In the fall of 1988, I first set foot on the soil of Mainland China, and I also visited Shanghai for the very first time. Little did I know then that I would be spending much of my adult life living in this country and in this dynamic and fascinating city, studying its history and society, teaching, writing, publishing books and articles, leading city tours and extensive field trips, and witnessing firsthand one of the greatest transformations in modern times.
At the time of my first visit to China, I was a sophomore in college. I’d just spent a few months studying Mandarin Chinese intensively at the IUP summer program, also known as the Stanford Center, at National Taiwan University in Taipei. Rather than return to Dartmouth College to continue my studies, I had opted to remain in Asia for a few more months in order to work on my Chinese language skills, travel more, and continue to learn firsthand about this part of the world.
Later that November, I flew from Taipei to Hong Kong. From there, I embarked on what would eventually be a three-month solo journey through China, starting in Guangzhou and heading by plane, train, boat, bus, and bike all over the country. I went as far north as Beijing, as far west (via the Yangtze River) as Chongqing, and as far south as the town of Sanya on the southern tip of Hainan Island. I left China in March 1989, just before the student protest movement started in Beijing that April. I returned to the USA with a passionate desire to learn more about the language, culture, and history of this incredible country just as it was undergoing a major crisis.
The next time I set foot in Mainland China was in 1996. I was on a fellowship to research the history of Shanghai for my doctoral dissertation. I had been studying Chinese, Japanese, and Korean history, languages, and cultures at Columbia University and was on my way to earning a PhD in East Asian Languages and Cultures. I first went to Beijing where I ended up living for six months and then on to Shanghai where I ended up staying another two years or so. Little did I know when I set out on that second journey that I would eventually meet my wife, a Shanghainese TV host named Mengxi. We were married in Shanghai in 1999.
In 2001, I finally completed my Ph.D. and started my first teaching job at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma Washington. My wife joined me in the USA for one year. Then we lived in Sydney for another five, where I taught Chinese history at UNSW. It was there that our first daughter Sarah was born. In 2007, we returned to China where I took a temporary job with my alma mater running the Dartmouth Foreign Studies Program in Beijing. By the year’s end, we decided to move back to China where my wife could continue her own career in television, and we’ve been living in Shanghai ever since. Our second daughter Hannah was born in 2009. Apart from her birth in the USA, she has spent her whole life, with the exception of holiday travels, here in Shanghai.
Despite all we gave up by leaving Sydney—the beaches, the sun, the sea, the surf, the air, the beer, the wine, the mates, and for me, a tenured academic job at a fine university—it made sense for us to move back to Shanghai. My wife has been able to maintain a stable career here in Shanghai as a television host and emcee for special events. Our two daughters have grown up surrounded by their Chinese relatives and cared for in many ways by their maternal grandparents. They are completely bilingual and bicultural, fluent in both spoken and written Mandarin Chinese as well as English, and completely at home in both China and in America where they spend a few weeks every summer and winter. In my mind, this has been the greatest benefit of our living here in China long term.
Perhaps the second greatest personal benefit of being here over the past ten years has been the unique range of opportunities for career building. While I had originally intended to be a university professor, that option was not available to me here, at least not the sort of arrangement that would work well for me and my family longterm. On the other hand, opportunities to engage in academic administration have abounded. I have been able to take advantage of these opportunities and build a career that has moved in exciting and unforeseen directions, culminating in my current status as an administrator for Duke Kunshan University. How could I have known when I first set foot on Chinese soil thirty years ago that I would one day be contributing to the formation of a new global university in China with an exciting and innovative new curriculum?
The third major benefit for me has been the ability to witness firsthand and document the incredible changes and developments that have been taking place in this country since the reform era was launched in the 1980s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. I have lived in China under four different leaders with very different personalities: Deng, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping. I have been here long enough to see the disappearance of old folkways and old neighborhoods, and the strikingly rapid growth of new infrastructures, technologies, and ways of being.
To take one obvious example: When I first visited China in the late 1980s and even when I first lived here in the mid-1990s, many people rode their own bicycles to work or to school, while others crammed onto overcrowded buses. I myself used to cycle almost daily to the libraries and archives in both Beijing and Shanghai. Nowadays, it seems that very few people in China own bicycles (at least, human powered ones), and yet the cities are filled with bicycles once again owing to the new fad of bike sharing. When I first lived here in the mid-1990s, Shanghai had only one subway line. Today, Shanghai has one of the best subway systems in the world, and other cities in China are catching up as well. When I used to travel between Beijing and Shanghai in the mid-90s, it took around sixteen hours to get from one city to the other. Today it takes less than five. The high-speed trains whisk people around the country at an amazing rate of speed. Even with all the public transport options available to people here, most Chinese people (at least in the big cities) now own or else wish to own their own automobiles, which was unthinkable when I first came here thirty years ago.
Over the years, through conversations, work relations, and friendships with a wide range of people in academia, business, the arts, music, and other fields, as well as daily interactions with my own relatives and with the laobaixing (‘old hundred names’ or the common people), I’ve developed a deeper understanding of this country, its enduring features, and its bewildering changes.
