the view from here…

On the face of it, this text message jokes about China’s cultural diversity:

To Beijing, the rest of the country is grassroots; to Shanghai, the rest of the country is countryside; to Guangdong, the rest of the country is poor; to Henan the rest of the country is inconsiderate; from Shandong, the rest of the country is unfair; to Jiangsu, the rest of the country is underdeveloped; to Zhejiang, the rest of the country is waiting to be developed; to Shaanxi, the rest of the country has no culture; to Xinjiang, the rest of the country is overcrowded; to Tibet, the rest of the country lacks belief.

1、北京看全国都是基层;2、上海看全国都是乡下;3、广东看全国都是穷人;4、河南看全国都缺心眼;5、山东看全国都不仗义;6、江苏看全国都欠发达;7、浙江看全国都待开发;8、陕西看全国都没文化;9、新疆看全国都太拥挤;10、西 藏看全国都没信仰。

The message, however, also suggests the geography of unequal value that structures migration to and opportunity in Shenzhen, where a migrant’s background (背景) increasingly determines opportunity. What happens, then, when instead of joking about the explicit other (grassroots, countryside, poor…), we make explicit the implied value hierarchy? Arguably, we feel the sting of a punchline:

Power is located in Beijing; sophistication is located in Shanghai; economic opportunity is located in Guangdong; traditional courtesy is located in Henan; a sense of fairness is located in Shandong; fast development is located in Jiangsu; fast development is located in Zhejiang; traditional culture is located in Shaanxi; low density population is located in Xinjiang; and belief (buddhism) is located in Tibet.

Indeed, as a straightforward list of values, the organization of the joke reproduces China’s territorial hierarchy: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou-Shenzhen (“Guangdong”), before turning to neidi (the rest of the country), where traditional values are located. In the context of the Beijing-Shanghai-Guangzhou-Shenzhen rivalry, what catches my attention is the mediating position of sophistication (“Shanghai”) between power and wealth (“Beijing” and “Guangdong”). It’s not enough to be rich, but one must also be sophisticated in order to gain a certain legitimacy. In contrast, naked power still works.

With respect to neidi, the ongoing marginalization of tradition, non-economic values, and religious belief within and against Beijing-Shanghai-Guangzhou-Shenzhen is obvious. Also of note — this marginalization is simultaneously a ruralization and a racialization of the country. We might also see these “lesser” neidi values as weapons of weak, which James C. Scott defined as those tactics available to peasants within and against urban States. The important Chinese supplement to that story is not the insight that strong States produce peasants. But rather that current patterns of modernization and development continuously reproduce “peasants” even when people no longer live agrarian lives.

Thought du jour: In Shenzhen, of course, migrants have different access to power, sophistication, and wealth. Not unexpectedly, relative access to these values determine scope and scale of a migrant’s success. However, the role of “sophistication” as mediating between “power” and “money” means that many of Shenzhen’s second generation (officials and wealthy) are pursuing educations and careers that will (in theory) position them to transcend Shenzhen’s fourth position and bootstrap into China’s higher eschalons.

So yes, the Shenzhen Dream remains remarkably “American”.

what is the social function of wilderness?

The Chinese word, 荒地 (huāng dì) translates into English both as “wasteland” and as “wilderness”. More specifically, huāng dì usually refers to “land that has not (yet) been converted into arable fields”. At first blush, this dictionary translation alarms me because, as an American, wilderness refers to (yes) untamed places where the infinite creativity of the universe might be experienced – primordial forests, huge swathes of desert, the looming vastness of an ocean voyage, no matter the size of my ship. Wilderness, for me, is not simply good, but sacred -beyond the human in some foundational way; it is where we go for enlightenment. In contrast, wasteland oozes, disgusts, evokes images of wasted land, industrialization gone array – dystopian visions of Gotham. So how is it that the dictionary definition of huāng dì is both wilderness and wasteland?

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Choices PK 机会

This year, I began working as a college counselor, advising bright and talented students on the value of a liberal arts education and the concept of fit, as well as more mundane matters such as crafting essays that answer the question and making sure that an application is filled out correctly. My students willingly do homework, take tests, join clubs, and volunteer in order to craft themselves into highly desirable candidates. They are, no question, great students. Yet as the semester has progressed, I have found myself angry, frustrated, and screaming at my husband because the telephone is ringing.

