Everything is Dangerous

Photo © like, totally from Flickr

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?

Chaos Talk

Photo © Ash-rly from Flickr

“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.

Getting the In-Laws Out

Photo © Ian Koh from Flickr

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.

Kung Fu Fighting

Kung Fu Panda 2

When the first Kung Fu Panda was released in China, it caused an existential crisis. Chinese audiences marveled at how well Western filmmakers had understood Chinese culture, but deep down they all wondered the same thing: Why hadn’t this movie been made in China? In an thoughtful op-ed in China Daily, Chinese director Lu Chuan […]

I Get It. Now Get Me.

Let the Bullets Fly

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.”

Southern Exposure – Part 2: Dress Code

I talked a little bit in my last post about how the Shanghai Expo is definitely not about cultural sensitivity.  But if I left any doubt, on day two of my expo adventure, my cousin told me the following story: I was walking through the entrance line like we did yesterday and approached the security check. […]

Southern Exposure

I knew going into the Shanghai Expo that I would probably hate it.  No one—neither the critics who stayed at home nor the people who had actually went—said anything remotely positive to me about it.  They complained about the lines, the heat, and, most of all, the sheer number of people.  Now having been there, I can safely say that they were telling the truth.

But I don’t want to spend these lines complaining—far from it.  For me, the Shanghai Expo raises many questions about the face of modern China and its citizens.  My posts in the following days will investigate the conundrums that arise when half a million people a day from 200 countries, but mostly China, decide to congregate in an area just over five square kilometers.

The first day was bad.  Not unbearable, but not nearly enticing enough to make me want to go back.  Throughout the day, one question kept running through my mind: what is the purpose of this Expo?

I came home and looked for a mission statement but was unable to find any coherent statement of purpose from the official site.  I was left to wonder.

A Capella

I’ve never understood a capella. In college I went to a few concerts and bought two CDs from one of the myriad groups on campus. Even though I enjoyed it, the need to render Radiohead and Weezer into a compressed arrangement of voices always puzzled me. It was like reading the novelization of a movie, or, perhaps more precisely, watching a low-quality pirated copy of a movie instead of going to the theater. But I thought that probably it was just me, that I didn’t understand the art form.

So when I sat down to watch Voces8, an acclaimed English octet, at the National Center for the Performing Arts, I expected insight. I thought that a capella performed by professionals would be qualitatively different from those Friday nights on the quad. And it was, in terms of quality and song choice (less pop, more English ballads), but in the end it was just eight people singing, making sounds, and occasionally snapping to the beat. But if I thought I was confused, it seemed that most of the audience was worse off.

The Myth of the West: Part 4 – Wenming

A gowned scholar strides slowly into a room, eyes downcast. Sinking to his knees, he places the backs of his hands upon the floor and gently taps his head on the ground three times. Wafer-thin porcelain cups are used to drink steaming green liquid, while singing birds fill the air with sound. A filial son cuts off part of his own leg to make a soup for his starving parents. Bearded officials gently wet the tip of their brush in blue-black ink and carefully calligraph their letters. Oriental culture is steeped in history and traditions that have been preserved, seemingly unchanged, for thousands of years. Yet despite this long history, they are eager to adopt many Western cultural norms that they deem “civilized.” The pursuit of wenming (civilized or cultured) is one being carried out by all Chinese, from the nouveau riche to fresh-off-the-farm migrant workers.

The Myth of the West: Part 3 – Qiangda

An ancient civilization, rich in culture and steeped in corruption. Elaborate etiquette surrounds the gold panoply of cruel rulers hidden safely behind rings of high walls, while gangs of laborers work outside under the blazing hot sun. Perfumed maidens with elaborate coiffures secured with jade sway gently as they dance to the tune of plucked instruments. Spry old men perform fabulous feats of strength and defeat enemies with lightning speed. If you look at the way popular culture views ancient China (and to a certain extent, modern China), you’ll see these images alive and well. They are part of the myth of Orientalism. But the West is not the only group with preconceptions that may be far from reality. In China, there exists a corresponding myth of the West—the idea of xifang.