Monday, August 1, 2011

Blog moved

Like many blog migrants, mine too has been Wordpressed. See it in its glorious new form:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Global Times, you've done it again

I admit, I did not know until now that the Global Times is an English branch of People's Daily, i.e. an English exposure of a mixture of party line and post-Opium War inferiority complex. It was not until a recent article on China Hearsay shared an amusing interview that I was compelled to look the paper's backing (ah, that makes sense now).

China Hearsay may have stimulated an internet-wide bashing of GT -- or at least, I'm going to jump on the bandwagon. My favorite article by Global Times was published just a week ago, and displays a picture of a few personal friends eating food with two (seemingly) Chinese friends with whom I am unacquainted. The title of the article: "Less Sanlitun and a bit more business for Beijing's interns." (read it here)

Global Times caption reads: "Young foreigners party in Sanlitun last night. But should they be out on a school night?"
Let's start with the photo. I personally know the three non-Asian fellows in the picture. Only two of them are students, and one a graduate student. And, it's summer vacation. So should they be out on a school night? Good question.

Secondly, there is not mention of the two (seemingly) Chinese members of the photo. Isn't this picture a case for the achievement of cross-cultural interaction? Knowing these guys, they were probably spitting mad-biaozhun Chinese over a discussion about the facets of China's constitutional law.

Third, there is no evidence of carousal, bacchanalia-ting, imbibing, conversation, or really any life among these "young foreigners." They aren't obviously doing anything. For all I know, they could be playing mahjong.

Fourth, and my favorite, one of the fellows in the photo commented on Facebook that this "party" was after a a nine-hour workday in the office (his company, by the way, very strongly promotes the understanding and preservation of Chinese culture).

The text is no less misleading -- and moreover, riddled with skips in logic.

Unless [young foreign interns] arrange the internship in advance and pay for the privilege, they might not find a welcome in Beijing, according to some employers. Human Resource experts suggest there should be a little less Sanlitun, and a bit more sobriety.

Frédéric Machine, a French wine importer, told the Global Times that he will only use local Chinese interns.

"I know a young foreigner who worked at Hotel G. He got very low pay and somehow he managed to go to bars, partied very hard and got drunk every night," Machine said, adding that he understands why young foreign interns are tempted by the capital's nightlife because Beijing is such a great city for parties.

Let's start with the misinformation in the first sentence. Based on my knowledge, most internships, especially ones that foreign students seek, are not ones they pay to do. Those do exist, but I'm going to wager that most "young foreigners" who go to Beijing are not paying to be a company's slave.  Second, not every "young foreigner" goes to Beijing for an internship. I doubt that statistics exist on it, but I'm again going to wager that less than half the young foreigners are there for an internship, let alone one that they pay to do. The majority of the foreigners I know in Beijing who are not students are at least part-time workers (but mostly full-time), and they teach English, translate, copy edit, report for some form of media, and work for NGO's. Most have some form of income from these jobs.

How about that logic jump to the second sentence? Talk about accusatory generalizations! Phew, we need to get this reporter a good ol' liberal-arts style roasting, I'm talking first-trip-to-the-Dean's-office!

Mr. Machine (nice name!) hints at but does not say why he refuses to hire foreigners. Is it because they party a lot [and therefore productivity is low?] or is it because they demand higher wages than a local might? Or don't have the language/cultural skills of a local?

"There are always people my age coming to Beijing for internships," Brad said. "Many of them paid 20,000 yuan ($3,091) to the companies for an internship and they only stay one month. No one bothers to train them and they have nothing important to do. All they want is to put the internship in their resume."

I'm not exactly how many "many" of them is, Brad (no last name?). Again, I know that some pay for their internships, I've heard it's more of a European practice (just hearsay), but can we have a little data please? Maybe a citation? 
There are interns who only want to have fun, but most are serious about the matter, according to Fu Qiang, program director of Uoutlook Education Investment & Management, a company that started an internship agency service in 2007.
Thanks Fu Qiang for the conciliatory comment. It's the only one we'll see in the article.

