The Final Column

By Jillian Smith 

I had a high school teacher who told me to watch China. The world is shifting from a unipolar order to a bipolar one, he said. The ones who will do well are the ones who have done something with China.

This is why I came here.

I can’t seem to get rid of this young college idealist desire to change the world, and I figured if I am going to be worth my salt as a world-changer, I needed to understand this other pole. The need to do so seemed to intensify during the last election, when a candidate who railed against this trend was elected to lead the first pole.

I also came to China because my life has been impacted by the mysterious forces behind both China’s rise, and the growing unease surrounding that rise. My academic and professional career has largely been built attempting to “fix” economically depressed places like my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. It is a place that fell to cheaper and better Chinese competition in the steel industry. Its former steel workers largely voted for Trump because they felt that these forces had left them behind, and that the standard leadership was doing nothing to help them.

I came to China too because my life was experiencing its own shifts. I was finishing college. I was trying to understand who I was in the world and what my place should be in it. I was running from love. I was trying to understand what my own values system was, apart from the influencing forces of my peers or family. I was trying to understand faith, in a country of more than a billion atheists. I was plagued by the questions brought on by globalization, as I come from a background that feels betrayed by it but see a future made so much brighter because of it.

China has been a time of deep, painful, and complex existential pondering.

I grappled with these questions from my vantage point working at the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, the symbolic epicenter of the breakup of the Pangea that was the liberal international order I knew in the good old days of the early 2000’s.

Here, I have seen what incredible positives free trade and capitalism can bring. Baby girls are no longer being dumped at orphanages because poor farming families only want a boy to work the land, for instance. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, being afforded opportunities that just a few short years ago were unimaginable. Newer and better technologies are being developed and discovered that can save lives.

But I know that this free trade has hurt people in places like my hometown or like workers in the UK or France, with increasing support for “populist” leaders like Trump, May, and La Pen. I personally have interviewed heads of companies who have been impacted by Trump’s popular mandate to pull out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a mandate largely spurred his voter base’s feeling of immense disenfranchisement.

I also deeply sympathize with the Trump voters who were workers in Appalachian Ohio that I once interviewed to secure training funding for those displaced by regulations in the coal industry under the Obama administration. Their frustration was voiced by their election of a president who vowed to reinvest in fossil fuels so as to restore those jobs and increase economic growth. I have driven through the towns that were once supported by these industries and were once the backbone of a stable, strong, small town America. They are now depressed, hollowed out shells of their formers selves, and have largely succumbed to an opiate epidemic that has destroyed the entirety of many of the families that were left.  

But as I write this column, my own chest is filled with a nasty fluid that hasn’t quite left me for the past for months, as breathing in the smog of the cities in China that are fueled by coal has left me with a near permanent sinus infection.

Trying to solve my own personal philosophical dilemmas has proven just as complex. Whittling down one’s own core values to their most basic substance is a heck of a thing to do while taking eighteen credit hours and working two jobs and trying to navigate through a country that speaks a language that is not one’s own. Frankly, while I have had many incredibly unforgettable and beautifully transformative experiences, for much of my time in China, I have been cold and sick and busy and poor. Introspection is not easy, also, neither is love.

China has proven a tougher nut to crack than I had realized. I have been left largely with a lot more questions than answers. But through all of the confusion, I think I have discovered something important, perhaps the most important thing I have ever learned. It might not be a sound economic or political platform, but if it could be implemented as such, it would solve so many of the problems I have just explained, and likely many more.

When I first arrived in China, I admittedly did not see Chinese people as the same as myself. My inability to communicate with them, coupled with their ethnic homogeneity and what I saw as an impenetrable culture, left me feeling that it was entirely a divide of “us” versus “them.” I spoke in broad generalities, such as, “Chinese people think X,” or “All of these people do Y.”

This impenetrable “otherness” feeling persisted until one day, I made a funny face at my friend and an elderly shop owner saw it and laughed and laughed and laughed. I began laughing with her, and from that day forward, she treated me as though we were close friends. I realized quickly that humor, laughter specifically, was universal, no language required, and that Chinese people really at their core, were just people. They find joy in things and sadness in things and humor in things and have motivations and hopes and dreams. “All” Chinese people are actually quite unique, because humans are unique, and what I slowly began to realize is that this humanity is capable of being accessed and enjoyed and appreciated across languages, cultures, borders, and governments.

Now, as I walk through the streets of Shanghai, I no longer see a mass group of faceless strangers. I have begun seeing individuals. I have started recognizing the different desires people have; the different things they think about their government, their clothes, or even what constitutes manners.

I recently attended a cultural festival that was meant to bring together all of the international students at Shanghai University. Expecting something scripted and boring and full of sanitized cultural “fluff”, I was instead confronted with hundreds of college students who liked to dance, who liked to have fun, who wanted to make friends, and who were frankly, much more similar to myself than I ever thought. I danced in a massive circle with people from Madagascar, France, Tajikistan, and Nicaragua and many others countries. I saw humans who could enjoy each other’s company, food, and laughter, without all of the complicated trappings of the “us” and “them” problem.

I am not such an idealist that I think a global dance party is in order, though I really probably would advocate for that if I could. But this important thing that I found, the thing that I think could fix globalization’s woes and corrupt governments and pollution and my own personal ennui is a far simpler and basic truth: everyone is a lot more like everyone than they are different. Our humanity unites us in an incredibly beautiful way. There is a precept in Christianity, which is manifested in many other religions, and it is “love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is the ability of every individual to make his or her choices with this precept in mind that could dramatically change these roiling tremors in global tectonic geology for the better.

Of course, such a plea to society has been going on for ages and still here we are, and so something must change to facilitate a wider adoption of that philosophy. One person who I think is doing something more to advance that end than not is Mark Zuckerberg. Granted, I don’t know much about Mark Zuckerberg or his personal philosophy, but I do know that since he published an open letter to the world in which he acknowledged that globalization has left some people behind and that entities like Facebook could be doing more to solve that, he has been personally visiting places that are home to those negatively impacted by globalization. He even made a stop at a family dinner hosted by an Obama-turned Trump voter in a town just a few minutes away from Youngstown.

Some of this can be chalked up to glitzy PR that does more to boost Facebook’s CSR cred than actually solve problems, but I think even the symbolic significance is important. More corporate heads need to be meeting with people who are many worlds apart from themselves. More politicians need to be having sit down dinners with those individuals who may never otherwise have access to him or her. More conservatives and liberals need to be making sincere and honest attempts at discussing things civilly with each other. More diverse people need to be talking with one another, to see and understand that through all of this diversity, people really are quite the same.

The immense stratification of and cocooning of our current society has made it so that these humans, who are at their core all much more similar than what I think we realize, have stopped to see each other as individuals, and have been able to shield themselves in the language of “us” versus “them.”

Me, maybe I haven’t figured out exactly what I will or should do in life. But what I aim to do is to implement the principles of “Love thy neighbor” in as many areas as possible, and create avenues for other people to do the same.