Friday, August 12, 2011

Has Living in Wuxi Changed Me? An Investigation.

(*I had planned to submit this article to a local Expat magazine that is now defunct.  So with no place to take to it, I will publish it here.*)

Circumstance governs destiny. 
Cause and effect are an infinite cycle. 
Zhang Jiuling, Tang Dynast Poet

Does Living in Wuxi change an Expat in ways that say living in Shanghai, Shanxi, or Shaanxi wouldn't?  Writing in a Wuxi Expat blog, I would like to think so.  And I have lived in Wuxi for seven years so I think I am entitled to have a say of sorts, though I fully acknowledge that I haven't spent all that much time in Shanghai, Shanxi, or Shaanxi to know what those places can do to an Expat. Still, six years in a place and it will grow on you; and you even start to think to you have a feel for its people and have become like them in some way.  But then again, six years being a long time in a person's life,  it is natural that one does change and one has the hope or presumption that one has picked up some wisdom in that stretch of time.  And when one does contemplate life's changes and tries to ascertain where and how the changes came about, one has to separate the changes that can be attributed to time and the changes that can be attributed to the place or circumstances one is in (as well as to one's own personal  idiosyncrasies). Also, once one has identified the changes that can be attributable to a place, one must separate them into physical and  metaphysical changes.

So, this essay will be a search for changes, that can occur to a person, brought about by unique Wuxi factors.  Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, the only test-animal this essay's author can use is this essay's author — I have managed to successfully (or unsuccessfully) separate myself from other Wuxi Expats so I can say that I haven't been" tainted" by their changes and mindsets, and I don't have time to do surveys which seem so unpoetic anyway...  I will try to list as all the possible sources of change and my personal changes  that can be attributed to the time during which I have been in Wuxi.  While doing so, I will then determine if these changes could only have occurred in Wuxi.  However, Wuxi is a small city in a Chinese sea of humanity, however, so try as I might it will be hard to separate Wuxi-only effects from the more massive Chinese effects.

Immediate Changes  on arriving in Wuxi
Did my first few days in Wuxi culture-shock  me hard like a sucker punch from an irate co-worker?  I would have to say it didn't.  I lived in British Columbia (or British California as one witty Canadian has referred to it) after living in Manitoba which was the equivalent of moving from North Dakota to Seattle, or Siberia to Paris.  But that is not to say that I  was a jaded mover, a gypsy , or an anthropologist, if you will, before I got here.

The first thing that struck me as  a Canadian coming to Wuxi in 2004 was  the sheer numbers of people it had.  Never ending crowds of people, even in the boonies.  The masses of people immediately changed my concept of space.  Go within ten feet of a Canadian and he will look at you sternly.  In Wuxi, I had to learn to not be offended by close proximity.  However, this concept of space is something I could have picked up anywhere in China — not just Wuxi.  Wuxi, I later learned, was not considered to be all big or crowded by the locals but instead it was quiet and sedate

Another thing that moving to Wuxi immediately showed  me was that people were capable of anything - things I couldn't have imagined became possible in Wuxi.  My perception of the strangeness of people moved up a level.   For instance, I never thought I would see motorcycles and pedestrians and cyclists blatantly ignore traffic rules as they do here.  There is a sort of pragmatism in their attitude to traffic rules that I find admirable and repellant at the same time; and of course following the maxim about being in Rome, I have adopted their habits — even the ones I thought repellent, when it suited me.  Whether this has expanded my worldview or outlook is something I wonder about.  People, everywhere, cheat and ignore rules when possible..  Everywhere in the world people are trying to put food on the table and get ahead.  

I also quickly discovered that it may well be me that is strange and comes from a strange place.  My first day in Wuxi, I was taken to Nanchang Market, and I thought I was being stared at hard.  I now wonder why is it, for instance, that we don't cook lettuce in hot water, and why it  is that I was so preoccupied with sex.

I remember that I was quickly able to establish  that you can't escape oneself, as Chesterton said in an essay in which he said it was more of a journey to talk to your neighbor than it was to go to the other side of the world.  Traveling to find oneself is the stupidest cliché ever invented.  Truth is, one is trying to find a new self or escape from one's weaknesses which is impossible.  I have seen that however my relations were in Canada, they haven't changed one iota here in Wuxi.  People have their faults and there isn't a higher grade of person to be found here.  I have the same faults that have made or broken relationships whether they be in Wuxi or Canada.  Although in Wuxi, I was quickly made to hear of them from many a plain-speaking Brit, Aussie, or American — Wuxi did make me temporarily more out-going.  Conversely, I meet many a person, whether Chinese or Expatriate, with a fault so glaringly obvious as to make one shake one's head.

