This Is Communism? by Tom Hill '71
Living in China for three years brings a new perspective on that country’s culture and economy. by Tom Hill ’71
Maybe it was the moon rising over Borobodur, Indonesia, in 1995 that did it. Or perhaps it was the riotous Tet celebration in Hanoi with our friend Thoa that culminated in my trying to outdrink her mother (I lost) and dancing with her father. Whatever the cause, my wife, Heather Dinwiddie, and I wanted to live and work in Asia.
Despite knowing our yen, most of our friends were surprised when we announced we were putting our comfortable Alexandria, Virginia, lives in storage, selling our home, and taking positions as teachers in “Communist China.”
Weren’t we worried? Of course we were. We read everything we could and spent many hours in counsel with close friends from China who lived nearby. Despite that, we didn’t really have a clue about what life was like in the People’s Republic’s fourth largest city, Chengdu, population 10,597,000, when we disembarked our 15-hour Cathay Pacific flight.
When I was a child my mother admonished me to eat my Brussels sprouts, or whatever unspeakable vegetable was in front of me, because “children are starving in China.” (I resisted the urge to ask her for their names and addresses so I could mail them my portions.)
There are still hungry children in the People’s Republic, just as in the United States. And, as in the United States, children and adults in my adopted country are developing an epidemic of obesity. Interestingly, there is research indicating that it began the year the “Colonel” opened his first shop in China.
In fact, I located the nearby KFC shortly after settling in. You may remember this as (Colonel Sanders’) Kentucky Fried Chicken. I believe the name was changed to create the impression that the food was no longer fried and, consequently, not bad for you. Here in China the KFC is still fried and still bad for you. (Fortunately for us, it doesn’t taste very good, either.)
There is a 24-hour McDonalds on the north side of town. Starbucks has expanded from the original in the tourist quarter to four additional locations. Subway and Pizza Hut are nearby. The German retail giant Metro is an easy walk from our apartment. France’s Auchan is an easier walk in the other direction. The state-owned liquor store sells Johnny Walker Blue Label Scotch. We have access to Old and New World wines, peanut butter (crunchy and smooth), oatmeal, and other comforts of Western living. Olive oil is available from all the world’s producing countries. (We didn’t need the supply of extra-virgin we’d shipped ahead.)
We do suffer hardships, mind you. It’s impossible to find good cheese. The consolation is the best tofu we’ve had in 14 years of knocking around Asia. Some of it is, to quote Mo Yan, China’s great contemporary writer, so dense you can hang it on a meat hook.
When we arrived we were worried about access to our U.S. accounts; we were, after all, moving to a Communist country. No problem: three different banks offer ATMs near our guarded, gated community. The Bank of China ATM offers easy access to our Wachovia account. Skype helps us settle matters that need a phone call.
We earn seven tenths of a percent on our deposits. The banks loan at seven percent. Now, I must admit I have not read Das Kapital, but I am relatively sure that Marx did not endorse this sort of point spread. Recently a nearby bank was giving away cookware if one signed up for a credit card.
There is a Century 21 real estate office near our apartment. I was surprised to learn that it’s the real thing, as the Chinese are notorious for playing fast and loose with other people’s brand names and trademarks; I don’t think the words exist in Mandarin, Cantonese, or the Chengdu dialect for “protected intellectual property.”
There was a (real) Maserati Gran Turismo, a $130,000 automobile, parked outside my school when I walked home last week. That would hardly be of note if this private school for grades 1–12 was back in Alexandria. But it’s in China. Beamers and Benzes and Audis abound. (Most are being driven by drivers who show no evidence of training in their operation, and I’m convinced Chengdu’s drivers are the worst in Asia.)
So how would we label this place? It is certainly not “communist”; the commune members are not using these expensive autos to carpool to meetings in Beijing. People are getting rich — which is, according to Deng Xiao Peng, a glorious thing to do. So is this “capitalist”? Well, maybe that’s not it exactly, either. My favorite label so far comes from James Fallows, who has written extensively and brilliantly of China. He prefers “Market–Leninist.”
Soon we’re moving to Ho Chi Minh City, also known more poetically as Saigon. Thank goodness it’s another Communist country — they even have baguettes!
Tom Hill spent 30 years in broadcasting, the first 25 of which were fun. After obtaining licensure from the University of Virginia, he began a second career teaching. He lived and taught middle school in Chengdu, Sichuan, China, for three-and-a-half years. He now lives and teaches in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Alexandria, Virginia.