Why the pissy attitude?

At first, I attributed all this unpleasentness to stress, comforting myself with wishful thoughts that after the first rush of applications, I would calm down, teachers would submit recommendations in a timely manner, and students would follow instructions. The question, as I first saw it, was procedural; all we had to do was figure out how to cooperate and everything else would fall into place. Nevertheless, despite major adjustments, minor tweaks, and a general policy of bribing and bullying students as necessary, my irritation only increased.

Several days ago, a student came to me and said, “I want to apply early decision.”

I asked, “What school are you thinking about?”

He replied, “What school do you think I have the best chance of getting in?”

I rolled my eyes and repeated, “Where do you want to go?”

“Recently, the University of X has admitted many Chinese students. Do you think I have a chance?”

“Why do you want to go there?”

“I want a good study environment and it has a high ranking.”

“But what’s special about this University?”

He stared at me. I rephrased, “How will you answer the application question – Why do you want to attend University of X?”

He reassured me, “That’s an easy question to answer. Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll have something to say.”

Another college application standoff. I wanted to convince him to choose a college that fit him, he wanted me to get him into the highest ranking college possible.

This student typifies how my students have approached looking at US colleges and universities. They look at college rankings with an eye to how famous a school is in China and then compare the requirements for attending that university with what they have thus far achieved. They apply to a range of colleges based on these criteria – how highly ranked, how famous, how likely am I to get in? This is a highly rational approach to selecting a college and it has bothered me no end.

Only in retrospect have I unpacked my frustration in how my students have approached US college applications. I believe, unthinkingly, that which college a student attends is a choice. I maintain that the proper way of making a choice entails reflecting on one’s values, passions, and intellectual stregths. In this sense, academic achievements are necessary but insufficient to make a choice. The deciding factor is how a student wants to live. Moreover, it is the responsibility of the student to understand who she is and choose accordingly. This is a crude definition of “fit” – the idea that schools have different strengths, allowing students to flourish in different ways.

My understanding of “choosing a college” is based on a larger American valuation of choice in general. To my mind, a “good” person makes choices, a “bad” person opportunistically maximizes options. I value choice because it is where I express my commitments, ethics, and personality. I believe that society should be structured in such a way as to provide fair and equal opportunities to make choices. Indeed, I understand “freedom” to be defined through choice, experiencing the absence of choice as not only emotionally intolerable, but also unjustly oppressive. Moreover, I interpret other people’s actions with respect to my valuation of choice. I understand critical moments in a life to be defined by the choices that an individual has made – the choice of friends, the choice of where to go to college (or not), the choice of a spouse (or not), the choice of jobs… At each moment, I see that the self must express itself by making choices. A not B, C rather than D.

Here’s the cross-cultural rub: My Chinese students don’t operate out of the same valuation of choice. Instead, they value contexts of possibility. They understand that if they attend a certain high school, they will have the possibility to meet a particular set of friends, attend a given set of colleges, and find a related job. At each moment, they see that one’s options are context dependent. Consequently, they work to make ensure that at any moment they have as many options as possible. Indeed, they see the greatness and expansiveness of the self in terms of endless possibility.

Clearly, choice and opportunity as organizing principles have different consequences, both good and bad. On the upside, those of us who value choice making, craft highly defined selves. We also tend to see ourselves as shaping the world. [Good morning, America!] Those of us who value an array of options, craft highly fluid selves. We also tend to see ourselves as adapting to an already formed world. [Hello, China!] On the downside, Americans who value choice making, often miss opportunities to live and experience the world otherwise because our selves are so firmly fixed through definitions of what “I” should choose. Likewise, Chinese who maximize opportunities, often live passively and without passion, taking what is offered as if it were an unchangeable fate.

可想而知 – as can be well imagined – when I, a muddled and American teacher meet up with bright but Chinese students to discuss the future, we often talk at cross purposes. Fortunately, we become vexed when the misunderstandings become too obvious to ignore. In turn, this irritation allows us to re-think how different points of departure might nevertheless lead to common ground.

Another highly speculative post from the depths of Shenzhen. What do you think?