There are no precise figures on how many expats come to Beijing or China to intern, but after the worsening economic situation in the West and the relative prosperity of the Chinese market, having work experience in China became an obvious advantage in promotion battles, said Li Zhe, public relationship executive at  British human resources consultancy Antal International in Beijing.
English is probably not the reporter's first language, so I'll go easy on the run-on sentence. And at least she addresses that there is no data to back up her claims (or is that supposed to be a direct quote from Li Zhe?).  
"In 2010 we received two to three calls each week from people who wanted to have an internship, now we receive 20 to 30 calls and e-mails a week," Li added.
Now that's interesting. It's almost like data.
And just when you think the article is getting somewhere, it dissolves into a string of unrelated and unanalyzed quotes that lead back to the foreigners don't understand China mantra. How did I read this far?

Another Global Times reporter (mentioned in the China Hearsay article) practically claws for an expert's decree that foreign media intentionally misrepresents China. I guess the same rules don't apply to international representations of "young foreigners" imperializing Beijing's party scene, bringing huge revenue sources to Sanlitun-like areas,  and dining in cross-cultural achievement with Chinese friends.

(and check out the left side of the picture for an Andy Samberg look-a-like!)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Finally, a movie that does justice to the despairing female character

Perfect Life directed by Emily Tang
Have you ever watched a Chinese movie and counted how many shots there are of the female protagonist staring silently into the distance, usually in response to a difficult question or situation?

I am no movie critic or connoisseur, but I have always been interested in Chinese films. “Interest” itself has assumed different forms throughout my China life. Early on in China, when I was in the throws of cultural suffocation and not even Chinasmack could indulge my disgust, the silently staring woman became a lightning rod for my temper. For every second that the shot dragged on, my impression of Chinese women as historically pathetic, contemptibly helpless, and ultimately self-pitying was re-enforced. The female character’s inability to respond in difficult situations – her proclivity for falling silent, eyes swimming in numb despair – all but testified to the weakness of the Chinese Female.

When I recovered from this initial culture shock, my perception of Chinese movies' despairing female characters took on a new dimension: frustration with the movie itself for taking her despair for granted. The long shots of the female protagonist tacitly fixing her eyes on the ground, or the horizon, or anywhere but the source of her pressure, started to seem like a moment of stock footage (陈凯歌:"...and cue the despairing female!"). From the perspective of a non-Chinese viewer, this meant the Chinese female was caricatured as helplessly pathetic, thereby creating and enforcing a stereotype abroad that left little room for cultural exploration. For Chinese viewers, this meant that females in general were caricatured as helplessly pathetic. Spare me.

Raise the Red Lantern - Gong Li's character stares in unwavering despair as she professes her fate to be the fourth wife of a rich lord.

<i>Summer Palace</i>&nbsp;- After many years apart, Yu Hong and her boyfriend meet up - only to spend the day in stunned silence.

In the Mood for Love - At a romantic impasse, Maggie Cheung's character stares at the ground while Tony Leung takes a drag.
I think it was two things that changed how I felt about this very specific phenomenon: Foucault's laughter (see page one) and Emily Tang’s Perfect Life.

Just as Foucault’s laughter “shatter[ed] all the familiar landmarks of European thought” (the quoted passage is pretty funny, not in an Orientalist way but rather as Foucault sees it – innocently giving the finger to European modality), so too could one find humor in the long shots of a staring woman, albeit it would only be funny to a foreigner, who is tickled by her own inability to reconcile the female character as someone with depth.

Derek Gregory (same link) points out American privilege of innocence; in asking “Why do [non-Americans] hate us?” we are asserting an innocence that never existed, and re-affirming our privilege that we never need to know why people don’t like us. Hot damn.

