Experiencing China

'Experiencing China' is about ordinary life in China and the wealing and dealing of a Dutchman in the Middle Kingdom. Marc works for DuoArts Consultancy and the Empowerment Foundation, travelling between the Netherlands and China.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

China 1999 - Part Four

A few weeks later I was completely adapted to the Dongping way of life. At the same time I was more or less accepted by the people of Dongping and was carrying out my research, interviewing managers, conducting observations and trying to interpret the data. Life became settled again and I enjoyed it.

07.00 am
Without relying on an alarm clock I managed to get out of bed between 7 and half past seven in the morning. Believe me, this is really noteworthy for I am certainly no early morning lover and in natural conditions I get up between 9 and 10. The worst part of this time of day was to get out of a warm bed knowing you couldn’t turn on the central heating to stay warm. Therefore, the first thing I did after quickly dressing up, was walking to the power station of the factory, where fresh hot water was available, to fill two thermoses with it. This was my central heating for the first two months before spring brought more comfortable temperatures. Then I would make the famous Chinese green tea and drank it as hot as possible. After drinking two or three cups I warmed up a little to only then think about the next step in my morning routine, which is, washing myself with a plastic bucket of warm water. After that I had breakfast and worked a little bit on my research or conducting an interview.

12.00 noon
One of the two best parts of the day! I had lunch at the factory’s restaurant in the only room that was heated. Together with the warm lunch I finally would get really warm and sleepy. Because in China many people have a sleep in the afternoon, I did so too. From 2 till 6 pm I would then work again.

07.00 pm
At half past six I would take my Chinese bicycle and cycle to family Wang to have dinner. Family Wang, consisting of grandparents, parents and two children, became my substitute family in China. They owned a little restaurant, where I had dinner every night. At first prices were fair, but later on prices went down and down to the level that locals pay. Family Wang had two servants, the sisters Liu, who more or less also belonged to this extended family. All were very friendly and we had many good times. After having my dinner together we would watch the news on TV; first the national news, then the provincial news, and after that the local news. Because China has an one party system and because the media are controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, we saw on the national news high cadres planting trees to save China’s environment (erosion, which devastating effects I had seen in Datong), subsequently we saw provincial cadres planting trees, to finally watch how Dongping cadres planted trees.

One thing, as a Dutchman is supposed to do, that I found most interesting during the news was the weather at the end. Due to our Dutch variable weather, the Dutch are always discussing the weather and ‘nice weather isn’t it?’ has become synonymous for ‘hello’. On the other hand the Chinese found my obsession for the weather odd. Chinese weather is stable 90% of the year, so talking about the weather means something quite different, that is, ‘I am bored with you, so I now discuss the weather’. I must have been quite arrogant according to the Chinese when I discussed the weather with them… Sorry, but at that time I didn’t know. The main reason I watched the weather forecast with more then average attention was because I was waiting desperately for spring to come, bringing me nicer temperatures.

After dinner, I went out to do some shopping, visiting a friend or write a letter to family and friends. At that time the Internet didn’t exist in Dongping. Due to the bad financial state of the Hemp Mill I also didn’t allow myself to make long distance calls to the Netherlands and even the fax I used rarely. Every Saturday my, then girlfriend (now wife) would call and that was it. In February 2005 I will visit China for the fifth time, and this time again for an extended period. Things in China have changed dramatically. I will have no problem using the Internet, just downloaded the Skype free internet telephone, will bring a digital camera and a webcam with me to be maximally connected with the rest of the world. I must say, it doesn’t sound so romantic anymore to go fully wired and connected to China. To be an anthropology student doing a research in the middle of nowhere certainly is romantic. It must have been a similar feeling as anthropologists and explorers had a few centuries ago. But, for me, times have changed too. As a professional consultant, making the last preparations to fully engage in business, that is the Chinese language course I will do for one semester at the Beijing Language and Culture University, I can’t afford to be that wondering student anymore. I am a wondering consultant right now and that is slightly different. The similarity of my next trip with my first trip in 1999 is that China keeps amazing me and that it always teaches me.


