top of page


Learning Mandarin


Learning Mandarin

Copyright © David W. Bartell 2018


Scott hated the way they stared, like he was some kind of animal in the zoo. Or worse, like a derelict to be avoided. He just wanted to make a better life for his kids. To give them an opportunity have a job that was less dirty and dangerous. Perhaps get a job that allowed more respect.

“Hey, gwai lo, you missed a spot,” said a woman. Her friends laughed.

His Mandarin was not good, but he knew it was something like “foreign devil”. He wanted to shout back. Anything. Something nasty and biting, but he knew the cost. His brother and business partner Bob still had a month to go in his “Politeness Education” — nice words for a thirty day jail sentence.

Bob had told a store owner exactly where he would shove the window squeegee the next time he was underpaid. Scott had to move the business to another part of the city where the merchants’ association didn’t know them.

He slumped his shoulders and dipped the window brush in the bucket. As he scrubbed the grit off the window, he saw the reflection of a man in his middle years with a crop of dark brown hair. The style was mopish and long overdue for a trim. Once faint wrinkles stood out on a deeply tanned face. He laughed wryly at that man in the window.

“Hey, how did we ever lose it?” he asked the reflection.

No reply from the tired green eyes staring back at him.

“We had it all. Didn’t we?” he continued. “We knew there was always tomorrow. And, oh, how we lived like it …”

His gaze drifted through the window at the store’s luxury goods. He drew in a deep breath and sighed.

“Whatever,” he muttered and dragged the washer across the reflection.

Thinking was all he owned anymore. Cleaning windows fourteen hours a day left a lot of idle time for a well-educated and ambitious brain.
It was easy to look back at how everyone, the whole damn country, had lived beyond its means.


When the California city of Stockton declared bankruptcy, its residents learned that its sister city Foshan, China owned everything. The city had gambled heavily in during the real estate bubble in the 2000s. Why not? With Silicon Valley and its high flying technology companies roaring, the central part of California was wide open to development.

Stockton had abundant land and the Sacramento River provided for crops and transportation to world markets. Money was cheap and the city backed its loans with land and the agriculture trade.

China bought their crops and Chinese investors loved the mortgage backed securities. They were savers and all that cash was hungry for a place to grow.

Stockton prospered. Home prices skyrocketed, but were still a steal compared to Palo Alto and San Francisco just an hour away. But faster than anyone could grasp, housing loans came to a screeching halt. The cheap teaser loans were gone and the banks raised the monthly mortgage rates.
People stopped buying and companies stopped spending. The  economy hit a wall like an automobile crash test. The crash-test-dummies in the cars survived, but were hurt bad.

Year after year the Stockton mayor and town council took on economic guarantees from the city of Foshan and several large Chinese banks. After all they had valuable collateral to the Chinese: rich agriculture and access to markets. But, any outside auditor or citizen who cared to attend the city council meetings saw perilous loan practices and a slow march toward default. It was a matter of when, not if.
Scott was laid off from a high-paying job in one of the stronger technology companies. Until then life had been all up and to the right. Just as his projections as a Chief Financial Officer always showed. The long term debt was somewhere else on the balance sheet.
He and his wife, Judy, fought defaulting on their house for years. He took contract jobs to keep things going and to soften the harshness of the COBRA insurance payments. Healthcare could not lapse for the kids, especially for his daughter who seemed allergic to everything.
When the freelance marketing work that was the main stay of Judy’s income dried up, they had to pull hard on their savings to keep the house payments current.

Then worked stopped altogether. The US and European economies settled into a depression unseen in a hundred years.
Scott and Judy were some of the more fortunate. Though they had stopped paying the mortgage, their savings kept them in the house long enough that the banks no longer bothered to foreclose. The frail institutions had no use for negative-value assets.
Foshan, China was Stockton’s lifeline.

Squeezing In

Early one July morning, Scott’s brother Bob called from Los Angeles. More accurately, he called from the main interstate highway that ran vertically through California.

“Hey, what’s up?” he asked.

Bob was his younger brother by four years and his closest friend. His job, rendering special effects in the film business, was also long gone.
“We’re in trouble Scott,” Bob’s voice broke.

“What is it? Is the family okay? What happened? Where are you?” Scott peppered him with questions and quickly shut up remembering his wife’s chiding to, ‘Let people answer you Scott.’

