8 Questions for Kaiser Kuo, Baidu Director and Rock Legend

We caught up with notable expat and part-time rocker Kaiser Kuo for our interview series 8 Questions. Kuo is a long-time resident of China and the director of international communications at Baidu. He is also the author of Ich Bin Ein Beijinger, a collection of his essays as the back-page columnist of the Beijinger.

How did you end up in China?

My first visit was in June 1981, and I stayed through most of the summer. I was only 15 at the time, and I came with my family—my brothers (then 16 and 13) and sister (only 9). My parents had visited China already on a couple of occasions, and were eager to see how we’d react to the place. I was definitely predisposed to like it, and was determined not to complain. With siblings on either side of me with conspicuous talents, I had to find something that would help me stand out in the esteem of my parents, and sinophilia (which came somewhat naturally to me anyway) seemed the ticket.

What is one of your favorite China experiences?

After this long it’s hard to name just one, but gun to my head, I’d say it was the concert tour my band Chunqiu did in November-December 2008, when we played in cities across China. It combined so many things I love: performing, train travel, exploring new cities and eating a variety of regional cuisines. And best of all, the tour generated so many of the inside jokes and shared (mis)adventure that are the glue of any band.

How has living in China influenced your work or study?

My early visits to China heavily influenced both my academic and, eventually, my work life. After the first visit in 1981, I came back on another family visit in 1986. The trajectory that the country was on, to judge from the way that the cities we visited had changed across those five years, was clear to me. I realized that if I played my cards right, I could hitch my fortunes to the amazing changes that China was undergoing. I spent the rest of my undergraduate years looking much more seriously at China, through coursework and efforts to revive what remained of the “kitchen Mandarin” I’d learned as a boy. Mainly, I was determined to come to China immediately upon graduating. And living in China from August of 1988 to June of 1989 only cemented my fascination with the place: friendships, especially in the circle of rock musicians, ensured that I would be back, and that any work I’d do in the future would have everything to do with China.

Based on your own experiences, what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about China?

If I had to identify one commonality to the myriad misunderstandings about I’ve encountered among (Anglophone) westerners, I’d say that would be the tendency to view China monolithically. People will too often see decisions taken at the local level as coming directly from Beijing. They’ll often fail to recognize the enormous regional diversity in the country. And they fail to take into account the increasingly heterogeneous nature of Chinese society and will tend to create single, inaccurate archetypes of groups of Chinese—say, “Chinese Internet users” who become simplistically either latent democrats longing to breathe the free air of an uncensored Internet, or as thin-skinned, fire-breathing nationalists ready to bite the heads off anyone who would give offense to the Motherland. People need to understand that there’s a huge range of opinion both within the leadership and within the population at large, that China is full of paradoxes and flat-out contradictions.

What projects have you worked on in China?

Mainly I’ve worked on musical projects. I’ve been in bands, from Tang Dynasty (1988-1989, summers of ’91 and ’92 and, 1996-1999) to Chunqiu (2001-present) to Dirty Deeds (2005 to the present). I’m still always getting involved in this or that musical project. Back in 1999 I composed music for a Bertold Brecht play, The Good Woman of Sichuan, that was performed by an expatriate troupe here.

What projects are you working on now?

These days I’m pretty engrossed in work and the band, and the biggest project of all: raising children. Besides Project Pengyou, I help out with JUCCCE (Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy) and advise for a handful of tech-related startups.

That sounds tough, the raising children part.

There are definite advantages and disadvantages. The pros include very inexpensive child care (nannies are, in my experience, relatively easy to find, reliable, and inexpensive) and a bilingual environment. Children of expats learn Chinese quickly, and in many cases, their language abilities stay with them into adulthood. Few contest the idea that China will loom very large in the lifetimes of today’s young people, and having a familiarity with the language, customs, food and so forth will confer an advantage on expatriate children raised in this country.

Aside from the bad air (easily the strongest negative factor in my opinion) and traffic, I worry about food quality. One hears horror stories about excessive levels of pesticides, foods falsely labeled as organic, use of hormones in livestock, harmful additives in food, etc. It’s a frightening thing as parent.

Alright, last question. What is your favorite hangout spot in China?

I like to spend my leisure time in either live music spots in Beijing (Yugong Yishan, Mao Livehouse, recently Temple bar) or in quieter and smaller watering holes like Amilal. Of late I’ve often found myself at Susu, a Vietnamese restaurant in Dongcheng near Meishuguan, that a friend of mine opened. It’s a favorite spot with a lot of my journalist friends.

Photo courtesy of Kaiser Kuo.