“Why doesn’t she speak?” may be the parallel question in this situation. Perhaps these characters are truly weak personalities, doomed to indulgent self-pitying and self-destructive lives (re: in Summer Palace when Yu Hong lies on the cement as it snows, or silently lets Zhou Wei hit her; in Raise the Red Lantern when Yan’er sits outside overnight so that she freezes to death, or when Songlian goes “insane” and is incapable of communicating; Leslie Cheung's character in Farewell my Concubine, when he is a child and is punished by tongue mutilation by his master (his gender confusion is a leading motif), Li Yueying in Emily Tang’s Perfect Life when...well, every other shot).

Or perhaps my own disgust with these characters is moreso cinematic discomfort, stemming from a lifetime of Hollywood-produced prototypes. In her enlightening review of Perfect Life, Shelly Kraicer spends significant time pointing out the context of its production; “As colonized by the Hollywood hegemonic model, narrative cinema obscures this question by naturalizing – and hence falsifying – the relationship between a highly constructed faux-reality (commercial American fiction film) and something like “real life.” The former is a sham version of the latter, purging it of intractable complications and contradictions, pacifying an audience with the reassuring (or at worst, distracting) pablum of technologically virtuosic, ideologically over-determined production. … Like good post-colonial, post autonomous subjects, [film production centers worldwide] dutifully stamp out what their audiences have been trained to “demand”: colourfully fake copies of their own manufactured reality.”

But Perfect Life is not a well-behaved post-colonial film. This much is obvious from the narrative: Yueying’s fantasy life bleeds into her real life in a way that “simultaneously undermines, decentres, and perversely liberates her” (Kraicer). She floats through jobs, lies to everyone, shifts from a caring older sister to short-tempered older sister to runaway daughter, and ends the movie taking a picture of herself, pregnant, next to a marriage photo of herself and the man on whom she is now cheating. In such a narrative, how can the long shots of her silently staring into the face of pressure be chalked up to historical effeminate weakness?

Even Gong Li's despairing eyes, exhibited in any number of her big-time productions (and I do esteem Gong Li as a phenomenal actress), do not offer the room for exploration that Yueying's gazes do. Gong Li suggests and beautifully portrays despair; Yueying lives it. Perhaps my perception of these shots (and its subsequent transformation) is thus not actually a culprit of cultural frustration (albeit that may have played a significant role), but a matter of cinematics. There is nothing gimmicky, presumptuous, or caricatured about Perfect Life, and thus nothing to suggest that Yueying's silence is itself a facade of stoicism. Rather, Yueying offers international and domestic audiences a glimpse into the life of someone who is truly interesting, unpredictable, subject to her own capriciousness, and altogether difficult to understand without ostracizing the audience. In spite of all preconceived prejudices, Perfect Life has the ability to draw audiences in like moths to a light.

Perfect Life touched me personally, for the long shots of Chinese women silently staring has been a symbol and motif in my relationship with China, and like many of these involved symbols and motifs, it is undergoing constant re-evaluation. For the first time, rather than supposing that there may be something behind those eyes that I do not see, I was for once convinced that they contain a capped pot of boiling emotions and intentions, ultimately producing something simultaneously bitter, sweet, and savory.

Emily Tang and dGenerate films have given us a gem, and we have only to look with hopeful gazes (as caricatured as you wish) upon what they will produce next.

Disclaimer for commentators: I know there are exceptions (men, non-Chinese, whatever other people also stare in movies -- I am speaking of a very narrow phenomenon that is distinct enough to have caught my attention time and again).

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Thinking about China: not a matter of content, but method

Professor Sam Crane of Williams College has recently posted an excellent blog entry about the phenomenon of "misunderstanding China" -- and as laowai's surely are aware, that is in quotations to express that it is a misunderstanding that foreigners have misunderstood China. Here is the original post, with a follow-up post on his home page:

I am again in final's week, and will post when it's over and decompressing in Beijing, again. Preview: 怎么理解呢

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What is to be done [about China]?

