Waking from Chinese dream
Global Times | 2012-09-13 7:10:03 PM
By Feng Shu
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Pandi, 35, prepares a roti prata at a restaurant in Hefei, capital of Anhui Province. From India, Pandi came to work as a chef in China two years ago. Photo: CFP
Pandi, 35, prepares a roti prata at a restaurant in Hefei, capital of Anhui Province. From India, Pandi came to work as a chef in China two years ago. Photo: CFP

From a weatherman with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to the first foreign-face news anchor with CCTV International since 2004, Edwin Maher, now in his 60s, says China has become a place where he sees his broadcasting pursuits as having greatly expanded.

"I have to pinch myself sometimes to remind myself this is all really happening," said Maher, who was presented with the Friendship Award, the top award conferred by the Chinese government to foreign experts who work in China since 2007.

Born in New Zealand before moving to Australia to work for ABC for 20 years, Maher describes his coming to China in 2003 as a pure accident, when he was trying to get away from his past life following his wife's death.

"I just planned to stay six months and have ended up living here for nearly 10 years. Sure, I have my Chinese dream, but it was not the moment when I landed here," said Maher, who first came to China as a voice coach with CRI.

Maher is just one of millions of foreigners who have come to China from around the world to seek future opportunities, especially over the past decade.

Not an easy path

If thriving in China was never part of Edwin's dream before he arrived, Osaka-born Japanese actor Koji Yano was determined to chase his Chinese dream in, following his eight years of struggle in Tokyo, mostly playing minor roles in Japanese films or TV dramas.

"China is a huge country. This simply means lots of opportunities for me. On the contrary, I never saw the Japanese dream back home," Yano told the Global Times in his Beijing office.

But Yano warns that this was not an easy path to take and speaks of a mixture of "joys and sorrows."

"I got very sick of always playing Japanese soldiers in "red classic" series featuring China's resistance against the Japanese invasion from 1937-1945. Most of the time, such roles lack depth," said Yano.

His moment to shine finally came when he was able to bag broader roles, given his growing fame.

In a recent Chinese TV drama, Yano starred as a Japanese businessman in China, and in another he even played the role of a Chinese army solider.

Firstly coined by American writer James Truslow Adams in 1931, the term "American Dream" has become a leading source of inspiration for many Americans and immigrants to the US over the past century. This dream was all the more pronounced once again in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected as US president. 

While China has risen to become the world's second biggest economy, the aura of the American Dream has faded slightly in recent years, given the global economic crisis, while a new voice has risen, mostly within China itself, about the Chinese Dream.

"We are trying to catch up with the world and emphasize economic success. Beyond that, we also need to find such a dream so as to provide of values that can help inspire future generations of Chinese people," said Wu Xu, associate professor at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

He suggested crafting the Chinese Dream to boost China's soft power. He views it as being built by the Chinese people, but belonging to the world.

Appeal across eras

It is hard to summarize the major motivations for nearly 600,000 expats coming to China today. Some were attracted by the country's language, culture and historical heritage, some viewed China as a huge market with great business potential, while others came out of curiosity to experience a vastly different way of life.

Rather than calling his experience in China a fulfillment of his dream, Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei, a website and research firm that tracks the Chinese media and Internet, regards his 17 years in the country as a "fantasy."

"Besides wanting to immerse myself in a language and culture that was utterly alien to me, I was drawn to a communist country partly because when I was growing up, communism was banned by the apartheid government in South Africa," said Goldkorn in an interview with the Global Times.

For 58-year-old Peter Davis, an experienced American journalist who has worked with several mainland State-owned media organizations, his 10-year stay in China all started during a three-week teaching gig at an English-leaning camp in Shenzhen in 2003.

"It was a huge cultural shock and very, very stimulating when I found out myself that Chinese people were not dressed in Mao suits and caps nor hated the USA 'paper tiger hooligans,' and thinking it could be a place I could reinvent my life," Davis said.

Similarly to Maher, Davis also found a new life in China related to his old love of journalism and thrived personally.

