Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 25 – The Consular Kiwi (Tom BARKER, New Zealand Diplomat)
Tom Barker, the New Zealand Deputy Consul-General in Shanghai, deals with matters of global impact such as trade and the environment. And he also deals with the mundane drudgery of working in a large bureaucracy.
TB: My phone basically looks like a 15 year old's after he's been out for an all-night drinking binge, which is at times slightly embarrassing.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host Oscar Fuchs.
So it turns out Gigi from last week's episode has a lot of fans. There are many people out there who had read her and Anna Holmwood's translation of the Legends of the Condor Heroes. And the good news for those people is that Gigi's work continues, and she's aiming to release the fourth book in the season in 2021. And no, I can't get you a discount. I also forgot to mention last week that I first met Gigi at a party in Shanghai hosted by my friends Sophie and Thibaud, so a belated thank you to them.
This week, we switched from the world of literature to the world of diplomacy. Today's conversation is with Tom Barker, who is a New Zealand diplomat in Shanghai. I first met Tom last year through a mutual friend, Gabby Gabriel, so my second shout-out of the day goes to Gabby. And as for Tom himself, it's not often we get to hear on record from someone in his field, so I was very grateful to him for taking the time to speak with me. He somehow managed to be very frank and personable without saying anything that would lead to a diplomatic fallout.
And before we get on to the interview, let me just give you a quick Coronavirus update, something which I'm sure if keeping today's guest very busy these days. So it's March 10th 2020, and the main update this week is that anyone coming into China from countries such as Korea, Italy and Iran now need to go into quarantine at a location where they can be kept under medical observation. So this is new, previously people were being asked to manage their own self-confinement. Otherwise, there's no updates to life in Shanghai, although I do just want to say… Why on earth does everyone outside of China seem to be stocking up on toilet paper? I didn't even understand the connection to the virus. I mean, hand sanitiser and face masks, yes. But toilet paper? I've been in China for the last five weeks, and I've never seen a shortage of toilet paper here. Anyway, now it's me who is on the verge of causing a diplomatic incident, so maybe I should stop talking and let's get on with the show.
OF: Well, thank you, Tom. I'm here with Tom Barker. Tom is the New Zealand Deputy Consul General for Shanghai
OF: Before we go into any conversation, the first thing I asked you or any guests is, what object have you brought?
TB: I brought my phone, the most tedious, boring, ubiquitous object everyone has. But for those who work in my line of work, it's also the chain that shackles us to our job. I mean, at least for me, it's an object which I have on me all the time, quite literally, it has to be on my person 24/7. And it's a way that I can be contacted all time. So it's just… it literally is the ball and chain, which anchors me to both my job and to the way I exist when I'm in Shanghai.
OF: That must be mainly for security reasons, I'm guessing.
TB: It is, it's just information we have is so vital, and the way that we communicate with each other is so vital, that it becomes really important you always have your phone - or whatever means you're using to communicate to the world - on you. You know, I'm from a very small country, New Zealand has 3.9 - no, sorry, 4.9 - million people. So, you know, we're a small country. And so when we lose things like an iPhone, people notice and they get very grumpy about it.
OF: Interesting. And does that also extend to other aspects? So I guess social media in general must be very tightly controlled.
OF: Yeah, I mean, I don't have a social media presence. That's for a variety of reasons, one of which is just that you have to be very careful of what you say, when you represent a government. There are examples - a few other country's governments, I should say - where people have inadvertently, after a couple of couple of drinks, sent out a social media message they probably shouldn't have. And then, you know, the repercussions of that are quite awful. Well, personally awful, for the rest of us in the world: fairly hilarious. But… and so I try to, sort of, restrict what I do as much as possible. And one way you can restrict that is just by keeping yourself as low-key as possible. So we have our official social media presence, which you know, we mediate and moderate through a variety of checks and balances, most of which are just, you know, the usual tedious things where you will write something and then nine people above you will vet it, edit it, and correct it. You know, that's just any bureaucracy. But personally, I don't do much in the way of social media. So I have WeChat. But I have very limited amount of people on it. I have Facebook, but I think just my parents are on. And I think that's all I have.
OF: Right. Let's go back to the phone then, seeing as it's the object you brought.
