Three Decades in China; Four Trends

Thirty years ago, I set off for what I thought would be a one-year teaching stint in China. Twenty-eight years later, I moved back to the States. Either I’m really bad at math or that was one very long year.


I worked in three different cities: Zhengzhou, Changchun, and Beijing. I wore many different hats: English teacher, Chinese language student, Chinese language program director, English teaching program director, cross-cultural trainer. I learned lots, and of course, made many mistakes.

I count myself privileged to have had a front row seat to watch China transform itself from a country on the brink of social and economic collapse to the world’s second largest economy.

My connections to China actually predate 1984, though. I grew up in Pakistan in the 1960’s during a time when Pakistan was one of China’s only friends. My mom drove us to school every morning, and along the way we passed the Chinese Consulate, with its imposing portrait of Chairman Mao. As kids, we had a nickname for him, but it’s probably better left unspoken. It was from Pakistan that Henry Kissinger made his secret trip into China that laid the ground for Nixon’s visit in 1972. When I was in junior high school, there was even talk of a class trip to China; unfortunately the Chinese government decided it was not in their interest to have a couple dozen American 8th graders roaming around their country.

My first actual visit to China came in 1979, the first year that China “opened up” to American tourists. I was doing a summer internship in Hong Kong, and when the opportunity to do a three-day tour to Guangzhou with a group of American college students came up, I took it. What I saw was a country unlike anything I had ever seen (and I had seen a couple dozen countries already). China was just three years out from the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the exhaustion and oppression was palpable. I remember thinking that if it continued to open-up, it might be interesting to work there someday.

Four Observed Trends

As I look back over three decades in China, these are some of the trends that I have witnessed.

1. Ration coupons to Wal-Mart

When I arrived in China, ration coupons were still in use. The political campaigns of the 60’s and 70’s had brought scarcity (and even famine), so essential foodstuffs were rationed: meat, flour, sugar, and eggs. As foreigners, we could not get the required ration coupons, which meant that we could not purchase any of those items. However, our school was given extra ration coupons so they could feed us. The ration coupons remained in use until the end of the 1980’s.In China today, there is no shortage of food or consumer goods available to those with purchasing power. Every major city has a Wal-Mart or some other big box store with food and other items stacked floor to ceiling. Sometimes when I see older people wandering around in these stores, the ones who experienced the famines of the 60’s, I wonder what they are thinking.

2. Isolated to Engaged

In the 1980’s the world of a Chinese citizen was quite small, existing primarily of family and the work unit. It was difficult to travel within China, and almost impossible to travel outside of China. The students that I taught knew almost nothing of the outside world, and I was the first non-Chinese they had ever seen. I remember one of my students telling me that he had secretly learned English from VOA broadcasts while hiding under the bed.

Today the nation of China is fully engaged on the world stage. Its economy is integrated with the global economy and China is seeking to establish itself as a major world power, a second superpower to act as a counterweight to the United States. Chines citizens are travelling and living and working abroad in record numbers as passports and visas are easier to get. In the 1980’s I worked hard to explain what a “hamburger stand” was (it was a lesson in the textbook we used), but today kids often ask me if we have MacDonald’s in America too.

3. Conformity to Self-expression

One of the enduring images in my mind of China in the 1980’s is the uniform drabness of it all. In addition to the sky and the buildings all being various shades of grey, everyone was still wearing the same dark blue or green “Mao suits” (Chinese call them Sun Yat-sen suits, by the way). Everyone dressed alike and thought alike. The political and social system had no room or tolerance for self-expression.

Today, one only occasionally sees Mao suits worn by peasants or construction workers, and everything from fashion to architecture seems to scream out “LOOK AT ME!” The post-90’s generation is all about individual self-expression and their own (as opposed to state-mandated) social connections.

4. The Church: Hidden to Visible

In the 1980’s the church was in survival mode, having just come through the Cultural Revolution during which religions were banished from Chinese society. Churches were slowly beginning to reopen and pastors were being let out of prison and back into their pulpits. By and large, the church was invisible to society around it. Throughout the 90’s and 2000’s the church moved into the shadows – it was visible, but not very. As it became more visible, it found ways to serve the needs of society. And today, the Chinese church has even begun to send missionaries abroad.

