Saturday, June 15, 2013

Harmony

Societies are like people in so much as they each have their own value system, which both exemplifies and solidifies itself every time there is a conflict between two values on the system.  For example: Batman’s value system is such that when the values of safety and justice come in conflict, he will choose justice.  As Batman encounters more conflicts and makes decisions, he effectively provides us with a rough sketch of his value ranking.  A similar case can be made for societies.  When I was studying abroad in France, I noticed that the word “logique” or “logic” was used in a much higher frequency than in America.  It was such that language provided a window into the minds of the French, a society which inspired Descartes’ cogito.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the experience of listening actively to word frequency in America, but I would imagine that the word “time” would probably come up a lot more than in any other society. In French, the word time can be translated as “fois,” “temps,” or “heure” depending on the context. (I don’t have time to ask her what time it is two times…Je n’ai pas le temps de lui demander deux fois quelle heure il est.) In both China AND France, people will “pass time” (passer du temps and 过时间), but in America, we spend time. Perhaps this is why America is the land of 8-minute abs, where time is money and planning is second nature. If France is a country of logic, then America is the country of time management.

So where does China come in?  The word that I hear in China at a shockingly high frequency is the word 和谐meaning “harmony”.  It can also be used as a verb meaning “to censor”… leading to the humorous translation, “He was harmonized because of what he said about Chairman Mao.”  In a country whose language has only one word for both “question” and “problem,” logic and punctuality definitely take back seats to harmony. There is also a strange Chirony which even some Chinese people have pointed out to me since I’ve been here.  Harmony is SO important that if someone is disturbing the societal harmony by cutting in line, listening to music with no headphones, or engaging in a violent domestic dispute in broad daylight, it is better NOT to acknowledge the breach of social harmony, out of fear of causing greater social disharmony. 

Now, for my own personal harmony in China, I see things a different way… or should we say, “hear them differently.”  In recent weeks, the singing group I’ve been working with for the past two years, K-VOX, has improved far beyond my expectations.  After my first year, I saw the results of my work as taking a group of great singers making a mediocre ensemble and inspiring outstanding leaps in developing personal skills such as confidence, commitment, and creativity.  This was enough for me, as creating a fantastic ensemble was never one of my goals of Peace Corps service. Nevertheless, the group continued to grow in quality, and what was initially good enough slowly started to be seen as somewhat of a moderate failure. I’m not sure when it really happened, but K-VOX started really listening to each other and making music rather than just singing together.  

Last week, we all went to another Peace Corps volunteer’s site in Zunyi to hold a joint concert with a newly started acappella group there named Zing.  Their group was inspired by ours and even sings some of the same songs that we learned last year.  It was really great to see the passion for music and extracurriculars spreading to other schools as well as seeing a strong juxtaposition of a group after two months of practice, and a group after two years.  Now, K-VOX successfully sings with dynamics, key changes, and a harmony that is birthed from closely listening to others rather than from ignoring dissidence.  It was quite the harmonious final chapter of my time here with K-VOX.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Quasi-racist Babies


