Sunday, September 6, 2015

Sense and Common Sense

Many of us have thought of the seemingly nonsensical actions of our Chinese friends: throwing lit cigarette butts into trash cans, driving on the sidewalk or causing bottleneck traffic situations because everyone crams into the only  available lane at once, opening a bus window when the air conditioning is cranking out cool air... and others. Let's not forget that first-time flyer who, desiring a breath of fresh air, opened the emergency exit door. Fortunately, the plane was on the ground. And the other one, on another plane, forged a quick route off by opening the door closest to him. He deployed the slide, causing 100,000 Yuan worth of damage.

We westerners look upon these misdeeds of our Chinese friends, shake our heads and wonder how in the world they came to their ideas.

Common sense: the basic ability to perceive, understand and judge things, which is shared by ( or: common to) nearly all the people, and can be reasonably expected of nearly all people without any need for debate.

It seems the people who have fallen through the 'nearly' hole are Chinese.

If you think about it, what the general public might perceive as ridiculous in China makes a lot of sense. Man on plane wanted fresh air; he opened the door. Man on plane wanted off plane; he established an exit. Man finished with cigarette, he threw it away. All traffic lanes blocked but sidewalk or bike lane is open; drive on sidewalk/bike lane.  

While all of this is logical/rational for the person doing the deed, it seems that person fails to regard the world as a whole and the other people in it. That's what makes this brand of logic downright dangerous at times. And, what is startling about that is that Chinese culture is supposedly collectivistic.

Collectivism: the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology or social outlook that emphasizes the significance of groups – their identities, goals, rights, outcomes, etc., and tends to analyze issues in those terms.

If China is indeed collectivist, how can one driver take it upon himself to take over the sidewalk, where people and bikes abound? How can the man on the plane ignore that big 'emergency exit only' sign, painted bold red on the door?

Here's another aspect of China's alleged collectivism that totally escapes me.

Children in orphanages: unloved, unwanted, underprivileged, and there are a lot of them. Foreigners will adopt Chinese babies but, except in rare cases, Chinese will not. “A family member will adopt a baby or child but will not adopt a strange child” I was told. For instance: an infertile couple might adopt a sibling's child, and that sibling can have another child. Meanwhile, children in orphanages languish.

That doesn't make collective sense to me. There are needy children in China, there are Chinese parents who want/need a child. Perfect match, right? Not so much, according to my Chinese friends. 'Keep it in the family' is the rationale, apparently because an adopted child might not be as devoted to family as a child born into a family. No stranger's blood allowed is another excuse given (and no children with defects, either – but that's beside the point).

It seems that the Chinese are collectivist only up to their own special group: tribal clan, village folk, family, friends, room mates in a dorm, an office group – in short, people who, for one reason or the other are bound together. Beyond that boundary - that collective, individualism asserts itself.

Individualism: Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires, and so, value independence and self-reliance, and advocate that interests of the individual should take precedence over the social group.

Now we're getting somewhere! That explains far better the crazy logic of our Chinese friends, but does nothing to address the collective mentality when it comes to family and friends, tribemembers or dorm mates.

I think sociologists need to come up with a new phrase to accurately describe Chinese society: individual collectivism. Doesn't that sound more apt?

The Man With the Plan

He was born in Nigeria, to a Nigerian father and South African mother. He was raised by his father in Nigeria, his mother apparently having decamped, taking her nationality with her. Life was not easy for this father and son. minimal education, social strife and income disparity all culminated into a young man with few chances at a decent life. His father, wanting the best for his boy, advised him to seek his fortune elsewhere. Or, maybe in desperation, the young man took it upon himself to hatch a plan.

In some back alley in the bad part of town, he traded with a forger to obtain a fake passport. How his father felt about that is not known. Now the world was open to him, and he set about finding his fortune. He set his sights on China because of their urgent demand for English teachers.

Once there, he worked hard at teaching for the first institution that would hire him, and every school after that. He sent most of his salary to his now ailing father. To augment his income he opened a small English school; soon his gates were flooded with little ones struggling with the intricacies of English grammar.

