I first went to China in summer of 2012. I was twenty years old and had just finished my sophomore year of school. Earlier that year, I’d decided that I wanted to do the first of my university’s three required co-ops (which are essentially extended internships) outside of the United States.
I would have gone anywhere outside the US that I could afford to live. I chose China because my university had contacts in engineering companies there that were willing to hire and, more importantly, pay a relatively unskilled student.
I ended up receiving an offer from an audio engineering company in Guangdong a province in Southern China. The pay wasn’t great, but the offer included flights, housing, and living expenses. In addition, my university offered a scholarship to anybody who decided to do a co-op abroad to subsidize the low-if-any pay typical of such positions. It seemed like it would be a fun place to work and, more importantly, a chance for some exposure to a world and industry I’d otherwise know nothing about; I eagerly accepted.
I arrived at Hong Kong International Airport jet-lagged an oblivious. Instead of spending the months prior to my extended stay in China learning the basics of the language and studying the culture, I’d spent them meandering around Europe. When my flight to Hong Kong departed Paris, all I really knew was that I was to meet my new roommate and fellow co-op at the border crossing to the mainland.
I don’t know if I’d call what I experienced in those first few weeks “culture shock”. What really shocked me was my new lifestyle. Days started early - around 7 AM - with a 45-minute bus ride on primarily unpaved roads from the city I lived in - Danshui （淡水） - to the city I worked - Xinxu（新圩）.
The company I worked for was a contract manufacturer for a variety of high-end audio companies. It was unique for the industry in that it did both its development and manufacturing in China. This ran counter to the general cadence of development in the West and manufacturing in the East. This is also what gave the company its edge: a rapid manufacturing-development feedback loop. In turn, this demanded the employ of a few dozen expats situated in Mainland China to handle product development and customer relations.
For the company, this meant a constant stream of visiting customers from around the world. For me, this meant an entirely new role working with people from both sales and product management.
The job commanded, and in turn provided, an understanding of basic Chinese and I quickly picked up some simple and necessary phrases.
我们要啤酒。 We’d like some beer!
多少钱 How much is it?
我是美国人。 I’m American.
When I wasn’t working or entertaining customers, I spent my time exploring my city and the surrounding region with my friends Andy and Ruben. The two were avid mountain bikers and were always willing to drag me along on their trips up into the mountains surrounding our city. Hopelessly out of shape and completely inexperienced, I walked my borrowed bike up the mountains only to plummet back down them in the dark.
I lived in Guangdong, a region known historically known as Canton. The area is probably one of China’s most diverse. The booming manufacturing economy has drawn in migrant workers from all around the country, and the region shares a border with Hong Kong, Britain’s ex-colony and now pseudo-Chinese territory. Though Hong Kong is the only part of the region where Canton’s original Cantonese is still officially spoken, there are enclaves of Cantonese speakers throughout Guangdong Province whose families have lived in the region for hundreds if not thousands of years.
In a way, this domestic diversity actually made it easier for me to assimilate as a foreigner. In some parts of China a foreigner (外国人 - Wai Guo Ren) can’t go anywhere without receiving stares, fielding questions, or challenged to a drinking competition, but in the more urban areas of Guangdong, foreigners are barely given a second glance.
During the first six months I spent living in China, I didn’t commit a lot of time to learning about China’s expansive and tumultuous history. I was too caught up in its present.
It wasn’t until I returned to the States that December that I developed a real interest in the country’s history and politics. I was turned on to Peter Hesslers’ fantastic books covering the ten years he spent living in China as a freelance reporter writing for publications like The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal.
Throughout my second coop - a much more typical domestic software engineering role - I maintained my interest in the county and the summer before my third and final coop, I got back in touch with my contacts in the country and arranged to spend two months consulting at my old company.
A lot had changed since the first time I worked at the company. For one it had been acquired by a large Taiwanese electronics. The company had also moved its development office from Xinxu into central Shenzhen - a giant city directly across the border from Hong Kong. This was about an hour and a half west from where I’d worked previously. My new neighborhood was more urban (read louder and more expensive) than the one I’d lived in in Danshui, but this also meant I was a train ride or cheap taxi away from everything Shenzhen had to offer.
Shenzhen made for an entirely different co-op experience. Unlike China’s ancient cities of Chengdu, Shanghai, or Beijing, Shenzhen was built up from what was essentially farmland forty years ago. When Deng Xiaoping liberalized the country in the 1980s, Shenzhen - due largely in part to its proximity to Hong Kong - was one of the first so-called “special economic zones” of China.
It wasn’t just the new city that made this experience different. China had changed as a nation during my two-year hiatus. China’s opaque authoritarian government had transferred power from Hu Jintao to its current leader Xi Jinping shortly before I left in 2012.
Since then, the Chinese government which had looked to be moving in a more socially liberal direction had stumbled many steps backwards.
Movement throughout the county had become even more restricted - especially to foreigners - in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks purported to have been caused by the Uyghur ethnic minority in the country’s oil-rich ‘acquired’ province of Xinjiang.
Additionally, after Western media published a series of reports investigating the massive wealth of members of the ruling party, Internet censorship had become much more restrictive. Publications that had once only been restricted in their Chinese-language iterations had become entirely blocked in every language.
I did not realize how much I had come to depend on the Internet for both my work and my social life until I came back to China in 2014. The party doesn’t only censor sensitive information; many seemingly innocuous websites are also inexplicably blocked. Throughout the summer I was constantly forced to waste time looking for unblocked versions of open source software and documentation. The most irritating part of the whole ordeal is that the party is in no way obligated to share its justification for blocking a particular website. Sometimes the lack of a clear rationale for the censorship was more irritating than the censorship itself. How could https://rubygems.org/ really be considered harmful to the party?
It’s been several months since I’ve returned from China. I don’t know if I’ll be heading back any time in the near future, but that isn’t to say I wouldn’t like to. I’m very lucky to have had the chance to live and work in the country at this period in its development; I hope that one day I will return for either work or travel.