AMHERST — Not many Americans can say they’ve been to China 35 times. So when Richard Ferland speaks about the country with the world’s largest population — and soon the largest economy — people gather ’round.
Ferland first went to China in 1998, during his career as a systems engineer with Lucent Technologies. He traveled there so often he decided to stay.
“One day I got a little bit smart,” he said at a speaking engagement Tuesday at Amherst Town Library. “I decided to come up with a win-win solution. They leave me there, and by the way, I want my wife over there, too.”
With his three kids grown and his wife’s parents healthy, it was the perfect opportunity to live in China’s most populous city, Shanghai.
Ferland lives in Massachusetts and now runs tours to China. He said one can never assume to know another culture without living in it.
“What I’ve learned about all my international experiences is that my track record on assumptions is really bad,” he said. “When you get to know the people, it’s much different than you might have thought.”
Ferland said the Chinese are a kind people. And unlike what some think, few harbor anti-American sentiment.
“People will seek you out. Most of us here are Western, we can’t hide.”
In China he would be constantly approached by people wanting to practice their English, which is now a required subject in schools across the country.
One way to ingratiate yourself is with a warm smile and an attempt at the local language. And a great way of to learn the language is from children, Ferland said, adding that kids are extremely proud when they get to teach something to an adult.
Often when an American travels to China, he or she will stay in an expatriate community — gated, secure and with all of the comforts of home, Ferland said. “But what you do is you cheat yourself out of an opportunity… to get immersed in the day-to-day experiences.”
Ferland recounted the time he took a picture of a street-side vendor. When he returned, he brought a copy of the picture and tracked the woman down.
She was so excited that she invited Ferland and his wife to eat and drink tea at her apartment. Though she spoke no English, the woman’s generosity combined with the humility of her home impacted Ferland.
“I gotta tell you,” he said, “this is kind of touching and these things you never forget.”
But there are what Ferland called the “three deadly sins,” three subjects a foreigner is best not to mention.
First, don’t ask how many kids someone has. Under the one-child policy, the Chinese can be resentful that they aren’t allowed the same family planning freedoms as others, he said. “Don’t put a knife in their heart and make that mental slipup.”
Second, don’t mention Tibet. Don’t say, “’Gee, the Dalai Lama is coming to Boston soon.’ None of that.” Though most of the world views Chinese involvement in Tibet as imperialism, many Chinese view it as the liberation of the Tibetan people.
And finally, the bombshell—don’t mention (the Chinese state of) Taiwan as a country. “As soon as those words “country” and “Taiwan” come out of your mouth and you want to tie them together, things just got 10 times worse.”
Ferland spoke in depth about the Chinese city of Harbin, 300 miles north of the border with North Korea, where the average wintertime temperature is about 2 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ferland showed pictures from the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival of immense buildings built of ice and illuminated by thousands of LED lights.
The lecture revolved around preparations for a trip to China. Ferland advised visitors to acquire a multiple-entry visa, plan around the anniversaries of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the massacre at Tiananmen Square, and not to go during one of the country’s major holidays if a traveler is uncomfortable in crowds.
He recommended bringing walking shoes and a hat, a backpack, power adaptors, medicines in their original bottles and copies of visa and passport. “The last thing I’d want to do in the world is lose my passport in a non-English speaking country,” he said.
Ferland said it’s prudent to register with the U.S. State Department, regardless of which country you’re in.
- Simon Rios may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.