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From America to China: How William Brown Found himself in China by Na Qing
/ Categories: Literature

From America to China: How William Brown Found himself in China

Feature picture: Willian N. Brown is giving a speech on the "China is Saying" show on Fujian Northeast TV. (Source: photo courtesy of the program team)

At the age of 30, William Brown, an American settled in the city of Xiamen in China with his family. In the following three decades, he has travelled around the country while teaching Management at Xiamen University. He also lectures at universities across Eastern Asia, introducing the culture of Fujian. More than ten books authored by him that introduce Chinese culture have been published and he has been advising as many as 11 Chinese cities including Xiamen and Quanzhou for an International Liveable Cities Competition.

William was awarded as an “Honourable citizen of Fujian Province” in 2001 and was voted as “10 figures of Xiamen” three years later. In 2011, he was selected as an “Outstanding contributor on the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Xiamen Economic Zone”. Having a foreign face or the face of a ‘Laowai’, William calls himself a ‘Laonei’ (a senior mainlander). Now, in his 60’s, he is still spending his time in China.

William N. Brown's speech in the "China is Saying" programme of Fujian Southeast TV

A dream chaser: My child says he wants to be a soldier when he grows up

“I don’t think there is too much difference between ‘Laowai’ and ‘Laonei’,” says William, “99.9% of DNA from people across the world is the same. However, I do believe one thing, of all of us are 100% the same. That is, we are all dream chasers.

“We have all had dreams historically. In China, there are Chinese dreams and Americans have American dreams. Although cultures and languages are different and clothing differs, we are pursuing what we dream about.

China wasn’t part of my dream when I was little. I became a soldier at the age of 18 and was dispatched to Taiwan. I knew nothing about Chinese history at that time. I then started exploring the culture of this region and realised how rich it is.

I found people from Southern Fujian are really advanced in their ideas. Historically, they are open-minded and internationalised. Why? The majority of the land in Fujian is occupied with mountains, leaving little space for irrigation. So, many Fujian people went overseas. They also welcome foreigners to come.     

I felt here was so backward when I just arrived. It wasn’t convenient to get here in 1988. Now it takes 12 hours to fly from Xiamen to Los Angels and 14 hours to return. But at that time, it took more than 50 hours with three transfers to just get to Hong Kong. And another 18 hours by water from there. Then it took over four hours to get through the border.

The Xiamen then looked so different to today’s one. Narrow roads, no buses or coaches and the standard of living was low.However, there was the nation’s best MBA program held in Xiamen. I was a bit apprehensive as it’s not Beijing or Shanghai, it’s Xiamen. But they (organisers) were quite confident so I decided to help out for one year. Then it became two years and three. Now, it’s been 31 years. I’m still here and don’t want to go, because here is already a home-like place to me.

I have two kids. When they were young, they told me they wanted to join the Liberation Army. They didn’t know, they are different to other children. We’re used to it here but my dad who is in America is worried about us. He served the army as a soldier for 18 years. He went to the war in East Asia for 11 years. Who was he battling against? It was the Chinese Communist Party.

I love my dad and respect him. If he asked me not to go to China, I might not have come here. But he didn’t object, though he didn’t support me either. So, I came up with the idea of writing to my family every month, telling them what life looks like here and showing them what China looks like. But how to understand China? The best way is to understand its people. So I started writing stories about Chinese people.

Develop a dream: I bought a car and wanted to visit all of China

I served the army for seven years. I thought I was serving Democracy and survival. But later, as I knew more, I realised it’s all about trade. So, I decided I can’t continue doing this. There are some misunderstandings and prejudice towards China. At first, when I talked to some people, what they’ve imaged about China was not the real image of this country, they were annoyed. Then I realised, to let people understand this country takes time and I need to be patient.

An American Doctor who is an expert of Chinese affairs wrote to me saying I don’t know the situation in China and disagreed with what I had said. I kept writing to him. One year later, he wrote to me telling me that he was looking forward to hearing from me every month and started looking at things differently.

When I just came to China, it was just the time of Chinese reform. I believed it would be successful because the Chinese have been historically doing some great jobs. But I thought it would take China 60 to 70 years to accomplish this reform of modernisation. Surprisingly, so many changes have been seen in just a little over 10 years.

One reason that I really admire the Chinese is, so far all these rapid and progressive developments have been done peacefully, based on improvement in the economy.

In 2002, Xiamen won gold for the International Garden City Award. I was spokesperson for Xiamen on this award so I went to Germany to give a speech. What I found is there was still a lack of understanding about China from westerners. I was talking to a mayor of a European city, he was unaware that there were high-rises  in China. So in 2003, I helped another Chinese city and a dozen more later to apply for this award. Except one, others were all awarded a gold. Why? It’s not because I did a great job, it’s down to these great cities in China. They have comprehensive plans for the next decade or so. When I went to other countries, many mayors and directors of those countries asked me the reasoning behind that and said it was wise to plan in that way, I realised it’s not easy for China to do that. China does need to lean from other countries while the rest of the world need to learn from China too.

Because I do Management and International Economics, I study  how foreigners look at China and find that despite the changes that China has made, foreigners are still saying Chinese are not good at doing business. There are lots of magazines claiming Chinese lack innovation. I was puzzled. If they don’t know how to do business or have no innovation, how come in the past 1,000 years, the Chinese have been the best traders in the South East? Also, how come most of the world’s inventions were made by Chinese?