No doubt with the specter of his homeland and his family's poverty never far from his mind, he enrolled in university. He had been too poor to afford much schooling when he was younger. Remembering his father's words – that education will improve his station in life, he studied furiously. And he didn't stop at a bachelor's degree. When our paths crossed, he was headed for his master's.

When he first came to China, things were a lot more lax -  both in this country and in the world. Obtaining official documents was nowhere near as rigorous as it is today, and it was common for official papers to be rubber-stamped rather than being closely scrutinized. Many countries did not have any counterfeit measures imbedded in their passports and, if they did, those measures were easy to forge. In the ten years our man lived and worked in China under a fake passport, never once was that permission challenged.

Eventually the fear of being found out must have lessened. This man started taking chances. He bought an apartment, and a car. With his little English school flourishing, he rented a larger building and hired a few teachers.

About 2 years ago, he came close to being found out. China had tightened visa regulations for foreigners. If a person is here on a work visa, s/he cannot own a business. The official representing the school our man was currently teaching at, charged with keeping foreign teachers' documents current had taken the man's passport for visa renewal. Apparently, Chinese databases had been updated. The school learned that their foreign teacher was illegally operating a business. The Bureau of Foreign Affairs initially refused to renew the visa, but then compromised. Our man was placed under notice: within 6 months, the business should be either put in someone else's name or disbanded altogether, and an official certificate to that effect should be produced.

Imagine how our man must have felt! Having worked under deception for so many years, perhaps even getting comfortable with his higher quality of life, and now to suddenly come under scrutiny! Nevertheless, he transferred his business into someone else's name, and the whole scandal went away. He must have again gotten complacent with his, rich, secure life in China.  

His forged passport expired. The school he worked at knew his document was up for renewal and offered an escort to the South African consulate in Beijing. The Man with the Plan turned the offer down, saying he was too busy to go and would simply send it by certified carrier. What he actually must have done was contact a forger. In a few weeks, he produced a new, authentic looking document. 

It all came to a head on Valentine's Day this year. He had taken his fiancee to Hong Kong to shop for wedding rings. Coming back through the checkpoint in Shenzhen, his fraudulent documents were discovered and he was immediately taken to jail.

All of his assets were seized: car, house, business. Bank accounts were frozen. He remained incarcerated while the police turned over every aspect of his life. Soon the banks were calling the school where he worked, looking for their credit card payment. I can't tell you what was happening at the school he founded, but this much is true: people who had associated with him couldn't believe they had engaged with a criminal.

For four months this man sat in jail. Disowned by any institution that had ever hired him and, most likely by any other associates, he had all that time to contemplate how everything he worked so hard for was now all for naught. Surely he would be deported with nothing but the clothes on his back.

That is exactly what happened. China's police were thorough in their investigation. Since coming to China, all evidence pointed to a hard working man, giving to the community and fulfilling any obligation he took on. They dug further. The Nigerian police rendered their report: nothing to report. His only crime is that he entered this country with fake credentials.

There are many questions in the wake of this scandal. Why did he forge a South African passport when, surely by birthright he would be entitled to one? 'Too much stress' was his reply. Why a South African passport, not Nigerian? 'South Africans are welcome in China'.

Ten years have passed since his entry into China. He's no longer a young man, and he's back to square one in getting started with life. What will he do? No answer to that. But there are many answers to other aspects of this man's presence and attitude. Now we understand his vagueness, his standoffishness,  and his refusal to partake of any social events.

This is a true story; one that leaves me scratching my head. Here we have a man who has never asked for a handout. Who, by all accounts has worked hard to improve his station in life – something society universally dictates should be every person's imperative. He was a contributing member of society and to the economy. His only crime is that he did so with fake credentials.

Now, this hard working man is being deported to a country where his educational and economic chances are few, where he will have little to no opportunity to contribute to society, where he might become a victim of sectarian violence, where he might again be forced to seek refuge in another country – legally or illegally. Considering the drain on resources the European Union is enduring because of all the refugees needing asylum, doesn't it seem illogical that such a person – who is willing to work and otherwise law-abiding would be denied the chance to continue his efforts?

The good news is that China bears him no ill will. Before putting him on a plane, the officer in charge of his investigation told him he was welcome back, provided he had proper credentials. Please join me in the hope that our Man with a Plan can get them, and continue to help improve this world, one student at a time.