Having survived death by a thousand cuts (finals week), a whirlwind week as a funemployed laowai in Andingmen, and 24 hours of travel, I finally am now tucked back into the cozy New England town called home. The overnight transformation still breaths shifty silence about me, not only eerie as a literal lack of noise but also as an ubiquitous agreement on [non-ironic] harmonious living. This unspoken social contract is borne by the daily litany of “thank you’s” and “excuse me’s” and the ever-confusing “sorry’s”. I was in the gym today drinking from the water fountain. A man came up next to me to wait for his turn (something in itself that is want in China), standing in such a manner that a clear shot to the locker room was slightly obstructed. “Sorry,” he said. For what? For troubling me to take an extra step? I was not sure whether to celebrate this apology as the resurrection of humanity, weep for it being a caricature of charity, or simply sigh bemusedly. Instead, the thought drowned jet lag and resurfaced later after a nap.

But first, my grandmother came over for dinner. Unlike many people of her generation, she is strikingly non-racist. More than that, she seeks only the good in people and cultures, seeing “cultural differences” where others may see a conflict of wrong and right. She is a lovely and brilliant woman who joined the Peace Corps in Nepal when she was in her sixties and continues to operate at a level five. She would probably still put warm milk out on a cold night if there were any neighborhood cats.

As is perfunctory but nonetheless enjoyable, we talked about Chinese society. The usual issues were discussed – plagiarism, cheating, theft, censorship, corruption, and what the West harbors ideologically that China does not - as an Australian classmate has tenderly put it, "Discussing why China isn't America." I summed up China’s main issues as sharing the common thread of lacking civic mindedness(缺乏公共意识). Consider the environment. Trashcans and recycling bins stand on every street corner, and yet the streets are littered with trash. The trend is to throw trash on the ground, knowing that a street cleaner will pick it up within the day. And forget recycling and trash being separated – that job is for beggars. If any given individual chose to take a stand, she or he could likely find her/himself in jail. Indeed, there is nothing more dangerous to be in China than an empowered individual. Disheartened, my grandmother asked, what is to be done?

Despite social trend stigmatizing the use of generalizations, and despite intellectual cool-kids’-club scoffing at the ready answer to Grandma’s question, I nonetheless answered her. “Gradual political reform.” I said. I didn't even couch my response in socially harmonious language (self-imposed 和谐废话 - see paragraph two of Amy Chua’s article). How thrilling.

One liberty that China lacks and that the Western media miraculously fails to point out is the right to civic mindedness. Most societal issues, if not soluble by active civic mindedness, are at least made more manageable as the responsibility can be shouldered by society as a whole instead of by the government. Tocqueville mentioned this in Democracy in America, noting that the decentralization of power allowed for common citizens to take an active role in the bettering of their society, or at least their immediate surroundings. A town primarily composed of farmers ought to be able to fix their own issues of agriculture and commerce, knowing that the state/national government exists as a parent and safety net. National government, state government, local government, and citizens form a gradient whose separation becomes grayer in each descending step. The necessity of democratically-elected local and state governments is in this way indisputable. People are more likely to be satisfied with self-selected and self-imposed laws, and that burden will be lifted from the central government so that the 林林总总 problems that it faces will be rightfully shared with the citizens.

Suggesting that China needs democracy at the local governmental level feels like a cliché at this point, but I’ve always thought clichés exist for a good reason. Beyond tangible political reform, there needs to be an ideology shift, an increased concern for the well-being of one’s surroundings, so that the factory owner will think twice before dumping two tons of ink into the river. There are practical ways of preventing factory owners from thus conducting themselves, or as I prefer to identify them, 当权者, people with power. This includes enforcement of no-dumping laws, though that in itself is an enormous issue (上有政策,下有对策). The tragedy of China’s legal enforcement abilities will not be discussed here. The focal question is how to encourage civic mindedness for the sake of civic mindedness, not for obeying law? (Albeit obeying the law would also be a positive first step.)

