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Professor Karl Johnson’s interest in teaching at Beijing Normal University’s School of Social Development and Public Policy was piqued when he came across the position while searching for jobs related to his PhD work in social welfare and welfare states. At first, with no China experience and not speaking the language, he thought there was no way he would be qualified, but after meeting with the school he reconsidered and came to China in 2011. Today Karl has no regrets, in fact he’s learned a lot from his three years of teaching sociology and public policy in Beijing. “China has taught me how to be more humble,” the 43-year-old Wisconsin native says. This insight was gleaned through Karl’s experience in teaching mixed classes of Chinese and foreign students, grappling with Chinese survey data and from experiencing life in the capital. Karl spoke with the Beijinger to discuss how working at BNU has changed his views about life.

How have you found teaching at Beijing Normal University?
It’s absolutely great – it’s an unprecedented opportunity to teach in a classroom with mixed foreign and Chinese students. They both have very unique sorts of attributes, talents and proclivities. Combine them together and it really makes for an exceptional classroom experience.

There are some things that are sort of foreign to the Chinese and some ideas that are ‘Chinese’ that are foreign to the international students, so I like to talk about those things that are at the intersections. That can make the best discussions.

[The Chinese students] educate me and the foreign students about many things including filial piety and the very amorphous term of Confucianism which they can help unpack and sort of explain for us.

What’s your academic background  how did you get involved in this field?
[I did] my PhD in social development. Realizing that coming from America, we have a lot of poverty, we have a lot of social problems and it seems to me that we were in a constant state of need for redevelopment. I ended up studying European Welfare states and did most of my work under the title of social development.

How has being in China affected your views, was there anything that changed for you?
I’m much more humble. When I first came here, I wanted to build a social policy index. I wanted to do it not just at the national level, or the provincial level, I wanted to do it at the county level. I started to get into the data and I realized that the Chinese accounting doesn’t work like our accounting and nothing is the same. I was humbled in terms of thinking what I could accomplish.

Now I have a grant for 100,000 RMB and I’m in the process of designing a survey to get at this sort of thing. What the survey is designed to do is to basically look at pensions for migrants and to look at social policies more broadly.

China has posed a bunch of challenges for me. I’m not an Aristotelian person, I’m a Plato thinker, I’m a universalist and China has thrown a wrench into that. I refuse to accept that China is exceptional, because America isn’t exceptional. I think that eventually, China, just like America, will go, kicking and screaming, into comparison. I mean America can be compared in every dimension in housing and the environment [to other nations], and the same can be true for China. But it’s going to be a long road.

Is there a lot of resistance to people comparing China to other places?
China is just so big. The government itself doesn’t want to be compared. But I think to academics, China is still a huge mystery. Within China itself, even if we had the conceptual tools to build a comparison, the data itself is so spotty. Comparison will take off in China eventually.

What insights have you gained working in China that have allowed you to make comparisons?
I definitely see some shared cultural values in terms of ethics; the Chinese are very entrepreneurial. Also individualistic but in a weird sort of way. Some of the individualism is coming about because of material reasons and self-exploration. Some I think is a direct reaction to the communitarianism that’s forced social obligations on people and the resistance to that.

[When we speak in class about social development, we focus on] values. Are [Chinese] more bothered by a sense of unfairness? I think the Chinese are bothered by the perception of corruption, but [in this way] they’re kind of [like] American(s). They seem to have a very high tolerance for inequality. They don’t like it in the abstract, but the inequality they encounter is kind of at a distance. What they see in their daily lives doesn’t seem to upset them. It’s like Americans in that way, which I find a striking parallel.

What’s life like for you in Beijing? How does it inform your intellectual pursuits?
Neither [my wife nor I] spoke the language before we came here. When we first got here, we moved to the Sanlitun area.

My wife was the only foreigner in her Chinese company, so she was sort of thrown into the deep end of the pool. We made some Chinese friends, they came over and cooked for us, we spent Chinese New Year’s together with them and were included in Chinese activities.

We don’t consider ourselves expats, we are migrants. We work for a living, we don’t have an Ayi, we don’t have a driver, we don’t have a chef.

Then after two years of living in Sanlitun, we moved to the Lama Temple [area]. The foreigners who live there are poor, they are students and teachers. We walked the hutong, bought fruits and vegetables everyday, went to Chinese restaurants. We got as close as we could, without speaking the language, to the real China.

What would be some advice you would give a prospective student to BNU’s program?
I think in China you need to be more entrepreneurial. It’s an uphill battle because you don’t have guanxi. I tell the students here that you can email an American professor no matter if he’s famous, you can knock on his door and the worst he will do is say ‘I’m busy, contact me in two weeks’. Chinese colleagues don’t even network that way, they don’t do anything out of the blue. The students need to know what the ground rules are before they get here. They need to know who they can talk to what kind of effort they are going to have to make to get from point A to point B. And if they do that and if they have an entrepreneurial attitude, they will get much, much more out of their China experience than if they come here and wait to be served. So they will get out of it what they put into it.

Photos: Courtesy of Beijing Normal University

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