Brand (2004), Identity Revisited: Making Sense of Identity in Contemporary Global Processes. Amsterdam: DuoArts Publications (internet).

"State Ideology, Global Economy and Coping Strategies" in: Sim, K. (ed.) 2003, China in Transition Volume 2. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc. (ISBN:1-59033-643-7)

"State Ideology, Global Economy and Coping Strategies" (chapter 4) in: Dahles & Wels (ed.) 2002, Culture, Organization and Management in East Asia. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc. (ISBN: 1-59033-427-2), pp. 85 - 122.

Brand (2002), Globalization and Local Culture. The Case of a Chinese State-Owned Enterprise Adjusting to International Economic Demands. In: Reader 'Globalisering'. Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit (internal publication).

Brand 1999, Coping Strategies in a Chinese State-Owned Enterprise: Explaining Contemporary Organisational Change in China from a Cultural Perspective. Amsterdam, Vrije Universiteit (internal publication/thesis).

China 1999 - Part Three

After celebrating Chinese New Year with the Zhang family, it was time to do the thing I had to do in China, which was, conducting my (organizational) research at a state-owned textile factory in Dongping, Shandong province (see publications). First, as already said, I traveled from Datong back to Beijing to take the train there to Jinan, the capital city of Shandong (see map China).After the ‘freezing-my-shoes-to-the-ground’ incident at night, I negotiated a bed and had a short sleep. The allover voyage took me about 14 hours. In the train I met a Chinese student, wanting to talk to me, because he wanted to practice his English. When I told him I was heading for Jinan, he understood Xi’an (pronunciation similar) in, I guess, Shaanxi province. He told me that the stone army could be found there and for the first two months I believed the stone army to be in Jinan instead of Xi’an. A few hours later I went to the train’s restaurant to have lunch, when I met some curious personnel whom I learned how to roll Dutch tobacco cigarettes.

Glad to finally get out of the train, in the Netherlands you never travel longer then, let’s say, four hours, I arrived in Jinan, where I was picked up by the company’s car that took me to my hotel. Dongping looked much friendlier than Datong. Compared to moon-like Datong, Dongping was a green paradise. The same was true about the temperature, which lay beyond the 10 degrees Centigrade. The thing I didn’t know was how Chinese village life was like. Although the temperature outside was rather comfortable for winter, houses and companies alike lacked any central heating, warm water, a shower, a washing machines and fridge, things that were primary goods to me. During the next two months I worked with my coat, scarf and gloves on, having to walk for ten minutes (back and forth) for hot water and washing my cloths the way our grandmothers did. However, man is adaptable, and soon I loved being in Dongping. Shandong people generally are considered to be very hospitable, straightforward and friendly. I agree.

Because of the holiday season, I didn’t have any contact with the Hemp Mill, the state-owned enterprise I was to do my research. Actually, I didn’t matter that much for I was able to sleep in (the first week had been terribly tiring) and to get to know the town a little bit better. At one day I met teacher Wang, a teacher English, who spoke English very well. He invited me for dinner with the teacher’s committee of Dongping. This was the first time I was able to experience a full fledged traditional Shandong Chinese banquet that I had many since. A traditional banquet is done with many people, in this occasion the teacher’s committee, and centers around one or more round table that have a circulating inner circle. This circle enables the guests to taste the diverse dishes that are being served. The more dishes, the more hospitality you show to your guests. Ordinary drinks are beer, for special occasions the famous Chinese white ‘wine’ is used. When I was first asked if I wanted a white wine, I said ‘yes, please’ and expecting a European 14% white wine. However, Chinese white wine has an alcohol percentage between the 50 and 65%, and is drunk more frequently in Shandong then anywhere else (tip: when in China, try the following brand: Er Guo Tou, it's really strong and nice!). Around the main table the most important people (according to the Chinese) are sitting, in this occasion including me. There was another table with people of seemingly lesser importance. The toasting ceremony is also structured according to reputation; the guest never has to make a toast, but does all the drinking. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans’, so I did and neatly emptied all the glasses of spirit. After dinner we took some photos to remember our new friendships. Normally I am a pretty good photographer, but you can imagine this time it didn’t work too well.