“We’ve got no place to go.” Bob continued.

“The Japanese took the whole neighborhood. They put signs on people’s doors three days ago. We thought they were kidding. You know, just like how the banks threatened, but didn’t collect?”

“Yeah, we’re lucky on that one,” said Scott

“Well, the relocation squads came in this morning and forced us all out.”

“Holy crap! Where are you?”

“We’re all here. I mean … in the car … driving. It’s all we’ve got. I … we need your help …”

“You know you’re welcome here Bob. We can easily make room.”

“Are you sure?”

“Hell yes. Get up here. Where are you now? What time …,” he stopped.

“Around noon depending on potty breaks,” said Bob.

“I’ll fire up the bar-by for lunch and have a cold one chillin’ for you,” said Scott.

“Thanks bro. I don’t know where else …”

“Don’t worry about it. Just get up here.”

“Okay. See ya soon.”

Bob always looked up to Scott as a stable and predictable influence. He was impulsive and quick to show emotion. Scott was more reserved, quietly ambitious, and a had gift for helping others see the proverbial pony in a pile of manure.

They all squeezed into Scott’s and Judy’s home. The adult parents lived in the two biggest bedrooms and the five kids divided into girls’ room and boys’ rooms. Thankfully Judy had prevailed years ago on the decision to buy a house with an extra bedroom and four full bathrooms.

The neighborhood lawns turned to gardens and few years ago and a bartering economy thrived. People on the fringes of the developments raised larger crops and animals. Work was manual and long, but they had food.

The utilities continued to function because the Chinese banks saw Stockton and the parts of California they owned as “too big to fail.” Life, all things considered, was not too bad and people settled into a comfortable rhythm.


After a family bar-b-que, one warm September evening Bob and Scott wandered out to the front patio with their brother-in-law Derek. Slate blue light framed the black of hills in the last gasp of summer. Crickets gathered for their evening chorus and breeze blended smells of a rich harvest and soil. Life had a regained a happy rhythm.

Derek was the Stockton city manager which these days meant little other than filing reports with a guy in Foshan. He was an outgoing man, universally liked and respected. People were his vocation. He knew everyone, remembered their names, and asked how things were in their life.
However, he had been quiet all night. Even now, he gazed into his beer, focused at some point far lower than the bottom of his glass. During a pause in the typical brotherly trash-talk, Bob looked at Derek’s full beer and his so Un-Derek posture.
“Hey Derek. What gives?” said Bob.

“Huh? Sorry. I was thinking. What did you say?” he said.

“You are waaay too quiet tonight, dude,” Scott jumped in.

“What’s going on? Is that water issue still causing grief in the council meetings?”

“No. It’s worse,” said Derek. He straightened and leaned in after glancing side to side. Their wives talked in the kitchen while the kids ran off energy playing hide and seek.

“Look I’ve known you guys a long time, but, I dunno, maybe I shouldn’t say yet,” said Derek.

“Say what Derek?” Bob asked as a sudden wave of sobriety swept through his brain.

He heard some gossip about the Chinese taking a more active interest in Stockton. The Japanese takeover in Los Angeles began with similar rumors.

“Okay guys, this is family here. OK? Nothing goes past this porch. Well, not past your wives. Connie knows, but she won’t talk because she knows it would cost my job,” said Derek said in a low voice.

Bob and Scott looked at each other and nodded agreement.

“Between us Derek. You know that,” said Scott.

Derek gulped his beer. Pausing to swallow, he continued.

“You might have heard things about more guys from Foshan hanging around town. I don’t know for sure what they’re doing, but they spend a lot of time with the city planner looking at the parcel maps. I heard they want to build some factories here and need housing for the workers.”
“That’s great!” exclaimed Bob, then checked his volume.

“That means jobs. We might get some prosperity going again around here. We could …,” said Scott. His voice trailed off as Derek wagged his head.

“I wish guys, but they’re talking Chinese workers. People trained in the newer technologies and stuff. They think we’re just farmers over here,” Derek sighed.

“But we’re not. I have an MBA and Bob here was a programmer for Disney!” Scott retorted.

“I know man. I know. But you haven’t worked in tech for what, eight years? I had lunch with the advance men today and they kept talking about the need for younger workers with modern training. They won’t even give us the chance,” he said and downed the rest of the glass.
“Shit, that’s discrimination. It’ll never fly,” said Scott.