It will be interesting to watch what happens in China over the next thirty years. To quote Rob Gifford, author of China Road: Journey into the Future of a Rising Power, “the next thirty years cannot and will not be like the last thirty years.” New demographic and economic realities won’t allow it.

Note: this was originally posted on the ChinaSource Blog.

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Snapshots from the Polar Vortex

The dreaded Polar Vortex (what we used to call a cold snap) has once again descended on Minnesota. It heralded its return on Thursday by dumping close to a foot of snow on much of the state (including the Twin Cities), and until it slithers out of here we are looking at below zero temps every night this week.

Here in the Twin Cities, we had our first measurable snow fall the first week of December. But unlike  other parts of the country that have gotten a lot of snow, ours doesn’t melt shortly afterwards. With each successive snowfall, it just gets deeper and deeper and the snowbanks get higher and higher.

It is absolutely gorgeous here now, so yesterday, despite pleas from “authorities” to stay off the roads, I took a drive around town to get some pictures. Never wanting to miss out on a road trip, my mom demanded to be allowed to ride shotgun. Herewith, then are some snapshots of the Polar Vortex in the Twin Cities.

LLRP2Can you see the park bench? I had to stand on the back bumper of my car to see over the snow bank to catch a glimpse of the park bench. You can see the park bench, right?

LLRP4The road in Long Lake Regional Park.

stuckThis poor fellow was sent out to “blow” the sidewalk along Old Highway 8 in New Brighton;  he got stuck. The snow deposited by the plows was too deep and packed.

msriverThe Mississippi River is frozen solid this year.


In Lilydale Regional Park, we came across these intrepid painters.

LDRP3This is the scene they were painting.

stpaulwinterDowntown St. Paul. Brr.


My mom (aka “Gracie”) standing in front of the snowbank in the cul-de-sac where she lives. Anyone care to predict the date that snow bank is GONE?

Minnesota winters may not be for the faint of heart, but they certainly are beautiful!

Wedding Photos

One of my favorite streets in Beijing is Xisi Nan Dajie. Besides being one of the few remaining shopping streets in the old part of the city, it’s main claim to fame these days is being ‘wedding studio’ street.

For the mile or so that runs between Xisi and Xidan, many of the storefronts on either side of the road are expensive wedding studios, all with very fancy (and romantic) sounding names. Milan Spring. Paris.    Love Castle.

Two of the biggest ones are next door to the Gangwashi Church, which I attended when I lived in Beijing. Every Sunday morning I enjoyed walking from the subway to the church and eyeing the latest wild outfits on display in the windows.

Wedding photographs in modern Chinese culture are a BIG deal, and couples spend LOTs of money. But unlike in the West, having the photos taken is an event in and of itself!

China File recently captured this phenomenon in a recent essay and slideshow about weddings in China, titled, First Comes Love, Then Comes…the Photo Shoot:

“The wedding banquet comes later. For many Chinese couples, married life really begins in the photo studio where, basted in glitter and hair gel, the brides dressed for a debut at La Scala or night out with Fabio, they gaze upon sets so tufted and inlaid and gold-foiled that comparisons to the real places that seem to have served as models—Versailles, the homes of Donald Trump—don’t quite suffice. This isn’t just a ritual for the rich and corrupt. Flinty investigative reporters, law professors at the country’s best universities, bank tellers, even men and women who ordinarily dress and live in a manner that suggests only the most passing of concern with appearances, still greet visitors to their modest homes with towering portraits of themselves surrounded by velvet and marble.”


And lest you think this is a homegrown phenomenon, the author reminds us that it is an import from Taiwan:

“Wedding studios first came to the mainland from Taiwan in the ’90s at the very beginning of China’s rocket-like economic ascent. And they have multiplied and evolved as new groups have amassed the funds necessary to support 3,000 to 130,000 RMB shoots.”

Please visit China File to see the entire collection of photos.

When visiting parks or other scenic spots in China its not uncommon to spot one of these wedding shoots. Sometimes there is one couple, sometimes numerous couples — all out for the day together getting their pictures taken.

Here’s a collection of some I’ve run across over the years:

Couples vying for the best shot at the Qingdao Christian Church

Couples vying for the best shot at the Qingdao Christian Church

Dolled up in Tianjin

Dolled up in Tianjin

Hong Kong Wedding Shoot

Of course, it’s a big business in Hong Kong too.

