Yesterday I attended a book launch for, Yang Lichuan’s second book, “The Transformation from Vertical Society to Horizontal Society: The Historical Philosophy of the Crash between Chinese and Western Civilizations (纵横之变：中西文明碰撞中的历史哲学)”. The two parts of the book title suggest the political thrust and method of intervention, respectively. The first part of the title expresses the author’s hope for social transformation to a more egalitarian society, while the second part captures the discourse–philosophy–through which this call for social transformation will be made. And yes, although the political call for social transformation was clear, the philosophical argument was as overwhelmingly comprehensive as the title suggests. Continue reading
This past week, I joined a wedding tour to Bali, which brought the immediate families of the bride and groom, as well as several friends together on a four-day tour. The wedding was held at the Bulgari Villas, where the bride and groom stayed while the rest of us stayed at a nearby golf club. Apparently, given the high cost of wedding photos, many newly weds choose to combine their honeymoon with a proffessional shoot. What I didn’t realize was that a shoot could also include a wedding ceremony and invited guests.
Of random note: (1) we were not the only such tour, and a multiple sites encountered well-dressed and manicured brides with their respective posses; (2) there were other Chinese tours taking the same route as we did. In fact, the majority of tourists at all the sites we visited we Chinese, and many of the Balinese staff had learned some Mandarin; (3) friends I have told about the trip commented that it was expensive, but agreed that it was difficult not to spend an exorbitant amount on a wedding; (4) traveling together gave the two families an opportunity to get to know each other and take delight in the couple’s happiness; and (5) the distance between the two generations was clear.
The 30-something couple clearly enjoyed Bali, its exotic locales, and the frisson of non-Chinessness. In contrast, the parents seemed somewhat bewildered by this format. They understood a honeymoon and photos, but not quite how the intentional reworking of tradition had become so popular. I’m speculating that these more private weddings represent and deepen the ongoing nuclearization of Chinese families that is so prominent in Shenzhen.
In the US we understand the nuclear family to comprise two generations–parents and children. In China generally, and Shenzhen particularly, the nuclear family comprises three generations–grandparents, parents, and children. In other words, the the rationalization of the family unit points to the historic organization of paid and unpaid labor in the US and China, respectively. In the ideolized US, fathers worked and mothers kept house. This trend was explicit in the forced redomestication of women in the post WWII era, when a man’s income was expected to provide for his dependents. In contrast, in idealized China grandparents provide childcare and housekeeping services while both parents work. This is necessary because individuals (except in the case of the uber-rich) can’t afford to purchase a house, needing combined incomes to meet mortgage payments. In a chicken egg moment of cultural difference, US American families emphasize the bond between husbands and wives, while Chinese families emphasize the bond between parents and children.
Though du jour, Americans highlight sexuality as an important foundation of family life because sleeping together secures the primary bond of the US nuclear family. Similarly, Chinese celebrate eating as an important foundation of family life because dining together reinforces the primary bond of the Chinese nuclear family. This difference can be read as “cultural” and some, like my friend and her husband are deploying “western culture” (i.e honeymoon and romance) to re-imagine the ties that bind the “traditional” Chinese family.
PS: This past month I have been busy over at Village Hack, the latest project at Handshake 302. The last Hacker was Yin Xiaolong, an artist who does most of his work online, through social media documentation of social concerns. While at 302, he engaged in copy painting, photography, and a leave-taking performance piece that included shaking hands with neighbor/strangers. Meanwhile, the concession grows that our three young neighbors are the most interesting and interested of our interlocutors.
For the curious. “So why do foreigners go to urban villages?” is online. Please check it out and grow the conversation about Baishizhou and why it matters. For all of us.
