Death and taxes. You know how the saying goes. I’d like to add a third certainty: you’ll never become Chinese, no matter how hard you try, or want to, or think you ought to. I wanted to be Chinese, once. I don’t mean I wanted to wear a silk jacket and cotton slippers, or a Mao suit and cap and dye my hair black and proclaim that blowing your nose in a handkerchief is disgusting. I wanted China to be the place where I made a career and lived my life. For the past 16 years it has been precisely that. But now I will be leaving.
I won’t be rushing back either. I have fallen out of love, woken from my China Dream. “But China is an economic miracle: record number of people lifted out of poverty in record time… year on year ten per cent growth… exports… imports… infrastructure… investment…saved the world during the 2008 financial crisis…” The superlatives roll on. We all know them, roughly.
Don’t you think, with all the growth and infrastructure, the material wealth, let alone saving the world like some kind of financial whizz James Bond, that China would be a happier and healthier country? At least better than the country emerging from decades of stultifying state control that I met and fell in love with in 1986 when I first came here as a student? I don’t think it is.
When I arrived in Beijing for the second year of my Chinese degree course, from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), China was communist. Compared to the west, it was backward. There were few cars on the streets, thousands of bicycles, scant streetlights, and countless donkey carts that moved at the ideal speed for students to clamber on board for a ride back to our dormitories. My “responsible teacher” (a cross between a housemistress and a parole officer) was a fearsome former Red Guard nicknamed Dragon Hou. The basic necessities of daily life: food, drink, clothes and a bicycle, cost peanuts. We lived like kings—or we would have if there had been anything regal to spend our money on. But there wasn’t. One shop, the downtown Friendship Store, sold coffee in tins.