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To many foreigners living here, this question can have effects on brain function roughly like dropping a peeled orange into a deep fat fryer. There’s a momentary hiss, then a fragrant explosion of thoughts all over the inside of the skull, followed by a low burbling sound and, finally, a burning, regretful silence.
This doesn’t happen to everyone. Expat businessmen, for example, tend to know full well why they’re spending their days in China (though some may question whether it’s worthwhile). The same probably goes for certain diplomats and laywers and the illegal Mormon missionaries who sneak around here dressed as English teachers.
But for those of us who came to experience China for China’s sake, being forced to explain why can produce a near-instantaneous paralysis.
The problem isn’t just that China is complicated. Most places are complicated in one way or another, even relatively small places like Thailand, and you don’t often see people suddenly lose the power of speech when asked why they live in Bangkok. Instead I think the problem is that China, in addition to being a complicated country, is also a highly pressurized concept. It is the world’s fastest growing economy, its most populous nation, its worst polluter. It is the alternative, the factory, the future. As a result, the conversation surrounding China is defined to a suffocating degree by grand (and often misleading) abstractions.
This works just fine if what you want to do is pontificate about China’s human rights record or its role in the global financial crisis. But it’s fatal when you’re trying to explain your attraction to the place, which is usually personal and not at all abstract.
Like the businessmen and missionaries, I initially came to China with an ulterior motive. In my case, it was to learn the language and therby prevent relatives on the Chinese side of my family from talking smack about me in front of my face. (Whether they were actually talking any smack in the first place is another matter—I was a paranoid child.) I quickly realized learning Chinese would probably take more effort than I was willing to put in, but by then, it was too late.
There were any number of things that could have sucked me in, but what ultimately did it was a night I spent in the summer of 1998 trying to convince a group of mohawked Beijing teenagers that I did not, in fact, know kung fu. The conversation took place outside Scream Club, a dingy bar in the university district, and the teenagers were members of Reflector, a band that would go on to help pioneer the explosion of punk rock in China. I don't remember how the conversation started, or why they thought I might know martial arts, but by the end of it I found myself at the bar, watching as my new friends hopped up and down on stage like meth-addled kangroos, spitting beer into the crowd and hammering tunelessly on their instruments. This was shocking enough a scene in post-Tiananmen China, but even more shocking was later when these same kids showed up at karaoke bar, shaven-headed and jackbooted, to belt out sickly-sweet Canto-pop love songs imported from Hong Kong. I was astounded. And hooked.
But karaoke-crooning punks turned out to be only the begininning. In the decade since, I’ve also met Kazakh sheep herders-cum-ski instructors, Tibet-loving backpackers who hated the Dalai Lama, political dissidents doing government PR and, of course, capitalist Communist Party members. I've always been fascinated (maybe unduly fascinated) with incongruity, but the bewildering lives Chinese people tend to lead speak to a larger story: How hundreds of millions of people, forced for decades to live in a closed and essentially uniform society, cope with being thrust headlong into the center of the globalization whirlwind. This is the story I’ll be following here—a story with implications for everybody, but one that can’t be predicted, or told in abstractions.