I have an ambivalent relationship to academic conferences. On the one hand, I find them physically exhausting because structured to produce the largest amount of intellectual work in the most efficient way. Sadly, intellectual efficiency, like all forms of efficiency is a statistical concept that can only be represented through quantification. The success of an academic conference tends to be measured in numbers of participants, sessions, and published proceedings — measurements which effectively transform intellectuals into academic line workers and make conferences just another station in what might be described as toolpath control over knowledge production. Thus, I experience diminishing returns in a conference’s progression; early on, I am able to listen more actively and participate more fully simply because I’m rested and able to engage a diversity of theoretical positions and claims. In contrast, as the conference unfolds, I become physically tired and often find myself aware that my only contribution is the effort to engage a presenter’s work; I try to listen and understand.
On the other hand, I attend academic conferences because I yearn for intellectual conversations with people I do not meet in the general unfolding of my life. I have colleagues and friends in Shenzhen with whom I debate and discuss various issues. But in order to be inspired and challenged, or simply unsettled and honed, I need both the stability of familiar conversations and the jolt of unexpected encounters. Consequently, I continue to see old friends and opponents, while making new at conferences, which are by and large international and place me in proximity to scholars working both in and beyond Chinese borders. Thus, the conference format, especially when funded by academic and public institutions, offers opportunities to nurture and grow intellectually — precisely through intellectual companionship — both during and in the off time between
In other words, both the strengths and limits to Fordist knowledge production are relentlessly human; international conferences provide opportunities to be surprised and inspired outside the paths of everyday life, however, tired bodies can only do so much, even and especially when we are going through the privileged motions of academic conferencing.
On Oct 18-19, I had the pleasure of participating in the Masterplanning the Future Conference, which was organized and hosted by the Department of Architecture at the recently established Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University in the Suzhou Industrial Park. Organizers, Austin Williams and Theodoros Dounas’ attempted to address the inherent problems of academic conferences through a schedule, which started late enough in the morning and ended early enough in the evening to allow for conversations about and around the the question of high-speed development(s). Moreover, the conference structure attempted to open discussion to the widest possible audience, including a local audience for these ideas. On day one, for example, the public sessions raised general issues, their lay representations, and potential representatives, while on day two, the academic sessions provided more detailed analysis and examples of these issues. Finally, the conference itself was small enough to allow for participants to leave with a sense of the whole, satisfied that if someone were to ask me, “So, what was the conference about?” I could confidently answer, “English language efforts to come to terms with how China has shaped post Cold War thinking about and experience of urbanization. With a few divergences.”
That said, my interpretation of the point and purpose of the Conference differs importantly from the full title of the conference which was Masterplanning the Future: Modernism — East, West & Across the World. The aim to generalize at this scale meant that during sessions we inevitably stereotyped both ourselves and our interlocutors. All too often, the conversation reduced to statements that began with “The West this” or “China that”, rather than staying focused on more specific examples or standpoints that might allow for the negotiation of similarity and difference as shifting aspects of human experience, rather than as identifiable characteristics of mass populations. In this sense, the underlying assumptions of the academic sessions did not differ significantly from that of the public sessions, or even from a more general representation of China and The West at the university itself.
And there’s the rub: this tendency to stereotype distresses me not only because it seems intellectually dodgy, but also because it invariably reduces international relations and cross cultural understanding to semiotic match-making, in all senses of the term. Romancing the factory, so to speak. After all, the conference did take place in an industrial park, with an eye to global knowledge production and consumption.
Outside the XJTLU conference centered where we convened, for example, was a sculpture of a Tang lady and an English gentlemen playing polo (image below).
Both ride culturally appropriate horses and wear culturally appropriate costumes. Both the Tang Lady and English Gentlemen are stylized representations of a recognizable elite, which in turn represent English and Chinese cultures, while glossing internal hierarchy and inequality within the United Kingdom and People’s Republic of China; Tang Ladies and English Gentlemen may represent the current elite of each of these countries, but in no way do they represent the lives of contemporary workers. Moreover, while I’m willing to entertain the idea that contemporary Sino-British relations are simply a game played by elites from the PRC and UK, nevertheless, the gendering of this statue is itself so stereotypically neo-colonial that I don’t know where to begin my critique.
(But really, if we insist on representing international relations through figures of hetero-normative couples, might we not consider a male Chinese zither player and a female British mandolin player, aiming for musical harmony rather than competitive sportsmanship as a unifying metaphor of international intercourse?)