So, moving to Wuxi has paralleled  the other moves I have made in my life.   I have always thought of my move to Wuxi as just another move in my life so similar to the many moves I made from the frozen plains of Central Canada to the Mountains and Forests of British Columbia.  The effects of all these moves on me being subject to the laws of diminishing returns, I will have to say that Wuxi had no immediate change on me. I was just another boring fellow who had come to British Columbia to China.

Radical Changes brought about by marriage
But over the six years I have been in Wuxi, the changes in my life have been radical.  When I first came to Wuxi, I was single and could have competed with Dick Clark for the title of World's oldest teenager.  I came to Wuxi to change my career, to have worldly experiences, to be able to say I had been somewhere, and because Chinese women were beautiful.  I fashioned myself a well-read person, erudite, and all-around wonderful and of the conservative persuasion.  

Now, I am married, turned middle-aged, and I have a child.   Anyone, even those who are just a little serious about marriage and parenthood, cannot helped but be changed by the experience. Certainly, my Jiangsu wife has me disbelieving all I had previously thought of myself.

But marriage and wives have always changed men everywhere.  What I  have noticed is an entirely modernist attitude to marriage among the many Expats who come here.  Shacking up is a good way to test ride potential wives, I have heard many a foreigner say.  Wuxi people don't take this attitude as far as I can determine.  As soon as I meet, my wife, I was married.  I assume Chinese women are like this all over China.  Chalk up a change to China, but not necessarily Wuxi.

Wuxi changes a bachelor?
 I believe the changes brought on by marriage are so radical that they can drown out any other possible changes, making it hard to find changes that can be attributed to other factors, like being in Wuxi.  As soon as I got married, I could say that I almost ceased to be a conventional Wuxi Expat  -- I became a conventional husband trying to keep his wife and child happy — a universal circumstance for a man to find himself in, even if he is from the jaded secular West.  

So, I will have to study my bachelor days recollections very closely, since the Canada Andis and the Wuxi Bachelor Andis are the same except for changes brought about by time and living in Wuxi.  In my Wuxi Expat bachelor days, I did meet a lot of strange people , seemingly thrown out of the asylums in their countries and offered as sacrifices to the Chinese Dragon.  But having lived in British Columbia, Canada, I had seen enough odd types already and seeing the international differences was not something I couldn't have extrapolated from having lived in other parts of Canada beforehand.  

Still, Wuxi can get to an expatriate bachelor's head.  Many bachelors acquire a status with women that could never have achieved in their home country.  But exoticedness can work on women all over the world, I have learned.  Oswald, the waif who shot JFK, had to go to Russia to find a wife.

Changes brought about by other Wuxi Expats
I can't plead complete exile from the rest of Wuxi Expatdom.  Try as I might, I haven't not meet other Expats.

I have meet  Canadians, Americans, Brazilians, Germans, Ontarians, Brits, French, Australians, Danes, Italians, Japanese, Koreans, and Kiwis in Wuxi.  I can't say that any of these people did anything to change my worldview that those who I did meet  in Universities or Hostels in Canada have  They have maybe changed my view of myself.  As I mentioned previously, I have been made aware of my shortcomings from the more frank of the expatriates I have meet.  And seeing their shortcomings, I realize how the status one can get here is nothing, nothing at all.

In fact, isolating other Expats  from my search for Wuxi uniqueness is a must.  I really have to think of the Wuxi people I have met.

Not being the only Expat to have live in Wuxi for six years, I will have to say that Wuxi Expats have changed me but then so have the fly-by-nighters that it has been my misfortune to meet.

Changes brought about by Wuxiren?
Plenty of Wuxiren I have meet in my time in Wuxi.  What can I say about them?  They can be kind to the point of embarrassing me.  Frequently, they yield their seats to me on the bus — that is older Wuxiren.  One time, a Wuxi policeman shook my hand after I was pulled over for a traffic violation — showing to me that situations don't have to have a gravity to them unless we want them to.  Again, I have been told that this is not unique to Wuxi.

The more time one spends in Wuxi, the more one should expect take on Wuxiren habits.

However, I don't add "a's" or "ehs" to everything I say more than I have already done. Though I have been told that I have become louder in the years — I don't know if this can be attributed to getting old or hanging out near Wuxi Ren.