TB: I mean, yeah, this phone is a very typical sort of bureaucratic device. It's a black iPhone. Black, because people like to imagine we exist in the shadows. Actually, we kind of more exists in the beige or the grey. And I mean, the one thing that's kind of unusual about it, I guess, is that it has a security screen which prevents anyone from seeing what I'm reading from other sides. But because, you know, these things are invented by bureaucracies, the security screen is quite large, it sticks up quite a bit further, which means that none of the iPhone covers and protective devices work very well on it. So every time I put it down, it gets scratched. Every time the phone falls, it gets scratched. So my phone basically looks like a 15 year old's after he's been out for an all-night drinking binge, which is at times slightly embarrassing.
OF: Well, obviously the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of a New Zealand diplomat is 'Flight of the Conchords'. You're nodding knowingly over there.
TB: Yeah, I mean, it's a reference you hear quite often. I mean, sadly, it's not that inaccurate. Our consulates are usually just two or three people. We often do have a man called Murray. So 'Flight of the Conchords', I mean, from my perspective as a New Zealander, was just an iconic skit show, but they were picked up by HBO and I have to admit that I've only ever seen a couple of their HBO shows, because I've never lived in the right countries to be able to watch it when they were on. But one of the ongoing conceits of it was, they were based in the U.S. and they would go into the consulate general's office in the U.S. And it would be basically a tiny wardrobe-sized office with a man called Murray who was the official diplomat of record, who would then give them very bad advice. I'd like to think we don't do the very bad advice part. But I mean, when you compare us to every other embassy or consulate in the world, we are tiny. I've been to rather hilarious negotiations where I'll walk in at the WTO - because I used to be a WTO negotiator - and I'd walk into these meetings with the Americans. And there'll be 15 people on one side of a table, and then me, and if I was lucky, my colleague on the other side of the table.
OF: Nice. So there are elements actually that they did get kind of right in that show.
TB: Parody always has that element of truth, that's what makes it so hilarious. The smallness of New Zealand, and also the overly friendly sort of attitude. I think those are things that we do quite well, you know, where you try to be as helpful as possible. We try to be useful, we try to be proactive.
OF: With New Zealand being so small, like, the conceit is that I can say "Do you know X from this city? Do you know Y from that city?" And actually, you probably do.
TB: Yeah. So I mean, I've spent time in the UK where that is a drinking game. You go into a random person's house for… they're having a party or something. And all sudden, they'll be like "Oh, there are two Kiwis here. Let's see who they know in common!" And you're suddenly forced to sit next to someone and recite names and locations, until you have a person in common. And the really annoying thing is, often it works.
OF: What about with the guys from the 'Flight of the Conchords' themselves? Do you have any connections with those guys?
TB: Admittedly, I do. I was at Victoria University at the same time they were, and spent time hanging out with them, though more preferably. Mostly because the wife of one of them - I'm not going to say who - was a very good friend of mine, and so yeah.
OF: Well, there you go. The game does work, we have proof. And so, in terms of the consulate, which part do you work in, and what's the day in the life?
TB: So I mean, I work in the political section, as opposed to the trade promotion section. Because I used to be a trade negotiator, and I've worked in climate change, my role sort of encompasses those two areas, primarily. I work in the trade and economic section. So I do a lot of reporting around what's happening in the local economy, sort of how we help businesses interface in China. I also do a lot of work around, sort of the consular side, which is providing assistance and care to distressed Kiwis. I spend an awful lot of time doing speeches. Most bureaucrats and diplomats are just generally boring nerds, and yet somehow we're asked to go out to these places and try and be exciting, and represent this incredibly dynamic, innovative country. And we are the opposite of that. And then I spend a lot of time researching what China's looking at doing, and the policy they're doing, to try and work out where New Zealand can either work with China to promote things - like for example, climate change - or where we can sort of try and influence China into a direction which we think is more beneficial for us, for example in trade negotiations and developing regional trade architecture.
OF: Well, there you go, that's very well summarised. And you said that, as part of your experience, you were in Geneva with the WTO. So how did you end up here in China? What's your career background?