The next day a man my age walked into the room. Privacy has a somewhat different content then in Europe and hotel rooms are usually not regarded as places where privacy is provided for. I already got used to this. But as said, a man my age walked into my room, introduced himself as Tom and said something like: ‘let’s go meal’. Aha!? Dinner, I thought. I don’t who he is, but he might act on behalf of the teacher’s commission or the Hemp Mill. Thus, I took a little bag containing my camera, passport and wallet and wanted to leave with him. ‘No’ he said, ‘you should bring your suitcase as well’. ‘No’ I said, ‘don’t worry, I won’t need it’. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘you need it’. ‘No’ I said, ‘I won’t need it’. Etcetera, etcetera…. After a while I didn’t want to argue with him any longer and packed my bags. We got into a car, not knowing where we would go. Eventually it turned out that the management of the Hemp Mill had sent Tom to get me to the factory, where they had a little room present for me in order to conduct my research. Tom turned out to be my translator and, later, became my informant and good friend as well.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Great Arts!!

Hi everybody!

Although it doesn't seem to have anything to do with China, I would like your attention for a great artist who happens to be a very good friend of mine. His name is Jasper Geers and recently (that is, a few months ago) he has decided to become a professional painter. Because I would like to support him in this courageous decision, I give you all the link to his recently constructed website.

Just to lift a tip of the curtain (is this an Englisch expression too??): Jasper makes abstract art with Holland as a main theme. For the rest, I won't tell anything more, just visit his page and marvell...

His website can be found on http://jaspergeers.exto.nl/

And now the possible link with China... One of my featured projects of DuoArts Consultancy in China will the the organization of an exhibition of young upcoming Dutch artists in Beijing and vice versa, that is, the organization of an exhibition of young upcoming Chinese artists in, for example, Amsterdam. In other words, intercultural cross pollination of ideas and the building of mutual respect between Chinese and Dutch artists.

Greetings, Marc

Monday, December 13, 2004

Map China (partially) Posted by Hello

Friday, December 10, 2004

China 1999 - Part Two

At night I ate at the hotel's restaurant meeting the only other stranger attending the hotel. I met a man from Nigeria and although the Netherlands and Nigeria couldn't possibly be more (culturally) distinct, there was an inmediate bond because we both were odd looking strangers in a Chinese hotel. We had a nice hotel and my partner told me he already had been several times in the country to do business. He also told me about his experiences with the Chinese and how they strangely looked up to him being black. Later I discovered that the Chinese looked at a similar way to me. Especially my long nose and blond hair attracted a lot of attention. For example, when I already stayed in China for a couple of weeks I went to the hairdresser to 'cultivate' my hair. At first she didn't even wanted or dare to cut my hair, but eventually she did and asked me if she could keep the cut hair. Again a couple of weeks later I visited the so-called 'Meeting' in Dongping, Shandong province (see map China), a local festival that attracted many peasants from the countryside to the county-town. Although the Dongping people already more or less were used to my presence, the new arrivals never had seen a European in real life. This resulted in a big group of mainly children walking behind my back and making jokes about my strange appearance. Being 1.75 meters tall (small in Europe, especially in the Netherlands) it was not particularly the size they wondered about but my pale skin, long nose, blue eyes and blond hair. I now have a former collegue and friend in Cambodia who is 2 meters tall and looks like a basketball player. He must even appear to be stranger then I appear to be. But let's go back to Beijing during my first days in China.

The next day I took the train to Shanxi Datong (see map China), a city not too far from Inner Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, to meet a Chinese friend, named Junfang, I met back home. I was invited (or better: I invited myself more or less) to celebrate the Spring Festival (17 February 1999) with her family. In the next 6 hours to Datong I travelled through one of the worst polluted and exhausted areas in China.

