From NoPo to Dapuqiao, Part I: It Usually Begins with James Fallows

1 10 2012

“So, why did you move to China?”

“What made you come to China?”

“Why did you decide to come to Shanghai?”

I’ve heard numerous other variations on this same question, but they’ve all received roughly the same answer: I wanted to know just what was going on over here. I didn’t study China in college. I didn’t know a word of Chinese. I could barely even eat with chopsticks.

But after that fateful June day when I picked up an issue of The Atlantic at a Barnes & Noble in a mall in Portland, Oregon, I knew I had to come here. I knew I was going to move to China.

Now, to begin with, I wasn’t completely ignorant about China. I’d been interested in the country since 1994, when my mother visited Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai and Suzhou with a delegation of artists. In preparation, she read a number of recommended books on modern China; when she was done with them, I picked them up- and I was hooked. My introduction to China came at the hands of two very different authors- the late Minnesota poet and English professor Bill Holm, and Chinese student leader Shen Tong. The former wrote a book of essays about his experiences as an English teacher in Xi’an in the late 1980s titled Coming Home Crazy. I wondered at the lifestyle of interior Chinese in those days, so different from my early 90s childhood in the US. How could they live such impoverished, regimented, uncomfortable lives? What lead China to such a different place, economically and socially, than America? And furthermore, how the heck did you pronounce Xiaoping or Shaanxi?

In middle school at the time, I decided that I wanted to learn Chinese and become a China expert. However, as my Sioux Falls high school didn’t offer Chinese, I opted to repeatedly fail Spanish instead. And, as with so many of our childhood dreams, my early dreams of China vanished from my mind, as I became preoccupied with other matters.

Flash-forward to 2005. I’d just taken my first post-college job as a writer and editor at Plunkett Research, a business research, publishing and consulting company at that time based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The founder of the company, Jack Plunkett, became something of an inspiration to me- here was a successful guy, with two Lexuses, a beautiful wife and a nice Santa Fe house- who was a complete ADHD case. He’d worked in over a dozen industries. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and educated himself in the library. He’d started a string of companies, some successes, some failures… but in any case, he’d blazed his own path out of west Texas. He showed that the way I’d been pointed in – go to school, get a degree, become an academic – wasn’t the only possibility, or even the best one for me.

But more about that later. At the company, I quickly found that the most interesting companies to research and write about were in Asia- Japan, Korea, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong… and, most of all, China. 2005-2006 was a time of banking policy restructuring in China, and I remember being pulled into an office by my supervisor (Jack’s wife, Martha, who was our Executive Editor), and told that she wanted me to write the company’s special reports on China’s big four- Bank of China (BoC), China Construction Bank (CCB), Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), and Agricultural Bank of China (ABC). This was the first time I’d heard of these companies before, and as I dug through their financial reports, I was intrigued. Why does a company have a Communist Party secretary on it’s board? What do they do with half a million employees and 20,000 branches? Why, if they’re all controlled as a monopoly by the government, does China need to have multiple competing banks at all, and why would Bank of America want to invest in one?

I dug into that report, and many others on Chinese companies, until I left Plunkett Research for personal reasons in late spring of 2006. I tried my hand at administration with the American Medical Association in Albuquerque, and found myself deeply bored; while I had an “interesting” personal life at the time, working in the nonprofit sector turned out to not be as fulfilling as I hoped, despite the stable income. I couch-surfed the western US for a bit, ultimately finding myself in Portland, Oregon, where I started auditing grad-level classes in Poli Sci and considering another stab at academia, while failing to find work and wandering the streets, living out of a NoPo basement, generally down and out at the age of 25. I spent a lot of time in libraries, bookstores, and gyms- I had nothing else to do but read and work out.

Which brings us back to the beginning. I picked up the July/August 2006 issue of The Atlantic, which featured this article, by James Fallows, at that time living out of Tomorrow Square in Shanghai (which he recounts in the eponymous collection Postcards from Tomorrow Square).

In the article, I was introduced to the city of Shenzhen (which, of course, I thought was pronounced “shen-zen”, not “shen-jen”). In 1982, the year I was born, Shenzhen and my home town of Sioux Falls were roughly the same size- about 80,000 people. Since that time, Sioux Falls has grown tremendously, and is now a cosmopolitan prairie metropolis of roughly 220,000. It’s downtown has been revitalized, the city has been ringed with subdivisions, malls and office parks, traffic has increased, and the economy was transformed from that of a dying blue-collar cow town to a 21st century center of back-end financial services, medical research, high tech, e-business and boutique consumerism, a gem among otherwise relatively stagnant and skuzzy upper-midwestern ag belt cities. Even the city’s namesake, the waterfalls at the town’s heart, have been cleaned and reclaimed as part of the city’s expansive system of parks and greenways.

But that’s nothing compared to Shenzhen. Shenzhen had, in my 25 years of existence, grown from the size of Sioux Falls… to, by some estimates, larger than New York City. It had gone from a fishing village to a field of skyscrapers and factories; a sprawling tumor of buildings growing on the edge of Hong Kong that had outstripped it’s host in size.

At that moment, I was suddenly hit by the scale of what was happening in China. I knew about the fast rates of growth, the privatizations, the export boom, the skyscrapers of Shanghai, the “new Beijing” being prepared for the Olympics… but nothing had prepared me for that.

At that instant, I knew one thing. One way or another, I was moving to China. I walked out of the bookstore without a plan, but with one destination in mind- I had to see Shenzhen for myself. I had to know what was going on.

I had to go there.

(In Part II: Getting to China)

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