            There are a few really interesting things that everyone should know about Chinese babies. First of all, they are absolutely adorable. This is probably due to the fact that for ten months of the year they are bundled up in no less than six layers of thick, fluffy clothing. There are few things cuter than a baby waddling along the street, unable to bend over, sit down, or even touch his own nose.
Secondly, babies seem to enjoy a level of freedom above that of all other Chinese citizens. In fact, this freedom seems to extend well into the toddler years depending on where in China you are. The main benefit of this freedom is that babies can go to the bathroom anywhere that they want, anytime that they want. They even wear special crotch-less pants that naturally part when you squat allowing hands-free relief for those who wear them. When you first arrive in China, you might think that it’s silly that with so many people, seats in the train station will be used for holding bags while many people are standing beside them. However, after you see your first score of babies/toddlers who support China’s “Urination Without Discretion" and "Defecation Without Discrimination” policies, you think twice before using the ground as anything but a foothold.
Lastly, as can be seen in the title of this post, Chinese babies grow up as de facto racists. Now, don’t be alarmed and start envisioning little babies swaddled in six layers of KKK winter robes with crotch-slits. Their “racism,” for lack of a better word, is just the natural reaction of shock and horror at seeing a face of a different color, shape, and proportion. Picture seeing the witch from Snow White in real life, when all you’d been exposed to prior to her was eyes of roughly half the size, hair whose spectrum went from naturally black to dyed rotten pumpkin orange, and a nose that seems to be almost 2D when compared with the IMAX-3D schnoz of a caucasian. 
When seeing someone alien, these Chinese babies give reason to believe that the most natural response is fear. Most babies I see for the first time begin to cower, search for mommy, and start crying. Oddly enough, this is the internal response of many “adults” I meet the first time as well.  They are nervous, surprised, and seek the most abrupt/awkward way out of my presence, which is often just averting their eyes and walking away sans valediction.1 Fortunately for me2, there is a baby who pretty much lives at the English department where both of her parents teach. I couldn’t help using this prolonged exposure to a test subject to run some of my own experiments.

1-year old: Test subject #24601 looks at me with glazed over eyes and is curious to the point of being unable to do anything else while I am in its line of sight... including but not limited to blinking.
2-years old - first meeting: For some reason, things changed when the test subject could talk. If she sees me anywhere within ten meters, her face slowly wilts in on itself, and she cries until I back up to an appropriate distance.3
2nd to 24th meeting: Crying and retreating to mommy continue, but the restraining order seems to be lifted a little each time with crying taking place later and later in the interaction.4
25th meeting: Still unwilling to speak in my presence, the subject is willing to tolerate physical contact, (a hand shake).
28th meeting: First words spoken by test subject… “Bye bye.”
30th meeting: Test subject is willing to touch the face she was once afraid of. A situation similar to Tarzan reaching out to touch Jane’s nose, eyes, and hair, confirming that this odd specimen is not an illusion.
31st meeting: Test subject smiles when she sees me and responds to my questions with gestures, (head nods and pointing), yet there is still no verbal back-and-forth.


The development of my relationship with Test Subject #24601 has been an odd parallel to my relationship with many Chinese nationals of all ages. The initial response is either deeply distracting curiosity5 or fear.6 Similar to babies, Chinese adults will be more/less reticent for a first interaction depending on your race or appearance and home it overlaps with what they have experienced so far. After the first interaction, people slowly open up and begin responding to me, but remain somewhat reserved when it come to expressing their own personal viewpoints or feelings. If some feeling is shared, it’s a generalization or the perspective of some absent third party with whom the speaker probably agrees, but not for sure. Unlike with babies, I do however manage to transgress this final barrier and have full conversations with adults here.  As a goal before I leave, I'd like to have a conversation with Test Subject #24601 to set a positive example for Sino-caucasian-alien-infant relations everywhere.


1. I’ve yet to make an adult cry though, they’ve managed to internalize their fear of the alien.

2. Possibly scarring for the baby.

3. My site mate, Shri, who is Indian-American, does not make the baby cry. She stares at him for a few seconds with deep confusion, and after rearranging her universe to accept this odd-featured man, starts smiling. This is the exact response of most Chinese adults to Shri, internal and external response.

4. If I wear sunglasses, the test subject permits me to get closer and holds off crying for longer.

5. Some people, mainly teenage girls and middle-aged men, (don’t ask me why), will bump into others, stop driving, or cut off mid-McDonald’s order while just gazing dumbly at me.

