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What does it mean to call someone a 农民?

One of the most derogatory expressions among urbane Shenzheners is to call someone a “peasant (农民 nongmin)”.  As a slur, it’s meanings range from stupid through uneducated to uncultured, but back home in the South, I’m thinking that the culturally appropriate translation might be “red neck”. However, I’m also wondering if “nigger” would work, especially given the connection to fields, agricultural labor, unfair renumeration, and constant disrespect from the country’s elite.

Why am I thinking about peasants, red necks, and niggers? This trip home, I have been listening to family and friends discuss the Wisconsin protests. In Seattle, I spoke easily and warmly with friends about Wisconsin because we agreed that Governor Walker is acting in the interests of big business, rather than in the interests of the people. However, in Southern Pines, I find myself angry and slipping into arguments because we disagree about the need for Unions to protect the rights of workers because one by one, a worker cannot defend herself from increasing levels of exploitation.

In Seattle conversations, we discussed how the Right is trying to dismantle labor safeguards for the working poor and middle class. In the South, where those safeguards have already been gutted, the conversation has been dismissive of the protestors in the vein of “Union employees have so much, they believe the lies Union leaders tell them, and its not going to get better anyway.”

The Southern poor’s support of Management and Government at the expense of Wisconsin’s working poor and middle class has me thinking about important differences and connections between niggers, red necks and peasants. In terms of differences, I have been able to find multiple translations for peasant because racism has slashed the working poor in the South into competing groups of subhuman. In this way, I suspect that there are other, more regionally appropriate translations for nongmin throughout the United States, depending on the racial history of the region. In Shenzhen, the differences between peasant and urbanite remain more or less fundamental, with locals (本地人) being lumped in one of the two groups depending on whether we are discussing cultural or economic issues.

In terms of connections, nigger, red neck, and peasant refer to the politically, economically and culturally the most disenfranchised of the poor in the United States and China, respectively. In both the US and China, when the upper class calls someone a nigger, red neck or peasant, they usually refer to annoying habits or cultural differences, like fried turkeys and bad table manners. Consequently, the working poor in China strive to escape the label nongmin, just like ambitious American workers labor to go beyond the labels nigger and red neck.

Point du jour, however, is that these labels signify contempt all the way down, including contempt for betraying one’s class or family or village. Thus, these labels also refer to people who squabble amongst their own rather than going after corrupt officials and business leaders. In this sense, when the poor wield these terms about themselves, they refer to someone who betrays herself by betraying her home[town] kin – sinking to the worst of ourselves, rather than striving for the best.

In any other context, Southern Pines workers would agree that the odds are Big Business or Big Government is taking advantage of Wisconsin workers. However, from the point of view of disenfranchised workers in Southern Pines, pensions and medical insurance make Wisconsin workers part of Big Business and Big Government and therefore, part of the problem that niggers and red necks here need solved.

And this is where I see the need for creative conversation across cultural and economic differences because we share the need for just politics. We must take a good look at what’s going on and see where our true interests as human beings are. In order to rise to the best in all of us (and not just those who are most like us), we must learn to distinguish between annoying cultural habits (fried turkeys or slurping noodles) and common interest (universal education, medical insurance, and a comfortable retirement).


6 Comments

  1. Frances says:

    I thought perhaps Okie might be a better translation of 农民, in the broadest sense of its use.

    • Mary Ann O'Donnell says:

      Hi Frances,

      Thanks for your suggested translation, which helpfully illustrates the historic specificity of derogatory terms for the American underclass.

      Could you please explain what specifically about Okie resonates for you as a translation of 农民? I ask because as a tri-state native and long-term resident of North Carolina, I was unsure if Okie meant what I thought it did (from books read back in the day) and thus had to google search “Okie.” More tellingly perhaps, Okie doesn’t resonate with me as being particularly derogatory. In other words, if I needed to insult someone, Okie wouldn’t work for me or within my circle of family and friends. In contrast, I feel a sense of shame about using “red neck” and “nigger,” which suggests to me how deeply my consciousness has been shaped by these terms and concomitant worldviews.

  2. Kevin says:

    Here

    http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_6b69b2e80100pgis.html

    are a list of some of the cultural faux pas I’ve committed with the word nongmin in China.

    • Mary Ann O'Donnell says:

      Dear Kevin,

      Thank you for candidly sharing your experiences in English and 中文!

      I also find that my understanding of Mandarin grows in proportion to the number of mistakes I am willing to make. Perhaps, those of us blogging about our experiences learning to communicate ideas and feelings (rather than just translated meaning) cross-culturally might consider starting up a wiki-dictionary to bridge the confusions we (both English and Mandarin speakers) encounter as we move beyond our comfort zones?

  3. Frances says:

    Hi Mary,

    I think Okie is probably outdated now, I just remember it from older fiction books, set around the time of the Great Depression. In particular, the line that stuck with me was, “Okie shitfucker’. I don’t think – from what searching I did – that it has the same derogatory sense now as it did then, but it seemed to capture something of the sense of a rural migrant in the way neither redneck or nigger does.

    I think also such slurs tend to be regionally specific, e.g. ‘wetback’ is quite close to the idea of nongmin, but I would suspect isn’t especially well-known outside of the US.

    Yokel, hick, or bumpkin might be closer, but somehow I associate those more with 土包子. Perhaps ‘white trash’?

    • Mary Ann O'Donnell says:

      Hi Frances,

      Thanks for the clarification. What I liked about Okie was that, like 农民 the name is located in spatial politics. This has been why I’ve had difficult coming up with an appropriate translation that works on multiple levels.

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