"Many media in the western countries are shrinking and lots of staff been fired, but in China, media is still expanding and looking for qualified foreigners to join," Maher commented. 

If Westerners who came to China in the first 10 years, after the country opened up in the late 1970s, were mostly in search of adventure, there is a new element accounting for China's appeal today.

"Many foreigners started to see China as a great place for business opportunities when lots of industries in the West were already over-mature without much options, while in China, opportunities are still wide open," said Arthur Kroeber, managing director of Chinese economics research firm GK Dragonomics.

Kroeber sees China as particularly appealing for young people with an entrepreneurial bent. "Even without necessarily having genius ideas, you can set up companies and become very successful," said Kroeber from the US.

In Kroeber's view, the fact that the Chinese economy is still growing at 7-8 percent a year means that the country will remain as a safe harbor in the global economy.

But another factor has remained of great interest. "It's the sense of things changing in a very fast way that makes many stay longer, the variety of changes and new inspirations all help to create a very intellectually stimulating environment in China," Kroeber added.

Difficult to integrate

Despite the increasing number of foreign expatriates, not all of them maintain their faith in this "land of opportunities," and some of them see their dreams dashed.

Recently, an article published in Prospect Magazine went viral among expats questioning their future in China. In his essay, entitled "Why I am leaving the country I loved," Mark Kitto listed a variety of problems in Chinese society that drive people away. These are the complicated "guanxi" or social connections that expats feel left out from, growing concerns about declining air quality and food safety, and an education system they think stifles freedom of thought.

But for Kroeber, such claims are a bit overstated, as risks and difficulties can always be found when expats try to do business in a foreign country.

For some, China stacks up favorably with other countries.

"Chinese people are more open than Japanese and Koreans - and more welcoming of Western influence and culture - China wants to be modern, yet keep its own Chinese spirit," says Adam Kasha, an American businessman who first came to China in 1997.

Kroeber, however, admits that some problems are major obstacles for expats to realize their so-called Chinese dreams, such as loopholes in the justice system and the incomplete freedom of expression.

"You can be materially successful, but it is hard to go beyond that," Kroeber said.

Despite the varied background of the expats contacted by the Global Times, they all agreed on one thing. Unlike in the US, where the American Dream attracts many immigrants, foreign expats in China always feel like outsiders and are rarely welcomed as a part of the Chinese community.

"The speed of China means that it remains an unsettling place, and China doesn't encourage immigration," said Goldkorn. He was supported by Yano.

"I never had to think of myself as Japanese back home, but in China, this recognition of my Japanese identity is almost always felt."

Unlike many who plan to come to China for five or 10 years, Gabon native Luc Bendza, 42, has never thought of returning home since arriving in China to study martial arts at the age of 13.

Admitting that he has realized most of his dreams in China, such as starring in kung fu TV dramas or becoming friends with idol Jackie Chan, Bendza has still felt discrimination from Chinese people for being black.

"In my view, a lot of work still needs to be done to make China an ideal place for foreigners to seek their Chinese dreams, but not only to make money or to satisfy their thirst for something exotic," said Bendza.

A dream more relevant to Chinese people

In this sense, while it's true that more and more foreigners today find their lives transformed through the realization of their dreams in China, some Chinese argue that the Chinese dream is more about the transformation of the lives of ordinary Chinese over the past three decades.

In a speech at Yale University in 2009, Chinese TV host Bai Yansong told about the Chinese dream behind his story. Born in a faraway border-town in 1968 with little possibilities, Bai rose to become a famous newsman who did the live broadcast of the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony among many other landmark moments.

"Look at 1.3 billion very ordinary Chinese, their down-to-earth dreams, their impulsive drive to change their fates, their still kindhearted temperament, and their diligent character, all of these reflect a true Chinese dream," Bai told Yale students.

"It isn't a grandiose slogan, it doesn't lie with the government. It belongs to every ordinary Chinese person," Bai added.

Zhao Xinyi contributed to this story


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