coming home to the liberal arts

This past week my friend’s daughter has been visiting liberal arts colleges and I have been tagging along, surprised by my sense of homecoming; these are my people.

I have lived and worked in Shenzhen close to twenty years. I continue to engage in anthropological research about the city and participate as a public intellectual both in Shenzhen and outside, in conversations about Shenzhen and what it teaches us about rural urbanization in the post Cold War era. I work with Fat Bird to produce theater and have recently joined friends to form CZC Special Forces, a group working to make art and performance in and around Shenzhen’s urban villages. Over the years, I have taught English, served as an acting principal, and done the odd bit of college counseling in Shenzhen schools. In short, the city and its residents have been good to me, helping me to craft an interesting and meaningful life.

Indeed, I feel at home in Shenzhen. I live in a late 1980s Shekou housing development, where child play and aunties and grandmas dance the yang ge’er. I know the bus and subway systems intimately. I have favorite restaurants and parks and walks. I appreciate the vast diversity of the city’s migrants and have learned to recognize (some of) the distinctions that matter to Shenzheners — accents, flavoring, and personality, for example. I navigate cross-border encounters, and have friends in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. In all practical senses, Shenzhen is home.

And yet.

Just a week of wandering a few liberal arts campuses and I am reminded of those stateside who also enabled me to live this life. Parents who believed that education was for life rather than strictly the first line on a resume; Chinese teachers who gave me the skills, understanding, and confidence to persist despite linguistic and cultural obstacles; anthropology professors and authors who not only helped me learn to think and consider what it means to be human, but also to value this very human impulse to reflect on our shared condition and its causes, possibilities, and challenges. All this to say that this trip I am realizing just how deeply my values and goals were shaped and nourished by the liberal arts tradition. Yes! the heart sings. This tradition is worth cherishing, and growing, and exporting.

Yet, again.

I also know what it takes for a Shenzhen family to be able to afford this education. I know the decisions and savings and evasions — moral, intellectual, and social — that make it possible to leap from Shenzhen to a liberal arts college campus. So this college visiting has been unremittingly bittersweet. I keep saying to my friend, “See, it is possible to create this kind of learning environment and raise outstanding human beings.” And she rightly reminds me, “Shenzhen people are still worried about securing their children’s economic future.” I pause because she is not wrong. Not only Shenzhen parents find $US 50,000 a year to be a daunting obstacle. American parents. Moroccan parents. Indian parents. Parents everywhere do because we are exporting liberal arts educations. And they cost. A lot. And even more when your family doesn’t earn petro-dollars, but instead earns real estate yuan.

Thought du jour: We need to find ways to realize these values in other, more accessible forms. I continue to believe that our liberal arts colleges and pedagogical values constitute an important contribution to humanity. I am haunted, however, by their obvious and subtle complicities with globalized inequalities. I live this contradiction everyday in Shenzhen, where the liberal arts — or another form of morally tolerant pedagogy and values — are needed, but where as an American, I often find myself so firmly placed on the “haves” side of the line that dialogue is difficult. Indeed, in the end, I end up listening more than speaking because I’m still searching for common ground. And this ground must take into account economic inequality and political aspirations if we are to move forward, together.

life lessons

Yesterday, my friend told me a story about how her sixth grade lost the role of Maria in a short skit based on The Sound of Music.

The sixth grade is preparing a graduation celebration that includes skits, songs, speaches, and food. Parents are organizing these events, including an English teacher who wrote the Sound of Music skit. Apparently, the English teacher intended that her daughter would play Maria. However, when the daughter declined, my friend’s daughter said, “Yes!” and started preparing.

Soon after, the English teacher’s daughter sought out my friend’s daughter and said that she wanted to play the role of Maria. My friend’s daughter asked what to do. On her interpretation, she had several options: (1) cede the role to her classmate; (2) ask the teacher to decide, or; (3) audition before the class and let their classmates decide. What my friend’s daughter understood clearly, was that if a teacher’s daughter wanted the role, then their homeroom teacher would take the role away from her and reassign it to the teacher’s daughter.

My friend comforted her daughter, saying that there would be many other opportunities to perform. However, her daughter was sad and so my friend asked me what I thought. I didn’t have to think. I said that it was perfectly natural for her daughter to be upset at such blatent injustice. My friend agreed, but added that in China this was how things happened. Sometimes you could spend more time and energy only to have your work denied or the glory taken away. I concurred, but asked if it was really necessary to learn such a lesson in elementary school.

And there’s the culturally interesting question: when and how do children learn the politics of everyday life?

I remember in high school having a teacher who took a dislike to me. Once when I was not in class (I don’t actually remember the reason), said teacher held a vote, asking students to decide whether or not I should be allowed to remain in class. I was voted out of the class. So, I went to the vice principal to mediate. When I sat down with that teacher, he chronicled what a horrible student I had been — talking in class, passing notes, and not attending. All true. Thus, when he finished speaking, he stood up to leave; clearly, he thought that sitting down with me was enough to demonstrate his good faith in the process.

