Beijing Diary: A Writer’s Life in China

I had just returned from a weekend in Macau. I was looking for transportation from the airport in Ningbo down to Cixi, where I lived. Instead of taking a bus, or a taxi, I was approached by an independent hacker, whose services I accepted. He had a large SUV, and had already secured three other passengers besides me. I used my phone to photograph the license plates, put my bag in the trunk, took shotgun, and set off with everyone, heading south.


The trip from Ningbo to Cixi is about an hour by car, depending upon traffic. I would be the first one dropped off, since the others were travelling further south than I. I tuned out a lot of the other travelers’ chatter as we drove along, concentrating on the scenery instead. Eventually though, my fellow passengers turned heir attention toward me; after all, foreigners were rare in these parts of China.


A lot of the questions were the usual Where are you from? What do you think of China? Are you married? Do you have a Chinese girlfriend? How old are you? and so on. I also received many uncomfortable compliments on my Chinese, which, to be honest, had deteriorated badly over the years of non-use since my days in Taiwan. Eventually, they became curious as to my profession, and what I was doing in China.


Now, while I was working in a private capacity at a kindergarten/buxiban in Cixi, I never liked to admit to it. I wasn’t ashamed of my work, but I was working without a legal Z-class visa. It was something I often complained about, and something that was never effectively addressed during my time there. While the school had guanxi in Cixi (a town chosen by the investors for having the highest concentration of new wealth in southern China), I was technically illegal. Had I been found out, I could have been deported and banned from returning to China in any capacity.


The manager of the school assured me that her connections with local politicians and police officials would allow her to safeguard my position. This was perhaps true; she did have connections with both KMT officials and organized crime families of Taiwan. But her assurances always rang hollow to me.The school itself was a joint venture involving local Chinese commissars in charge of education, KMT politicians promoting Taiwanese business ventures in China, and private individuals who were involved with the criminal underworld of Taiwan. Although Taiwan is, de facto an independent nation, China considers it to be a part of its own political incorporation, and the KMT, since its grip on power had been weakened by the rival native political parties of Taiwan, seeks high level connections to the ruling CCP, tossing aside their principles so long as they can cling to their power and wealth. I was the lone American working amongst Taiwanese citizens in China.


Supposing something went wrong and we were caught out? Well, the native Taiwanese staff would face little more than monetary inconveniences. After all, China considers them to be citizens from an autonomous region. I, on the other hand, am a citizen of a non-friendly foreign country. I would be the one to get into significant trouble.The strategy I developed, then, was to simply tell anyone who asked about my profession, that I was a writer, which was true. At the time, I’d had only one book published, and it was certainly not selling anywhere near well enough to support me; but yes. Technically, I was a writer, and a published author. But calling myself a writer in China was a much different experience than doing so in America.


“So- What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a writer.”
Instantly, there was a respectful pause, and then the conversation turned from small talk to larger questions about politics, sociology, and philosophy. It was automatically assumed that I had a broad and deep education, and was extremely intelligent, as well as experienced in the world. I’d never encountered that kind of respect in America for being a writer. Unlike America, China has an ancient and proud literary tradition, and writers have always been respected as shapers and influencers, much like the French conception of the Philosophe, but with all the reverence that a Confucian society brings to bear on such a personage. I was almost a sage in their eyes. One man even began prefacing his questions and comments with background information relevant to his theme, only to stop himself to apologize, saying, “Of course, you know about this already,” as if he were afraid of insulting my intelligence and learning.


It was extraordinary.

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