All this to say: I think that these stereotypical elites and their games continue to echo throughout cross cultural conversation because leisure is one of the predicates of meaningful conversation. Here I mean leisure in all senses of the word — as unstructured time, as non-productive time, as pleasurably engaged time and the resultant inspirations, solidarities, and new beginnings. We know that we need to play together in order to create more meaningful relationships and concomitant social orderings; children do it everyday and, unlike us adults, they do it well, creating community out of mud pies and whatever else is at hand. However, unless we restructure the inequalities built into contemporary chains of production and consumption, including cross cultural production and consumption of knowledge, we will remain nostalgic for forms of elite leisure that we cannot have experienced, even as we mistake this deluded nostalgia with the necessary realization of leisure in society.
The other day, while showing a group of visitors the Goodbye, Urban Villages (再见，城中村) exhibition, one asked, “Well what will they do about it?” meaning what will the residents do to prevent the forced evictions?
He, from Western Europe, was grappling with the question of democracy (or not) in China. She, from Hong Kong answered saying, “They don’t do anything because they can’t. That’s what it’s like here.”
Our visitors seemed to have settled on a variant of the local intellectual script, A Hong Kong Resident Explains Shenzhen to a Westerner, so I found relief speaking with someone from Beijing.
He commented, “The artists in Shenzhen seem really pure.” I laughed and answered, “That’s because there’s no market for art in Shenzhen; it has to be a hobby (爱好) [literally something done from love].” He smiled, “All we have in Beijing are markets because everything’s for sale.”
As a group, we then moved on to the Kojève exhibition, which is a bit too pure art for my taste, but nevertheless provided enough common ground that the conversation turned to light and pleasant topics.
In retrospect, I have realized that what irritated me about the visitors’ response to Goodbye, Urban Villages was that it had been a variation on a constant theme — contempt for Shenzhen and by extension for those of us who live here.
Intellectual Westerners, who dabble in romance languages, but have never heard of Shenzhen will ask me, “Will you live here, forever?” the unsubtle emphasis underscoring the fact that migrants and their displaced families will not stop the united forces of government and state-owned real estate developers from razing the handshake homesteads, low end eateries, and improvised bicycle repair shops that flourish on the sidewalk. I understand that elsewhere these might appear as insurmountable contradictions, but… and here I pause rather than answer a question that has set me up either to defend what I clearly oppose or to agree with the unspoken contempt in the question. Instead, I point out that no one lives forever.
Likewise, young Hong Kong students who do not cross the border except to purchase books and older aunties who come for sauna and massage will ask me, “How can you live there, is it safe?” and then advise me to move to Hong Kong. Yet others lecture me on the truth about Shenzhen — it is dirty and corrupt and teeming with mafia types who cannot be arrested because they’re in cahoots with governments — this they have learned in Hong Kong newspapers and from their Hong Kong relatives. I understand that many of their foreign friends may have just recently heard of Shenzhen, but… and here I pause rather than answer a question that has set me up either to play the innocent foreigner abroad or to instruct Hong Kong Chinese on what it means to be Mainland Chinese. Instead, I point out that I am still alive.
And there’s the rub: These pauses are difficult to cultivate. On bad days, find myself skeptical of good intentions so poorly phrased that the tone of my response may range from biting to sarcastic, amplifying the contempt with my own. On good days, I treat these questions as possible moments of mutual enlightenment, taking this speech at face value: they do not know and want to learn. Most days, however, I turn pedantic and finish my sentences, trying to make my interlocutor see — not just the political mess and entrenched despair, but also to observe the efforts some are making, and the care that some have brought to what is a vast and tumultuous and often unimaginable transformation.
As an anthropologist, I understand the question “what is history” to be empirical; history and its concomitant social value is what a group makes of it. I ask simple questions, such as – how does a group teach its history? Through songs? On game shows? In detective novels set in the Victorian age? As a museum exhibition or perhaps through national curriculum and standardized tests?
