November 23rd, 2012
That’s Chinese food you see here. I am back in Beijing where they just call it food, of course. With three colleagues from Memorial I am here again for the PhD recruitment fair. We are expecting to see over 2,700 registered potential doctoral candidates flood the meeting hall where our tables will be set up over the next few days.
Killing a few Peking ducks with one stone, our Memorial contingent decided to host a dinner for how many alumni we could contact here. A small but lively group accepted our invitation and turned out for the meal, most of whom did not actually know each other. They had graduated from engineering, business, and computer science programs and we were eager to know what they were doing now, what had they done with their degrees. We also wanted to learn what their impressions were of Memorial, what kind of experience they had had and what memories were they carrying with them as they lived their postgrad life in Beijing.
To a person, the graduates spoke fondly of their time in Canada. One in particular is still torn between living here and wanting to return to St John’s. Still another has actually figured out a way to have the best of both worlds, based as he is in Vancouver and Beijing.
What do they miss? Perhaps their answers are obvious, but they were good to hear: the fresh air, the ease of getting around, and, most of all, the people. They all seem to be working very hard, already exhausted from the grind of making a living in such a competitive, densely populated centre of commerce and culture. This isn’t entirely surprising once you have been to Beijing and witnessed the crowds, the impossibly choked boulevards of traffic, and the sheer challenges of some twenty million people getting up and going to school and work every day. The economy is booming, construction is aggressive and ambitious, the subways keep expanding, the buildings are growing larger and higher.
Yesterday I visited the affluent streets of Wangfujing district where there are Cartier, Armani, and Chanel stores, as well as Mercedes Benz and Aston Martin dealerships—Aston Martins, in China! But this is the new China and there’s no going back to bicycles and workers’ party uniforms. Young people look chic and are as plugged into their iPhones and Androids as any North American on the way to work.
So it is that our MUN graduates are striving to get ahead in this environment. From what we could tell they are doing very well. I don’t know what they are taking home in pay but they seemed to belong to the new middle class, and likely to be making much more than their parents ever did.
I would like to think that their Memorial experience helped prepare them for the world in which they have chosen to work. Through their education, and in addition to the disciplinary skills they chose to pursue, they have acquired what we are now calling global competencies—excellent communication skills, strong oral and written abilities in English, an appreciation of both cultural diversity and the universal truths of the human condition.
We all talked openly about the control of the State, the recent General Assembly and “fixed” elections (their term), the cycles of crackdowns and regulation tightening, the continuing surveillance of web sites and the ongoing prohibition against Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, I managed to get one tweet out the first day here after a visit to the Ming Tombs, but ever since my account has been blocked. How did the authorities know? If they could only challenge all that computer-blocking energy into more meaningful activities—like alleviating air pollution….
These former students believe democracy will eventually come to China but perhaps not in their lifetimes. They also feared what would happen if China were to implement a democratic system overnight. Not possible, they say. Chaos would ensue. It was refreshing to be speaking so openly about all this with people who are so smart and alive to the changing world around them and who have lived a rich Memorial experience about which they speak so fondly.
So far, meeting with these former students is a big highlight of this trip. We learned a lot just listening to them speak. And there’s nothing like a long multi-course meal, delectable, spicy dishes floating on a Lazy Susan, to make you believe the world is actually a lot smaller and more intimate than it sometimes appears.