6. Mainly restaurant workers, who are trapped behind the counter, seem to experience a claustrophobic panic induced by both my appearance AND the fear of what terrible apocalyptic catastrophe might occur if for some reason I placed my order in English. Normally, once I speak Chinese, the panic subsides and humor takes over or flirtation in the case of female ice-cream vendors.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Third Goal


Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) around the world have all kinds of different assignments and face many various challenges. There are a few things however, which are universal among all PCVs, the most fundamental of which is simply called “The Three Goals.” Paraphrased from the Peace Corps website, these goals are as follows…
1: Doing the job you were sent to do. In China, this goal is very explicit – Teach English –  but in other countries, you might be given a job as vague as “provide help for local businesses.” This is the easy goal.
2: Teach the local people about America(ns).  In China, accomplishing this goal is a bit counterintuitive. The chances for cultural dialogue are everywhere.  With so many people to bump into, all of whom know at least one word of English (HELLOOOOOOOOO!) which they excitedly shout at one ear-crushing volume regardless of proximity, I often end up talking to people whom I’d normally just ignore.* At first, these conversations are inspiring, as you feel that you can actually impart some knowledge about America despite a large language gap – “I’m definitely saying some stuff about America, and though I understand little to none of your response, I think that you must be understanding me.” As the language gap shortened, however, I found that my conversation partners were accomplishing the mind-bending task of understanding my words without understanding their meaning. Once I discovered my interlocutors’ reluctance to really listen, I became de-motivated in regards to pursuing goal two through conversation with strangers. What I thought was agreement and recognition of new insight was actually disagreement and repetition of the partisan misinformation broadcasted throughout all of China.** People are extremely willing to inquire after and listen to your first-hand account of American life, but if it contrasts with what they have heard from numerous fourth and fifth-hand sources, they will end up just dismissing what you have said as an outlier.***As a firm believer that actions speak louder than words, I’ve decided to accomplish goal two more through action than by conversation… a difficult task, because it presupposes an observative audience and there is rarely any feedback from the locals. “Wow. I noticed that your phone is set to silent mode and you didn’t answer it in the middle of class. What a respectful and civilized person you are! Where are you from with such great manners?”
3: Teach America(ns) about the country where you serve. I’ve tried to do this on my blog, but often end up digressing into parenthetical, philosophical hyperbole which eventually distracts from any substantial cultural commentary. So, to make sure that it’s been said at least once, here is what I think an American should know about China… 
China is a country divided into drastically different regions with mutually UNintelligible dialects, social classes with a bigger wealth gap than the US, and even multiple Olympic teams (Chinese Taipei a.k.a. Taiwan).**** Therefore, any comments made about China should be qualified by the precise location within China to which one is referring. To that point, my further comments refer to the undeveloped West. There is an extreme misunderstanding and slight mistrust of foreigners/foreign influence propagated both by word of mouth and the current/former “selective” representation of the West in Chinese media. On an individual basis, values such as harmony, respect, and tact are paramount, however, these values are almost undetectable on a societal level, or at least very ironically realized.***** Chinese societal values seem to be somewhat anarchistic. May the loudest, boldest, and most-unwilling-to-consider-the-personal-interests-of-others man win. In brief, the Chinese treat those they know extremely well and don’t seem to bother with the other 1.4 billion… to be fair, that’s a lot of people. The food is fantastic, despite the lack of quality control. The education system is horribly inefficient, but due to the relentless will to study thirteen hours a day, students still end up learning by strict rote memorization slightly more than American students do in the four hours a day they are actually awake for class. Creative and individual thought is rare, whereas a holistic understanding of one’s relationship with his class(mates) is widespread. Development is everywhere, but improvement seems to be (temporarily) relegated to the back burner. Lastly, those who are looking for more information on Chinese interactions should consult the wikipedia article on “emergence.”

One last note on the third goal, the inspiration for this blog post was actually a recent project that I undertook as per the request of my recruiter in Chicago. I put together a video detailing my time in the Peace Corps, and how my daily life has changed since I’ve been here. The video was a huge success, and I got to skype in and talk with some interested Notre Dame students about my experience here. Afterwards, they put my video up on the Peace Corps website with a short article about me and my service.