After I have a sense of the range of historical genres, I do close readings of a few exemplars, comparing and contrasting respective content. Based on what remains constant throughout the different texts, I come up with a working definition of core history for a particular group. In the US, for example, the Revolution is an unquestioned element of the history that makes us Americans; after all the Tories and their ilk ran off to Canada in order to remain British subjects. Indeed, 1776 as the defining moment of being American not only appears in classrooms and textbooks, but also in musical theatre, commentary during baseball games, and automobile commercials. Similarly, based on what varies in these same texts, I get a sense of ongoing debates how this history is interpreted, and by extension, how we should be using it to create particular kinds of Americans. Thus, the Civil War looms in American consciousness, precisely because we still grapple with the contradiction between the self-evident truth (to us as heirs to the Revolution) of all men being created equal and the historic facts of slavery and the disenfranchisement of women, not to mention contemporary debates over the status of First Nations and immigrants.
I contextualize all this analysis with respect to the relative status of sites where these texts are produced, disseminated, read, and sometimes debated. In the United States, universities have higher status but are less a feature of everyday life than are supermarkets. Consequently, I know that Americans recognize the texts used in university history classes to be more accurate, but not as accessible as the historical fictions sold in supermarkets. I know this because Americans read and enjoy pulp fiction – Abraham Lincoln vampire slayer, for contemporary example – more often than we struggle to make sense of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Likewise, I also know that accessibility is often confused with democratic practice, so that reading Louis Lamour’s western adventures can be considered as valuable as reading Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History.
I mention my intellectual predilections and cultural heritage because yesterday I attended the opening of OCAT’s exhibition After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer, which struck me as quintessentially European in its preoccupation with the philosophical status of history. Moreover, it raised questions about how this preoccupation might inform understanding history in and of and for Shenzhen, where the point of reform and opening has been to launch China into the future.
As curated by Boris Groys, the exhibit highlights the philosophical continuities and contradictions within and between Kojève’s public and private lives. On the one hand, as a philosopher, Kojève followed Hegel in understanding the desire for equal and universal recognition as being the motor of history. This was explicitly a political project that was realized through the French Revolution. On Kojève’s reading, our lives are post-historical precisely because once the French Revolution brought to consciousness the understanding that the role of the State is to facilitate the realization of universal desire, history as such ended. In turn, it is the task of those of us living in post-historical societies to perfect our States, so that forms of political recognition are increasingly equitable and just, allowing for individuals to achieve their desires. This understanding of history shaped Kojève’s public life in two ways. First, as a philosophy professor in Paris, he maintained that he was not teaching anything new, but rather transmitting Hegel’s thought to a new generation of students. Second, at the end of WWII, Kojève abandoned philosophy altogether and became a diplomat, working to establish the European Union.
On the other hand, as a private citizen, Kojève remained fascinated by history, even as his methodology remained Hegalian. At the same time that he began his diplomatic career, Kojève began collecting postcards of historical important buildings and monuments. These postcards were post historical in that they ignored the present in favor of commemorating that which the French Revolution had already made obsolete. Importantly, these postcards became the template for Kojève’s photography, which, on Groys’ interpretation, aimed to bring the philosopher’s idiosyncratic vision of the world in line with that of the dominant vision of the era. Indeed, Kojève’s photographic practice manifested the Hegelian values of “objectivity” and “neutrality” as defined by the dominant trends of an era. Altogether, Kojève collected over 10,000 postcards and took over 5,000 photographs, none of which he displayed to the public. Instead, he filed the postcards and one slide of each image by location and time, creating a massive – but unknown – private visual archive that complimented and contextualized his public work.