This is one of my favorites…

The swimmer is not phased

The swimmer is not phased

Related posts:

You May Kiss the Bride

A Few Wedding Photos

Get Me to the Church on Time…Or Not!




Visa! Visa!


It’s official! I’m headed back to China next month; and now I have the visa to prove it!

Since September of last year there has been no valid China visa in my passport, something that hasn’t been true for close to 20 years! I didn’t like that feeling, so last week when I got my passport back from the Chinese consulate in Chicago with this multiple entry visa in it, I felt as though all was right with the world again!

I will be traveling to China next month with a group of university students from Minnesota. We’ll be in Beijing and Shanghai, taking in the sights and visiting some companies and NGO’s. The students will be there for ten days, and I’ll stay on for another 10 days to connect with friends.

Get ready, Beijing. Jo is coming to town!

Good-bye Sweet Oreo?

Why China’s Falling Out of Love With the Oreo


Now that’s a headline that we surely would never have seen back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. In those days, Oreos were a prized possession for the foreigner working in China — something that you asked your mom to put in the big box that she shipped to you (surface) in September, in hopes that it might reach you before Christmas. 

Whether it did or not was immaterial; all that mattered was opening the box and finding the (mostly crushed) bag of Oreo cookies. Sometimes we ate them all in one sitting, and sometimes we rationed them.

And there was always the trip to Hong Kong during the Spring Festival holiday to look forward to. Oreos were readily available there and could be shipped back to China quickly and cheaply (or simply stuffed into your suitcase).

Sometimes we could even find imported Oreos at the venerable Friendship Store in Beijing.

In 1996 Nabisco began making and selling Oreos in China, and they quickly became popular. I remember serving one to a Chinese friend once who, after tasting it and examining it carefully, declared “I have an oven at home; I think I can make this.”

I assured her she couldn’t.

According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, the Chinese seem to be falling out of love with the Oreo

Oreo has been one of the country’s most popular cookie brands since it launched in China in 1996, with Mondelez holding the largest market share in China’s biscuit segment at 16%, according to market-research firm Euromonitor International. Cookie sales in China have more than tripled from 2003 to 50.4 billion yuan, or roughly $8.3 billion, last year.


But industry watchers say China is one tough cookie, and Mondelez is facing bigger obstacles to growth here. Consumers in the world’s most populous country are curious and willing to try out new things, but that means as more brands enter the market, there are more snacks to distract them from Oreos, said Ben Cavender, a senior analyst at consultancy China Market Research in Shanghai.


Mr. Cavender said most companies are finding that Chinese consumers bore easily, so it’s key for food makers to innovate and introduce new brands. ”You have to keep the market constantly hooked,” he said, noting that changing the packaging often isn’t enough.

Oreos losing their popularity in China? Please say it isn’t so!

Image source: Wall Street Journal

I Miss the Chinese Curlers

For the first time since in years I am not watching Olympic coverage on CCTV5, the official Chinese sports channel. This means, of course, that I am missing out on watching the competitions the Chinese tend to do well in, like women’s speed skating and curling.

Yes, I said curling.

One of the funny things that happened during the Winter Games in Vancouver four years ago was the near ubiquitousness of the  Chinese curling squad on Chinese TV, never mind that no one (including me) had a clue what they were watching. But the non-stop coverage and excitement of the squad’s run to the bronze medal captivated the nation, and we all found ourselves cheering them on.


The Wall Street Journal blog China Real Time wrote about the squad yesterday in a post titled, China’s Curling Squad Resumes Its Quest for Olympic Gold in Sochi – China Real Time Report – WSJ:

“One of China’s greatest hopes for an Olympic medal at the Sochi Games lies once again in curling, the obscure pastime more associated with small Canadian and U.S. Midwestern towns than with Chinese mainstream sports.


The same Chinese women’s curling team that won a bronze at Vancouver in 2010 is back, led by Wang Bingyu. Standing just 5-feet-5, the bespectacled Wang is an unlikely candidate for Olympic hero, looking more the part of graduate student than elite athlete. She came to the sport, popular among its North American participants for its lengthy post-game beer-drinking sessions, when her hockey-coach father concluded she was too small for hockey and suggested she try it out.


But while the Chinese team arrived in Vancouver as a team on the rise, the same quartet has meandered its way to Sochi.”

I guess I’m going to have to look for coverage on the CCTV5 website, the sports channel in China.