So there you have it… those are the three goals.******

*One such situation, which has reproduced itself far too many times, is entering a bathroom with doorless stalls and having a local decide to show off his multi-tasking skills by simultaneously smoking a cigarette, texting on his phone, and engaging in cultural dialogue with the foreigner… all the while squatted over a hole defecating.

**Censorship note: Nowadays, Chinese “netizens,” as they are called, can find almost anything they want on the internet, but it requires some shifty digging. The lack of the media freedom seems to only really be present in the active headlining of stories benefitting the CPC and putting down its enemies. Most Chinese feel that they have freedom of the press because they are free to READ almost anything, but can simply not broadcast everything.

            ***To be fair, it's incredibly difficult to understand anything about another culture second hand.  There is no doubt a large percentage of Americans who haven't ever left the country yet think they know what the world's like. Two small windows Americans have to the world are the large number of immigrants and the ethnic centers throughout major cities, neither of which really exist in China, leaving the Chinese at a disadvantage when viewing the West.

****Personal note: I truly believe that this is why China’s propaganda department is desperately trying to focus on its unity, despite the strong desire for separation expressed in Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong.

*****Chirony: Every single Chinese person who takes the incredibly bold step to attempt to talk to me, a stranger who speaks a different language, will undoubtedly describe themselves as “shy.” Irony can also be seen as the desire to retain social harmony simply by NEVER addressing the elephant in the room who is in the process of totally annihilating any social harmony – often appearing as the smoker inside the bus, the woman listening to music without headphones on the train, the man cutting in line, the girl answering her phone in the movie theatre, or a child urinating in the vegetable aisle.

******Six asterisks is way too many. I should have stopped at four.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Best of Chinglish

One of the things that makes me chuckle from time to time here is the Chinglish ranging from incomprehensible gibberish on a t-shirt to accidentally insightful poetry plastered over a city wall.  Here of some of the highlights...


"START KILLINGWHALE"
                  A wonderful t-shirt.

"Minutemen meatpuppets descendents angst."
                  Another great t-shirt.

"IF"
                  My favorite Chinglish t-shirt.

"When you come with burning lamp of pain in your hand I can see your face and know you as biss."
                   This gem was written all over my bedsheets when I first got to Kaili.

"Distinctive feature mutton the minority did eat."
                  This was a text from a Chinese friend who couldn't really speak English and just tried to googletranslate his text.

"Fuitable for men, women and childrenchoiceness raw material produced meticulous pleasant to the palate give first choose treasure."
                  This was on a box of cookies.

"Collect myriad dotes on the infinitely superior to one body."
                  This was the motto of the construction company building the shopping mall by my house.  The other motto was more grammatically correct, but meaningless all the same...
"Because the only, so the first."


Three Years in the Waiting


I didn’t want to jinx anything by discussing it publically before it was a sure thing, but now the results are in, and I’m excited to announce that I’ll be attending Florida State University next year as an MFA student in film production. 

This has been my dream for about three years now, and when I was wait-listed two years ago, I selected Peace Corps China as a solid stepping-stone from which I could reapply in 2013. In January, after going through the process again, revising my statement of purpose and fully creating a new screenplay for my writing sample, I was selected for a March interview. Unfortunately, it made no sense to fly to Florida for an interview, so, despite their strong insinuation that coming in-person was preferable, I decided to interview by Skype. The interview was a 20-minute sprint through the last two years of my life, and afterwards I felt both exhausted and hopeful… hopeful that the great firewall of China didn’t render too many of my responses incomprehensible, hopeful that they remembered my group interview from last time, and hopeful that the other applicants had seriously choked.

The wait was pretty unbearable, with all of the things I should have said rattling around in my head and my mind constantly waking my body up in the middle of the night to check my email during normal EST business hours.  Finally, a week and a half later, I got the email I’d been waiting for, my acceptance to FSU. It feels great knowing that I have a future doing what I want and knowing that it was my time here in the Peace Corps that made it possible.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

My Own Slanted Eyes


For several years it has been my dream to go skiing in Japan, and finally that dream has been realized.  All in all, I spent two weeks in Japan, one week visiting family friends in Osaka and Kyoto, and one week touring and skiing in Tokyo and Nagano. I loved Japan for a number of reasons, but the highlights would have to include watching an official Sumo tournament during a Tokyo snowstorm, eating the magnificently marbled Wagyu beef and surprisingly succulent raw horse for which Hakuba valley is famous, and all the while receiving the most impressive hospitality I’ve ever experienced.

