Why I'm Leaving China

Parting words from Brendan O’Kane


Brendan O'Kane will be a familiar name to many of you. He is a long time Beijing resident, accomplished translator, and "accidental pedagogue" at Popup Chinese and IES. Next month he leaves China to do an MA at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on classical China, and is sticking around for a PhD which means, presumably, indefinitely. As he has far too much good sense to write a "Why I'm Leaving China" post on his own, I roped him into doing a Q&A instead, so I could ask about his experiences here over the last dozen years, his thoughts on Chinese literature, and more.

When did you first come to China?

In late July 2001. I’d just turned 18. I started studying Chinese when I was 16, because I was bored in high school Spanish, and my folks had given me a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Dao De Jing as a stocking stuffer for Christmas. I thought, how hard can it be to read this in the original? Chinese was a weird thing to study at the time. It wasn’t really on anybody’s mental map. So I signed up for night classes, and in 2001 I did six weeks at Beida [Peking University] in a Stanford programme. And I just got hooked. It was a combination of really loving the language and of being out on my own for the first time since graduating from high school. Another part of the reason why I came here is because I was a terrible student and got rejected from every college I applied to.

What did you make of it back then?

Even then – and it's not like I knew anything back then – there was a sense that stuff was going on and cropping up. Zhongguancun was starting to morph from relatively casual markets to something more like its current form. And two or three weeks before I arrived, it had been announced that Beijing was going to be the Olympic host city. So there was definitely a palpable excitement.

How has it changed since, now you’re a grizzled old hand?

It’s a function both of China changing and of me changing. I came here when I was 18 and now I’m 30. My priorities are different. I came here looking for something new, and I no longer really am. But it’s also become very much just another place. For the first few years I was living here there was a lot about China that seemed to me intrinsically interesting. It was fresh and unfamiliar to me, and a lot of things were still up in the air. It’s been fascinating and depressing to watch Beijing destroy and rebuild itself, and especially to watch certain parts of the city rise and fall – like Nanluoguxiang and Gulou. It’s certainly not been dull.

But by around 2007, or certainly by 2011, Beijing had become a destination. It used to be, within the gringo community, that people who were here were really into the language or the history or whatever. And that’s not the case any more. There’s been a huge influx of carpetbaggers since the Olympics – foreigners and Chinese alike. Beijing has been diluted. A lot of this is just me being an old fart, but generally speaking, pound for pound, expats are not as into China as they used to be, I think, even though baseline levels of Chinese ability have gone up. Beijing is materially far more liveable than when I first came here. Spiritually, I think it’s desolate.

It is possible to be here for over ten years and not get jaded?

I think so. Part of the reason why I’ve become so pissy is that I have had a couple of side projects that required me to pay attention to the news. Bad news day in and out. Years ago, when I was working as a news assistant at the Voice of America’s Mandarin service in Beijing, every Sunday was Mining Disaster Day. Even if you manage to remain cautiously optimistic, it’s not good to be processing so much bad news through your system. I realised the more up-to-date I was, the less happy I was. It’s like with Zhuangzi, where part of the sensibility is – not exactly “turn on, tune in, drop out”, but something along those lines. The idea that involving yourself in things beyond your control is just a recipe for unhappiness.

What really gets your goat about China? And what do love best about it?

What gets my goat about China is that so few things are done well here. Because of the way things are set up, it will almost always be the smart decision to half-ass things. It will almost always be the right decision to deny permission. Beijing is a plenty easy life, but there’s still all of these dang annoyances. Even if you've gotten to the point where you no longer notice them, they accumulate in the liver of your soul.

But also, there's so much to like about China. The people, the food, the language, the literature – especially the people. When you remember that the abdication of the last Qing emperor is still within the horizon of living memory, along with everything that's happened since, I think it speaks incredibly well of Chinese people that society is only as messed up as it is.

Do you ever wish the current party wasn’t in power?

