Here, I want to answer the question that others have asked me: Why go to China, especially for a two-year academic work contract. Another visiting scholar, whose time overlapped with mine at the Asia Research Institute in Singapore (in 2013), told me one day, as we were walking from the bus stop to our block of apartments, that I’m the first scholar he’s met who’s chosen to work in China. He’s been in China before, so he’s quite aware of the low salary and restrictions imposed on academic freedom. These are the very reasons for some Chinese scholars to seek opportunities outside of China, mainly in the US or European countries.
Even Chinese non-academics have wondered why I wouldn’t choose to stay in America. They’d ask if the salary isn’t higher and standard of living better in the US? They wondered why someone with a PhD would settle for a local salary. I completely understand their concerns. In terms of salary, majority of the Chinese people without a PhD earn about or less than 3000 renminbi (approximately 500 usd) a month in the big cities. A foreign instructor with a PhD earns less than 10,000 renminbi (about 1700 usd) a month teaching English courses at Jinan University, the university where I was based for the two-year postdoc. As a postdoc, I received about 5000 renminbi (approximately $800) a month. I was exempted from tax, but deductions were made for housing and health benefits.
So, to respond to the above concerns: yes, salary in the US is higher (even after taxes) and, no, standard of living isn’t necessarily better than in China. Standard of living is closely linked to cost of living. A mixed cost of living could be found in Guangzhou. There’s the option to eat cheaply – between $2-4 one could have a relatively substantive meal, ranging from an order of changfun (sheets of rolled up rice noodles with different kinds of fillings) to a two- or three-dish Chinese fast food meal (inclusive of vegetable, soup, and rice). Depending on the district that one chooses to live in Guangzhou, the housing rent could vary from a couple of thousand to three to five thousand renminbi (which is about $300 to $500 or $800). These accommodations are small studios and one or two bedroom apartments in buildings that could stretch up to 21 stories high (and higher). In the US, it would be difficult to find a cheap meal that includes side dishes. A meal at McDonalds easily costs $5 with french fries and a soda. In de-industrialized cities or small towns in certain states in the US, one could find relatively cheap housing, but rarely in a global city (which Guangzhou qualifies). In other words, a scholar receiving a local salary could live decently in Guangzhou. Fortunately for me, I also received three research grants that allowed me to do more than most Chinese nationals (like travel or have “Western” food when I wanted). I also had subsidized housing inside the university, which lowered my monthly expenses.
Having said all that, it was neither the salary nor standard of living that determined my choice to take up a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in Guangzhou, China. My initial plan was to go to China to see if I’d be able to access local archives or locate any local source materials related to the Chinese laborers in their hometown in Shandong. The plan was to stay in Shandong for two to three months. However, the Chinese scholar who I had approached about this matter after our meeting at the second biennial Chinese in Africa/Africans in China Research Network conference (his university was sister university with the university that I was affiliated with in Grahamstown, South Africa) suggested that I apply for a two-year postdoc at his university. He said that it was difficult for him to help me arrange a short term visit and he had just received research money to work on a project that involves Chinese in Africa and Africans in China. He wanted me to assist him with his project, especially because I’m familiar with South Africa. On my end, I seriously considered his suggestion because I needed a job after my contract ended in Grahamstown. I was also curious about his project and wanted to know more. For these reasons, I accepted whatever that was offered without thinking twice about salary or benefits. Now I wish I had asked more questions to learn more about the requirements for the postdoc. But, at that time, I couldn’t expect the postdoc to be so different from the one in South Africa to even begin to raise questions about it. I will explain the postdocs in South Africa and China in another entry. I also needed a job, so would asking questions necessarily influence my choice to go to work in China?
The project I was asked to assist with was disappointing in the end. I had expected to help shape the project that came to focus on transnational communities of Chinese in South Africa and of Africans in China. I wanted the research participants (three Southern Africans and four Chinese) to organize their studies in ways that would contribute to defining the concept of transnationalism or transnational community. No one stepped forth to share their thoughts. Prior to traveling to South Africa with my Chinese colleagues, I was asked to generate a list of interview questions to give to government departments that we’d like to interview because none of the other researchers came forth with questions that were relevant to their study. I simply ended up organizing their travel itinerary, telling them where they should go and who to meet outside of government. It was frustrating. We were unprepared.
The Southern African colleagues were much better. They arrived in China with interview questions and had contacted Africans to interview. My role was to organize their visit to the African areas in Guangzhou (since I had already initiated a research project on Africans in Guangzhou) and accompany them to Beijing as well as Jinhua and Yiwu in Zhejiang Province. While my Chinese colleagues mostly met with business people (some were also association leaders) in South Africa, the group of Southern Africans mostly met with African students. This was related to their interest in the presence of Southern Africans in China; and Africans from this particular region were mostly students, rather than traders.
So, in a nutshell, the research projects that I had initiated in South Africa had brought me to Guangzhou. However, the academic job market in the US hasn’t been great since the financial crisis in 2008. That is one factor that most people don’t consider when they wonder why an American would agree to take up employment in China (under a Chinese system as opposed to a foreign company or university).