I have been told that Wuxiren's matter of speaking is such that people speaking Suzhou dialect, sound like lyric poets when cursing compared to Wuxiren muttering sweet-nothings in their lover's ears.  Six years of Wuxi can give one a tolerance for squawking.

Wuxiren are also generally richer than the average Chinese person.  The economic development one has seen in Wuxi does make one more optimistic about the World economy than if one lived in Jiangxi province.

The economic development has also attracted Chinese from other parts of China to Wuxi.  Having frequent contact with them, my pure Wuxiren experience is diluted.  So try as I might, the Chinese have changed me more than say Wuxiren.

Wuxi makes one provincial?
Shanghai and Beijing are most certainly world-class cities.  Suzhou, says every Expat, is a great city too.  And so Wuxi seems to pale in comparison.  But is this a fair assessment?    I would think not.  Six years has made me older and wiser and I can't help but look at the snatches of what as I see as being the current culture,  and be amused.  Lady Gaga!?! Come on!  If anything, one can say Wuxi shelters one from the current idiocies (fashions).  

If there is one thing, I have become a snob about, it is the fact that I have lived in Wuxi.

Changes in Personal Habits
I take two showers a day instead of one. I take a shower in the evening because my wife insists, and I take a morning shower because I insist.  Other than that, I don't spit, roll my my trousers or shirts in hot weather, squat, or make noises when I chew.  I do sometime urinate in public — damn lack of public urinals.

Part of these changes can be attributed to Wuxi's climate which features, to me anyway, a very humid Summer.

Changes brought about by Wuxi Women?
The difference between Wuxi men and Wuxi women is like night and day. Wuxi women are full of spunk, common sense, and femininity.  They have a left a strong impression on me. The men, on the other hand, are nice guys, as long as they aren't driving or boarding a bus at the same time you do
Married to a Wuxi girl, I will admit that I am prejudiced somewhat when I tell you I think Wuxi women are great.  But then I had to marry one, I decided, when I first saw them. If I had never married a Wuxi girl,  I would have always admired them for their slimness and their being traditional.  

I have been very fortunate to go to work and  admire the bearing and character of all the wonderful women who work there.  They have restored this man's respect for the female sex, damaged so much by Feminism in the West.

When I took my Wuxi wife to Canada, she treated my parents in a manner that was exemplary and put me to shame.  She showed me how to treat family.  I had gone to her home with the Western impatience of being with the unhip.  The sight of her dancing with my father to his native Latvian music was something I would never forget because it taught me something. My father was impressed by her common sense.  But this was not a display of what I believe to be a Wuxi trait — though it was a fine trait — but of a Chinese trait.

Changes for a Conservative?
Being a stick-in-the-mud conservative, I have to keep  very select company in Wuxi which means I keep to myself often and that I have had me to stear clear of many a person. It raises the question of whether Wuxi has changed me a metaphysical or philosophically way.  I would immediately answer that it hasn't.  More than ever, I believe in my conservative ethos because of what I have seen in China.  I have seen that the family is important  and that markets are how to improve the lot in life of everybody.  But that is not something Wuxi has been hailed as proving.  Wuxi re-enforced personal beliefs I already had without enhancement.

For example, going to the Ling Shan Big Buddha, one sees religion being practiced which is cool in my books.  But the imagery and rituals have no deep meaning for me unlike the Christian forms I was exposed to growing up.

The Chinese that changed my view of the world are long dead.  I haven't meet any Tang Dynasty poets or Confucians in my time in Wuxi.

Countervailing Influences
I haven't meet an Wuxi Expat yet that doesn't miss something from his home country and culture.  In fact, Expats like to trade tales of where they have found rare reminders of home in Wuxi.  Many of us do come to Wuxi to present our cultures to Wuxiren.

Has Living in Wuxi made me forget about what's happening back in the home country?  In my case, I would say it has somewhat.  It was five years before I was able to make a return trip to Canada, and to look at a place I spent forty years at after a long absence, was eerie.  But it didn't take me long before I felt at home, and yet there was so much I had to catch up on.

In Wuxi, I haven't been able to access sports.  I was a NFL. MLB, and  NHL fan when I came to Wuxi — sports the locals don't care for.  I could have followed them if I had chosen to buy an Satellite dish but I didn't; and if I had a satellite dish now, I wouldn't be able to watch it anyway as my wife and son's preferences would rule.  I have tried to follow European soccer but I can't throw away old North American attitude to the sport — the game can be dull as dish water if you have no emotional attachment or disattachments to the teams playing.  I follow the standings on the Internet for my leagues but the teams and games have become abstractions to me — I don't know who the star players are anymore.  Having recently seen video highlights on the Internet, I am surprised how the look of today's players turn me off.  I prefer to watch my DVD of ice hockey played in 1972 — they looked like men in those days.

