Expertise, -hands, and Language: The Foreigner in a Foreign Land

I want to add my $.02 to a discussion already covered by Cam and Stan about who/what is and isn’t a “China expert.” I want to take a jab at it from two different points of view, that as an academic who has published on China and as a China news junkie / amateur China sociologist. To start, “are you a China expert” has as much currency as the question “do you speak Chinese?” The answer for most non-Chinese should be the same, “it depends on the context” and “compared to who?” I think that’s the only way to answer the question. I’m sure I sounded as “fluent” as locals  to my mother when I was ordering cabs around Shenzhen a few years ago when she visited. In my mind’s eye, my accent was even more biaojun / standard than our “Fulan”-ese cabbies. But the real answer is that I’ve only met a handful of expats who could comfortably pick up a Chinese newspaper or academic book and extract the same level of meaning as a local.

Foreigners knowing “more/better than” a local doesn’t stop at pronunciation. The outsider learning a new subject rarely wants to take things at face value, which would be more common when you learn something as a child or student in a classroom. I know more about Chinese teas than abou 3/4s of my Chinese friends and students by virtue of it becoming a hobby and language-learning tool. Most well-read expats likely know quite a bit more about national politics and modern history than even well-read Chinese because of the strict limits of this sort of knowledge in the public sphere in China. The first three China books I read dealt with the Cultural Revolution as a central theme. No such books would be found in Shenzhen’s giant government-run book stores. Curiously, I noted that when the author of the latest & greatest book on the Cultural Revolution was giving his talk at HKU, none of my Chinese classmates wanted to go and the auditorium wound up being about 2/3s Caucasian. There’s more to this than just scarcity of information.

To answer the first question I posed, one answer is that well-read foreigners and China-watchers often know more about modern events in China than even well-read Chinese people do. To nuance that, I would also say that it’s the sort of surface-level regurgitated book knowledge – of names, numbers, dates, short descriptions –  that foreigners often knock the Chinese education system for prioritizing. There are deeper “why” and “how” questions that only legitimate China experts or most Chinese can really understand (note, I didn’t say explain). As two quick examples, think of Chinese conceptions of medicine or time. Both are clearly different from how your typical American thinks. But how much deeper can the average foreigner go than listing differences? I only know of a handful of Westerners who I think truly “get” Chinese medicine – and they’ve had to spend years trying to understand it as a full-time job.

Before jumping into more difficult issues, I’d like to propose my favored term for a knowledgeable China-watcher who isn’t the kind of expert David Palmer (my last link) is: a Chinahand. A reputable Chinahand fits Stan’s bullshit test by being accurate and would likely have the range of experiences that Cam brings up. There are little or no other tests – like language, which I’ll get to next. It’s about being familiar with China, having a few China-specific topics that you can “go deep” on, and being  well-read and up to date. It sits in a similar category as “news junkie” and has a decidedly amateur connotation.

This isn’t to denigrate the idea of a “-hand”. It’s exactly the category I feel most comfortable putting myself into. When Cam and I came up with the idea of having a “China Brunch” in Hong Kong, it was centered around the idea that Chinahands like being around other Chinahands. We’re looking to Twitter to recruit people. It stands in sharp contrast to an academic conference of China “experts,” who likely aren’t following the latest political intrigues unless it’s their job to know. A modern Chinahand likely would be ‘in the know’ because they’re probably on Twitter or some other social network following these events with other Chinahands. Or maybe they prowl newspapers online for China news like I did in my pre-Twitter days.

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The  correlation between language and expertise is a tricky one. A few years ago I would have told you that you had to speak and read Mandarin as a second language (note I don’t say “fluent”, which is a much lower bar) if you wanted to be considered a “real” China expert. This view was reinforced by my rejection to a PhD program with a very China–specific thesis proposal. The person most responsible for that rejection – an American who does speak Chinese as a second language and edited perhaps the canonical book on modern Chinese education – said his rationale was that I “would probably never understand China.”

My proposal was for follow-up research on my Master’s study of an independent NGO working in the aftermath of the Wenchuan Earthquake. I took it to heart and assumed that my mediocre Chinese language skills meant that I was missing something big. After all, I might as well have had headphones on while I sat in on important meetings. I spent a month in the field working with the NGO  and their Chinese staff, particularly the leadership, frequently implied or explicitly said I was looking at the wrong things, that I wasn’t “getting” it. During one of my questions I was told, “there’s something wrong with your head!”

Then something funny happened. After that PhD proposal rejection, my Master’s thesis was accepted for publication in the best journal in my field. I painted a very pessimistic picture for NGOs working in China and said that 2008 was the beginning of political closure, not the political opening everyone else seemed to have expected (because of the Olympics and the initial openness to foreign assistance after the earthquake). Last year I met with the leader of that NGO  and she told me my analysis was spot-on. Almost anything you read today about NGOs in China paints a very similar picture to my analysis in 2008.

When I started that study I wasn’t an expert on Chinese politics or civil society – much less China as a whole. I was just a foreign English teacher following the advice of a great teacher who encouraged me to jump into something I thought was out of my depth. But I was deeply interested in Chinese society and politics, had a Working Theory of China (Politics & Society Ed.) in my head, and what I saw in the field challenged what I expected and thought I knew. I got to work resolving the conflicts between my expectations and reality, partly by trying to deconstruct how I came to have those expectations so I could see what needed adjusting.

In some ways, being outsider gave me a much clearer picture than the insiders had. The faculty member who rejected my proposal was deeply invested in the “everything is getting better” narrative and could only see my experience and analysis as either wrong or an outlier. But the larger point, one becomes an expert through experience, reflection, and analysis.

I’m pretty sure even Shaun Rein would grant me the title “expert” on the topic of civil society in China, even though I only lived in the Mainland for four years. At that, I was foreign English teacher the entire time – the lowest of the low! I can even give myself a break for not being a superb language learner. But, by the toughest standard around – academic peer review  and writing accurate scholarly analysis – I was considered expert.

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My final point is that we learn deepest through resolving cognitive conflicts – when the reality in front of us is different than our expectations. More specifically, we learn by successfully explaining those conflicts. There’s a saying in academics that if you visit someplace for a week, you write a book. If you visit for a month, you write a journal article. If you visit for a year, you write nothing. That’s because those cognitive conflicts wane with exposure. There’s a great amount of learning that takes place in those first days, weeks, and months. But, eventually, China gets less and less weird. There’s less you think is interesting worth writing or thinking about. Party politics like Bo Xilai’s fall are like sugar-highs recreating those initial days of confusion, when you were busy putting together a Working Theory of China (Everything Ed.) in your head. Or at least something that explained why you were being given hot water on a melting summer day in restaurants.

Now I think it takes experiences like I had to be a “real” expert on a specific China topic. An experience where you leave your comfort zone to encounter something truly weird, something that produces a cognitive conflict. It doesn’t even have to be in the countryside – it can be in your own neighborhood. I had endless theories about why bicycle repairmen would do and say some of the things I witnessed. Try to crack it open and understand it. Read some Fei Xiaotong to see if he helps explain it. Read what other people have said about it. Come up with a theory then return to the Weirdness and see if you’ve got a workable theory. Do that a few times and I think you’ll have something approximating expertise.

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