I actually needed the vice principal to call that teacher back to the conversation, when I had a chance to mention that this teacher made inappropriate remarks about the girls in the class. I had started making snide comments and when he addressed me, I spoke back. Once I said this, the vice principal asked the teacher if their was any truth to my story. The teacher shrugged and then offered the following compromise: I could take a study hall during history class, but receive an “A” for my work. And what did I know? I didn’t turn to my parents, but accepted the deal, leaving the vice principal and history teacher to figure out their relationship, which had suddenly been complicated.

After I told how I was bought off, my friend nodded. She said that she would advocate for her daughter to keep her role. After all, these moments of injustice — in Chinese elementary schools and US American high schools — are learning moments. Unfortunately, we more often than not first learn and then unconciously teach the unequal politics of everyday life.

click this

The internet confuses us into thinking that everything we need to know can be found in one place, such as the Shenzhen Life Net (深圳生活王), where all sorts of information and experiences are just a click away. Questions about public welfare? Click 社保. Want to watch whatever is currently being broadcast on Shenzhen’s television 16 television channels? Click 电视. You can also find out about traffic conditions, confirm important dates on the lunar calendar almanac, and figure out how much tax you owe: click, click, and click!

In fact, Shenzhen’s ongoing efforts to modernize by becoming one of the most inter-connected cities on the planet continue to fill virtual space with all sorts of information. The government is online. The library is online. The museum is online. And the historical archives are online. Moreover, Tencent, one of the key Chinese companies inter-connecting us through qq and we chat is a Shenzhen company.

At the same time that Shenzhen builds its virtual world, China’s great firewall continues to make it difficult to click to the New York Times, or Facebook, or Youtube without a tunnel. Ineed, just the other day, China banned its media from quoting foreign news articles without permission. In this sense, Shenzhen’s vast internet culture is itself the form of a pervasive inequality and the ideological expression of this inequality. The point as Global Voices co-founder and author of Consent of the Networked, Rebecca McKinnon has argued:

A substantial body of previous work has been produced over the past two decades on human rights risks in sectors such as extractives or labor services. Much less work has been done on business and human rights in the ICT sector – particularly on free expression and privacy rights. The novelty of the technology requires a translation exercise of existing human rights principles, policy, and law to ICT platforms and services.

In practical terms, however, surfing the internet often seems less about human connection and building more just worlds (as in the human writes discussion) as it does a question of our tendency to mental addictions. On the bus and subway, in meetings and movie theaters, we click, click, click through life. There is a compelling distraction to click culture. At times, I find myself simply clicking to visit sites that I have just left. I click away not because I think I may discover another post, but because the repetive action distracts me from the fact that all I’m doing is procastinating. I have have found myself fascinated by the number of visitors and clicks that Noted receives; confirmation that I have an audience. So pernicious is my click addiction that sometimes I even confuse the number of clicks with the value of my research.

I also am wondering how much of my online dependency is an expression of other forms of alienation in everyday life. My friends, for example, work long hours across town. It is difficult to arrange time together simply to hang out and chat without internet access. Likewise, the extent of urbanization in Shenzhen means that I can’t simply walk outside and enjoy fresh air and mountains. Instead, I have to navigate a six-lane road to jump on a bus, which then trundles off toward a central hub. In other words, I’m not sure how much of my online life is an attempt to heal virtually problems that can only be solved through realworld communities and life changes.

So today, I’m thinking about questions of scale and what manageable communities might look like, on the ground, here in Shenzhen, where popoulation density is over 5,500 per square kilometer and we still haven’t figured out how to plan and manage integrated communities.

life is elsewhere

These past few days back in Shenzhen, I have had several conversations about the fact that so many Chinese families are sending their children abroad to study. Moreover, since the point is to get the children out of China, the consensus seems to be, the sooner the children leave, the better and so more and more families are sending their only children to boarding schools.

The reasons are many — better education, better job opportunities, better environment, healthier food, more access to information — but all boil down to the perception that life is better in the United States than it is in China. This is also a sentiment I’ve heard from thoughtful American friends, who are frustrated by the lack of public accountability and trust in public projects (mostly overbuilding for profit) in both Shenzhen and the interior.

By sending their children abroad, friends and colleagues make a clear statement about their confidence in Shenzhen’s future. The situation has me wondering whether or not it is wise to remain in China. What’s more, these doubts seem more pervasive than previously. Cetainly it’s ironic that just as Shenzhen seems to have made the international headlines, the elite — both economic and academic — are opting out of the Shenzhen dream.

situated knowledge, strategic investments, and avian flu [again]

More evidence that China and the United States really are the same country; my husband wants to invest in the US, while my father wants to invest in China because [drum roll, please] both believe that the local economy may be alright for short-term investments, but long-term it would be best to have one’s money elsewhere. My Chinese husband sees stability in the US. My US American father sees potential in China’s emerging market; neither sees their country strong and vibrant and leading the international pack twenty years down the road. That said, when I noted that my husband wasn’t confident about keeping money in China, my father suggested that perhaps I should consider moving my money to India.

