Professor Zeidan: In Brazil I am Branded as a Wumao

“It is my personal disposition to always present things in shades of gray,” said Rodrigo Zeidan, a Professor of Practice in Finance and Economics.

(Feature Photo: NYU Shanghai)

Professor Zeidan has been working full-time at NYU Shanghai since 2016, coming for the first time in 2015 as a visiting associate professor.

But unlike most other foreigners who come to the country for work, when Professor Zeidan left his home country of Brazil and “came to China, [he] really came to China,” knowing full well his decision meant his family’s life “would be in China.”

A self-described “hedonist workaholic,” Zeidan’s work is not, and never will be, limited to just his job as a Professor at New York University’s newest full-time campus in Shanghai.

Speaking engagements, research conferences, and writing textbooks used internationally are all considered by Zeidan to simply be his duty as an academic. In addition to all of this, he is busy writing a new book on working capital management and being an active columnist for Brazil’s largest newspaper.

When asked how he balances being a full-time professor with all of this, he simply said “it’s all self-motivated,” but still noted that he could never “have a 9-5 job” saying that he “[doesn’t] mind working 13 hours in one day, as long as the next day he could play tennis at 11am.”

All of this work, of course, sometimes comes at a personal cost, with Zeidan hyperbolically jesting that “whenever I announce to my wife that I have to write a new book, she suffers in the sense that she will not see me.”

As an expert, author, and columnist, he has also been seen as the perfect guest for news media attempting to get first-hand accounts of the current quarantine crisis in Shanghai, one that has seen millions locked in their homes for at least two months.

When asked about the subconscious effects that living in China may have on how and what he writes about, Zeidan asked clearly if the question was about “self-censoring?” before delivering his nuanced take on the matter.

“Everybody self-censors all the time. Even in Brazil I cannot say anything I want. I don’t want to alienate my readers. I don’t want to alienate my friends.”

Professor Zeidan does not feel, however, that his position in China has any bearing over how he talks about matters, simply referring back to his own “personal disposition” as someone of nuanced thought, even when speaking with media outlets who are searching for some provocation.

Drawing from his background in Brazil, he recalls how this approach can draw its own criticisms, noting that “in Brazil because I present things in shades of gray, and because the government is very right-wing, I am branded as a wumao.”

That being said, he understands the importance of healthy criticism of the current crisis in Shanghai, agreeing that “of course it will [have an economic impact that is not being discussed right now].”

The current course of events in Shanghai is unpredictable, as have been the last three years in the country, but what does this mean for someone who has made the long-term decision to be here in some of the most chaotic times China has seen in the last century?

Rodrigo Zeidan prefers to look at life through the lens of an economist, and “not make long-term decisions based on short term concerns.” Even then, he understands the seemingly never-ending Covid situation in Shanghai is becoming a long-term concern, one that is now about “3% of somebody’s lifespan.”

Regardless, the professor does not feel as though it has changed his commitment to NYU Shanghai, and his new life in China. Speaking on the importance of NYU’s Shanghai campus to change in China, he again takes on the topic from his more worldly point of view.

“I come from a country that is completely insular. I come from a country that would never accept an institution like NYU Shanghai. I come from a country where I was forbidden to write my PhD thesis in English,” he said.

“So, to have an institution in which people are here to teach sophisticated things to an elite of Chinese citizens, where we are having an open interview to be published inside of our institution in which it is unfiltered. Of course, it is good. The more a society is open to different points of view it is better.”

Before returning to prepare for his quickly approaching classes, Zeidan takes some time to reflect on everything that he had said thus far, and the grander context of the discussion.

“I am not American,” he said, alluding to how alienating discussions on China must feel for the world outside of the United States. “Usually, these discussions assume that China is not a free place, and America is,” he said. “Are American institutions the best way to organize higher learning? I don’t know the answer to that question. But I still wouldn’t assume that that is the right answer.”

If there is anything to take away from the Chinese system, academically, and culturally, Professor Zeidan preferred to not indulge in something open the can of worms that would be abandoning his highly nuanced and informed look on life. He, rather humbly, replied to the question of what to take away from China’s educational system, with an acknowledgement of his own lack of experience in the matter.

“I don’t know enough to talk about it coherently. Self-censorship is increasing, those are discussions that will require a lot of time. There is never a correct way; it is very difficult. The way I like to see things is a process, and the direction is not to my liking. It’s worse than it was when I arrived. That for me is the main takeaway. But hopefully it’s a cycle and it will get better,” Zeidan concluded.

The many shades of gray Rodrigo Zeidan sees the world through may not be appreciated by all. However, the few who are often not included in the black and white can be grateful for the rare restraint the professor displays when diagnosing the ever-changing political, economic, and social climates of today.

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