HANGZHOU, China - My goal for this column has been two-fold: to describe the general experience of living abroad in a foreign country and to give a general introduction to China, especially for readers with little experience with the country or its culture. China's government is an important aspect of its character and its influence on the world, especially in the United States. It is a strange, sometimes feared, and usually illiberal system that inspires little respect from other peoples or countries.
I want to write about the Chinese government and what it's like to live in a communist country, but, as I think of it, my experience with the Chinese government has been limited, and as an outsider it is often difficult to recognize the ways in which China's government and society truly are "communist," when so many things are available for sale in stalls across the country and more and more luxury shops open each week.
Some foreigners come to China as intellectuals interested in Marxism, socialism, or communism. They have a certain degree of respect for Mao Zedong and his "struggle" and are interested to see how his values are present in Chinese society today.
I am not one of these people. I have never been interested in or impressed by communism or socialism - the idea of living in a country where workers overthrow other "classes" or where wealth is shared among all and private property is abolished has never seemed to me to be a realistic or even an ideal way of organizing a society. I like the messiness of democracy, the creative destruction that comes out of capitalism, and the emphasis on individual freedom over group stability that are hallmarks of America.
Living in China - still (at least ostensibly) a communist country, a one-party state, and a place where individual freedoms are limited and often abused - can be challenging for a patriotic and rights-focused American. I feel uneasy at the sight of the hammer and sickle on the Chinese Communist Party flag, and I have limited patience for viewing or reading the country's state-controlled media. I use a virtual private network to connect to the Internet in order to overcome the limitations on the Internet put in place to keep Chinese citizens from accessing foreign social media or information deemed "sensitive" by the government.
I know not to discuss politics or government with Chinese acquaintances, unless they bring it up first, for it has been my experience that many Chinese would prefer not to talk about these subjects. China does not have an open and free enough culture to make it possible for its citizens to talk about politicians or policies freely or critically - or at least not without some fear of getting in trouble. That, or perhaps because China is a big country with still many poor people and many problems, there is not much interest causing trouble or expressing discontent when incomes and material wealth have been increasing over time for most Chinese, even if personal freedoms lag behind.
The Chinese Communist Party is celebrating its 90th anniversary this month. Banners are up on lamp posts, outdoor screens run celebratory videos, and movie goers can even see "Beginning of the Great Revival," a propaganda film full of Chinese stars that celebrates the founding of the Communist Party. While I understand what patriotism and love of one's country feels like, I struggle to understand its expression in a restricted society.
Yet for all my discomfort with China's political system, there are only a small number of ways in which I have encountered the government or its security state. Most places in China - except for sensitive places as they crop up - are not heavily policed. (But when they are, it's clear.) Like all foreigners, I do have to show my passport at every hotel I check into throughout China, so that it can be photocopied and my presence can be reported to the local public security bureau. (I'm also supposed to register with the police if I stay with a friend in a different city.)
If I worked for a Chinese state-owned enterprise or had more high-level work responsibilities (or got into more trouble), then it is possible that I would have more interaction with Communist party members or the Chinese state. As it is, I am content to keep my interactions limited, gaining my sense of this country and its people instead by befriending Chinese peers and colleagues, visiting popular sites and cities, and learning about Chinese culture through food, language, and the arts.
The Fourth of July came and went this week. I did my best to celebrate: over the weekend, I went to an American-themed celebration at an expatriate bar in Shanghai, and on Monday, July 4, I went to eat at an American restaurant in Hangzhou with other fellow Americans. On Tuesday, I happened to stream online WIXX 101, the Green Bay radio station, just as it broadcast the audio soundtrack for the fireworks above the Fox River. It was morning in Hangzhou as I folded my laundry and listened to popular American marches and patriotic country songs and tried to visualize fireworks as they exploded over a summer's night in northern Wisconsin.
This is a column meant to describe the general experience of living abroad and to give a general introduction to China. But sometimes, too, this column is a way for me to get to reflect on the pleasures and honor of being an American, even as one so far away from home.
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Brittney Moraski, daughter of Robert and Bethany Moraski of Bark River, graduated from Bark River-Harris High School in 2005. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in American history and literature in 2009. In February 2010, Brittney moved to Shenzhen, China, to work with Chinese students applying to U.S. universities. In July 2010, she moved to Hangzhou, China, to work as a program coordinator and to continue working with Chinese students. She plans to return to the U.S. this summer. You can follow her blog at www.brittneymoraski.com.