ZENGCHENG, CHINA — The 50-mile road from Zengcheng to Guangzhou is lined with small stone or brick buildings that serve as both business and living quarters. Garbage is strewn about, and from my American viewpoint aboard a bus, the scenes reinforce the idea that the occupants live in abject poverty.
Recently, as the bus came to a jolting halt to pick up a rider from such a building, I was bewildered by the contrast. A stunningly beautiful young woman in clean, bright clothes stepped aboard. We made eye contact. I smiled. She smiled back.
Such is China – the unexpected waits around every turn. You cannot know what to expect, in part, because you will only hear the good from any Chinese national you ask. The ugly is ignored; the bad is tolerated.
I had never been outside North America until September 2006. That's when I began a 10-month teaching contract in China. It's an extraordinary opportunity for me to learn, explore, and experience this once-forbidden land. I teach oral English at a small college in Guangdong Province. My assignment is to engage first-year students in conversation.
It's not easy.
At times, both hands are figuratively tied behind my back. Political discussion is forbidden, as well as topics related to religion, or any subject that could vaguely be seen as inconsistent with the customs and traditions of China.
Customs I can learn, but which tradition? The new tradition of consumerism, which appears to be the driving force in daily life, or the ancient traditions of hospitality, respect for family, and polite reticence?
On my two-hour bus ride back from Guangzhou, cash and credit cards were stolen from my bag in the overhead compartment. I was careless to place my bag there, and foolish to take a nap. I wondered how the thief could manage to carry out his crime without other passengers seeing.
My Chinese colleagues were sure there were witnesses, but no one would report anything. The culture of silence is still dominant. Another Chinese colleague was robbed by knifepoint at a nearby gas station a week later, but she refused to report the crime.
Tolerating corrupt local leaders, censored Internet access, lack of legal recourse, denial of religious practice, and free speech are some communist-rooted traditions that remain unchanged amid the capitalists' revolution. Just how much can a polite and reticent people withstand? That is the test for modern China.
Although policy won't let me voice my disapproval of some parts of Chinese life, I am allowed to answer questions about my life in the United States. Students have asked my opinion of President Bush and the Iraq war. I answer (in English) honestly, and I receive praise for my honesty. It is not only my right to object to my government's objectionable actions, I explain, but it is my duty. This point seems lost on them. Maybe it is their youth, but I fear it is the political culture that has raised a generation unwilling to object to anything.
Never before have I believed more firmly that the right to protest, to argue and disagree, and to vote is where America's true power resides. Take that away and you have China, minus 1 billion "tolerant" people.
My students like the Americans they have met, but seem to have a low opinion of America in general. They believe it is a nation besieged by crime where there is no respect for marriage, family, or the lives of non-Americans.
Most of their knowledge, however, has been gleaned from movies. If only Hollywood understood how its movies have influenced the opinions of so many, and not in a good way. But Hollywood did not ask to be the sole source of information about America for an entire nation.
Maybe change is just over the horizon. Information is power. Can China's government continue to censor all that is available online? Probably not, but the desire to learn the truth must come before the truth is learned. That desire must be born of frustration, discontent, and yes, intolerance.
In the few frank conversations I have had with a Chinese teacher, he admitted that China has many problems: overpopulation, crime, pollution, lack of freedom, poverty. I asked why it seems problems are ignored. "To preserve our sanity" was the reply.
In my time here I question why I tolerate China – the crowded buses, packed streets, vendors who see every Westerner as their next target. Then I go to class and see my students. Not unlike their American counterparts, they want to have fun, fit in, find love, and someday secure a worthwhile job and a prosperous life for their families. My efforts may help them reach those goals, I tell myself.
Most of my students are the only child in the family. Only children aren't known for handling adversity especially well, and there will be much adversity for them to handle when they graduate.
Because China's leaders fear chaos, they will continue to control and silence their citizens, even as China experiences profound change. But courage can't be constrained forever. And everyday Chinese citizens will need extraordinary courage to speak out against injustices. It is in the world's interest to watch and assist when that starts to happen.
Thirty years ago, few could foresee China's move to a free-market economy. What unexpected change is around the next turn? Beauty walked out from a garbage heap; maybe progress will emerge from the silence.
• David O'Rourke is a writer who teaches oral English at a college in Guangdong Province, China.