In 2014, a column in Harvard Business said, until 19th century, China’s economy was more open and marketized than the that was in Europe.

I started writing articles in 1991 or so, trying to show the real image of China. But I faced lots of criticism from foreigners, questioning how I would know if the mainland had developed or not. So, I bought a minivan and decided to travel across the country.

The same dream: I travelled from Xiamen to Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing, Qingdao, Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Xi’an, Lanzhou, Xining, Golmud, Lhasa, Chengdu, Guangxi, Hainan and more, in three months. With more than 10 hours on the road, I travelled roughly 300 kilometre every day.

I had been to some extremely remote areas such as Ningxia and Gansu. In the National Geography Programme, they were described extremely poor. When I was there, I found, although Ningxia and Gansu are remote, there had already been concrete-paved roads and electricity supply installed by local governments. There were also public facilities like primary and secondary schools and hospitals. I was wondering why the government spent so much money on remote areas like this? But later, I thought to myself, how to address poverty among these people living here? Giving them money is not a sustainable solution if it’s not making this problem worse. Because they would take it for granted. There is a saying in China, it’s better to give people fishing nets than fish. That’s when I understood the rationale of the government providing infrastructure construction, so that people can find their own ways to make a living.

In the subsequent 20 years or so, I returned to those places and found it has changed a lot. Though still poor, it’s much better than 20 years ago. I had been to more than 30 countries, there’s no developments in many so-called developed countries. Some have even got worse. I was impressed by the developments in China, and that’s why I want to know more about how it gets there.

From 1995 or so, I played roles in some Chinese series as I thought it was a good way to learn Chinese. The first series I took part in was about the Opium War. The scripts looked to me were fictional. It’s not the real story although I knew nothing about the history of the Opium War. Then I realised it wasn’t just me. A professor of mine who taught me ten years ago once visited Xiamen and we had a discussion about history. The American professor thought it was Chinese who wanted to sell opium that sparked the Opium War.

After that, I started studying history and found that no wonder later India and China were so poor. Having traded with westerners in that (unfair) way for more than a century, how could they make money out of that? To be fair, it’s not a deal, it’s like robbery. But at that time, China was depicted by the western media as “yellow scourge”, claiming China is the ‘source of danger’ in the world. This is bizarre, Chinese by nature is a nationality who believes in harmony.

Five hundred years ago, European and Dutch came to Eastern Fujian to learn its irrigation. British first adopted Imperial Civil Service Examination in India and then accepted it in its own country. BBC commented that Imperial Examination originated from China was an inspiration of modern recruiting practice. In 1731, a British politician said China is known to the world for the Four Greatest Inventions, but actually, what Chinese are master at is the Art of Executive Management.

Over the past 30 years, there have been effective governmental management such as the South-to-North Water Diversion Project and the West-to-East Electricity Transfer Project and highway projects. They have been proved to be the world’s bests. What impressed me the most is an article published on the World Economic Forum, that is called Those Breath-taking Facts that Help You Understand Today’s China. It says China has contributed to more than three quarters of the world’s poverty alleviation between the year of 1990 and 2005.

There are lots of voices against what China has been doing such as the “One belt and one road“ initiative. My second son visits Africa with his wife frequently, providing voluntary medical service. He told me that there are Chinese helping local people there too. In the 1960s’, when China was facing hardship itself, it had already helped the railway construction in Africa.

The biggest change in China, as I observe, over the past decades, is Chinese are becoming more confident. The biggest opportunity is the future. I’m confident that there will be a promising future in China. I hope that foreigners and Chinese people can work together and learn from each other. China has Chinese dream, we have American dream too, the same like Egyptian dream and Pakistan dream. We all have the same dream.


Topic 1: Common interest of achieving a win-win between China and America

Wang Lin (Foreign correspondent at CGTN): what’s your observation and expectation on the China-American relationship?

William N-Brown: personally, I’m looking forward to seeing two parties find a way to address current issues. I think the two countries should be friends who work together and not playing with a win-lose idea. I understand that theoretically, it’s easy to achieve win-win, but it might be difficult in practice. But I truly think this should be the goal. Because both countries are countries I love.

Topic 2: What kind stories about China that foreigners like to read?

Hu Min (English language education expert and CEO at Xin Hangdao International Education Group): over the past 30 years of my career, there are two things that I feel the most. First is that there’s insufficient interpretation of Chinese stories and second, is a lack of understanding of China from the rest of world, which is much lower than what China knows about the world. Can I ask what kind of stories about China that foreigners like to read?

William Brown: it’s important to mention what’s being called “understanding from a foreigner’s perspective”. Foreigners don’t understand some of Chinese things, which is due to the huge cultural difference between the West and the East. That is why it’s vital to find a common ground that can be understood by both sides.

I think the mainland media has been doing a great job in recent years. Once I went to a restaurant in Tennessee in America, I saw people watching TV. What they were watching was programme from CCTV! I could never image this back to 10 years. And what I want to point out is, it’s not a restaurant run by Chinese, rather by a Tennessean. by Na QingSuperUser Account

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