Alvaro De La Iglesia
Major: Asian Studies
Hometown: Carrboro, NC
Study Abroad Program: UNC Semester in China
The following narrative is a compilation of notes I scribbled down in a 2” X 4” notebook while on my trip to China. I tried to carry the little notebook with me everywhere I went, which proved to be a bit cumbersome. Additionally I would sometimes keep a journal in the evenings before I went to bed. However, this practice was very sporadic because knowing I only had four months in China, a country which I had dreamed of visiting since my Dad introduced me to the TV show Kung Fu (the original one with David Carradine not the new one). I often woke up very early and stayed up very late accompanied by one of these three things: my books, the wonderful friends I made, or just simply the places I wanted to visit.
What I express below is definitely a first impression of what I experienced the first month or two while I was away. The sentences encompass thoughts and feelings in a human sense rather than in a rational academic sense as I tried to come to terms with China, its culture and its people, first on my own terms and later perhaps just a tiny bit on their own terms. Now that I have returned, I am trying to get a grip on what I experienced by transcribing my little notes into longer sentences or maybe even more. Perhaps actually filling in the gaps with some research and identifying the recurring issues I was exposed to. When exposed to different surroundings and customs it is easy to point out the ways in which they are not the same to our surroundings and customs. With time, I noticed some of the differences where more superficial than deeply rooted. What I hope to accomplish as I combine my experiences with a little research is a clearer perspective not only of China, but of myself and America as well. I hope you enjoy my notes!
Phillip’s Ambassador Journal for September and October:
My first impression of Xiamen, China was that it reminded me of my place of birth, Caracas, Venezuela. The island of Xiamen is lush with tropical vegetation visible as soon you exit the airport. I have been told that by Chinese standards it is neither crowded nor polluted and best of all; the people of Xiamen are polite and friendly. Though when I arrived, I was greeted rather tersely by the immigration agent who checked my visa and passport. His unfriendly behavior reminded me that within the last two months the United States has recalled countless Chinese products from being sold to American consumers due to poor quality control, and which judged the goods unsafe by U.S. standards. As most people are aware the recall of Chinese goods led to an investigation in China that ended with the execution of a high-level quality control official in Beijing who was accused of taking bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye. How would I, an American, be welcomed into China given the recent politicization of these events? How do the values of a country who executes officials who do not do their job compare to the values of a country whose President pardons a government official who leaked classified information that endangered the life of a CIA operative for political reasons?
My views of China, surprisingly, did not differ too greatly from my grandparent’s views of their home country, Cuba. I believe, and to some extent continue to believe, that the political situation here is quite simple: China has a totalitarian form of government that asserts control over its people by not allowing them to have the political and economic freedoms Americans have come to accept as normal, such as the right to assemble peaceably. As I departed the airport another not so pleasant reminder of South America and of the political circumstances here was clearly visible, the great divide between those who have and those who have-not. The absence of a developed middle-class that is the result of a political situation, in which those with money and political ties make it difficult for the average person to have upward economic or political mobility. These first impressions left me convinced that I would always choose apple pie over mooncakes and maybe even over arroz con leche; democracy and capitalism over some half-baked variation of communism. However, much to my dismay, the situation here has become a little more complicated. It all started after some of my classmates and I visited an ex-pat restaurant named Havana known, of course, for the rare treat of providing Cuban cuisine in China, which much to my satisfaction far exceeded the quality standards of any mojito or paella that I have consumed in good old North Carolina (although Paella is historically attributed to Spain, the seafood paella of Cuba is a staple in most if not all Cuban kitchens).
The restaurant Havana is a haven for expatriates the world over. It is situated within a building that was most likely a former household complete with a walled courtyard that keeps the streets of Xiamen out-of-view for however many hours one decides to enjoy the inviting ambiance of the restaurant. Once inside, the Hemingway-like décor of the place reminded me of stories I have heard about pre-communist revolution Cuba. The restaurant was complete with pictures of revolutionaries like Che Guevara and wannabe dissidents like musician Manu Chao. The price of a meal and a drink was at least double or triple that of any local Chinese restaurant, which still only means 3 to 5 dollars U.S. for a beer and mojito respectively. However, what is most pertinent about the establishment is not what was there, but who was there.
Basically the restaurant contained a conglomeration of business men who have come to China because they can make more money here than most Chinese people will make in their entire lives. The representatives included: garments from Italy, agricultural technology from Peru and Germany, architectural services from Columbia, and a few other businesses from England and Australia. Many of the businessmen came paired with their sexual service workers which I have been advised I should not refer to as prostitutes because that is not politically correct (the prostitutes, by the way, come from a combination of nationalities to include: Polish, Russian, Chinese, and Philippino.). However, even though according to time zones you live 12 to 13 hours in the future while in Xiamen, I will say political correctness is not something that will concern China for at least one or two more generations to come. My point is: there are plenty foreigners here making a handsome profit. China is in the process of opening up its markets to foreign investors to an unprecedented degree, more on this shortly. Additionally, I was informed by one of my professors here, after relating my Havana story, that though China suffers from widespread corruption where local business is concerned, the government goes through extra pains to protect foreign businesses from having to deal with corrupt officials. All this left me somewhat perplexed. In my mind the Chinese government is promoting foreign business at the expense of its own people. It is allowing foreigners to be the owners, while most Chinese are destined to be the laborers and service workers. Why would the government make such a decision? Furthermore, are there ethical ramifications to conducting business in China or is it just plain foolish not to consider a good business opportunity?
On the heels of our visit to Havana, our class was invited to the most significant business event of the year in Xiamen, the “September 8 International Business Convention”. I was very impressed with the event for a couple of reasons. First of all, the convention building was teeming with excitement. On the day we attended, entrance to the business fair was limited and no tickets were up for purchase. There were quite a few young men and women crowding the doorways asking to purchase our tickets or wanting us to lie to the gate attendants about them being our translators, so that they could seek employment inside. I cannot remember the last time I saw people who are not in network marketing so excited about doing business. To be quite frank, it made me excited as well. Furthermore, within a week of my arrival, I had met several Chinese students who approached me in order to practice their English. I know this is not uncommon. However, every one of them wanted to discuss the business plans they have with Americans. Additionally maybe it is just me, but it seems as Americans we are not so unabashed about approaching strangers in order to practice a foreign language. I sense a great motivation for growth and self-improvement in China that has worked its way down from the policies of the government to the majority of the people you meet in the streets. That’s exciting!!!