And even if I can’t find coverage of the squad, I’m still rooting for them to win a medal!

Related Post: Watching CCTV

Image source: AFP, via WSJ

Is China Happy?

Last week the New York Review of Books published an article called China’s Way of Happiness, by Ian Johnson. The article is an interview of Dr. Richard Madsen, a scholar on religion in China, about his research on happiness in China. 

Taking the Blessing Home

Here are some interesting excerpts from Madsen’s comments.

On the subject of his next book: 

My research project is on searching for a good life in China in an age of anxiety. Where do they see their lives going? Where do they see China going? Its aimed at tapping into people’s sense of meaning. I’m doing it with several other colleagues.

On the need for moral anchors: 

People’s lives are disrupted by urbanization, economic change, and so on. There’s also a collapse of Marxist ideology and a sense of dislocation. There is a need for new moral anchors.

On the relationship between unhappiness and religious revival: 

In the reform era, the revival of religion is probably a quest to return to a normal life to carry out normal festivals, to do things in a normal way, which always had a religious element to it in China. In China, religion has always been more about practice than about belief. You do those things — you sweep the graves of your ancestors because that’s what you do to remain in connection with your family. People have been dislocated from their villages, but there’s a sense that you have to maintain your roots. So they might go back and rebuild a temple or ancestral hall.

On whether China might become a Christian country: 

If you look at the growth and project that over the next fifty or one hundred years, that would happen; but I would predict that the current trajectory will plateau out, like in Taiwan, in the range of 7 percent of the population. Maybe 10 percent. It’s a guess, a hypothesis. But other things like Buddhism are becoming more popular. People will look at other things for meaning and that will crowd out Christianity.

On whether or not Christianity has failed in China: 

It hasn’t failed. What does success mean for a religion? Taking over the country? Or is it just becoming an accepted part of the plurality of understandings, and permanent in a sustainable way? You can definitely argue that its like that for Christianity in China today. We’re seeing new ways for people to find meaning in their lives. Its definitely changing and broadening. Christianity is a part of it.

Read the whole thing here. You won’t regret it.

Related Posts: 

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Learning Chinese in the 1600’s

I love history, I love China, and I love maps. This explains why I am currently working my way through a book about the history of a Chinese map! It’s called Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer. Here’s the description on Amazon:

In 2009, an extraordinary map of China was discovered in Oxford’s Bodleian Library—where it had first been deposited 350 years before, then stowed and forgotten for nearly a century. Neither historians of China nor cartography experts had ever seen anything like it. It was so odd that experts would have declared it a fake—yet records confirmed it had been delivered to Oxford in 1659. The “Selden Map,” as it is known, was a puzzle that needing solving.

Mr. Selden's Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer

In one section the author recounts the difficulty that early Europeans had learning Chinese:

The Chinese language’, one Jesuit author assured his readers, has no analogy whatsoever with any other language in use throughout the world. Nothing in common: neither the sound of its words, nor the pronunciation of its phrases, nor the arrangement of ideas. Everything is mysterious in this language: one can learn terms in two hours, yet it may take several years of study to be able to speak them. One can learn to read all Chinese books, and understand them well, without comprehending anything if someone else recites them. A scholar will be able to compose essays rich in elegance and polite phrasing, yet the same scholar will not always know enough to explain himself in ordinary conversation. Worse still, ‘the same words often signify opposite things, such that when two people pronounce them, what will be a compliment coming from the mouth of one will be atrocious insults from the mouth of the other.’ The language could still be learned; indeed, it could become ‘fertile, abundant, and harmonious in the mouth or under the brush of those who have applied themselves to its study’. But it wouldn’t be easy. From there it was only a short step to the declaration of George Bonham, a nineteenth-century governor of Hong Kong, that it was unwise to study the language, as it ‘warps the mind and imbues it with a defective perception of the common things of real life’.


(Brook, Timothy (2013-11-12). Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer (Kindle Locations 1131-1135). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

So if you’re a student of Chinese and beginning to feel your mind is being warped, remember, you are standing on some serious shoulders! 

But remember….you have Pinyin!

As for the map, you can read more about it on the Oxford University Website (it is housed at the Bodleian Library) .

They’ve also produced a short video on the map, which highlights not only it historical significance, but its relevance today.

(if you receive this post by email and cannot see the embedded player, please click here to see the video)