Doesn’t everybody? I think everybody, probably including the current party, wishes the current party wasn’t in power. Would you want that job? I wouldn’t. What do you get out of it? Some great watches, 18 mistresses and a hell of a comb-over, but what a nighmare of a gig. I think China’s too big, it should probably be five or six smaller countries. And I think Chinese people are probably more hardwired for anarchism than communism. I mean anarchism in the David Graeber or James Scott collaborative economy sense, a “the mountains are high, the emperor is far away” kind of sense. But it’s too late now – the fifties and sixties destroyed that.

The statist solution failed. It did a few things that were necessary. It was great for women’s rights, though we’re now seeing that pulled back. But the problem with any institution, communist or otherwise, is that when something has zero outside supervision, and is effectively anonymous and to outsiders monolithic, you end up with something like [censorship bodies] SARFT or GAPP. If you were to take those two away tomorrow – well, contemporary Chinese literature would still suck, but they are both exerting powerful retarding forces.

Is contemporary Chinese literature capturing contemporary China?

It’s getting there. There are more voices coming out, and there are some magazines that have picked up on the idea that you shouldn’t print the first draft. But I think there are a number of things that are keeping it from doing that. There are very few contemporary Chinese writers who have an ear for dialect. The vernacular revolution was never really carried out. One of the reasons why Mo Yan really irritates people like Perry Link and Anna Sun is that he’s neither fully vernacular, in the way that Wang Shuo is, nor literary in the way that Eileen Chang is. I wouldn’t say his Chinese is lousy, but I would strongly imply it.

What books would you recommend as an open sesame?

Anyone looking to get a sense of street-level Beijing should read Wang Shuo (王朔). It's hard to recommend him in translation – his ear for dialogue is part of what makes him such a pleasure to read in Chinese – but anyone with the necessary language skills should check out his novella Wan Zhu (顽主).

I always recommend Wang Xiaobo's (王小波) novella The Golden Age (黄金时代) to people looking for a first book to read in Chinese. Again, it's hard to recommend the English translation of this (in the collection Wang in Love and Bondage), but I guess it's better than nothing. Read it in Chinese if you can, though – a genuinely funny, sexy, moving love story set during the Cultural Revolution. Wang Xiaobo's fiction was a little bit hit-or-miss, but he had a lot of hits. I've been trying unsuccessfully to get the rights to his novella 2010 for some time now.

The Laozi was what got me into Chinese, but the Zhuangzi was what kept me going. I'm most partial to Victor Mair's translation, Wandering on the Way, which captures the joyful contrarian weirdness of the original better than any other version I've seen.

There’s also a collection of urban short stories called Shi Cheng, with my translation of “Squatting” by Diao Dou (刁斗), which is a sharp little story.

How long does it take you to burn through a Chinese novel?

The equivalent of three to five days of solid attention. I’d been studying for three years before I could read a newspaper – which by the way is not worth it. The first couple of years of Chinese is just laying groundwork, it feels like you’re not getting anywhere.

Do you feel it’s possible for an American to call China home?

I think it’s possible for an American to think of China as home. Whether or not Chinese people accept that is probably another story. It’s part of the expat arrested development thing – everything about your existence is contingent, from visa runs to rentals to whatever. The baseline assumption is that you will be going home after a few years. That includes the assumption that you don’t really “get” China.

Whenever I’m asked “but do you really understand China?”, I just say “yes”, because fuck you. Ask a stupid question, get a flippant answer. People don’t really have a rebuttal to that. Try it sometime. I mean, I grew up in the US, but I don't know that I "understand" the US – I don't even know what that would mean.

So how does it feel to be going back?

I’m going to have to come up with some non-China related conversational gambits. It’s going to be tough. I'm like that girl in American Pie who keeps saying “So this one time, at band camp.” Except in my case it's more like, "So this one time, during the Tang Dynasty.”

Any parting words?

You know, China’s a terrible place. And a great place. It’s also a lot of fun, and fascinating. The more we can do to demystify it, through journalism or writing or documentaries, or through Pathlight to introduce people to the idea that there are young Chinese writers working through the same issues that they are – to get people used to the idea that China’s just a place like any other, and not that special. I think that’s a very worthwhile thing to work towards.

Here's Brendan's Twitter and occasional blog, if you wish to cling onto his virtual presence while he is gone