TB: After I finished university, I went to Seoul to visit a friend, and to do a little bit of work teaching English. And my grand plan was, Seoul was going to be a pit stop on the way to the UK where I was going to study my Master's in International Relations. However, I mean, I found Seoul really fascinating and while I was there, a friend of mine suggested that I enrolled in one of the local universities there, which was quite good and was at the time trying to up its game with international students, and was offering scholarships. And so as a joke, I applied, and they accepted me, which I was slightly surprised by. They were quite patronising with their acceptance, they did a few times ask if I was, you know, going to be able to cope with the workload. But they accepted me ,and they offered to pay for me. So yeah, I ended up doing an international relations degree in Seoul at one of their best universities. Then after that, I worked for a couple of random companies in Seoul, sort of doing translation and editing, then ended up working for a quango for the Korean government, then out of that moved back to New Zealand, ended up working for the government there, and public service apparently is a thing that I've always been destined to do, because I've been doing that ever since.
OF: Which would be now how many years?
TB: I think it would be about 10 years now. Yeah.
OF: And after your experience in Korea, did you come to China with certain assumptions that you thought "OK, well, there could be similarities - because it's a Confucian society - which actually weren't the same as you experienced in Korea?
TB: That's exactly right. I thought that, actually, yes, China would be quite similar to Korea and would have that real Confucian sort of component to it, that driving ethos and thought. And it doesn't. I mean, Confucianism has really well and truly been erased in this country, by the last 70-odd years of, you know, socialism/communism, whatever you want to call it.
OF: You surprise me actually, that you say it's been wiped out, because in my experience, especially when I talk to Chinese people, they still are quite proud of that Confucian heritage, and they'll still link it back. And I think what I've heard is that there's a layering above Confucianism, but it's interesting to hear that actually, you think it has been wiped out entirely.
TB: Well, you don't see the same level of, sort of, adherence to ritual and protocol. So you do see some of it. So I mean, it's probably not fair to say it's been wiped out. I think the discipline part is still, sort of, adhered to quite strongly. And you see that side of Confucianism in a lot of the way government works here, a lot of the way corporate culture works here, and that sort of… And a really good example of it actually - just thinking about recent changes in Shanghai - is the way they're rolling out the recycling rules, or the waste management rules, where it's a discipline-orientated system. You get it right, and you're fine; you get it wrong, and you're punished. And it's about that almost ritualistic discipline. But I mean, if you go beyond that, which I think is just a cultural remnant, which sort of just hangs around the same way that all Anglos in the UK are essentially Christian by moral ethic, but not by practice, or faith - or not necessarily by practice or faith, some of them might be - you know, Confucianism doesn't really exist here, you don't see the same level of adherence to age and protocol, and that hierarchy that you see in Korea, where Confucianism still exists in quite a strong way. You definitely don't see the household structure being organised in the same way. You know, it's uncommon to hear of men in Korea cooking their families at night. And here in China, like I mean you know, I work with a bunch of men who do go home and cook for their families on a regular basis, because that, in China, is a thing that men do. That egalitarian spirit that communism - or socialism, however you want to classify it - has, has definitely been embodied more, and that that runs counter to Confucianism in quite a strong way.
OF: Going back to life in China then, do you live in a place near other diplomats? Like, do you meet at the same events and attend the same functions?
TB: We are a very small, insular group. So I mean, imagine a school of fish: they're all grey and shiny, and that's kind of us, you know. You know where we are, because we hang out a lot together. Not necessarily socially, but definitely at work events, I see the same eight or nine poor souls at most things they go to. We develop camaraderie.
OF: Going back to something you said earlier, when you said part of your job is to help Kiwis in distress…
TB: Yeah, I mean, they're never good stories. If they're coming to us, it's particularly bad. You know, most people, particularly in the West, have this sort of aversion to involving government in their life. So I get involved, it tends to be because it's either a criminal matter, or it's just generally something that's awful enough that requires a diplomat being involved. You know, that's… it's always a really unpleasant situation. But it's also a deeply rewarding situation, because if you can walk out of that, where you felt like you've helped someone - if you have someone who's just managed to take their partner's body home after a suicide or a death, and they're emailing you to thank you for the work you did - that's… that feels that you actually helped, and it's the one time where I feel like we actually shine a wee bit, and we're no longer grey beige bureaucrats, we're plaid.
OF: What about other situations?
