coming home to the liberal arts

This past week my friend’s daughter has been visiting liberal arts colleges and I have been tagging along, surprised by my sense of homecoming; these are my people.

I have lived and worked in Shenzhen close to twenty years. I continue to engage in anthropological research about the city and participate as a public intellectual both in Shenzhen and outside, in conversations about Shenzhen and what it teaches us about rural urbanization in the post Cold War era. I work with Fat Bird to produce theater and have recently joined friends to form CZC Special Forces, a group working to make art and performance in and around Shenzhen’s urban villages. Over the years, I have taught English, served as an acting principal, and done the odd bit of college counseling in Shenzhen schools. In short, the city and its residents have been good to me, helping me to craft an interesting and meaningful life.

Indeed, I feel at home in Shenzhen. I live in a late 1980s Shekou housing development, where child play and aunties and grandmas dance the yang ge’er. I know the bus and subway systems intimately. I have favorite restaurants and parks and walks. I appreciate the vast diversity of the city’s migrants and have learned to recognize (some of) the distinctions that matter to Shenzheners — accents, flavoring, and personality, for example. I navigate cross-border encounters, and have friends in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. In all practical senses, Shenzhen is home.

And yet.

Just a week of wandering a few liberal arts campuses and I am reminded of those stateside who also enabled me to live this life. Parents who believed that education was for life rather than strictly the first line on a resume; Chinese teachers who gave me the skills, understanding, and confidence to persist despite linguistic and cultural obstacles; anthropology professors and authors who not only helped me learn to think and consider what it means to be human, but also to value this very human impulse to reflect on our shared condition and its causes, possibilities, and challenges. All this to say that this trip I am realizing just how deeply my values and goals were shaped and nourished by the liberal arts tradition. Yes! the heart sings. This tradition is worth cherishing, and growing, and exporting.

Yet, again.

I also know what it takes for a Shenzhen family to be able to afford this education. I know the decisions and savings and evasions — moral, intellectual, and social — that make it possible to leap from Shenzhen to a liberal arts college campus. So this college visiting has been unremittingly bittersweet. I keep saying to my friend, “See, it is possible to create this kind of learning environment and raise outstanding human beings.” And she rightly reminds me, “Shenzhen people are still worried about securing their children’s economic future.” I pause because she is not wrong. Not only Shenzhen parents find $US 50,000 a year to be a daunting obstacle. American parents. Moroccan parents. Indian parents. Parents everywhere do because we are exporting liberal arts educations. And they cost. A lot. And even more when your family doesn’t earn petro-dollars, but instead earns real estate yuan.

Thought du jour: We need to find ways to realize these values in other, more accessible forms. I continue to believe that our liberal arts colleges and pedagogical values constitute an important contribution to humanity. I am haunted, however, by their obvious and subtle complicities with globalized inequalities. I live this contradiction everyday in Shenzhen, where the liberal arts — or another form of morally tolerant pedagogy and values — are needed, but where as an American, I often find myself so firmly placed on the “haves” side of the line that dialogue is difficult. Indeed, in the end, I end up listening more than speaking because I’m still searching for common ground. And this ground must take into account economic inequality and political aspirations if we are to move forward, together.

more from jonathan bach

Open Democracy’s Cities in Conflict project has a posted “Shenzhen: Constructing the City, Reconstructing Subjects” by Jonathan Bach, a scholar who crafts elegant and insightful essays on Shenzhen. Here’s a taste:

Premised on exports and experiment, Shenzhen is a city stretched between high expectations and the unintended consequences of constant expansion. Great expectations lie in its DNA; from Deng Xiaoping’s conviction that the creation of Shenzhen in 1979 would spur China’s reform and opening, to his prodding in 1992 that the city not “act as women with bound feet,” to current leader Xi Jinping’s symbolic choice of Shenzhen for his first official visit in December 2012 to signal his reform agenda. Shenzhen did meet expectations, and then some. As one of our greatest contemporary urban experiments, the staggering growth that made Shenzhen synonymous with the rise of “Made in China” must be regarded as much as the result of massive improvisation as of master planning. And today, what started as a city of exception is a site of an ongoing struggle to define the rule.

Visit Open Democracy not only to read this essay, but also to contextualize what’s happening in Shenzhen with respect to other mega-city projects worldwide.