On the face of it, my father and my husband have different approaches to life. When playing cards, for example, my father tends to play the odds, while my husband tests his luck. When reading, my father enjoys detective novels, while my husband appreciates literary experimentation. When keeping fit, my father keeps a strict schedule, while my husband takes the occasional stroll after dinner. My father is a stock broker; my husband is a playwright. Here’s the thing, though. Both men are savvy, concerned and engaged citizens.  And this past week, both have looked out their respective windows (in small town North Carolina and boomtown Shenzhen) only to see chaos and insecurity.

In my parents’ hometown, I was warned about certain parts of town — in a suburb near Ft. Bragg, home to the Airborne and Special Operations Forces. So it seems, we’re not only flaying about with misguided visions of keeping peace through military means, but also in need of peace keeping at home.  Visiting friends in Georgia, I was informed that it was easy to order common rape drugs (GHB, rohypnol and ketamine) online, while teen alcohol abuse has become even more prevalent than it was when I could drive to the lake and party with high school friends. Indeed, I had a disturbing that was then moment just yesterday. I watched Julie Brown’s “Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” video. In 1984, when the song came out, I found it a funny parody; thirty years later it seems  both macabre and cruel to profit from the violence in our schools. My mother succinctly summed up the situation with the comment, “I’m happy to be an old hen because today’s chicks have it tough.”

Meanwhile, back in China, avian flu has reappeared in the unsettling wake of pig and bird die-offs. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have made such a fanfare of calling for prompt and effective response that the opposite has happened: many are worried precisely because they don’t trust the government. Indeed, navigating Chinese news reports seems almost like navigating around icebergs. There is a sense that the Center only ever shows “10%”of the danger. Consequently, when high-ranking leaders express concern, savvy netizens see flashing warning lights: Xi Jinping has asked vice premier Liu Yanzhong (刘延东) to take charge of this latest public health campaign戴旭 has weibo-ed that too much coverage will cause panic and help the US propaganda machine, and; my husband has warned me — take precautions when returning to China and, if necessary, delay your trip until we have more reliable information.

And at that moment, I realized just how similar US American and Chinese citizens have become in our belief that the insecurity is escalating. Moreover, trepidation has become common sense. In the States, we’re hunkering down because partying leads to rape and schools have become kill zones. In China, we’re hunkering down because eating causes illness and political privilege excuses murder. Sigh du jour: how safe can Indian investments be if they’re also writing off inequality, violence, and eco-cide as the cost of doing business?

shenzhen beggars

Several days ago on the subway, a man approached me. His speech was slow, his eyes empty, and he showed me a ripped pocket where he claimed his money had been stolen. I asked him his story and he said he had been robbed and that he didn’t want to bother his parents. He said he had a job tomorrow and all he wanted to do was eat. After I gave him some money, he shuffled off the car at the next stop. My friend said that the beggar had targeted us, that he had watched me for several minutes, heard me speaking Mandarin and then decided to approach me. The implication, of course, was that I had been cheated, tricked into giving money to someone undeserving of that handout.

Here’s the rub: I don’t know what made him undeserving — the fact that he [may have] tricked me or the fact that he was working as a beggar, rather than at a “real” job, like part time journal editor, such as myself. I do know that I had a visceral response to my friend’s comment — I wanted to prove that I could tell the difference between those deserving and those undeserving of charity.

Financially, it wasn’t as if the money I gave him could actually buy all that much. As I pointed out to my friend, if I were to forego one 500 rmb meal a month, I could give 2 rmb to every beggar I encounter and still save money each month. What’s more, when I take the time to prepare a pocketful of 1 rmb coins and bills, giving to beggars is a straightforward opportunity to practice generosity in my daily life. So why the resistance to giving?

At the time my friend pointed out that I had probably been targeted, I felt ashamed and tried to defend myself. I argued that I would rather risk being tricked by 99 rather than missing the chance to help the one in need. But, I didn’t give enough to actually change the beggar’s life — only he could do that. In retrospect, I’m wondering about my responses –first to the beggar (I wanted to give) and then to my friend (I didn’t want to appear a dupe). I have realized that I made the encounter all about me, rather than trying to figure out what might be an appropriate response.

Almost twenty years now, I have watched the Shenzhen poor grow both relatively and absolutely poorer. On the one hand, most people in Shenzhen have access to jobs and living conditions that they would not have in neidi cities and rural areas. On the other hand, economic polarization grows as quickly as the city. And many businessmen complain that monthly factory wages have risen to “as much” as 2,500 rmb (approximately $US 400.00), which is less than the price of most high-end electronics. And this change has left moral confusion and self-doubt in its wake: what if there isn’t an appropriate response to poverty that is a result of the change? What if all that remains is witnessing the fallout, both socially and in one’s heart?


double bind urbanization

At dinner last night a friend asked me, “If you had to choose between living in a 50 story building or an urban village walk-up, where would you live?”

This question illustrates the kind of double bind thinking that current debates about urban villages generate. As posed, the question compels us to choose between either high end futurism or unsanitary crowded settlements. But all too often the question itself becomes rhetorical justification for ignoring other examples of more successful urbanization. What’s more, the question also blinds us to what we can learn from the  tight organization and convenience of the villages, while using high tech knowledge and skills to imagine low-rise, more environmentally friendly settlements. Continue reading