Cynical in China

Can you live there and not become cynical? I honestly don’t think so, and neither does Dan.

The Discussion: 20 Comments

Hello. Why are you so sadistic to yourself. Cheer up.

September 9, 2005 @ 4:36 pm | Comment

Sadistic to myself? I think that’s called “masochistic.” What are you referring to?

September 9, 2005 @ 4:45 pm | Comment

For me I became cynical as soon as I grew out of the nightly visits to Sanlitun where I’d work on my marking at Capuccino’s….
To be honest, I don’t see the point of that link. One little anecdote that could has been transferred to NYC doesn’t explain why one beomes cynical here. I remember talking to one of my students from Ireland who is always bitching and moaning.I told I assumed he couldn’t wait to get out of this country once he graduated. “What for? Everything’s cheap, the people are friendly, you can walk down the streets at any time and feel safe….” Trust me; this guy (who looks like he fresh out of the Maze) is not naive. Maybe it’s because he’s ignorant at a 19 year old about the true situation. Maybe I’m ignorant about the true situation. Or maybe it’s time I REALLY started to learn Chinese.
Question Richard: In your report you sounded anything but cynical about China (apart from the spitting) and excited to be back. Why come back at all with such cynicism? In any event, it ‘s the best retort to anyone who accuses you and this site of being “anti-China”.

September 9, 2005 @ 6:33 pm | Comment

I linked to it as much for the comments as the post itself. It did bring back a lot of memories.

You’re right, I didn’t feel at all cynical on this trip – at least not about the Chinese people. That’s where I felt so much optimism and hope. But living in China, most of my cynicism came from the media, the government, and from Chinese business practices. I found it literally impossible to live there and not become very cynical. I even felt cynical about the economic miracle, because so much of it is smoke and mirrors. But I love the place; there’s enough there that I’m not cynical about that would make it worthwhile to live there again, at least when the weather is warm. And to tell you the truth, I’m feeling mighty cynical about the US at the moment as well.

September 9, 2005 @ 6:53 pm | Comment


I don’t feel as cynical in certain cities like Hangzhou, Shanghai or Beijing as I do in places like Chengdu and other South-Western cities.

As I mentioned on TTC, you really can’t trust anyone here and nobody ever wants to help you just for the sake of helping, there’s always a string attached. You can’t get ahead in China without having to help someone else along the way who doesn’t have the ability to help themselves without putting their hands in your pocket and that’s one of the things that gets to me the most – everybody has their hands in your pocket.

I’ll be writing more about this in a matter of days once I’ve returned to the US. I’m a little under the weather right now as I’ve developed a rather serious medical condition that requires the treatment of a competent medical doctor – unfortunately I don’t seem to be able to find any here in Chengdu. When you have developed an umbilical hernia and picked up a strange stomach parasite and the doctors tell you it’s because you drink too many cold liquids……it’s hard not to be cynical.

September 9, 2005 @ 8:30 pm | Comment

I have a condition that is related to Carpal Tunnel Syndrom. I have been to three of the best doctors in my city. All of them separately have told me it’s because I use a fan when sleeping! This is apparently “common Knowledge” here. Psuedo- science mixed with weird superstions.I can find much more medical advice on the net. Fix yourself. Don’t EVER go to a Chinese doctor or you’re just wasting time and money or worse.

September 9, 2005 @ 10:16 pm | Comment

Gordon, hope you are in better shape soon!

I have some experience with Shanghai physicians, both as a patient, and as having them as students (in fact, I have a class of urologists right now).

Here in the relative oasis of Shanghai, at a proper hospital, I don’t think you would get that any of that “drinking too much cold water” kind of folk wisdom/superstition that is unfortunately still so common in China (for all the obvious reasons).

At my last class the doctors were looking over some MRI scans concerning a liver tumor one was diagnosing. No one was talking about “bad winds” or “too much dampness”.

Many of these guys studied in the west and attend international conferences, when I ask them medical questions (e.g. what are the likely causes of increasing rates of diabetes in China) their answers seem sound and well-informed.

