From Dot to Dongzhimen: Chasing the American Dream in the Middle Kingdom

One New Year down, one to go.

One of the best things about living overseas has to be the holidays. As an ex-pat, I observe all of my native holidays, like the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. But in addition to these I get to enjoy several other “festivals” during the year with my Chinese hosts. The biggest and best of these is Spring Festival or “Chun Jie”; what we call Chinese New Year.

Right now the whole country is gearing up for a week-long party that starts this Sunday night. (Hello 10-day vacation!) The skies over Beijing, and every other Chinese city, will be absolutely filled with fireworks. And when I say filled, I mean filled. Each year when the clock strikes midnight almost every family will set off some rockets and in a city of 20 million people the result is nothing less than awe-inspiring: the largest uncoordinated fireworks display on Earth.

That image, of an almost-unimaginably huge pyrotechnic barrage for as far as the eye can see, and the feeling that it inspires, is something that doesn’t go away while living in China. It’s hard to describe the energy here. There is a near-constant buzz that pervades the air when you’re walking around. Everybody is busy. Businesses are starting and growing. Development is happening on a scale that we have no way of relating to in the US.

I’ve lived in Beijing for the better part of a presidential term now. Since I landed in the middle of the Olympics I’ve watched from afar as a financial crisis hit, unemployment soared and a housing market crashed. But while my countrymen have been struggling to climb back from the brink of a new Great Depression, I’ve been living in a world of 9-10 percent GDP growth and plenty of jobs. While a gaping hole has been marking the spot of the Filene’s Basement site in Downtown Crossing, two huge luxury mall/office/condo complexes, each the size of BC High’s campus, have opened on either side of my apartment building.

China is on the move. The hype in the press back home isn’t wrong. It is a whirlwind and living in the middle of it is intoxicating. The opportunities are so endless as to be nearly overwhelming. I’ve had the chance to try things here that I never would have back in Boston and career paths that weren’t even remote possibilities are now accessible.

I’m not saying that Beijing is the best place in the world to live – and not just because my Muscovite girlfriend would take issue with that. (“Where is the lovely snow?!”)

There are myriad problems here. The pollution is horrendous. It is beyond crowded. The language is really hard to speak (imagine there being three ways to pronounce the word “hello” and each of them means something different). And while the paths to success are everywhere, none of them are easy. More doors are open here than there are back home, but you need to be incredibly social and know the right people to be able to walk through most of them.

But for all of the problems, it comes back to that energy in the air, those fireworks exploding overhead. There is a Chinese Dream that is taking hold here and it looks suspiciously like the American Dream that I grew up learning about.

China is on the move.

But you know what? Instead of this making me feel bad for my home country, it gets me excited. When you hear about what China is accomplishing, the things that are being built and the excitement in the air, know this: It’s all done out of sheer force of will. There’s nothing happening here in China that I know my neighbors back in Dorchester can’t do. Our education is better. Our creativity runs circles around the Chinese. We know how to work just as hard. Somewhere in the last 20 years we simply lost the will to excel.

Living in China has reminded me of what is possible. I wish that everybody back home could look at what is happening here and be inspired again like I have been.

Mike Shaw is a Dorchester native who grew up in Savin Hill and moved to Beijing in 2008. He is an editor for a major PR and news distribution firm and regularly writes about life in China and China-US relations on his blog, Follow him on Twitter at @zax2000.