I find I follow U.S. politics with a passion at the expense of local Canadian politics.  While the U.S. will always make a splash, Canadian politics, I have found, barely ripple outside its borders.  I didn't know what the opposition leader, a significant figure in Canadian politics, looked like till I saw him on TV in Canada.  I didn't know who were the premiers of the provinces I used to live in.

And it is my view of my home and native land Canada that being in Wuxi has changed in me.  I an always asking my students what they know about Canada and I find it isn't much, even among Wuxi Ren who are going to Canada — I get satisfaction from this because I love to see how all the Canadian government attempts to make a splash haven't been very effective at all, and that the things Canadian that  are well-known often are because they merit it.   Canada, I see, is a pleasant but unexciting place to live.  It can never stir one's imagination as the USA and China can.  

I have also become aware of the traits of many a European country that I of course knew of but rarely had contact with.

So most of what I have said about my experience in Wuxi certainly isn't unique to Wuxi.  I am sure that I would have discovered the same things about myself and travel whether I had lived in Suzhou or Xian or Kunming for six years.  So I have to ask is there anything unique about Wuxi that has changed me so that this article isn't boiler plate enough to be stuck in a general China expat narrative?  Will I take a bit of Wuxi with me, that is recognizable to other Wuxiren and Wuxi Expats if by chance I run into them somewhere else in the world; and they can say "Hey, have you been in Wuxi?" (perhaps they can smell the Wuxi sweet)

Other than my Jiangsu wife, I don't think so.  As far as I can tell China, more than Wuxi; the travel experience more than China that has put a stamp on psyche.  It may well be that there isn't in Wuxi anything that makes it stand out from other Chinese places — unless you count the Tom, Dick, and Harrys that are here.  People have said that some Wuxiren are barbaric.  But people are all barbaric and in their own way. People have said that the food in Wuxi is sweeter than all other places in China.  Taste is taste, but that doesn't affect one's soul in a meaningful way?  (Did it matter what Jesus and Mohamed or the Buddha ate?  Did it affect their souls?)

Still, Wuxi occupies an unique time and place in space, and since one can't be at more than one place at one time, Wuxi can't help but change people.  Choose to live in Wuxi and you have chosen to have Wuxi change you. A Wuxi Canadian is different from a Suzhou or Shanghai Canadian of this there can be no doubt.  But how they are different is a product of the fact that every person you meet anywhere has a unique destiny brought about by unique circumstances.


Anonymous said...

One thing I have noticed about expats in Wuxi and smaller cities as compared to expats in larger cities (Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing and maybe one or two others) is that there is a bit of a competition going on as to which expat is the most integrated into Chinese life.

Imagine a conversation like:
"I have lived here for 15 years! There was no Internet access when I first arrived!"

"Well, I have a Chinese wife and two kids with family all over Fujian province!"

"Well, I speak such fluent Chinese that I've appeared on CCTV three times!"

"Well, I've done xyz", etc.

I never really understood that. A lot of expats seem really fixated on proving how Chinese they can be when in the grand scheme of things it is really quite insignificant. I admit that at one time that whole thing seemed appealing to me, but now I just want to put in my time and get transferred back home.

Andis Kaulins said...

I agree with most of what you say.

However having spent most of my time in Wuxi, I notice there is an tendency among some Expats to get out of Wuxi and get to the big smoke like Shanghai. I don't know if Wuxi Expats are more prone to wanting to prove themselves than Shanghai Expats. But then I haven't meet that many Shanghai Expats.

I use the fact that I have a Chinese wife and a child to impress the locals. It seems most Expats I have meet aren't of the family sort.

But other than that, having a child has changed my priorities. I want what's best for him, and I don't have time to lord it over newbies. I am just a guy trying to support a family.

I have got to experience the celebrity thing here. It is actually embarrassing to be treated that way. The experience has made me feel a fraud. But there is good money for going on television.

There is also a tendency among many Expats to be Sinologists. China is just too big for me to have an informed opinion on it. I have spend most of time in China here in Wuxi. I see what I see but I don't see how I can make any pronouncements of where this country is going.

I think about going back to Canada all the time. But then there are a few things I do like about Wuxi.