I realize that I’ve spoken about inhabiting Shenzhen without actually taking about where I live. I’m not sure if this evasion was deliberate or simply the result of habits—research is other than my quotidian reality, even if I write myself into the story. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t taken pictures of Tianmian, the village/development where I live, but have thought about the actual story being elsewhere, in the anywhere but here mode of ethnographic inquiry, which, I’ve come to suspect, is tied up in the throes of middle class American angst about standing still when I should be moving on (to something better, of course). Certainly that impulse, even more than an affinity for things Asian, propelled me out of high school and into China studies.
Today’s project then is to sit and think about Tianmian.
An urban village, Tianmian is located next to Shenzhen’s Central Park, west of the Shanghai Hotel. Throughout the 80’s and most of the 90’s, the Shanghai Hotel marked the western edge of “downtown”. The Luohu Train Station, a main crossing point into Hong Kong, marked downtown’s eastern border. However, since the mid-90’s, development has moved west and with it the city’s center, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the edges between downtown and the rest of the municipality have blurred. Once considered part of the “suburbs”, Tianmian is now prime real estate, being located just west of the new City Hall Building (the old building was located east of the Shanghai Hotel) and a ten-minute cab ride from Huanggang, a recently opened crossing point into Hong Kong.
It is important to understand that Tianmian encompasses a wide variety of folks and livelihoods. In this, Tianmian is highly representative of Shenzhen, although at a smaller scale than in Longgang and Baoan Districts, where the villages retained much more land than did villages within the SEZ proper (Nanshan, Futian, Luohu, and Yantian Districts). Millennium Oasis is a high-end housing development, where established professionals and their families live. Interestingly, many of these are extended families, who either live in the same condominium or have bought condominiums in the same building (older sister lives on the fifth floor and younger on the seventh, for example). New Tianmian Village includes the Village’s factories, mid-level housing development (Tianmian Gardens), and the New Village proper. These constitute the basic livelihood of all Tianmian villagers, who have stock options in both the factories and Tianmian Gardens, where young professionals and working families live, again many extended families here in a smaller space than Millennium Oasis. The New Village condos/apartments are the cheapest to own or rent. Many singles live there, as do friends who have pooled their money to move in together. Each of the buildings in the New Village belongs to one of the village men and it provides revenue that is independent of collective resources.
I’m not sure how many people live and work in Tianmian, but there are approximately 670 units (9 buildings) in Millennium Oasis, 780 units in Tianmian Gardens (5 buildings), and 2,048 units in the New Village (63 buildings). There is also a dormitory associated where Tianmian factory workers live. I live in Tianmian Gardens.
I first came to Tianmian in 1996 to interview the developers, who subsequently became good friends. The government requires developers to build a kindergarten and school as part of the development. Once the school has been built, the developers can choose to either give the school to the state to run, or to run the school themselves. My friends chose to run the school themselves. Part of the curriculum included an emphasis on English. They originally hired a teacher, who for various reasons, didn’t come. Subsequently, they asked me teach until another teacher could be found. That was four years ago. The first year, I thought it was a temporary arrangement. I left to take a visiting position at the Rhode Island School of Design and maintained my research affiliation with Shenzhen University. However, when I returned two years ago, I had signed a three-year contract with the school, where I am now vice principal in charge of internationalization. Crudely, internationalization includes reforming the English curriculum, setting up programs with international schools in Shenzhen, and implementing an English language curriculum in the High School.
Sometimes, I think my trajectory from conducting research to setting up a school is very Shenzhen, where folks pride themselves on being practical rather than idealistic. Before I came to the school, my friends joked that I was wasting myself at the University, especially as everything was happening outside the (increasingly porous) University walls. I also recognize in it a disconnect between my research style and that of the US Academy, where I managed to obtain visiting positions, but never a tenure track appointment; I grew tired of looking for the next job. Yet my husband lives and works in Shenzhen. My friends live and work in Shenzhen. One day I realized that I wanted to commit to being present to those lives. So I stayed.
In my personal map of Shenzhen, Shenzhen University has symbolized my attempts at ethnography. From 1995 through 1998, the University was my base while I conducted fieldwork for my dissertation. I have taught there and continue to return for seminars and to meet with friends to talk about our various projects. The University also symbolizes a particular way of being in the world—moving from one academic appointment to the next, placing that ambition in front of everything else. In contrast, Tianmian has represented another impulse, one to settle, to come home after years of always moving on. It is not simply that I have resided here for the past two years, but that Tianmian is where I settled. Please visit.