Gordon, maybe you don’t need to go all the way back to the US … if that’s the only reason for your return.

September 9, 2005 @ 11:00 pm | Comment

Well, I wrote something related to this in the open thread (a few minutes ago), about how just a short while ago I had an accident here in China and the bystanders escorted me to a doctor who dressed my wounds and gave me medication all for 19 Yuan.

And how I lost my passport when I fell in the street, and two bystanders found it and ran after me to give it to me. If I’d taken such a spill in some parts of New York, someone would have taken my wallet when they had the chance.

The legions of idiots and careless and corrupt people in China are enough to tempt me to become cynical – but they’re always balanced by all the other decent, humane, honorable people of China.

September 9, 2005 @ 11:54 pm | Comment

Ordinary Chinese really need to be given the freedom drug so that they could feel all powerful even though will still remain powerless, it should be an upgrade over the current CCP drug.

September 9, 2005 @ 11:58 pm | Comment

Ivan, I fully agree with your view:

“The legions of idiots and careless and corrupt people in China are enough to tempt me to become cynical – but they’re always balanced by all the other decent, humane, honorable people of China.”

Most of the “common” citizens of China are straight forward and hard working. They are just trying to make a decent living. It’s the greedy businessmen in cohort with the corrupt government officials that are detestable – that make you cynical.

But then again, China has always been like this over the past few thousand years. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

September 10, 2005 @ 12:20 am | Comment

Sh*t Gordon, that sounds nasty. You’re more than welcome to come to my home in Guangzhou, set yourself up in our spare room, and we’ll seek out a good doctor – we have the some of the best in China. Not only Chinese but British, American, Indian, Taiwanese, HK Chinese – the best.

You can’t **** about with your health mate.

September 10, 2005 @ 1:19 am | Comment

Yep, you’re right. Simply, the worst thing about the Chinese people is that they’re Human. And the best thing about them, is that they’re Human.

I THINK it was Pascal (but don’t quote me on that) who said something like: “Man is both beast AND angel – and the paradox is that whenever Men try to be like angels, then they become more like beasts.” That is an admonition against all Utopias.

I think the principal advantage of “The West” over China (and not just America – rather the entire Western civilization going back to ancient Greece, at least the better angels of our nature) – is a recognition of human limitations.
By which I mean – PC – your citation of the old French phrase, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” – accords with what the ancient Greeks said about human limitations and the essentially tragic nature of life.

I think most of the ordinary people of China DO understand this. But they are still hobbled and held back by a primitive, dark age political heritage which does NOT acknowledge sin or corruption in the Emperor….or in the Communist Party…

…and so the leaders and elites of China still use words like “correct” and “happy”, in ways which would have horrified the free citizens of Greece and Rome………

September 10, 2005 @ 1:43 am | Comment


You’re right, not everyone in China is corrupt and there are a lot of hard-working, decent people in China – my in-laws fall under that category. Unfortunately though, these people aren’t always the ones we see on the surface. (Just like Katrina, there were a lot of decent people out there trying to help others, but the media only focused on the criminals).

I always go to the same mom and pop shops to buy the majority of my necessities and as a result, they treat me with a lot of respect and usually give me a better price on things than they do the locals. The guy I buy my beer from chased me all the way home one evening because I forgot to get my change (2 yuan).

There are indeed a lot of fine and decent people here and they are the ones that I enjoy being around.

As I mentioned on TTC, it wasn’t life in China that taught me to be cynical, it was growing up in America.

Martyn, thanks for the offer Mate, but my visa expires at the end of the month and I need to get back to the States so that I can wrap up my studies and prepare everything for my wifes eventual arrival. That, I am sure, is when The Horse’s Mouth with become a lot more interesting).

Slim, I know there are competent doctors in China, but sometimes they are hard to find outside of cities like Beijing and Shanghai. I have a very good friend from Xi’an that is studying medicine at Georgetown and I know she will be a fine addition to China’s medical advancement when she returns.

