When I was 17, I wanted to be a professional writer. I became aware of something called California State Summer School for the Arts, a month-long, well, summer school (for the arts). I had to apply and save a bunch of money, and then negotiate assistance from my parents, but in the end, I managed to attend.
My father seemed of the mind that, since writing was the career I decided I wanted to have, this summer school was the first step in my professional development. I should come home with a bunch of contacts and prospects for the future. Which makes sense. But instead I came home with the realization that I didn't want to be a professional writer. The prevailing worldview was atheist and statist, and I determined that if I immersed myself in that culture, I would not end up the type of person I wanted to be. In one sense, then, it was a giant waste of time, but in another sense, it was helpful to learn quickly and up-front that I didn't want to continue down that path.
I feel like my time in China is another one of these early corrections. Everyone in America thinks China is the wave of the future, but what I'm learning here is that I don't agree with that. China is a dying society the same as America is, though they are dying for different reasons and in different ways. America is coming apart while everyone pursues extreme privilege and license. China is coming apart while everyone pursues extreme commercialism and greed. State illiberalism is acceptable to the people because it has facilitated gonzo consumerism. If that economic miracle is over now, things are about to get crazy up in here.
American license is realized at an individual level. So screw my commitments to anything larger than myself, I'mma get me MINE. Chinese greed typically includes the immediate family inside the circle of "self," so people are willing to bear great sacrifices for their parents or their child. But as soon as you step outside that circle of self, if you don't have any money to give to me you'd better expect absolutely nothing from me.
Here's a story of a man nearly dying while airplane and ambulance staff argued about who is required to carry him off the plane. After he crawled to the ambulance he had to crawl inside on his own, then he was taken to a more-distant hospital for billing purposes. Each of these people would crawl across hot coals for his mother or baby. But since this man was a stranger, he was only a potential payday.
Of course you can't make blanket statements about two people, let alone 1.3 billion people, without being wrong. I've met some truly kind, polite, caring Chinese people here. However, they tend to be social "losers," people who aren't getting ahead in the world. The cleaning woman on my office floor is a dear friend, even though we can't speak to each other at all, but many of my teaching colleagues are suspicious jackals. I feel a need to keep learning Chinese, and I'm not sure why that is. But the main thing I've learned from my time here is that I really want to limit my time here.