It’s funny that Americans (myself included) tend to clump China and Japan together.  Without even considering the conflicting political histories of the two countries, or the somewhat tense racist friction that subsists as the aftermath of several wars, Japan and China remain quite distinct from one another in a number of ways.  I’ll elaborate by looking at a quotidian activity, such as boarding public transportation, to explain how I think China and Japan differ even more drastically than China and America.

In China, the doors to a bus open, and everyone just pushes in. It’s pretty clear that the thought process is thus, “If everyone is trying their best to get it, then that must be the fastest way to get everyone in. Some people will win for their efforts, and some will lose, but at the end of the day… the bus was loaded as fast as possible because every was trying their best to do just that.”  What is not so clear is how this individualist mindset develops from a communist society… or vice-a-versa.

In America, we instill the idea into our kindergarten-going children the counterintuitive notion that with a little bit of order the collective can actually achieve its goal more efficiently and effectively than in a free for all. Moreover, when sacrificing one’s personal freedom to advance unfairly at the expense of others, one secures the comfort of knowing that justice will be served. Colloquially, this process is known as waiting in line. Nevertheless, all systems have melting points, and during particularly busy hours of the day, or if you find yourself four-people-deep into a subway car as you decelerate to your destination, Americans tend to abandon their precious order for a different ‘line’ of thinking, which at best presents itself as a sequence of apologetic nudges. “Excuse me…pardon me…excuse me…coming through…sorry…excuse me… pardon...pardon me…sorry…excuse me.”

Japan’s civility, however, never seemed to reach a melting point. At the busiest time of day in Tokyo, under 6 inches of fresh snow and 15 minutes of train delays, the Japanese stood stoically in their lines. Then, when the metro car pulled in to the station, the passengers unloaded and reloaded as if they’d been rehearsing for this moment for the last few weeks. First, those within the car who were standing close to the doors spilled out onto the platform while fluidly creating an exit tunnel for those who were inconveniently trapped deep in the over-packed cabin. Once the exiting passengers were out, the loading process was initiated. As one of the all-time strongest testaments to man’s ability to control his animal urges, those waiting in line on the platform continued to wait in line as the overflow of passengers who were previously on board reversed their earlier steps and reclaimed their place on the metro. Then, and only then, did those waiting in the platform lines begin to board the car. There is not even the need for a single “Sumimasen!” (Excuse me) during this process, because it is civil duty driving this dance instead of mere politesse.

America being the median between China and Japan seemed to come up again and again during my travels through Japan. Where the Chinese have trashcans all over the place which are merely used as trash “bull’s-eyes” to be simply aimed for but not used directly, Americans have scattered trashcans which we use when convenient, and the Japanese have extremely few trashcans which they will almost always use. I would sometimes carry a candy wrapper for 15-20 minutes before passing a trashcan. Nevertheless, I was happy to do so, knowing that it was the cultural expectation to be clean and respectful of public spaces.

In conclusion, I’ll never lump China and Japan together again… at least not unless I lump America in there too; because the Chinamerican gap is significantly smaller than the Chinapanese.

Chinese Relativity: West meets East


It has been a while since my last post, and a lot has happened.  I traveled to the east coast of China for a few weeks and for the first time saw the other side of the spectrum here.