Datong covered in smog Posted by Hello

Erosion, pollution due to extensive coal mining and extremely dry. Datong lies along a part of the great wall and contains one of the most important historical sites (even belonging to the Unesco cultural heritage since 2001), namely the Yungang-grottoes, that resemble the Buddha-caves in Afganistan that were destroyed by the Taliban regime a couple of years ago. Due to pollution the huge statues are now deteriorating. Surviving the changes in dynasties, civil wars, Mao's long march, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution*, the caves are now facing the bigger threat of acid rain and coal dust. A lot of people in Datong resemble the landscape: grey, ailing and sometimes physically marked by the hard labor in the mines. It is also unwise to wear nice cloths because after a few hours your trousers, jacket and shoes are covered by coal dust.

'Grey on the outside, bright on the inside' is the best way to describe to people I have met in Datong. What the city and the outer appearance of the people was lacking, was compensated for by the warm and hospital way I was treated and welcomed in the family of Junfang's family. I celebrated the Spring Festival with them making New Year dumplins, drinking and watching the great fireworks at night. I stayed about one week in Datong before I left for Dongping, the county-town in the Shandong province, I was about to do my research.

I left Datong on a freezingly cold winternight when a sandstorm made the place even more surrealistic. Within seconds my suitcases, cloths and hair were full of the yellow sand that also colors the Yellow River. Maybe that night I didn't look so different from the Chinese. I wasn't able to arrange for a suitable place to sleep, which means that in China you have to buy and bargain a couchette in the train itself. One event clearly is kept in my mind. When I finally had found a place to sleep, one of the staff members on the train showed me the way. We passed the kitchen of the train, when, just before I passed by, a cook threw steamy water out of the kitchen. Within seconds I walked over the water and my shoes instantly froze to the ground.
Later I discovered that it was freezing 20 degrees (Centigrade)!

This will be it for today. Soon I will put some pictures and a map of China on this site, but currently I can't because I don't know how.

CU! Marc David

*The Yungang Grottoes: work on the grottoes started in 460 AD, during the Northern Wei Dynasty, during the period of disunion, and therefore survived 5 dynasties and 2 periods of disunion.
Mao's long march: "In 1934 Chiang's [nationalist, ed.] forces encircle the largest, on the borders of Jiangxi and Fujian [Southeast China, ed.], forcing the Communists to break out and embark on what became known as the Long March. Traversing some of China's poorest and most remote regions, and harried by the armies of Chiang and local warlords, the Communists finally found safety in Yan'an, a poverty-stricken area in the heartland of the old Qin kindom on the loess plateau" (derived from: Jasper Becker's The Chinese (pp.15), published by John Murray (Publishers) Ltd, London: 2000).
Great Leap Forwards: industrialization at great speed, a policy inaugurated by Mao in 1958 that had a disastrous effect on the people's moral and China's economy.
Cultural Revolution: 1967 - 1976. A massive campaign inaugurated by Mao (and compatriots) to politicize the nation and increase the heading towards a communist utopia. Result: disastrous and effects present till today (for more info read Becker's book mentioned above).

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

China 1999 - Part One

Hello everybody,

We're going back into history, to be specific in February 1999. At that time I was a student about to go to China for the first time in order to do my first individual research in a state-owned enterprise annex joint venture. Because of the stress of the past two months or so, I was travelling by train, packed and stuffed with suitcases, feeling to live in a surrealistic world, not yet realizing fully that I was going to live and work in China for a little bit more than 3 months. (It's difficult to put all these feelings into one line). Together with Eveline, my girlfriend, now beloved wife, we travelled to Schiphol Airport Amsterdam. I can remember I was trying hard to show some confidence to her in this whole project I was about to start, actually feeling quite uncertain. At the same time I felt very proud. I was about to do something I dreamt of my whole life. In short: I was torn by mixed feelings, feeling tired and the journey didn't even start yet.

After a nine hour journey in a plane stuffed with Chinese and the presents they bought for their families and friends - it was just before the Springfestival or Chinese New Year - I landed on the former airport of Beijing. I am happy that I was able to land there once, because unlike the new airport, it reminded me of the old China. The airport probably didn't change a lot over time and could be more or less the same when Mao reigned the country during the Cultural Revolution (about 1967 - 1976). We were 'welcomed' by a soldier standing solemnly at the end of the stairs that took us from the plane to the ancient yellow Chinese soil. I would have liked to kiss this ground, but didn't put into practice because I was afraid that this would be considered as a contra revolutionary act. Oh yes, I really was 'green' at that time....

