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Jim Bainbridge’s ‘Above the Sea: Expat in China’

When Jim Bainbridge, a specialist in International Technical Communications and Training living in the Pacific Northwest, was offered a position in the Shanghai office of a large international firm, he jumped at the chance. Although he had been to China several times before and is married to a native of Guangzhou, this was his first opportunity for an extended residency in the PRC.

During his year and a half in Shanghai, Jim wrote a regular “newsletter” to family and friends based on his experiences in China. So informative and insightful are these installments that they have recently been collected together into a book titled Above the Sea: Expat in China.

Jim’s account is set apart from others in the “I Lived in China” category in that it avoids the extremes we often find in these works.

First, his experience is not so rare and extraordinary as to seem beyond the reach of you and me. That is, we can’t all be among the first Westerners to ride the Chinese rails after the re-opening of China, as Paul Theroux wrote about in Riding the Iron Rooster, nor can we all study ancient martial arts with a humble master in China, as you’ve certainly read about in Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk.

But Above the Sea: Expat in China also isn’t the culture-shocked account of someone starting from ground zero in China.

Instead, drawing on his many years of independent study of Chinese history and culture, as well as the experiences of his prior visits, Jim is able to present an insightful picture of the changes taking place in modern China and provide some thought-provoking commentary for the rest of us who fancy ourselves students of that nation. His observations on the improvements that the Chinese government has brought to its people are especially worth noting. He writes on page 24:

“The terms `Communist’ and `Communist Party’ provoke strong feelings in most Americans - feelings so strong that many are unwilling to credit the government of China with any altruistic motives in instituting and carrying through the reforms that have turned the Chinese economy into the third-largest in the world, while raising the standard of living of more people than at any time in history. If the government of any other country, governed by a party with any other name, were to improve that country’s economy by even a small fraction, that government would be lauded as having the best interests of its citizens in mind. Many Americans, however, characterize the economic reforms in China as being merely the frantic attempts of geriatric Communists to retain their power….

“However, if power were all that the Communist Party had in mind, one would logically anticipate that reform would be the last tactic that the leadership would adopt. Secret police, repression and isolation from the rest of the world would be more expected.

“Instead, we see a gradual loosening of central power, an explosion of entrepreneurial spirit, and great strides in bringing China’s trading system in line with international laws and practices….”

But the book is far from being all about politics. In short, Jim’s work succeeds on many levels: It provides an account of the modernizations already firmly in place in China; it offers a number of travel tips to interesting locations I’ve never heard of, despite plenty of my own prior travel in the PRC; and it gives us several small history lessons: did you know that Beijing’s Summer Palace was vandalized not once, but twice by foreign troops, once during the second Opium War of 1860 and again in 1900 during the so-called “Boxer Rebellion”, and that Chinese artifacts now sitting in several Western museums came from these lootings?

Above the Sea: Expat in China also shows us that China’s economy is not immune from the forces of the free market. Unfortunately, before his planned two years in Shanghai were completed, Jim’s company “reorganized”, laying off many in his office and forcing him to return to the United States with a pink slip in hand. (This of course does mean that his book is available to us earlier than it would have been otherwise….)

Back in Washington State, Jim is now something of a cultural ambassador, serving in the office of Outreach Coordinator for the Northwest Chinese Hi-Tech Professionals, and is also a member of the Washington State China Relations Council, the Seattle-based Chinese American Association for Professionals, and the Seattle Chapter of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

You can browse the full text of Jim’s book online at, although the print is a bit too small there for extended reading.

March 2003

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