The first city I stopped at was Shanghai.  I couch surfed in Shanghai and thus got to see the city from a local’s perspective.  For the first time in my life, I felt like a real country bumpkin as I tried to explain my daily challenges to the Shanghai born and Shanghai bred.  I felt another kind of information gap between other westerners and myself in Shanghai.  I really liked Shanghai because nobody stared at me or gave me particular attention, but other foreigners, who had not yet traveled to the west of China, felt that they actually WERE the subjects of unwanted attention.  This relativity proved to be the reoccurring theme of my travels East.  It seems that no matter where you go in China, you will encounter a malaise of xenophobia, but it will wax and wane depending on where you go.

Also in Shanghai I encountered the phenomenon of an entire subway full of people on iphones.  I never frequented public transportation in America, so I can’t comment there, but it was truly astonishing to see over 80% of people simultaneously engrossed in an identical product. From my conversations with the Shanghainese, I learned that there is similar superficiality in many different areas of Shanghai life.  Supposedly, according to a Shanghai resident, Shanghai girls will project that they are high maintenance in order to be more attractive. Also, within the city there is some prejudice against those who come from the suburbs.  To me, this all seems to be the unfortunate symptoms of materialism of American proportions in conjunction with strongly superficial class distinction.  To summarize Shanghai in a sentence, I’d have to say that it is not the best place to travel, but definitely a great place to live; The subway was super convenient, the international influence was apparent, and I felt more or less comfortable being myself.

I also got to visit Beijing during vacation, which seemed to be a pretty solid medium between the estrangement of western China and the modernization of Shanghai. In contrast with Shanghai, Beijing is a fantastic place to travel, but a terrible place to live. The day I arrived and the day I left had so much unbearably horrible pollution that the air could be chewed and tasted. Fortunately, the two days I was walking around the capital city, it was all blue skies and clean air. It was really easy to get from place to place, and with some Chinese language skills, the whole city became my playground, including a lake next to the Forbidden City which was frozen over.

As far as anecdotes go, one sticks out in my mind. While in Beijing and Shanghai, I saw a total of four dogs poop on the sidewalk, and each time the owner picked up the poop to put it in a trashcan. (Not going to mention how totally absurd it is to call that a healthy man-animal relationship) However, in Kaili, I have seen countless times, a child poop on the sidewalk, and the mother just wipe and walk. This disturbing parallel really encapsulates the West-East dichotomy over here. The spectrum China covers is huge, and my travels have really taught me that it is quite shortsighted to think of it as only one collective.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Chinaxioms


Axioms can help a lot to simplify daily decisions and make life easier. Coming to China has put me in a new position where I had to reevaluate all the axioms I thought to be self-evident. Nevertheless, after a year, I’ve found that these few things can be generally accepted as true… at least in China.

1.     If it’s a simple problem, then I’ll make it my problem.
BUT if it’s a difficult problem, then it’s your problem.

Frustrating regardless of the problem you have, the axiom is probably the most common. If I have a simple question about something as basic as what day is spring festival, everybody will answer me at the same time, ironically complicating this simple answer. If somebody is sick, everybody and their mother and their mother’s mother will flock to give the most mind-dullingly obvious advice such as, “you should rest,” “wear more clothes,” or simply, “maybe you should see the doctor.” So when you feel very much in control of the situation, you are battered with help until you have a new problem that you can’t fix.
Nevertheless, when you have a problem like, the very NON-hypothetical, leaking apartment above you, there is nobody to give you any help. The upstairs neighbor isn’t at home, their next-door neighbor closes the door without even responding when you ask for the missing culprit’s phone number, and your building manager says that the problem is between you and the neighbor. It seems that the fear of failure and nebulous sense of responsibility create the perfect storm for people to just pass the buck on big problems and play superhero in the face of a simple problem.


