Responsum ad Comment: The Finger on the Pulse

A reader asks, in relation to my no longer living in China full time:

do you feel like you are out of touch with the zeitgeist?


Great question.

My mentor and former employer Jeanne-Marie Claydon Gescher once said to me that she believed the shelf-life of a China hand away from China to be somewhere between about 45 and 90 days. In my experience, this is pretty close to the mark.

Since moving my family to the US and moving myself into a frequent flyer program, I have made I make sure that my periods away never get as long as three months, and I am usually “in-country” about 1/3 of my time. When I am not physically in China, I am mentally there. My work is all China-focused, and I spend half of my workday in China time, talking to people in China, going through WeChat, and operating as though I were there virtually. It makes for a bloody long workday, and I still feel culture shock when I step out of my office and into California, but there you are.

What has changed is my perspective, my lens. When I was living in China, I was walking through life with a massive 500mm telephoto lens that was able to see everything in detail, albeit with a focus that just saw China. Today, I’ve lost that massive telephoto lens, but what I swapped it for is a 10mm-300mm lens that allows me a reasonable degree of detail, but a much wider perspective that permits me to see China in the context of the wider world, and vice-versa. I have swapped a level of detail for context, and that’s worked out pretty well.



Responsum ad Comment: China and Nostalgia

A reader asks, in relation to my time in China:

“do you yearn for what was?”

Which I take to mean: do I yearn for China as it was when I lived there?


I am grateful for having lived through a remarkable time in China, and for having the opportunity to live there during a slower time when the people and the atmosphere were suffused with the essence of China’s history, when optimism in the face of backwardness was the motive source of power, and when people from overseas were valued for what they might offer China’s journey into the future.

That was the China I fell in love with as a young man.

But do I yearn for what was?

Not at all: not when I land in Beijing, walk the streets of Wudaokou, or drive past the places we used to live. The years we spent there and what China was at the time still exist in our memories, and that’s where they belong.

As an historian of sorts, I have learned to distrust nostalgia. It obscures history, enwrapping it in a pink fog of selective memory. As Billy Joel once wrote, “the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I am too happy for China’s progress and what it has meant to the lives of my friends, my family, and my colleagues to wish we were all back in the 1980s or 1990s.

It is right that now, today, China is a faster place: that its people are suffused with the possibilities of China’s future; that belief in themselves and their own culture should be the motive source of China’s power; and that people from overseas are welcome but seen in the light of their individual character and behavior rather than their provenance. China is a nation that has stood up, and until or unless she by hostile action makes herself my enemy, I could never wish her to be less.

Responsum ad Comment: The Language Thing

A reader asks, in regards to my no longer living in China:

“i always wonder what changes in a person when leaving china after many years .. has your chinese rusted at all?”


Yes and no. I find that right when I get off the airplane in China, my spoken Chinese lags terribly for as much as a week, but after that it all comes back and I am up to about 95% of what I was before. The longer the trip, the better it gets, and sometimes it surpasses where I was in China.

Environment is everything with spoken language, and when I was living in China my Chinese wife insisted on using English with me, as did my son. My colleagues at work were frequently that way as well, as were most of my clients. With the family in California, I spend more time speaking Chinese on my trips to China than I did when I was living in Beijing. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but true.

My reading and writing have improved. Being away, I find myself seeking out social media and news more to keep myself plugged-in, so I read and write in Chinese more now than I did when I was living in China.

NB: I think we underestimate the lasting effects of long term immersion. As I have found with my Spanish (which lay unused for nearly three decades) the tongue becomes a dull knife without regular honing, but the blade is still steel. The longer you’ve been away, the duller it becomes, but once you are back in the linguistic environment, the blade begins to sharpen, and it all soon returns. I would probably need a month or two in Madrid or Mexico City to get my Spanish back up to where it was in May of 1985, but a week usually suffices for Chinese.