“You guys aren’t getting it,” said Derek eyes ablaze. “The old laws don’t work any more. It’s back to the guy with the gold makes the rules.”
Bob flopped back in his chair. His head banged off the top cushion. Then he jumped up and flung his bottle at the rock facade around the front door. The kitchen conversations silenced.

“What happened? You guys all right?” one of the wives yelled.

“Yeah were fine.” Scott said. “Just tripped and my beer went flying. Nobody’s hurt.”


But they were hurt. The Foshan town council took over complete operation of Stockton. Derek’s role became even more of a figurehead as he was powerless to intervene on behalf of the citizens, his friends.

There were jobs for the locals, but only as long as the construction of manufacturing plants and concrete block dormitories lasted. Thousands of people were brought over from Foshan and the surrounding cities.

As with Los Angeles ten years earlier, the people of Stockton who no longer owned their homes, which meant nearly everyone, were moved out. The homes were given to the arriving factory managers and engineers. Given the desperate and unpredictable conditions across most of the US, their choice was live out of their cars or move into the dorms.

There was no place else to go. Mexico reversed the enforcement of the infamous immigration fence that the US erected last century and most of Canada froze so hard in the winter that only the crazy tried to eek out a living in Great White North. Hawaii, now a Japanese prefecture, sank any vessel that arrived without the proper permissions from Tokyo.

The next year Derek managed to get his family relocated to Foshan of all places because he didn’t make waves and his people skills were needed to help smooth transitions. During a visit back to Stockton, he asked Bob and Scott to lunch to talk about “an idea”.
Their situation was perilous as the factory construction jobs were winding down. They were open to anything that sounded like a life line.

Moving to China

“I know it sucks guys, but you’ve got nothing here. You’re kids have nothing here,” said Derek.

“Your jobs here are done within the month and you will have to leave town,” he advised.

“You’ve got to be kidding. I don’t even speak Chinese,” said Bob.

“Look, I know people in Foshan. They like me. No doubt it will be hard. A fair number of people there think Americans are lazy, but there are jobs and I’ll help you as much as I can,” said Derek.

“I don’t know. I think we can figure it out here,” said Scott.

“Where will you go? The dorms are full up. You opted out remember? You can’t just take the kids on the road. They need a life. Family. Some hope of a future,” said Derek.

Scott looked out the restaurant window. Their parents were fourth generation farmers in their late seventies. Their land had been deeded to the family by Mexico in the 1800s. It now belonged to the Chinese banks just like everyone else’s.

“What about mom and dad?” asked Scott.

“I’ve been working out a plan to get your parents over. That is, if they want to come. It won’t be easy but, guys we’ll be together. Think of the kids. Get them settled and educated,” said Derek.

So they emigrated to a new land with a different language and unfamiliar customs. Scott decided to take this in the spirit of a great leader he once worked for who said, “You have to deal with the way things are. Not the way you want them to be.”

They had their families. They had their faith. They had options.

The kids took the decision to move in stride. They were just hitting their tweens and smart enough to know the future in California was empty for them. Entire nations had defaulted, so some random California city was not even interesting.

Derek’s influence in Foshan was as strong as he said and they were able to move most of their belongings. Their parents came over the following spring. It was crowded in the apartment, but they were together.

“Be patient,” said Derek. “Housing is tight for everyone. As more locals go to Stockton, things will open up.”

Role Reversal

After the end of his grueling day, Scott stopped off to visit Bob at the “Politeness Education” facility. He dropped off notes from the kids and they talked over adding another guy to their company.

Work was piling up from a couple new contracts that Derek pushed their way. Judy found a large house left by an official who moved to Stockton.

Bob laughed when Scott recounted the conversation with his reflected self from earlier in the day.

“We really did have it all,” lamented Bob.

“But, it’s really not that bad here compared to what I hear is happening in California. You keep the business growing and I’ll control my temper. I promise.”

“Yeah, if I only studied Mandarin instead of Spanish, then people here wouldn’t think I was stupid,” mused Scott.

“At least our kids have a chance,” he added.

He still cared to think things would get better. Maybe not for him, but for his kids.

The new generation of American-Chinese.

bottom of page