TB: One of the fun things about being a diplomat is you do get to do all sorts of different things you never thought you'd do. And it's fun in that it's rewarding and challenging. It's not always, at the time, fun. So I've had the joy of, you know, being almost urinated on in an aeroplane, which was just, you know, one of those joys where at the time, you're just utterly horrified and you hate all humanity. But it makes a really good bar story.
OF: Well, thanks so much for your time, Tom, it was really interesting. Now to Part 2.
OF: Question 1, what is your favourite China-related fact or piece of trivia?
TB: At the moment, I'm just, I'm really stuck on this one thing I heard this afternoon, which is that the skin of durians is not considered organic matter. And so, when you talk about the Shanghai recycling regime that they're introducing, and where you put certain items of your household waste: if you have a durian, It is not food waste.
OF: Because of…?
TB: I assume, because durian is disgusting.
OF: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
TB: I do. And this has been my favourite word since day three of being here. It's 外网 [wàiwǎng], I'm probably brutally mispronouncing it. But it's the external internet. You know, we're in China where you have the firewall. So you have the internal internet, and then you have 外网 [wàiwǎng], the internet the rest of the world has. And I just love the fact that they've had to invent a word for what the rest of us just call 'the internet'.
OF: Yes. F you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
TB: That's such a hard question, because there's so many things I would not miss about China. I mean, not the least, the ongoing irritation I have right now, where every internet site and new site I read is currently unavailable. And I find it disappointing and slightly sad that that is becoming a more frequent occurrence, where you know, you can't access the news. But actually, the thing I think I'd miss the most and not miss the most is the same thing. And that is the delivery service you have here. Like, I love how easy it is to get food, I love the fact that you can dial up on your phone 100 different types of cuisine, and it will get delivered within 30 minutes. And it's all amazing. I'll miss the convenience of that. What I won't miss is just the pile of plastic and crap that you're left with afterwards. And the way that that's incentivised this really awful behaviour - which I noticed even amongst myself and my family and my compatriots - of decadence and consumerism, in a way which is quite harmful to the environment. And so I try to be socially responsible that way, and try to only order from places which don't use plastic for example, or are more sustainable in the way they produce their food and deliver. But even then, you're still… it's still that sort of crass consumerism that convenience has produced.
OF: Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
TB: Oh, everything about life in China surprise me, I spend every day constantly amazed. If there isn't at least five things which slightly freak me out, then I'm probably not leaving my bedroom.
OF: Where's your favourite place to go out, to eat, to drink, or to hang out?
TB: Ah, no this is a very hard one, because again, Shanghai is just full of amazing places. There is one place I particularly love. So on the outside it's concrete, and it screams out "You will be murdered in here." Like, for example, its name - as far as I was aware for ages - was 'Cocktail.' 'Cocktail', very faded. But one day, we were desperate for somewhere to have a drink. Our kids had been really bratty all day, we were just really frazzled, but we didn't really want to go anywhere. So I saw that place, I saw it was open, the lights were finally on for the first time we'd walked past it. So we went in, and inside it was this amazing, clean, semi-welcoming environment, where somebody clearly really been into the Beatles, and had just embraced the, sort of, the 60s mod vibe in a really bizarre way. So it turns out the bar's called 'Beagle.'
OF: 'Beagle'? Never heard of it.
TB: No, you can still smoke all you want inside - that's the downside - but the cocktails, they were so annoyingly good.
OF: What is the best or worst purchase you've made in China?
TB: I've only had two really bad experiences buying things here. And both of them have been, like, buying things online. Because who shops in person these days? One time I ordered something, and it just never arrived, which is disappointing, but I only spent 10块 [kuài], so I didn't actually care. But another time I ordered - because I was desperate to get it - a bicycle repair kit, because my bike's tire had stopped working properly, and I was like trying to work out why. And I was " It's probably just got a flat somehow, I'll get the repair kit, I'll rip out the tire, and I'll work out what's going wrong". So I ordered this thing, and they promised they would deliver it the next day. And sure enough the next day something arrived, but it was just a tube of glue. But not even bicycle glue, just glue. So that was probably the worst.
OF: Wow. Well, I mean, you can fix a bike with glue, I can see the logic.
TB: I quite like using my hands. So it's one thing I do miss about here. So I'm not a handy person, don't think that I'm good at these things, but like one of the things I was very proud of in New Zealand was building a deck in the back of our house. Like, the deck is terrifying. And so I wouldn't, like, ever try to get any awards for how well it's built. But it was really fun building it.
