This past summer, I vaguely remember watching an NBA TV special about undrafted players that touched on the now ubiquitous Jeremy Lin. At the time he seemed vastly less pitiable than the other aspiring pros featured—his Harvard degree guaranteed that he would not be banished to Slovakian league if he didn’t make it in the majors.
Lin has since become Linsanity, a subject for Saturday Night Live skits, or 林书豪 in your Tudou search. He is the current, brief king of New York City, whose Giants just won the Super Bowl and whose favorite basketball team features two high-paid All-Stars in Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Less than a year ago the Knicks made the splashy signing of Anthony on the belief that he would become king of NYC if able to deliver a championship after years of disappointment. Basketball remains the only big four sport (basketball, baseball, hockey, football) in which a major New York team has not won a title over the past twenty years.
Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared, in edited form, in the January 2012 issue of NewsChina.
It’s amazing how many near-death experiences can be squeezed into a two-hour stint within the confines of an elementary school in China. The most mundane, some might say instinctive, actions can have drastic consequences if not carried out correctly. Going down stairs, washing hands, walking across the room— all scenarios require elders to enforce China’s unwritten safety regulations, whether for the child in their own care, or a classmate in the care of another, less attentive ayi. Every movement of the child must be watched, and commented on, in order to ensure their survival. The extent to which these ayi hover over the children entrusted to them makes me wonder, are they more concerned with the child’s safety, or with simply appearing concerned?
“You’ve hurt me. Do you know I’ve already folded three, four hundred stars for you? My friend tried to introduce me to some guy but I refused. I didn’t realize it before but I like you. I like only you. Will you be my boyfriend? I cannot just be a normal friend to you anymore. Either accept me or I will leave.”
This was the first time to my knowledge I had ever hurt a girl, and it was an experience I was not quite ready to take responsibility for. The Chinese place great emphasis on grand gestures and confessions. To many girls, you are not officially in a relationship until you make the ultimate confession and ask her formally, “I like you. Will you be my girlfriend?” It doesn’t matter if you’ve already had sex, or if you’ve never said a word to each other. The act of confessing, the grand, sweeping scale of expressing your feelings which have been so deeply bottled up, is the only way to consolidate a relationship.
Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared, in edited form, in the March 2012 issue of NewsChina. Before I came to China last year to start a graduate program, my former professor told me something. “In the United States, when you are in public, you are actually in a private space around other people in their own private [...]
In China, no matter what I did, how I primped or what I said, I stood out like an ugly duckling. It was simultaneously freeing and infuriating. I was stared at without pretense, and for the first year it drove me nuts. Men, women and babies would stare at me, mouths open, totally unperturbed by my churlish glare. I sometimes lashed out at them—screaming in English, knowing they couldn’t understand, furious that they looked at me like I was some misshapen Frankenstein.
But at the same time, it was freeing to be so different. It was so obvious that I was an outsider, that I didn’t need to make any effort to fit in. As a student Prague, where I studied abroad, I was mistaken for a Czech several times, which was flattering, and made me hesitant to come across as an American, if I could avoid it. In China, despite the perfunctory compliments on my hair, it was obvious that I was a weirdo, and because there was nothing I could do about it, I was freed from any expectation of how I should act, what I should wear, what I should say, or how well I said it. (It’s common for any foreigner speaking a word of Chinese to be excessively praised for their masterful grasp of the “foreign-proof” language.)
In the blissful summer before my junior year of high school, my parents forced me to take an SAT preparation course in the basement of a brown-brick building named The Lyceum. But despite the name, it was not a place of higher learning.
The teacher, a lumbering middle-aged woman, resembled Aristotle about as much as I resembled Alexander the Great. She stood in the front of a makeshift classroom that looked like it doubled for AA meetings and read from an open Princeton Review prep book. She taught us how to divine, through the process of elimination, the correct answer to reading problems even if we hadn’t understood the passage. She reminded us of things learned and forgotten, like scalene triangles and the transitive property. If you had told me, ten years ago in that depressing classroom, that one day I’d be in her shoes, I would have laughed and gone back to sleeping.
Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared, in edited form, in the August edition of NewsChina.
Mixed-race romances are always vulnerable to culture clashes. Both parties were raised differently and consequently have very different ideas of what a marriage should be. But, two years after moving in with my Chinese boyfriend, I really thought we’d come to grips with anything that our diverse cultures could throw in the way of contented, marital bliss. After all, we’d got the OK from his parents—no mean feat for a mixed-race gay couple in family-focused China. I was over the moon that I’d been informally welcomed into the fold, though I was careful to remind myself that we’d need to sweeten the deal with grandkids somewhere down the line. But, all in all, things were perfectly idyllic, and I consequently adored my boyfriend’s parents.
Then they came to stay with us. Again and again and again.
For many years I have griped at being patronized by Chinese colleagues, classmates and even friends with that age-old dismissal of my observations about their country or culture.
“You’re a foreigner. You don’t get it.”
Enter Let the Bullets Fly by the acclaimed filmmaker Jiang Wen, whose output I enjoyed while in college—particularly Devils on the Doorstep and In the Heat of the Sun, which I believe to be China’s most visually luscious film to date. Anyway, a colleague of mine arrived one morning at work raving about how subtly and ingeniously Bullets got its claws into the quagmire of Chinese politics, insisting it was Jiang Wen’s “masterpiece” and would “redefine Chinese cinema.”
Then the disclaimer: “I don’t think you’d be able to understand the political messages. After all, it’s about revolution, and pain, and suffering. It’s very Chinese.”
“When the policeman questions you, you must be careful. They will try and trap you. Do you know? Trap? What it means?”
Yes, I knew what trap meant. But the way those broken English words came out of William’s mouth did not inspire much confidence. My skinny, dweebish visa agent stared at me with a bureaucrat’s humorless gaze. I had just spent the last hour being coached on how to survive a Chaoyang District Public Security Bureau investigator’s interrogation. Tomorrow I would have to walk into the PSB and lie to the Chinese government. If they believed me, I would be free to continue my life in Beijing. If they didn’t, I could be asked to leave China in ten days. My head was boiling in a stew of Chinese corporations, names, and addresses, a fabricated record of my last seven months in the People’s Republic. In less than twenty four hours my life had been turned upside down. How the hell did everything get so fucked up?
A common ritual for expatriates in China is the visa run. Because of the limited number of days a tourist can spend in one “visit” to China (in our case it was sixty days), those staying in China for longer durations must make the trek out of the country and back in to get a new stamp on their passport and reset the timer. Common destinations include Mongolia, South Korea, and Hong Kong, whose special status counts as leaving China. Often it’s used as an excuse to take a vacation every couple of months, and that’s what Michael and I did for our first run to Hong Kong—we made a weekend of it. This time, however, was supposed to a formality: take the train from Beijing to Hong Kong (a twenty-four hour trip), then immediately get on the return train and head back. Clean, simple, and efficient. However, there was one snafu to trip us up.