mandarin has been one benefit of my experience of making friends with Chinese people, but most importantly, doing so has given me a deeper understanding of the society in which I live. Whether migrant worker Li Jian Wen, Christian Trump-supporter Linda or Uygur Muslim Saleh, each person I‘ve met while living in China has on some occasions re-confirmed, and on other occasions challenged, my ideas about China.
Whatever I have learned, making friends with Chinese people has above all been enjoyable. In order to make the most out of living in China, I encourage you to do the same.
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Keywords: living in China
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OK, I get it. Not about actually making friends in China but about how happy Chinese workers are to earn so little (while housing costs skyrocket) and they love their working conditions (all those suicides were actually accidents from all the jumping for joy)
Jul 11, 2018 08:52 Report Abuse
I don’t deny the problem of suicide and poor working conditions, in fact you’ll notice in the article I pointed out that Li Jian Wen considers himself to be lucky amongst those in his hometown. Many of his friends and relatives may have gone to work in factories where conditions are appalling. I just pointed out that this is not the case with him and had a similar impression to Leslie Chang, who spent a year in Dongguan researching her book “Factory Girls.” She points out that from her experience, girls working in factories are taking advantage of opportunities to earn more money and learn new skills. That does not mean all workers are like this. I didn’t mention suicide in the Chinese workplace because I only have peripheral knowledge but I would like to learn more. Can you recommend any good sources? Thanks.
Jul 16, 2018 16:12 Report Abuse