As Tocqueville said, the answer may lie in decentralization of power. When people feel the pressure of self-responsibility, only then will they cease to see themselves as the children of Mama Hu Jintao and Baba Wen Jiabao and instead as contributing members of society. So next time someone delivers the disgusting diatribe that “China is not ready for democracy, there are too many domestic problems!” feel free to enlighten this friend of the utility of democratically-elected local governments, and we can all hope that Tocqueville was right.

And then there is the nebulous but potent force of culture - cultural lack of civic-mindedness - which my American-born-Chinese friend has pointed out is a valid trend even in overseas Chinese. Decentralization may have the effect of empowering individuals, but in China's case it is more likely that, because of cultural influences, it will empower the group instead; that is, the group of farmers, the group of female senior citizens, the group of a county - but that is another discussion in itself. Cultural influences in this regard are certainly the most interesting aspect of the issue, and also the one that I am least equipped to address. Perhaps a more enlightened friend has comments?

So, Grandma, there is your answer: increased civic mindedness, to be sparked by decentralized power and democratically-elected local governments. China is trying this out, in various places, but conservatively so. Perhaps it’s time to take a leaf out of Deng Xiaoping’s book and magnify successful cases of policy implementation. I will refrain from criticism of the current regime, and finish with a Roseanne Cash quote, “The key to change is to let go of fear.” How many fears, indeed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lovin' Learnin'

So being a student can often feel pretty  大起大落, and right now I'd say I'm on the upswing. I've realized the basis of my academic self-esteem is how much reading I'm doing - which makes me feel like the biggest idot for having slacked in undergrad (ought I walk across campus and print off forty pages about pre-Medieval Shi'ism, or take a nap?). So after a spasm of midterms in the wake of my Chengdu vacation, I've committed myself to focusing until the end of the semester. And so far, it's awesome.

Why did the chicken cross the road? To get the Chinese newspaper. Get it? No. Neither do I.
Like many young scholars of Chinese studies, I have in the past tended to not esteem mainland media as a source of valid information. But I have reconsidered and decided that nothing is a bad source of information, as long as you know how to interpret it. I'm now a big fan of 南方周末, got myself a lovely post-Communist-style-avant-garde LuXun-special of Beijing Lit yesterday, and upon the recommendation of the magazine coolie, a Hong Kong-based magazine called Pheonix Weekly. I was going to start reading up on LuXun Award winning short stories last night, but wine, cheese, and crackers showed up in the lounge and I haven't had cheese and crackers in months so weakness took over.

Today I read a great article, one not at all recent (1968), The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin. I hope that was never on the assigned reading list in undergrad, I'd be kind of embarrassed for having looked that one off. Here I was thinking it was fairly recent literature, and after Wikipediaing it found it to be 42 years on the books. So this is when I start being a student... finding the perfect article for a paper a day late bites.

This one's for the laowai's.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Travelling in Western China and Chengdu

This post is just about one minor incident while in Chengdu. For more on travelling in China, see my website.

There are too many good things to say about my recent experience travelling in Western China. Chengdu itself is a hot pot - full of mist, spice, and you never know what you gon' get. If you do go to Chengdu and crave some good American food, hit up Pete's Tex Mex (address can be found on Google,  but it's 彼得西餐饭馆,科华路)and give it the brownie test. The have on the menu two brownies, one's called brownie sundae and one's called Texas Brownie. The former is 15 kuai, the latter is 18. We ordered two brownie sundaes, and they charged us for two Texas Brownies. When we pointed it out, the waitress said "But I brought you a Texas Brownie, you should pay for it" (the customer is rarely right in China). But we stood our ground and after a minute or two of feigned embarassment, the waitress finally fixed the price.

This "brownie incident," it turns out, has also happened to another friend who visited Pete's in the past. And why not? Waitresses don't get tips in China, so to charge a foreigner and extra few bucks and pocket the money, at the end of the day, can go a long way for her. Especially if the foreigner cannot read the bill in Chinese.

Props to Pete's food. Try the brownie test. And laowais, beware of this happening to you anywhere. Always read your 买单s.