They say that those who come here from abroad and stay in China for a few weeks or months go home and write a book about the experience. Those who stay longer learn enough to write an article. Those who spend many years here can’t write anything. And there’s some truth to that, which is one reason why my online journal has been a preferential mode of writing for me. Even so, one additional advantage of living here as an academic (even if a recovering one) has been the ability to research and write about features of society and culture that are quickly changing and ephemeral, such as nightlife and music scenes, and to follow them over many years. Hence, our book Shanghai Nightscapes is the product of a two-decades-long collaboration with sociologist James Farrer, who makes frequent visits to Shanghai from his home in Tokyo.
For those of us from abroad who have lived here in China as long as I have (roughly fifteen years over a twenty-year time span), we have seen many friends come and go. Most foreigners who live in China do not stay here more than a few years, if that. Many of my non-Chinese American friends, including some of my best mates from my early days of living here, have long since packed up and headed back to the USA. Yet there are still many of us who have opted to stay here, often because, like me, they have Chinese spouses who have good careers or just prefer to live in China, and they are raising their children to be bilingual and bicultural, which is very hard to do back in the States. Some also remain here because of the job opportunities, while others just enjoy the lifestyle.
I can’t say that there haven’t been times when I considered moving back to the USA, and of course I do miss my American friends and family. Fortunately, I have the ability to visit them often. By contrast, think of Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit who came here in the 1500s and was never able to go back home, particularly after he ensconced himself within the Ming court. Back then, a letter home took months if not years to arrive, and apparently he read the news of his father’s death some years after it happened. When I first traveled to China in 1988, a letter home took a couple weeks to arrive, and a phone call was prohibitively expensive. Today, needless to say, communication around the world is free and instantaneous and almost infinitely robust thanks to the internet.
Still, I will admit that the quality of the environment here in China, particularly the air quality, is less than satisfactory. That has been a major factor in the exodus of many of my American friends out of Beijing, which has suffered terribly over the years from air pollution. Here in Shanghai, the air is somewhat better than up north, though still far from ideal. Believe me, there are bad days, but not bad enough or long enough to encourage us to leave this city. And there are still plenty of beautiful clear days, particularly at this time of the year when the cherry trees and other flowering plants are blooming and the skies are often blue.
In terms of amenities, I don’t feel I’m missing out on much. Living in the city of Shanghai, we enjoy pretty much the same range of creature comforts that we would in any big US city. To be sure, it wasn’t always this way. Back in 1996, when I first came to Shanghai to do my doctoral dissertation research, everyone was excited that a new submarine sandwich shop opened on Huashan Road (I believe the proprietor was none other than the notorious “China Jim”). These days, you can find just about every major American restaurant and fast food franchise in the city, and the World Expo of 2010 brought with it a new wave of fine dining, when many of the folks who supplied the pavilions with food opted to stay here and create restaurants of their own. I know many of the people who were pioneers over the past two decades in expanding and internationalizing the city’s cuisine as well as its other international cultures and flavors, and some of them have become millionaires in the process.
While I appreciate the greater variety of cuisine on offer here in Shanghai today, I have to say that Chinese food—real Chinese food in all its varieties—is another huge reason I’ve enjoyed living here all these years. Just a few minutes from our apartment in the middle of the city are restaurants and shops selling food from just about every region in the country, ranging from street snacks to fancy cuisine. Then again there are also Indian, Korean, Thai, Japanese, and Western restaurants in abundance. Now there’s even a Taco Bell about a ten minute walk from where we live, not to mention the largest Starbucks Roastery on the planet. And good beer? Just a block or two away from our home I count around a dozen craft beer bars.
As for other amenities such as music and performance, well, just five minutes from my home in Shanghai is one of the best jazz clubs in the city, JZ, and I am familiar with many of the musicians who built that scene over the years. Down the road a few blocks is the music conservatory, and there are fine theaters and music halls all over this part of town. My only complaint is that I don't take advantage enough of the opportunities to see and hear great performances that this city offers. As for travel and adventure, there is almost a limitless variety here in China alone, and now that my career involves more travel, Asia beckons at our doorstep. Again, it's more a question of the time and ability to go than the opportunities this part of the world affords.
Getting back to career building, while it hasn’t always been easy for me to forge an academic path here in China, and while the temptation to forego academic pursuits and “fall into the ocean” (xiahai) of business has always been present, nevertheless I’ve been able to chart a course that has kept me on an academic track. It’s a much different one than I imagined when I first took a job as a professor of history. Overall I’d say that the process has been a very challenging one, yet also a rewarding one, experientially if not financially, and I’ve been able to grow in ways I couldn’t have predicted ten or twenty years ago.
These days, I’m beginning to grow a waistline. Having so many good eateries, not to mention a few dozen craft beer, wine, or whisky bars, within a ten-minute walk from our home in Shanghai doesn’t help. So, now that I'm pushing 50, it’s time to focus more on personal health, which is another reason why (on days when the air quality is relatively good) I enjoy taking long walks in the city. And you never know what you’ll discover in the process.