On Tyranny

“For we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us”

– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Before I came to China I was asked a series of questions which seemed normal at the time but now seem completely laughable.  They included “Is there a curfew?”, “Are there police everywhere?”, and “You’ll be careful, right?”.  Clearly my friends and family had seen the tanks in Tienanmen, and heard Richard Gere’s thoughts about Tibet.  So I don’t blame them for their concern, it is touching.  But it is also on the complete opposite end of how my experiences in China have been so far.

Yesterday something strange and rather thought provoking happened with me.  I was in class starting a math unit centred around the stock market.  I told my students that on Monday we were going to start an activity where we would invest pretend money into stocks to do a bit of hands on learning.  One of my students, an American, piped in and said “Can we invest money for real?” to which I replied “You aren’t old enough to make those transactions, and I am not doing it on your behalf”.  Then I got a fascinating reply from a few students, all of whom are fellow lao wais.  They said “There is no age in China”.

Allow me to back up a bit.

When I first arrived in China, our school had a large staff meeting and one of the topics brought up was a restaurant/bar in town that had been supposedly serving alcohol to some of our younger students.  This was quite the shock coming from a country with a drinking age of 19, or 18 (depending on your province.  I was quite shocked to be hearing about students as young as 14 being served alcohol.  Apparently someone from my school had called the local authorities and asked them for clarification on the legal drinking age in the country and the police asked “Why would you want to know that?”.

This served as a good warning for the year to come.  I would frequently see some of my older students (16+) have a beer at the same restaurants I would frequent, at the same bars or clubs, and occasionally cracking open a beer walking down the street.  While this makes me feel a tad uncomfortable, I haven’t worried about it too much.  The law is a much higher power than a math teacher, and I am never too out of control to have anything to regret later.

Fast-forward back to “There is no age in China”.

Apparently, for young people there is no magical age that allows you to make the right choices as opposed to wrong ones.  I found this incredibly interesting that a country which has such restrictions does not consider this to be a law that is worth making or enforcing.

Then again, does this freedom on alcohol or tobacco consumption only apply to foreigners and not to Chinese?  I really have no idea, but I am sure someone down in the comments section knows.

Some of my friends and I frequently joke about “The White Passport”.  While we say it as a joke, it really is not all that funny.  Many of us live in separate apartment complexes, all of which have security guards on the outside.  Now for those of us who are Caucasian the guards serve as little more than someone to say “ni hao” too.  However, for any of our friends who are Asian, they can be more difficult.  As they instead get asked a variety of questions about where they are going and who they are visiting.

Interesting, since we would certainly need to enter some sort of code or swipe a card to enter a gated community in the west.

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

So for as much as we like to complain about the lack of freedom we get here, it seems like in some ways there are more liberties granted to us lao wais in the Middle Kingdom than we may have back in the West.  It’s just too bad we can’t tweet about it.