April 27th, 2010 | Published in Work
After being in china for only six months, one of the things I have noticed is that everybody is starting or has started a business of his/her own, and if a person hasn’t started a business, he or she probably has an eye on starting one sometime, whatever it might be.
Sometimes these are small businesses that don’t go much further than supporting the person’s family or providing extra income outside his/her primary job. Sometimes, if the person has a fair amount of sense and is good at navigating the hoops of maintaining an enterprise in this country (keeping customers and bureaucrats happy) the business becomes more successful, and he or she can have a very comfortable life, even by Western standards, or even more than that.
I only really have a few examples, but just those examples are enough to convince me that in China there is a serious spirit of entrepreneurship and business-starting. I’m going to wait till the end of the post to give you my examples because first I want to point out that the reason this stands out so much for me is because back in the U.S. I don’t really know anyone my age or even significantly older than me who has seriously put work into starting a business, let alone gone the whole way and really started a business on his/her own.
That seems totally unthinkable to me – that someone I know in the U.S. would have started a business and had it take off and managed to support himself/herself on the proceeds. I mean, think about it. Who do you know who has done that? The vast majority of my friends and relations in the U.S. are not thinking about starting something up to work for themselves. They are, at best, working a steady job for a corporation, nonprofit, or the state, or they are going to school, or working for a school; at worst they have no job at all and they are applying to Starbucks or Borders or some other huge retail/service chain, basically resigned to the idea that they are going to have to punch a clock to shovel shit for a wage or if they’re lucky a salary…and at the end of the day whatever profit is seen will fall into the pocket of a few guys in suits in a boardroom somewhere.
Maybe it’s just the company I keep back home that gives me this view…maybe in the U.S. I only hung out with types who weren’t likely to get charged up about the economics of life to try to start a business, but I really think there’s more to it than that. The few people I’ve met who have openly speculated to me about the prospects of starting a business in the U.S. were people who had been bred to do so because they grew up in a wealthy family, and had no real need to think about the possibility of having to work an ordinary job. Everybody else, the middle-class people I know from home, basically planned to work for a larger organization of some kind. The idea of starting a school, or a restaurant, or a bakery, or a car service, or a web site…it didn’t occur to them. Why is that? Doesn’t that sound backwards? That people in the Land of Opportunity wouldn’t really have that much interest in starting up businesses? Does that strike anyone else as marginally true (i.e. that most of the people they know don’t seem to talk/think about starting a business)?
The reasons for that may be too many to even fathom. Maybe it’s because in America there actually is a lot of security in a day-job, whereas in China most day-job workers don’t make enough money to have a comfortable life (the teachers at my university certainly don’t) and often don’t get the nice benefits that many Americans get in their day-jobs. Maybe it’s because many of the day-jobs in China aren’t nearly as nice as the day-jobs in America (i.e., nice corporate offices, nice desks and computers, windows next to desk, designer furniture, plenty of meetings to sleep through, etc. – versus the options in China: factory, construction worker, low-paid overworked teacher, etc.)
I will tell you one thing I have noticed a lot more since coming to China. I hear it when I read U.S. news or, honestly, when I watch the Daily Show and they show me what political figures in the U.S. are saying these days re: financial industry reform. “Don’t tax the rich, they’re the ones creating the jobs.” Those ten condescending words, which I’m sure every American has heard (over and over) over the past 10 years (if not more….10 years is really the full amount of time I’ve been at all politically aware) seem so contrary to every economic ideal America is supposed to be about it makes my head spin. And sitting here in China, where everybody knows that if you really want a job you’ve got to make it for yourself, it makes absolutely no sense and just sounds absurd. Which of course it is.
But where does it come from? Who says it? I must add the caveat here that I used to ask the same questions whenever I would hear American pop music back home. Who listens to this shit? Who churns it out and who consumes it? I know I don’t and no one I know does. So why is it so ubiquitous, so cloying, so pleasantly easy-to-swallow and yet obviously specious and wrong? Why is this shit everywhere? It’s like when you go swimming at the nearest Howard Johnson’s indoor pool and you go to use the bathroom and somebody has shit all over the floor and somehow it’s on the walls and the mirror too. Who the fuck went into the bathroom and shit everywhere? And why? What were they trying to achieve, except to make everybody else’s life just slightly wretched?
It would be easy to spin a conspiracy theory of some kind here about how corporate interests have blanketed the American television media with messages that benefit the priveleged few. And I’m not at all opposed to that explanation. But I think there’s got to be something more to it than that. In my eye America seems to have this history of innovation and brilliance and the will of the individual to innovate, adapt, change and build. A guy in America’s supposed to be able to come up with a good idea and start a business and run it the way he wants to run it, and have a good life because of his hard work. But why does that seem like a few-and-far-between kind of thing in America now? And why are so many people I know consigned to lives beneath fluorescent lights in the U.S., in shitty offices with shitty cubicles doing stuff they don’t care about. Basically sitting for eight hours a day in a HoJo’s bathroom that has been hand-painted with human shit?
I don’t get it. I think my idea here is a little underformed and I don’t really have any empirical evidence to back up what I’m saying, just anecdotal evidence. But here are the examples of people I know here who are running businesses of their own.
An English teacher who runs and owns his own bar
An English teacher who runs his own school on the weekends and makes enough money to afford two apartments and a car (things that are way out of reach for most Chinese)
A young 30-year-old guy who is starting his own English school
A young 22-year-old girl who is starting up a photo shop with a photographer friend
A young economics teacher who does work consulting teaching management to local companies
A guy who opened a half-million-dollar (USD) exclusive tea-shop-club next to the steel mill in this town to serve steel mill executives
I don’t know very many teachers here…most of them are on this list. The majority of my friends here are students, and they’re the only ones who aren’t trying to start businesses, for obvious reasons. Everybody else…seems to be trying to start one. I’m sure I’ll keep meeting more people like that. And I think it’s safe to say that most foreigners who have spent some time in China over the last several years have noticed that there are a lot of people trying to start businesses.
It just seems right, in China, to start a business. And maybe that’s why China is developing and changing and growing so quickly – because a lot of people are chasing their proverbial piece of the pie, and that creates a lot of competition and productivity and economic pressure. I dunno. This is stuff I probably should not even bother thinking about. But it’s there. It’s been there ever since I graduated college and really had to think about my own economic survival. Because I don’t want to work for anybody, either. I don’t want to work for Starbucks or Borders, ever. I don’t want to wear an apron or a robe identical to that worn by 500,000 other baristas all across the Land of Opportunity. And I know too many smart and talented people who are doing or have had to do just that. And it seems backwards to me. Especially when I know how much money the guys at the top make for sitting in office chairs and holding their pencils.
Anyway, I think that’s all I have for today. Anybody who cares to chime in on this topic is more than welcome.
Thanks for reading HFATT.
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