2.     The most obvious solution is taken before the best solution

Often, the only difference between the first solution and the best solution is a matter of 5 minutes of reflection before acting.  Legend has it that Abraham Lincoln once said, “If I had eight hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend the first six sharpening my axe.” In China, the attitude is more like, “If I had eight hours to cut down a tree, then… whack!, whack!, whack!, whack!, whack!…” Last year, my friend’s bathroom light burned out.  As further proof of axiom number one, her school got involved with the banal task of replacing a light bulb. The electrician came, but he didn’t have the proper light bulb for the replacement.  No worries however, because he had another bulb with a new socket to match.  He then proceeded to rip the previous socket out of the ceiling, wire in the new socket, and replace the bulb.  Unfortunately, this socket used a different current than the previous socket, and her light bulbs were now burning out every 3-4 days.  When she called back to report this new, bigger problem, the response was… “then replace the bulbs every 3-4 days. Then there is no problem.”


3.     Chinese women are pretty pathetic

This axiom is of course more of a generalization, but it is nevertheless a widely true one. Coming from a society which promotes strong, independent women, AND a subculture where the women will often outperform the men, it is very shocking how horribly pathetic the “women” are here. I’m amazed when girls here shy away from stopping a slowly rolling basketball, miss class for stomachaches, and live with their coddling parents until the day they become dependent on their new husband. Not only will girls sport crutches when they have a scraped knee, but they will whine about it as well. For some reason, the word for “pathetic” doesn’t translate well into Chinese… nevertheless, there is a word in Chinese for “faking being pathetic” which doesn't translate well into English. Fake pathetic-ness is unfortunately seen as cute and attractive by a lot of girls and some boys, who prefer to fulfill the complimentary chauvinist role in the relationship with their whiney, dependant, and clingy girlfriends.
I’m regularly asked, “Do you want to marry a Chinese girl?” To be honest, I would happily marry a girl of Chinese ethnicity, but as far as the typical woman with a Chinese view of ‘femininity’ goes, I find Chinese women pretty pathetic. There is a strong case to be made however for the toughness of country women here. It seems that (at least in Guizhou province) a Chinese woman will either have a sense of self-reliance or a formal education... there's not much overlap to the Venn diagram.


4.     Leopard print is never ever fashionable.

This isn’t just a Chinese axiom, but I’m more and more reminded of it when I go out daily and see somebody who thinks that “matching” implies a 100% fabric and pattern overlap. Not only is this person confusing equivalence and matching, but they have also chosen to wrap themselves in a low-quality imitation of an animal who has itself adapted so that others wouldn’t notice the pattern it was wearing. The camouflage of a leopard should not be the bold statement of a human… unless that statement is, “I am pretending to be a large feline predator hiding in the jungle!”

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Chinamerican Differences 10102


1.     If there is one thing that I hate more than reality TV and facebook, it’s CSPAN. As someone who seeks meaning in life, CSPAN stands against everything I believe in. When I scan channels, I always shudder when the screen is just that same empty congress room with papers spread out on the desks. It’s a sad truth that a filibuster is quite possibly the most exciting thing ever broadcasted on CSPAN.  What’s worse, is that there are multiple CSPAN channels, showing different shades of the same boring grey.  In China however, when the new leaders of China were ‘selected’ for the communist party, the equivalent of CSPAN was actually broadcasted on over half of the channels.  The TV I was watching had 49 different channels, and over 30 were the exact same image and sound. In addition to this, the English channel was also covering the ceremony, but with dubbed audio. I didn’t know how good we had it in America with only four CSPANs.

2.     I always loved playing telephone when I was little. For me, as is the case for most people, the most fun part of this game is when the original phrase become something totally different. This is actually the only game I enjoyed losing, because if we ‘succeeded’ in telephoning the phrase correctly, it wouldn’t be any fun. I don’t know why, but my students don’t find this aspect of the game fun. Unaware that there could possibly be any goal other than prompt task completion, they will, with the grace and poise of a beached whale, try to shout the sentence to the last person in the line. When stripped of the ability to blatantly cheat, the students will just freeze up in line, saying, “I don’t understand.”