At OCAT, Kojève’s importance as a philosopher of history is not evident from the displays themselves. Perhaps at the original installation at BAK-Utrecht (May 20 – July 15, 2012), visitors might have found Kojève’s private obsession to be intuitively interesting. After all Utrecht is just down the road from Haag (the Hague) and debates about the European Union must resonate in the Netherlands in ways that they cannot in China or the United States. Indeed, in a place where Kojève’s work in creating a new political public had concrete effects, I can also imagine a certain fascination with his private life, a desire to examine individualizing obsessions against the background of Hegelian neutrality. Moreover, Kojève’s itineraries began and ended in European cities. Consequently, visitors to the BAK exhibit could imagine themselves as departing from Ultrect and then on to Hong Kong, Calcutta and Madras before returning to Paris by way of Rome.
In contrast to my imagined BAK exhibition, at OCAT, Kojève’s appeal requires contextualization before it begins to make sense, let alone stimulate conversations about what history is and might be. His postcard collection has been represented on nine printed tablecloths and the photographic slides have been digitally reproduced and projected on concrete walls, but what to make of them? We might, for example, specify the question in terms of European history: how have Europeans conceptualized and deployed history such that it became a matter of philosophical debate, rather than say (as in Confucian societies) a matter of ordering the moral society? Moreover, in Shenzhen, we are aware that international journeys begin with the visas that may or may not be granted to Chinese nationals so the question is also practical and not merely academic. Even those with Shenzhen hukou, for example, need a travel pass to visit Hong Kong. In additin, political class and economic status also determine access to an education in western philosophy because international schools can only accept holders of foreign passports, while Chinese schools continue to prepare students for the gaokao, which emphasizes mathematics, science, Chinese, and English to the exclusion of all other subjects.
There are, of course, other challenges to bringing European concerns to a Chinese public. An important one is mutual recognition as an element of international politics. Crudely, the desire for political recognition within China was not the only motive for the Chinese Revolution. Instead, one of the motivations of Chinese revolutionaries was achieving national recognition within the capitalist world system. From this perspective, the establishment of Shenzhen marked the beginning of history in the area and thus Shenzhen’s futurism becomes legible not only as an effort to move beyond Chinese history, but also as making that history legible to those outside China.
It is not my intention to rehearse an argument of Chinese exceptionalism, but rather to elucidate the challenges inherent to any cross-cultural conversation, whether it takes place linguistically or visually or musically. Many have argued that contemporary art accommodates cross-cultural dialogue more easily than language does because languages constrict possible enunciations, while anyone with eyes can understand works of art. And that’s my point. When we think of cross-cultural discourse as a linguistic practice, we are forced to come to terms with the work it takes to learn our native languages, let alone a foreign language. In contrast, when viewing contemporary art, we often forget that just as we learn grammar in order to understand what we hear, we also learn conventions for understanding and evaluating what see. In other words, for a postcard to become a philosophical statement and an exhibition of touristic slides to become a political act, gallery visitors need more than two eyes; we also need history lessons.
This weekend, OCAT has organized lectures to help contextualize the Kojève exhibition. All involved have worked to make the exhibit more accessible to the public, allowing the gallery to become a site of philosophical re-consideration of the meaning and practice of history. However, I suspect that making this history part of the exhibition itself – in addition to holding a series of lectures – might have been a more practical solution to the challenge of making the end of
European history relevant to Shenzhen audiences, where we’ve launched into the future.
By now, most have heard that Global Times, the Party’s international mouthpiece printed an editorial which called for the Chinese public to permit a moderate amount of corruption; if you haven’t jump over to Fauna’s piece at ChinaSmack for translation of the article and web responses. The self-justifying rhetoric and virulent counter-attacks illuminate the cynicism and anger that increasingly characterize public debate in the PRC micro/ blogosphere. Moreover, the virulence and smugness of English language responses to the post need to be analyzed in terms that explain the ongoing social media production of mutual assured cross-cultural contempt in both the US and China.
In many ways, the cynicism of the exchanges remind me of populist diatribes in the US; I actually can hear Mitt Romney and other anti-gay or anti-black or anti-women or anti-child advocates calling for “moderate levels of discrimination” and exhorting the country to “understand” the necessity of continued legal inequality because there are so many incompatible definitions of discrimination and we need to respect everyone’s traditions. The pseudo-rational justifications for continued discrimination understandably anger those who directly suffer the consequences of said laws and customs.
