China and the Loneliness of Not-Knowing

Since the 1960s, psychologists and sociologists have recognized that loneliness doesn’t have much to do with being alone. As Adrian Franklin puts it, “loneliness could be experienced regardless of whether sufferers are connected to a spouse, family unit, neighborhood, or friendship circle.” According to Carl Jung, “loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.” Since I became an expat living in China, and experienced this for myself, I have realized just how accurate Jung’s description is, and how specific freedoms can act as a bulwark against loneliness.

There are, of course, plenty of factors more commonly associated with loneliness. At present, there is a narrative that loneliness is exacerbated by modern ways of living. Technology means that we can connect to more people, but the more people we connect to, the more isolated we make ourselves. While in China this is more evident than in most places (adults play video games over lunch and walk down streets with their eyes glued to movies which play noisily from their headphoneless rectangular screens), technology also has its social virtues. Mobile apps make everything more convenient for an expat like myself. WeChat meant that I was in expat groups from the day I got here; Alipay means that I can use my phone to make purchases, so I never need to worry about cash; Mobike means I can rent a bike anywhere in the city; Didi means that when I’m too lazy to bike I can call a taxi to come and pick me up on the cheap; and Youdao is a translator app so smooth that I can have complex conversations with my taxi driver en route. Modern technology has a more complex relationship with loneliness than people think—the fundamentals of loneliness are much more timeless.

China is a lonely place. Professors Li-Juan Liu and Qiang Guo conducted a study in Yuan’an that connects the Chinese problem of internal migration to feelings of empty nest syndrome in rural communities. In The End of the Chinese Dream, social policy expert Gerard Lemos uses data from Beijing and Chongqing to show that cities also have their social problems, and have been riveted by wealth gaps which separate the upper-middle classes from the masses of people who have fled from countryside to concrete. According to Lemos, this diaspora means that China has to build 50,000 high rises by 2030.

I live in one of those fifteen-story high rises in the city of Hangzhou, and I am surrounded by more. They are soulless and colorless, and the sense of isolation is tangible. Every day, I see more and more of them being built—they are fast replacing the suburbs. Whenever I travel outside of Hangzhou, I go through suburban areas yet to be built upon, and I can see through the glassless windows of one house right through to the glassless windows of a neighboring one. These houses are empty because Hangzhou is preparing to host the 2022 Asian Games, and people have been cleared and compensated, so that their houses can be knocked down. In China, unless you live in the city center, the state can have the architecture around you changed in an instant and on a whim: pavements are dug up, roads are relayed and buildings torn down and put up again. I thought I’d gotten lost while biking to work one morning, only to notice that the houses I was used to seeing on one side of the street had been crumpled overnight. Architecture is important: it’s what you see every day; it’s something that can be relied upon. The fact that it can’t be relied upon in China, and that Hangzhou often seems intent on devouring itself, is a lonely thought.

In China, paradoxically, loneliness can be a shared experience. I once saw a group of seven chengguan (city enforcement authorities) pull up in their large truck and swarm all over a street vendor outside a metro station. After a display of bullying gesticulation, they took all his produce and half his cooking materials, and drove off. The helplessness I felt reminded me of an essay by the dissident Chinese blogger Han Han called “Remembering A Time When I Was Powerless.” Han Han remembers having to swerve on his motorbike to avoid sharp rocks, which were scattered on the road. He stops and thinks through the things he could do. He could park his bike in front of them and warn other drivers, but he can’t risk them hitting his bike because insurance companies are not good to good people; he could go back up the road and tap on car windows as and when they approach, but then they might think he is a member of a biker gang and panic; he could get off his bike, and move the large rocks himself, but that would take some time and somebody might report him for scattering them; he could stand by the side and direct traffic, but if he did that the police would eventually come and confiscate his bike for being unregistered; or he could call the police and leave, but he already knows the response he’ll get: our system is busy, please call back later. Han Han eventually rides off, musing on the impossibility of being a good citizen in China.

Civil society is an antidote to loneliness, because the freedom to criticize city planning and complain about such things as poorly upkept roads is not merely a lofty ideal. Without it, peers who make up society cannot recognize each other as experiencing the same thing—so civil society cannot thrive and act as an unguent. To research anything in China requires official permission and a license, and official statistics are shrouded by corruption. In 2009, official figures reporting high car sales were contradicted by gas prices, which had curiously stayed the same. There have been hints since 2016 that underemployment is technically dismissed by making people resign rather than accept lay-offs.