For I never had been to China, which probably is written all over your face, I took a certain cab driven by a man and his Chinese and accompanied by English speaking wife or girlfriend. The woman went on talking as we drove mile after mile, minute after minute after hour after hour. During those very first hours in China I have seen parts of Beijing (see map China) I now probably never would find again. Moreover, it also has been the most expensive ride I had. Finally we arrived at the hotel. I can remember I was counting the money I had taken with me for the whole three month stay, worrying how on earth I was able to financially survive in China when I kept spending money the way I did this first hour.


Two months and two weeks to go before I leave for China. At the moment I am learning about blogging and learning about blogging means you learn about yourself. I have discovered that I am a fairly tradional lad standing with one leg in tradition and with the other in a 'blogalizing' world.

Last week I met a self made, real blogger, Bicycle Mark (www.bicyclemark.org/blog.html), and although we share our names, his and my blogstyle are quite different. Of course, I am a beginner, he already write to you people for three years with an enthusiasm that is unaccounted for. This enthusiasm for blogging also led to an appointment with Mark in a Amsterdam grand-cafe a week ago. For that, I thank you Mark, although I need some more lessons. Since then I know something more about blogging possibilities, such as html and sending pictures to your blog and created a logistic device on my blog that counts the many people that visit my blog site (mainly consisting of me, myself and I). And indeed, for example, I tried to put some pictures to my blog.... but failed. Still a lot to learn, but that's no problem.

I am now in a preparation phase. At some point you suddenly realize you have to do a lot of things before leaving this (now) grey and misty country. Oh yes, I have done it before, preparing for an extended stay in China, but everytime it strikes me. As you probably don't know yet (or did I already wrote about it in the introduction?), besides studying Chinese in Beijing, I also try to establish a career in this country. I left the bureaucratic but safe academic environment to set up a consultancy in China to find myself amongst many self made men and women that do business in China. No, I am not the only one, which I didn't expect of course, but what strikes me is that we (the self made professional entrepreneurs) form a group with distinct characteristics.

But before going into these characteristics in detail I have to tell you what I am currently doing. Well, at the moment I am utilizing and extending my network. I try to meet as many people as possible that share my enthusiasm with China professionally. It all began about a month ago, when I met a freelance consultant who was interested in my China plans and who knows people that know people that know people. Here we have already three characteristics: 1. though small in size, these people all have their one man enterprises, together they form a huge pool of professional knowledge that can be utilized for any project; 2. this pool of knowledge can be utilized in a very flexible way and; 3. can be regarded as a network. Thus, every small enterprise contains a small number of professionals that possess one 'piece of the puzzle'. In order to do a (large scale) project, these professionals cooperate in losely knit and probably temporal networks to get the job done. So, they make up the pieces of the puzzle that makes the puzzle complete. Secondly, all the self made man and women I met set up their small enterprise because they weren't satisfied with the existing and traditional organizations. Including me, these men and women share a deviant perspective, which they are unable to utilize within these traditional networks. Therefore, another characteristic of these networks might be: interdisciplinarity, multi-perspective and creative. I like that!

And yes, I'm sorry, but I am socialized within an academic environment. I can't help to relate this to theory. I taught 'globalization' for three years and the above described characteristics show resemblance to academics that describe the current globalization process. For example, Castells (1996) wrote a book about the 'network society' which resembles my experiences. Another, Gipouloux (in: Chan Kwok Bun 2000), described similar networks in China, claiming that this would be the new mode of enterprise in a globalizing world.

By saying this, an old tricky question emerges, that is, what is the difference between these Chinese networks described by e.g. Gipouloux and networking in Europe and the US? I found this to be a difficult question, frequently asked by my students when I still worked for the university. The answer (for the time being) is: the networks are the same, however, the way in which these networks are established is different.

I sincerely hope that my observations prove to be right. I would be a great thing to join these highly flexible and fluid networks. It makes my works varied and creative. We will see what the (near) future will bring.