Just how closely does the tone and rhetorical form of US and Chinese popular debate mirror each other? Below, I have copied the Chinese editorial and substituted the following keywords, underlining the substitutions in text:
- discrimination for corruption
- prejudiced for corrupt
- strong economy for development
- prejudice for income
- America for China
- Western for Asian
- Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney for Railway Minister and Party Secretary Liu Zhijun (and yes, in both countries we keep pandering to our lowest acceptable prejudices and greed, respectively)
I have made these substitutions to make a simple point; although the effects of economic globalization and political inequality are different in the PRC and the USA, nevertheless the turn to cultural justification and excuse-mongering is similar. Moreover, tone of the debate transcends relative levels of legal freedom of expression. The anger and absurdity of debate in the Chinese micro/ blogosphere is matched by the anger and absurdity of debate in American television and radio programs (Hello, weibo and Fox News).
The implications of this point, however, are far from simple when our respective national debates end up in our interlocutor’s public sphere. For US citizens, for example, it is difficult to understand the prevalence of and popular resignation to Chinese corruption. Likewise, most Chinese see US concerns about gay marriage and reproductive freedom to be a cases of privileged angst. In the worst case scenario, we focus on the other’s words to explain/ justify our inability to reach mutual understanding because, it seems so obvious, that our interlocutor has such fuck-up values. As a result, in both both countries, we end up focused on the cultural content of public debate, rather than on a shared political-economic structure that has created what are in both the PRC and USA, untenable situations.
So, another call for creative rethinking of what forms cross-cultural understanding and dialogue might assume when translation might do more cross-cultural harm than good.
The modified text begins below:
The American Public Should Permit a Moderate Amount of Discrimination
It was announced yesterday that Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney won the Texan nomination. This piece of news once again touched the public’s most sensitive nerve, that dealing with discrimination. From a national perspective, there is indeed continuous news of discriminatory officials being elected, which does give people the feeling that discrimination is “unending/overwhelming”. They aren’t catching/arresting less, it’s that you can never catch them all [never finish catching them all]. Just what is going on?
America obviously has a high incidence of discrimination, and the conditions for completely eliminating discrimination do not exist at present. Some people say, as long as we have “democracy”, the problem of discrimination can be easily solved. However, this kind of view is naive. The West has many “democratic countries”, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, India, etc. where discrimination are all much more severe than America. But America may very likely be the Western country with the most pronounced sense of “resentment towards discrimination”.
This is related to America’s “serve the people!” official political morals having deeply been engrained in the people’s heart throughout society. However, the reality is that the market economy has attacked its practicality/feasibility, resulting in government officials who half-heartedly observe it or have even betrayed it constantly slipping through various cracks in the system. America is a country that has been deeply penetrated by globalization and the high standards of integrity of developed countries is already known by the American public, and with information coming from different periods and different circumstances being forcible stuffed into America’s sphere of public opinion, bitterness and consternation can find no relief.
Discrimination in any country is unable to be permanently controlled/cured, so the key is to control what the degree that the people will permit/allow. However, to do this is particularly difficult for America.
Singapore and China’s Hong Kong institute a policy of high pay to discourage discrimination. Many Chinese political candidates are wealthy, and normally when someone becomes a government official there, they accumulate renown and connections. After office, they can use then various “revolving doors” to change all they have accumulated into financial return. However, these options and possibilities are not available in America.
Giving government officials power to discriminate is something American public opinion cannot accept. Allowing government officials to step down and use their influence and connections to discriminate against groups is something the system does not allow. Allowing the prejudiced to become government officials is something that people find even more unpalatable. The legal prejudice of America’s government officials is very low, and the compensation for officials of some places is often realized through “unwritten rules”.
All of American society now has some “unwritten rules”. In industries that involve the public welfare such as doctors and teachers, “unwritten rules” have also become popular. Many people’s statutory prejudice isn’t high, but they have “gray prejudice”.
