Mongolian visitors get taste of America

Study: Their trip to Baltimore was to learn about the U.S. tax system, but they'll also take home memories of TV and public libraries.

March 16, 2005|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

They came with cameras and heady expectations, but unlike most tourists, the visitors from Inner Mongolia weren't here to see the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument.

No, they came for another great American institution - the U.S. tax system.

The trip was planned three years ago as officials in China's northern territory faced a vexing problem in their increasingly capitalistic community: how to get people to pay their taxes. So they sent 20 of their brightest tax collectors on a six-month, all-expenses-paid trip to Baltimore for a crash course on American taxation.

"There is an old Chinese saying," said Wang Yu Jun, one of the visiting tax administrators. "Reading a thousand books won't teach you as much as walking a thousand miles."

As the trip draws to a close, however, the Chinese from Inner Mongolia find they have learned far more than just W-2 forms and property assessments.

They have visited shopping malls and free public libraries. Late at night, they have seen beggars living in this legendarily prosperous land. And watching Desperate Housewives, they have learned that even Americans - with all their wealth and home appliances - sometimes fail to find happiness.

The place they hail from is a vast grassland, much of it still occupied by farmers and herds of goats, camels and horses.

Inner Mongolia is not nearly as prosperous as China's thriving east coast cities or southeastern provinces. But its own cities, like much of China, are rapidly industrializing - the agricultural economy giving way to the production of coal and steel.

With privatization, Inner Mongolia's leaders have encountered resistance to the fledgling tax system. Tax evasion among private companies remains a constant problem.

As a result, the 20 Inner Mongolian tax collectors were sent to study at the University of Baltimore. Their mission is costing their local government about $13,000 per person. But if they bring back innovations for their local tax system, the investment, they said, will pay off handsomely.

The group was chosen in a process some of them now compare to American Idol. Out of 13,000 employees in Inner Mongolia's Taxation Bureau, 150 were chosen to take a test. Then 64 finalists were sent to Beijing for four months of English classes. In the end, the fortunate 20 were sent to Baltimore.

"We feel very lucky, but also much responsibility," said Li Lijuan, speaking in Mandarin. The group's average age is 30, and 18 of them are women. Li, the team leader, said she has worked hard to protect the others:

"They are too young, too open-minded. For many, it is their first time away from home. There are risks and dangers."

Before they left, they were warned about the abundance of drug addicts in America, the dangers of walking alone at night and the temptations of junk food.

Friends told them what they had gleaned from movies and magazines - how everyone in America has machines to wash their dishes and clothes, how everyone can afford to buy food from McDonald's.

"But it turned to be different than what I thought," said Bo Qing Lian. A 30-year-old from Baotou, Inner Mongolia's largest city, she goes by "Regina" - a name she carefully chose in English class for its regal meaning.

At first it was the little things that surprised her: the ubiquity of public bathrooms, the closing of schools for snow.

Then she saw the Vietnam Memorial and was shocked.

"Here, you write the bad history. Even the very bad things of the government, you tell it in detail," she said.

But the Vietnam Memorial paled in comparison to what she found next at the bookstore - a copy of Michael Moore's Dude, Where's My Country?

She tried to describe the cover, in which Moore pulls on a rope to topple a statue of President Bush. But she was too agitated and said she could not find the right words.

"The leaders here are so open to disrespect," she said.

Throughout the mission, Li said, she has struggled to keep the group focused. Many of the women have husbands and children waiting at home. Li left behind a 4-year-old son in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia's capital.

Collectively, they have spent a small fortune on long-distance calling cards.

Regina calls her husband every day to dispel his fears that she will stay in America: "I tell him things aren't so different here. It's almost like China. ... Don't worry, I'll come back."

She said she will miss a few things about America, especially TV. Her and her roommate's weekly routines now include shows such as Jeopardy, Wifeswap and, of course, their favorite, Desperate Housewives.

"That show is very real about life," she said. "It tells you so much about the underside of a woman's life, the dark part of her heart."

Tomorrow, the group will leave Baltimore, heading to Las Vegas and the West Coast for some last-minute sightseeing and then back to China.

They will return with an assortment of products: Revlon cosmetics, footballs and discounted cashmere sweaters from the Columbia mall.

But most importantly, they said, they will return with ideas, not just about taxation, but also about the possibilities of life and society.

A 35-year-old mother, Zhang Xialing, said she is lugging home a case full of textbooks for herself and her 14-year-old son. While in Baltimore, she has been fascinated by the free public libraries.

"This is a good idea," she said. "I don't know how to do it yet, but I want to see if it will work in Inner Mongolia. Perhaps we can try."

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