Laowai in Shanghai (I): Dreams of the Middle Kingdom

Given that all my friends in 2013 are graduating and I was in their shoes a year ago, I've been in a fairly reflective state and can't help, in preparing for China, reflecting on how I got into studying Chinese (and why on earth I'm still doing it four years later).

The story is pretty simple. I came to college as an engineer and had no time to really study a new foreign language (and when I did have the time, I had planned on studying Arabic). Chinese never crossed my mind, even as one of my freshman year roommates did her weekly recordings and at least three girls in my a cappella group were studying it at the time. Besides, it seemed to me that the types of people who studied Chinese at my school would, by and large, be the types of people who were studying it purely for future financial gain--a bit of a turn-off.

When I finally found the conviction to drop engineering my freshman spring in favor of giving myself the chance to see what really motivated me and what I really enjoyed studying, I took a smorgasbord of classes: an Introductory Linguistics class, Introductory Romanian II (that's a story for another post), Portuguese for Spanish-speakers (also deserves its own post), History of Gender and Sexuality in Modern America, and finally, Chinese Foreign Relations.

I hadn't learned anything new about China since the seventh grade and, no longer an Electrical Engineer, saw myself potentially majoring in something resembling International Relations, so I enrolled in the class even though it was a 400-level one and I was a frosh-baby. The class was difficult but rewarding and the TA was demanding but awesome. And what I wouldn't expect was that this class would convince me that even though most people do CHI 101 as freshmen, I should take the leap for sophomore year and start Chinese.

It was a lecture about 3/4 of the way through the course that was discussing the Sino-American rapprochement process, the Shanghai Communique, and the One-China Policy. I still find compelling, even today, that the semantic difference in the American and Chinese texts of the Communique stalled the warming of relations between the US and China for another 7 or so years. "The United States acknowledges that there is one China and Taiwan is a part of it," and "The United States recognizes that there is one China and Taiwan is a part of it," don't appear to sound so different, after all. I always enjoyed languages and had tremendous attention to detail and a passion for cross-cultural mutual understanding. But it was after that course, when these likes and skills were met with a deeper comprehension of the importance of China in the world and the importance of the relationship between China and the United States, that I finally decided to give Chinese a try. Though I still have plenty to learn to reach the level of proficiency I desire, four years later, I have more than enough Chinese to get around China and hopefully enough to qualify for a future job that uses Mandarin more frequently than my present one.

Now, in a matter of hours, I return to China, and I can't believe this day has come. I don't think I could believe it when I was heading for China the first time. To go back? Now that's the stuff that dreams are made of. This time last year, I didn't know what I really wanted to do (and still don't) or where I'd end up in the next year, but I knew I wanted to return to China somehow. So I'm elated to say that I am really and truly going back. And the only thing more poetic than leaving for China on the one-year anniversary of my college graduation is that on the one-year anniversary of my interviewing for this position, I am going to be in Kunshan, the city on which I spent many months writing my first HBS case study, which has finally been approved for unrestricted distribution.

The last time I was in China was two years ago and I spent all three weeks in Beijing. This time, I'll be based out of Shanghai and making short trips to different cities, including Beijing and possibly Shenzhen. But like everything else on this job, I can prepare as best as I can, but I won't know what I'll be doing until I'm actually there. After all, when we we planning this trip (if it could be called planning), we expected it would be to finish one case study and do interviews for a new one. Now, it's to attend and write a report for a conference, update one case, finish another, and get a head start with interviews on three new ones. But no matter how busy I'll be, I plan to devote a substantial amount of time to exploring the city and really figuring out if I could really live and work in China (and, if so, in which city) and, naturally, to writing.

Despite the limitations of the Great Firewall, I'm hoping to find a way to blog the trip. And once I find a server or VPN that works, in the spirit of practicing my writing skills, I expect to write at least a third of each post in Chinese (but including a translation!) So keep an eye out for it--I promise my work and expat exploits will be entertaining.

Until we meet next from the other side of the world, 再见!