people's republic of desire

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 12:00am

The older generations of hard-working Chinese students, after graduating from top universities, often became bankers, doctors, engineers or accountants. These jobs offer them a comfortable middle-class life in the west. They can raise children and live quietly in an environment that Taiwan, Hong Kong or the mainland cannot provide.

These people are content and proud of what they can achieve materially and professionally overseas. But the young Chinese returnees, like Niuniu, our reporter protagonist, are different. They are often too ambitious to settle into a predictable, suburban existence.

For them, a dentist might make handsome money, but looking at other people's bad teeth is not a fun career. More and more people, like Niuniu, have chosen to search for a sexy and well-paid job in China rather than staying in the west as professional automatons.

One day, as Niuniu and her friends CC and Lulu get together in a newly opened sports bar, Oxford-educated CC says to everyone: 'My parents grew up in a poor family, so money is important to them. For me, I just want to have a sexy job.'

'Your PR job is sexy, isn't it?' says Lulu.

'No, it's not.' CC shakes her head like a rattle.

'What is a sexy job then?' asks Lulu.

'Any repetitious job with a nine-to-five schedule is not sexy,' CC replies. 'I'd like to become a writer like Lulu. It's fun to be a writer. Book tours, book signings, interviews, TV appearances ...'

Up-and-coming author Lulu laughs: 'Unless you have a rich husband to support you, don't be a writer in China. Chinese publishing companies don't follow intellectual property rights. One makes little money as an author.'

'What about becoming a publisher?' asks CC. 'I think it's fun to publish women's magazines and books that are educational and entertaining. The bookstores in Beijing are always packed.'

Lulu points out that the publishing houses are all state-owned. 'I think for a free-minded person like you, there are a lot of restrictions. What about you, Niuniu? What is an ideal job for you?'

'I really don't want to be a reporter any more,' Niuniu says. 'Many of my friends become general managers at the China offices of foreign enterprises. With all the perks and benefits and an excellent package, they live large. I want to work towards that position.'

'You mean to become a comprador?' CC says in a tone of disapproval. 'After experiencing the economic downturn, one should know they cannot rely on big corporations. They can lay you off just like that, just as soon as they can sign a form and then you're toast. I'd rather work for a Chinese company. These companies need talented people like you.'

Lulu agrees with CC. 'General manager positions are extremely competitive. You'd be lucky to keep your job for a few years. You'll never have a sense of security. Plus, a western face is often an unspoken requirement.'

'What do you want to be?' Niuniu asks Lulu.

'I'd be like you, a journalist. Ideally, I'd like to become an anchorwoman. My mother would be thrilled if she could see my face on TV everyday.'

'I know someone who went back to China and became a journalist at CCTV after getting her degree in America,' Niuniu says. 'She was a great reporter and she interviewed Bill Clinton. But guess what, after she had a baby, she quit her job to support her family. She got a position at an investment bank in San Francisco. She was paid too little as a reporter. Don't be a journalist. You can interview the successful and the rich, but you're nobody. Reporters come and go.'

CC sighs. 'It seems that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,' she says. 'And we always have complaints about our own jobs and envy those of other people.'

Niuniu agrees, then strikes a note that ends the discussion. 'When is enough really enough? Yes, the grass looks greener on the other side,' she says. 'But when you get to the 'elsewhere', and the grass is very green, that's when you start to look for an even bigger patch of grass.'

'My parents grew up in a poor family, so money is important to them. I just want to have a sexy job'