What are the boundaries for “unwritten rules”? This isn’t clear. This is also one of the reason for why there are relatively many discrimination cases now, with some even being “cases of a community of discrimination”. Amongst the people, there is the popular saying that “what is commonplace amongst the people cannot be punished by the law”, and the moment government officials believe this saying while believing “others are the same as me”, then he is already in danger [of becoming prejudiced].
Those who engage in discrimination must be strictly investigated, and not to be tolerated, as this would greatly increase the risk and cost of discrimination, creating the requisite deterrent effect. The government must make the reduction of discrimination the biggest objective of their governance.
The people must resolutely increase supervision through public opinion, pushing the government to fight discrimination. However, the people must also reasonably understand the reality and objective fact that America is unable at its present stage to thoroughly suppress the discrimination, and not sink the entire country into despair.
Writing this definitely does not mean we believe fighting discrimination is not important or should be put off. Quite the opposite, we believe fighting discrimination indeed is the number one problem that must be solved for the reform of America’s political system, and it is also the common demand of the entire country.
However, we believe that fighting discrimination is not something that can be completely “fought” nor completely “reformed” because at the same time, it needs “strong economy” to help solve it. It is a problem of the individual prejudiced officials as well as the system, but that’s not all. It is also a problem of the American society’s “overall level of strong economy”.
Fighting discrimination is a difficult/entrenched battle in the strong economy of American society, but its victory at the same time hinges upon the clearing of various obstacles on other battlefields. America can never be a country where other aspects are very backward and only its government officials are egalitarian. Even if it is for a time, it won’t last long. Eliminating discrimination would be a breakthrough/turning point for America, but this country ultimately can only “advance overall” [any specific progress requires overall progress/strong economy].
Roughly twenty years ago, he, his wife, and their son immigrated from China to Southern California. They came to Shenzhen last year to do business with successful college classmates and brought a daughter and a younger son. The older son remained in California. The man was 40 something years of age, and he told me that his wife and son met a friend and business associate at LAX. When the three went to pick up the visitor’s luggage, his wife went to collect the bags. However, because she is a woman, the visitor stopped her and collected the bags instead. The man didn’t say, but I’m assuming the wife and friend engaged in some who-can-hold-onto-the-bags shuffle, with the result that the visitor ended up carrying his own bags. The son waited for the ritual to end and then led his mother and his father’s friend to the car. The son drove them home.
The man told me this story because he wanted to know what I thought; how had the son behaved?
“Based on what I know of American or Chinese cultural norms?” I hedged, thinking that any young man who drove his mother to the airport to pickup a guest was an accommodating son, and that if his parents and their friends wanted to engage in who’s-the-most-polite shuffles, then that really was their business and why not wait for the storm to end. In fact, personally, I sympathized with the son’s position because I am frequently nonplussed when confronted by demonstrations of Chinese courtesy that are also not-so-sutble assertions of dominance.
He explained that afterward his friend had approached him to talk about the matter. The friend worried that the son did “did not understand things (不懂事),” an expression with meanings that range from ‘immature’ through ‘is insensible to the feelings of others’ to ‘has no concept of proper behavior’. The friend had acted out of concern because he worried for his friend’s son future prospects. To declare a college graduate “does not understand things” means that those in positions of power “cannot use him (不能用人)” and thus will not place him in positions of responsibility, thereby foreclosing opportunities for advancement.
At the time, the father had replied that he thought skill (能力) was the most important criteria for promotions. However, when he discussed the issue with another friend, this time the CEO of a small company, he realized that from the point of view of makers and shakers in China, his son in fact “could not be used”. The CEO explained that he had two employees, A and B, who went everywhere with him. The CEO did not have a driver and so A and B took turns driving. When A drove, he made sure to open the CEO’s door for him before getting into the car. When B drove, he immediately sat in the driver’s seat and A, again, opened the CEO’s door before settling himself in the car.
“Now, who should I promote?” the CEO rhetorically asked the man. “Obviously, A is more meticulous/ attentive (更细心) than B. Consequently, he can be trusted, whereas B doesn’t see the big picture.”