3.     I’ve been in China for about 1.5 years now, and I am still very much perceived as a foreigner.  For more on this, please read the rant… I mean post… entitled, “White on Rice.” Nevertheless, last year, one of my colleagues got a job volunteer teaching in Kentucky. This has provided me with a similar barometer for what the inverse to my work here is. She has reported back to me some funny things, such as, “It’s stressful to have so few people around” or “No strangers come up to me asking questions” or “American football is funny.”  Most recently, during the election, she was asked who she voted for. When she said she was Chinese and couldn’t vote, her students were shocked because they figured that if she was in America, she must be American. One student logically concluded that if she wasn’t American, she must be in America illegally.  I guess the American equivalent of the ethnic exclusion I encounter as a Laowai in China is a total ethnic subsumption into being either an American or an illegal in America.

White on Rice


As I walk to the checkout counter with a bag full of fresh vegetables, toothpaste, oreos, and 6 liters of boxed milk, I hear two voices behind me having an interesting discussion, “Kan waiguoren!” “Ni jeude ta shi nali de?” “Keneng ta shi jianada de. Ta hen shuai.” “Ta ting de dong ma?” “Ta ting bu dong.” (Look at that foreigner! Where do you think he’s from?  Maybe he’s from Canada. He’s handsome. Does he understand? No, he can’t understand.)  Being mistaken for a Canadian and having my good looks wrongly credited, I slowly turn around and add, “Wo ting de dong zhongwen,” (I understand Chinese.)  Besides scoring yet another point for America being the best looking country in the world, my goal, of course, is to embarrass the two girls so they realize that it is rude to assume ignorance.  Nevertheless, as was the case the last 15 times I tried to embarrass someone for assuming I can’t understand Chinese, the two voices respond in unison, “WOAH! Ta hui shuo women de zhongwen!” (Wow! He can speak ‘our’ Chinese!)  With that, I go from a monkey buying groceries to talking monkey buying groceries and continue my day.
Since coming to China, there are some things that I have gotten used to such as cramming onto buses in a disorderly fashion, firecrackers at sunrise, and bargaining for items which have a publically displayed fixed price.  One thing I have not gotten used to, and actually have more and more trouble getting over, is the extreme stereotyping of westerners.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, generalizing is a huge issue here in Kaili, and is only surpassed in frequency by stereotyping.  I try to pick my battles wisely, but sometimes I am dragged to the front lines and given no choice in the matter.  When in the act of successfully eating with chopsticks, I am still asked, “Can you use chopsticks?”  After responding with the mind-blowing truth, “Yes. I learned at a young age.  Most Americans can. We often use chopsticks to eat Oriental food in America,” the inquisitor will still disagree with their direct experience citing a solitary 5th hand story to the contrary.
In addition to lacking the motor skills to pinch two sticks together, here’s a brief list of all the thing I’ve learned about Americans since coming to China.
-We only eat bread. (I’m sometimes asked if I have any bread on my person and feel genuinely expected to respond, “Yes, of course! Would you like some?”)
-We all have guns.  (‘All’ is not hyperbole.  They really mean 100%.  I got in a debate with a man in a train telling me I was wrong and his TV was right.)
-We can’t eat spicy food.
-We don’t drink tea.
-We are all fat, rich, and white.
-We are all beautiful… despite apparently also all being fat?
-We love to find Chinese wives.
-We only shower in the morning.
These are only the absolutes projected onto Americans.  In a society where nobody has a real experience with someone from another country, every nationality is the victim of a stereotype that can endure logical argument like cockroaches in Chernobyl: Japanese, Northern Chinese, Africans, women, teachers, 23 year olds…  You’d think you were in a UPS shop, the way people are putting everything so neatly into boxes over here.  The most unfortunate thing about all this is that all my stereotypes are made on first sight because my white skin christens me, “Laowai” (Foreigner).  Sometimes, I forget that I’m not Chinese, but in 5 minutes, a local is sure to remind me by saying to nobody in particular, “Laowai,” “Waiguoren,” or simply “Hello,” because every white person is from an English speaking country.
This is definitely a new perspective for me, now that I am part of the .00001% minority in city whose only other experience with foreigners has been filtered through a Mao ze Dong approved firewall.