To expose such corruptions, society tends to rely on journalism. Where I live, though, provincial news is dominated by the Zhejiang Media Group, and the provincial media outlets are all based within the same city complex in Hangzhou. I was showed around by a brave and timid journalist and at the top of the central building, on the 22nd floor, the government have their space-age offices—the cortex from which every article is vetted before it is printed. Journalism is brain dead in China. Even the most rudimentary sampling of public opinion—something which might glue the semblance of a civil society together—is made incredibly difficult. Whenever a national talking point comes up, the state’s response has been to delete comments, photos and videos from online platforms such as WeChat and Weibo.

This sense of not-knowing should not be understood as a metaphorical loneliness. It is felt. Much like Han Han, I am often made to feel uncertainty as an expat in China. I felt an uneasiness when I first arrived and my passport was confiscated by the police, who kept it for over a month. I felt the invasiveness of having a person without identification turn up at my residence and insist on taking a photograph of me because the police were investigating foreigners. I experienced sleeplessness when I booked into a hotel, and, once again, my passport was taken away from me because establishments report all foreign transactions to the local authorities.

Recently, on an expat WeChat group, I saw a video showing a group of foreigners being aggressively confronted on a bus by a young Chinese man. In the video, the expats sit there and take the drunken xenophobic abuse. On the thread which followed the video, it was said that they were right not to have done anything. The advice was, don’t stand up against the bully, not because you might get hurt, but because to do so is to give them an excuse—them being the Chinese authorities, who can and do put foreigners in jail for getting into conflicts with Chinese citizens. This advice was at the forefront of my mind when, late one night, as I was on a bus on my way home from work, a short, middle-aged man boarded the vehicle and, as he moved past me, his trousers brushed up against my foot. I apologized immediately in Mandarin. He was not satisfied, however, and made a great show of brushing down his trouser-folds and snarling at me. When at last he had stopped, he sat down on a seat across the aisle from me and started talking loudly with a woman while making sweeping hand gestures in my direction. As the man continued to talk and glower, I stared straight ahead, determined not to meet his eye. I didn’t want to provoke him because I had remembered that I might automatically be in the wrong. Eventually, he stopped. It was a minor incident, but it made me feel small, and it serves to illustrate the invisible apparatus that can make living in China feel like paralysis, and at times can make living in China feel more like merely existing in China.

Kafka’s The Castle tells the story of a man in a foreign land, who tries in vain to understand the inner workings of the aloof authorities who live in a snow-clad castle. Likewise, I feel that the glittering edifice of something is present in China even in its absence, and the result is a sense of alienation. My suspicion that this must be both similar and entirely dissimilar to the lived experience of Chinese people only adds to my sense of loneliness, because their difficulties are becoming far worse than anything an expat like myself has to endure. An identity card system is used to enforce internal travel restrictions. A social credit system operates under the mantra once untrustworthy, always restricted. A near total surveillance system seems to exist everywhere except public toilets. As one WeChat expat said: “When I first visited China in 1994, foreigners were followed by undercover PSB (Public Security Bureau) … cameras and capital recognition do it now. If you lose your wallet you can go to the police station and view the footage of yourself from camera to camera.”

Loneliness is a hard thing to pin down. In China, I don’t think the essence of it is the technology, or the city planning, or the bureaucracy, or even the CCTV cameras; rather, the essence of loneliness is the inability of people to speak to each other. Expats do have conversations with each other about China’s problems, but many won’t do so in public spaces, and the way we interact in the public space is a world apart from the way Chinese citizens have to. After all, I speak English and have access to a VPN, so I can escape the internet restrictions and can Google Tiananmen Square, whereas most Chinese citizens cannot. I used to think that, as my limited Mandarin improved, there would be a positive correlation between this and a decline in loneliness. The inverse is true. The more Mandarin I come to understand, the more I realize what isn’t being said. Lacking certain freedoms might have quite a lot to do with feeling lonely—for what I miss in China is not people, per say, but being able to really know people.

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2 comments

  1. China is a vast country and cannot necessarily be judged by experiences which occur in one place, by the author’s account of living as an expat in Hangzhou. However, the atmosphere of Hangzhou, shared through the perceptions, incidences, information of laws, way of life, etc., by the author, makes it sound like a rather unfriendly, inhospitable place to visit or reside for an expat.

    Dearest Jack, this kind reader of your article would much rather know, understand why you continue dwelling in a city that makes you feel lonely because of its present challenges you’ve described.

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  2. I had no idea. Where are you from? And why do you choose to be an expat in China? I was struck by all the surveillance that occurs there, do you think that is happening elsewhere in the world?

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