“this time, this place”: these concerns

The balmy days of installation gave way to cold winter rain for the opening of “This Time, This Place” in Shenzhen’s Central Park. Our brief as participants was to respond to the site, and in this sense the weather reminded us just how different indoor and outdoor exhibitions can be. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Today, I’m wondering: is there art that ameliorates rather than is predicated on class privilege? Continue reading

international community. china?

Over the weekend CZC curated a cultural exchange between the Dalang Street Office and Peter Moser of more music. A talented and inspirational music facilitator, Pete asks questions that go to the heart of community work — why this, why here? And the ever vexed question for moi (especially in light of the Hong Kong protests) — where do we draw the line between doing our work and our work becoming complicit with Party goals of social control at the expense of democracy and economic justice? Continue reading

occupy central: confessional moment

Many of the English language news reports coming out of Hong Kong highlight the antagonism that the SAR’s Mainland residents feel about the protests. The articles draw attention to vapid consumers (usually women) distraught because barricades have made it inconvenient to go shopping and/or self-righteous colonizers (usually men) who are angry that by making students are making China look bad. The rhetorical point is straightforwardly simplistic; brainwashed Mainlanders don’t understand what everyone else in the world gets — oppressive Communist Party acts again, this time against unarmed students.

It’s easy to get hooked by this way of thinking because there are no false statements. There are Mainlanders upset because they can’t go shopping in Central. There are Mainlanders who think that Hong Kong students specifically and Hong Kong people in general should accept Mainland authority. And yes, the CCP is up to familiar tricks of the anti-democratic trade.

And yet.

The only one of these statements I would believe without asking for contextualization is that the CCP is up to its nasty, manipulative authoritarian ways and once again working with triads to achieve its ends. But even that idea eventually breaks down if examined too closely because there are factions within the Party and divisions within the government. (Unfortunately in Shenzhen I have seen that more often than not the nasty and manipulative overcome the resistance of their more progressive colleagues and steamroll society.)

I begin my thoughts on these stereotypes of discord with a confession; until the students’ protests and Occupy Central with Peace and Love’s demonstrated commitment to non-violence I didn’t like Hong Kong. I am a member of the Kwan Um School of Zen which has a temple and retreat center there. I have friends who live in Hong Kong, and some of them are from Hong Kong, and I have participated in academic art events there. But.

Over my twenty year sojourn in Shenzhen, I have repeatedly and consistently had to deal with Hong Kong contempt for Mainlanders in general and Shenzhen people in particular. This has ranged from academics asking me how I could possibly feel safe in Shenzhen to watching Hong Kong waitstaff and others in the service industry treat me (white American woman) very differently from how they treat one of my dearest friends (Beijing woman). I was once at an award ceremony for public service and one of the Hong Kong awardees took the time to lecture me (in precise UK inflected Engish) on why I should find another place to work and not waste my time and talents in Shenzhen. This ongoing prejudice coupled with the fact that Hong Kong men have set up second wives in Shenzhen, come over to pay for sex, and have often been the managers of sweat shops hasn’t made me love Hong Kong.

I offer this confession to highlight how my experience predisposed me not to take a Hong Kong protest seriously. When Mainland friends complain that Hong Kong people treat them with disdain, I believe them. When Mainland friends doubt that the SAR’s Tiananmen commemorative protests have become self-serving means of discrediting China, I don’t totally agree, but I do see their point. And when Mainland friends express concern that Beijing is influencing or will manipulate the Hong Kong students because they don’t understand the Mainland, I am sympathetic because I have engaged in similar arguments.

Here’s the point: the students’ non-violent, collective action has helped me reflect on my lazy habits of thinking about Hong Kong.

I was predisposed not to take the protests seriously because people in Shenzhen and throughout the Mainland have treated me with kindness. In contrast, although Hong Kong people have also treated me well, they have not always shown the same courtesy to my husband and friends. I took sides even before I knew anything about the situation. This point returns me to media insinuations of Mainlanders being brain-washed, and the rest of “us” seeing the situation clearly: we all participate in and collude with inaccurate and hurtful stereotyping because of conditions and experiences in our everyday lives. I suspect that many Mainlanders who might otherwise be predisposed to support the students made up their minds years ago in other situations, just as the Western reporters who continue to exacerbate Mainland-Hong Kong misunderstanding and resentment also made up their minds once upon a time in a faraway place.

It is my hope that the students’ courage not only touches the hearts of Westerners who have benefitted from Hong Kong people’s prejudices, but also softens the minds of Mainlanders who have been hurt and shamed by those prejudices. May we all see what is actually happening and not fall into mind traps and misunderstanding.

Book Review: Good Chinese Wife

A fellow Shenzhen expat has reviewed Susan Blumberg-Kason’s memoir, Good Chinese Wife. I am also a 中国媳妇 and find myself distressed by the suffering and self doubt that characterized her relationship with her ex-husband. In fact, Blumberg-Kason’s anxieties and willingness to give her husband the benefit of the cultural doubt resonated uncomfortably. I believe that one of the biggest challenges for women abroad is to find the confidence to trust our experience and say, “No more of this shit.” Another Shenzhen expat, Rose writes about her experiences navigating the gendered cultural divide is , who blogs at China Elevator Stories.

Ray Hecht



“GOOD Chinese Wife” is a new memoir published by Sourcebooks, and is a poignant tale expats should enjoy about the overlap of China and the West. Susan Blumberg-Kason details her unfortunate marriage to a Chinese music scholar, as they meet while studying in Hong Kong and then travel to his hometown in Hubei Province before eventually settling in San Francisco, California.

The central question posed by their troubled relationship is whether their differences were due to culture or personality. Interracial marriages may have some problems, but are certain individual defects masked by the excuse of culture?

As their relationship begins, Blumberg-Kason appreciates her future husband’s background. She studies Mandarin as a postgraduate in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, and stays there through the time of the handover in 1997, and for a reader familiar with South China it can be very interesting to compare that time with…

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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.