I really like living in China and I plan to return some time in the future, but as a foreigner, sometimes you just need a vacation.

I know in love they say absence makes the heart grow fonder, I guess I’ll find out if it’s true in relation to countries and culture too.

September 10, 2005 @ 3:04 am | Comment

Sorry I posted on the wrong thread, so I have to repost here.

Hahaha, I hope you are feeling well. The reason I’m laughing is I feel the same way as you do, but towards the Western Doctors. I would rather go to a Chinese doctor here in Toronto than a western doctor, because the western doctors (in Germany or Canada) they always just tell you to go home and drink a lot of water while Chinese doctors seem always can give you some medicine that make you feel that you are taken care of…

September 10, 2005 @ 2:36 pm | Comment

Many posts over there or here asked why so many Chinese people still act like that even if they have gotten 5000(or 3500) years of civilization.

Well, one apparent flaw in this arguement is:

You guys assume that Chinese society (at least at the surface) always act like this.

That’s absolutely not true. On the contrary, there were Chinese societies in which people don’t pick up the lost things on the road, and don’t have to close the door while they sleep. (LU4 BU4 SHI2 YI2, YI4 BU2 BI4 HU4)
The most recent one is the communist governed period from 1949-1966.
The ultimate reason probably involve something called belief. At least at that time, people have something to believe.
Nowadays in China, as an economic professor Lang XianPing from HongKong pointed out lately, “currently we have no religion, no confucianism, no law. ” One direct result is businessmen(no matter as big as CEO of GE LIN KE ER or as small as street vendors) has lost their trust responsibility, which has led to the cynicalness of you guys, of course not only you guys, but also most of Chinese themselves,
which also led to the corruption of Chinese officials, sunken Chinese stock market, the notorious stealing of the SOE’s wealth, the unpaid migrant workers, bootleg or knockovers, greedy hospitals……..

is it helpful if we construct or import a new belief? Not much likely…
In other words, actually you guys are asking one of most important questions to the process of Chinese economic and society transition! you might have not even realized it yourselves.
Chinese themselves are asking the same question, for many many years since 1978:
Where is the kindness, fairness and justice?
and since when we started losing them one by one.

The easy answer is: CAPITALISM!

September 10, 2005 @ 4:31 pm | Comment

Way too simplistic. Some capitalist countries, like Englad, are homes to amazingloy polite people. Others, like Hong Kong, less so. The factors that cause expats to be cynical about China — government corruption, dishonest business practices, poor customer service, etc. — result from various causes, capitalism notbeing one of them. They can be traced in part to a dumbing down of the public during the Cultural Revolution and by the rush to get rich quick by any means possible under Deng and Jiang. That’s when the corruption took off.

September 10, 2005 @ 6:00 pm | Comment

Well, Richard, I meant easy answer, but not necessary the right answer….You misunderstood me…. I am a hard-core pro-business person.

September 10, 2005 @ 7:44 pm | Comment


September 10, 2005 @ 7:53 pm | Comment

The best cure for cynicism is not to be CYNICAL yourself.

Bashing China all the time and becoming a China hate-monger is not going to help the situation. We should offer criticism, but constructive ones….only then, will people begin to respond more constructively.

September 11, 2005 @ 6:00 pm | Comment

I “bash” the US when appropriate. I can’t believe you’ve been reading this site a lot if you think I’m a China basher. Did yee what I wrote yesterday about improvement in the lives of gays in China? Did you read my triup report? Did you read about my concern for people suffering in human rigfhts abuses in China?

It is, I believe, virtually impossible for a westerner to live in China and not feel cynical – not becuase of deficiencies in the Chinese people, but because of the system there. Just going to bank can make you a cycnic for life (if you’re tryuing to get money from China to the US). And performing business in China will make a cynic out of anyone, guaranteed. That’s not bashing China. It’s a fact. It’s also a fact that going to any election-year political convention in America – GOP or Dem – will make a cynic out of anyone. I don’t reserve my cynicism for China.

September 11, 2005 @ 6:27 pm | Comment

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