OF: I'm very disappointed by how you pronounced that word. With your Kiwi accent, I was expecting something a lot funnier. What's your favourite WeChat sticker?
TB: So unfortunately, I don't use stickers. So, Barack Obama in 2008, when he was elected president, was the first president to be given a phone. And he wrote messages on his phone in proper prose. So he would write full sentences, and never abbreviate anything. So I was quite inspired by that. And I had a couple of friends who were also, sort of, along that pedantic line. And the look of disdain when I would send a smiley face was enough that I've just never been able to do it. I keep on wanting to, I see these people who do it. But then, in my line of work, the emoji could be misread in so many ways. And it would be quite hilarious… I mean, I really wish I could, because it would be so fun to just put up a 'Bring It' sticker or something, and see what would happen. But then, yeah, it would be awkward.
OF: Yeah, I guess if there's one profession where I can forgive you for not using stickers, it would be yours, but I am still disappointed.
TB: Ah, just can you imagine a 65-year-old Ambassador trying to navigate which is the appropriate emoji? Do you use 'waving cornfield'? Or do you use 'hot dog'? Aubergine aubergine aubergine!
OF: OK what about this question, then? Is this within your diplomatic parameters? What is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
TB: I have done 노래방 [Noraebang], which is the Korean version of KTV. I sing in the way that a diplomatic personality should, so dogs howl and screech in the distance. So I try not to do it very often. But my song of choice is Psy's 'Champion', which is a song he did, I think in 2004 or 2005, right before he got banned from Korean media for smoking marijuana.
OF: Well, you're certainly burnishing your Korean credentials right there. Which is funny, since we're not in Korea, actually, Tom.
TB: No well I need to find a good Chinese song.
OF: And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?
TB: So, the media and internet here is a bit difficult. I do like… There are quite a few places I do like, I really like China Skinny for their economic reporting, and these very interesting things that often aren't picked up on. And they just have a really fun approach to it.
Well, thank you so much, Tom. And before you scoot off, the last thing I ask everyone who is sat in that chair is, out of everyone you know in China, who would you recommend that I interview for the next series?
TB: So my referral would be Tim Jackson, who's a patent attorney, originally from New Zealand, but now working in Shanghai. He works in a really interesting field for China, IP rights, patents and trademarks as a, sort of, emerging field. And there's a lot of really interesting stuff happening. So I think he'll have some quite fun and possibly quite confusing stories to tell you all.
OF: Great, I can't wait to meet Tim, and thank you again.
TB: Thank you very much.
OF: I hope you enjoyed that one, especially if you're a fan of all things Kiwi. I may have gone down the obvious route with references to 'Flight of the Conchords', but I think I deserve some credit for not saying anything about flightless birds, or dairy cows, or Lord of the bloody Rings. But here is a China/New Zealand reference that I couldn't resist, did you know that China in fact produces around 50% of the world's kiwi fruits. China is the world's number one kiwi fruit producer, with New Zealand actually ranked third. So who is in the second spot? Anyone? Anyone? Italy.
Lots of photos from today's episode, please check out @mosaicofchina_* on Instagram or @mosaicofchina on Facebook, or join the community on WeChat by adding me on my ID: mosaicofchina* and I'll add you there myself. There is Tom's object, his battered phone; there are photos that he shared with me from his days at the WTO in Geneva; as well as some other everyday images from life as a New Zealand diplomat. And I've also included an image which describes Tom's favourite word or phrase 外网 [wàiwǎng], which actually comes from 国外网络 [guówài wǎngluò], the internet outside of China.
Apart from all the other details that we covered, the one thing in particular that I'd like to hear from you about, is if you have any strong opinions on whether China is in fact, still a Confucian society or not. If you had any examples of things that you've experienced in the workplace, or just in everyday life that makes you believe one way or the other, then it would be great to hear from you about it.
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs; artwork by Denny Newell; and extra support from Milo de Prieto and Alston Gong. We have another artistic episode coming up next week, so I'll see you then.
*Different WeChat and Instagram handles were mentioned in the original recording. These IDs are now obsolete, and the updated details have been substituted.
Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.