I had some interesting conversations this morning over breakfast on a layover in Shanghai. One conversation was with my crew member and the other with a teacher who has been living in China for almost three years.

A Fellow Pilot

The captain I was flying with ( let’s call him Jim) mentioned a couple of his hobbies and spare-time fillers. Jim managed to build an airplane during his time off, though he says that when he thinks back on the process, he has no idea where he got the time to do it. It took him nine years, but he has a really nice Harmon Rocket to use to motor around the countryside. It’s nice to run across professional pilots who also have their own planes and enjoy flying enough to do it on their time off. Quite often I run into professional pilots who have no desire at all to get into a plane when they’re not working. Flying has become a job to them, something to endure to make a living. It shouldn’t be that way, but that is what it is becoming for a lot of people. It’s almost like screwing up your hobby by trying to make it into a business.

Jim also has a race car. I didn’t get too much into that subject, because I don’t know a whole lot about auto racing of any kind. I’ve just never had the extra funds to feed two hobbies. I have a hard enough time keeping one going. Then Jim said he also has a business on the side. He said he started thinking about the time he has remaining until retirement, then looked at the possibilities of actually having a retirement when he got to that point. It wasn’t hard to see that he needed something else to fall back on when he reached retirement age (and he’s planning on the age 60 number, not 65). A couple of years ago he bought a small manufacturing business. A pair of brothers were building landscaping lights and doing a pretty good job of it, but decided to sell their business. Jim bought it. Now he spends some of his spare time overseeing the business and employs a couple of relatives to help while he’s out of town. The business is making money and is growing slowly. He has a plan.

A View From the Inside

While Jim and I were having our breakfast a fellow American walked up to our table and started talking to us, initially asking if we were part of the crew that might be taking him back to the U.S. today. It turned out that he was flying with one of our competitors, but he elected to join us for breakfast conversation. He has had a really interesting series of jobs throughout is career. He is trained as a writer and started out doing technical writing for IBM when they introduced their first Personal Computers. He passed through several of the tech. companies, free lanced and broadened his capabilities. At one point he was covering the Indy 500 for a couple of print publications. However, when the dot-com bubble burst, he found himself in a tough position. He ended up with a contract to teach technical subjects at a school near Nanching, China. When the contract expired, he negotiated his own follow-on contracts with other organizations in China and has been there ever since. He had a lot of interesting observations about the general state of Chinese education. Absolutely everyone must take instruction in the English language until they can pass a general proficiency test. (I wonder how many different uses of the word ‘like’ they are required to learn?  I’m sorry, I guess I’ve just been around too many, like,  ‘young adults’ lately.) At that point, they can stop their English education unless they intend to attend one of the higher rated university-type schools. For that to occur, they will have to show an even greater proficiency. He spoke of the desire of the students to know more about what is going on outside China. In some of the locations that he has worked, knowledge of ‘outside’ activities is almost nil. It seems that there are pockets of internet availability, more in the urban areas than the rural, as would be expected, but the access is not unrestricted. He said that he was never told not to teach specific information, but he felt that his subject matter was being monitored. In his follow-on jobs he was working for the local/provincial government as a teacher rather than as a contractor for an outside agency, and in that regard, he made sure to not stray too far into areas of instruction that were considered too radical.  He has seen increased paranoia about the Olympics and the kind of impression that the Chinese government wants to make upon the rest of the world. He said that recently he had been in a fairly rural area, having lunch in a fast food restaurant when he was approached by some Chinese youths. They were concerned that he was a Westerner in an out of the way location and wanted to know if he was an ‘agitator’ and whether they should call the local police and have him investigated as a possible troublemaker/demonstrator, there to disrupt the pending Olympic activities.  He managed to talk them out of contacting the authorities and convinced them that he was, in fact, a teacher.

Talking to someone who has experienced life in a fairly closed society, or experiencing it yourself, gives you an entirely different view of where you live and what freedom of expression and freedom to learn really means. It reminds me of a passage I read recently in a marketing book titled The Cluetrain Manifesto. The author was sitting in a Japanese coffee shop with a stack of computer programming books he had just bought covering a subject he was trying to learn. He was meeting with a Japanese researcher over some unrelated matter. Part way into the meeting the Japanese man suddenly asked him “Who gives you permission to read these books?”

Really makes you sit there and think for a while, doesn’t it?