The big picture included hierarchy and etiquette, or understanding one’s relationship with another and each time A opened the CEO’s door, he demonstrated his understanding. In contrast, B did his job. On the CEO’s interpretation, it didn’t matter how talented B was. The real problem was that B couldn’t be trusted to treat guests and by extension business colleagues and clients, properly. A could.
I’m told there are serious differences between etiquette in state-owned industries, where bureaucratic privilege trumps skill and the private sector, where talented people are more valued than sycophants. Also, it seems that things “are different” in the IT sector, but again, people quickly remind me, that techies are young and often westernized. Westernized, perhaps, but as in Western business culture, Chinese business culture distinguishes between those who give good face and those who do their jobs well; rare is the individual who can both manage people and complete tasks.
Interestingly, although the characters for the Chinese words for CEO (董事长) and “understand things” are different, nevertheless they are homophones, which alerts us to the moral of today’s story. At an airport, there are several rules that apply when greeting Chinese guests:
1. If the guest is older than you — collect the luggage to show your respect;
2. If the guest has a higher rank than you — collect the luggage to show your respect;
3. If the guest is a friend — collect the luggage in order to demonstrate your good will.
There are three possible exceptions to the “collect the luggage” rule for greeting Chinese guests, gender, age, and White ethnicity. A friend would neither expect a friend’s wife to collect luggage, nor would that friend expect an elementary school child to collect luggage. Although if the child grabbed a bag, be sure to laugh happily, muss her hair, and exclaim, “Wow, she really understands things!” And yes, white Americans are forgiven for all sorts of social faux pas that Chinese-Americans are not so that when we go for the bags, we suddenly appear “Chinese”.
But to return to the father’s story. What do we say to a Chinese man, who clearly wants his American son to succeed, knowing that amongst globe-trotting Chinese he will be judged by ancestral values and not those of his hometown, Los Angeles?
In talking with people about sociocratic principles, I find myself reminicing about my time as a vice-principal or college councelor and am once again reminded of the violence of childhood and how that violence shapes our understanding of governance because governance is, ultimately, about figuring out how to live together.
I have a clear memory of a first-grader who didn’t like math. Not hard to understand from my US American perspective perhaps, but unacceptable from the perspective of his parents, teachers, and other Chinese adults in his life. The reasoning was both psychological and pragmatic: to excel in math, self-confidence was important and the best way to develop self-confidence was through high test scores. Moreover, the logic continued, elementary math tests were simple and so there wasn’t any reason, except perhaps laziness or stubbornness for a child not to do well in math.
The boy’s first grade math scores were low by local standards; he was averaging between 88 and 93ish on tests, but his classmates were all forging ahead with perfect scores plus extra credit and, a friend helpfully reminded me, in elementary school most students received over 95 on math tests. Clearly the boy had a problem. Nevertheless, his parents were progressive in that they believed that if a student liked a class, he would do better in it and so it became imperative to talk their son into liking math. They thought that if he liked math then he would (1) stop being lazy and work harder and (2) stop resisting their efforts to make him do extra math problems and cooperate with his tutor.
So the parents talked to him. His grandparents talked to him. His teachers talked to him. Several months into this process, they scheduled a meeting with me so that I too could talk him. Nobody actually listened to him.
At the time, I spoke directly to the parents suggesting that the boy had a responsibility as a student to work hard in class and finish assignments, but had no corresponding obligation to like math or spend time each week with a private tutor preparing for Olympic maths, I was told that (1) I was too idealistic and (2) I was American and didn’t understand Chinese children. What didn’t I understand? The importance of elementary school math test scores? They aren’t actually important. And thus, our conversation came to ignoble cross purposes and the boy continued to dislike math and do relatively poorly at it. Over the next few years, parental and teacher conversations escalated into scolding and punishments, although to my knowledge the boy was never beaten for his math scores.
In retrospect, I think the boy’s parents were trying to tell me that I hadn’t assuaged their fears for their son’s future. I’m not sure I could have because for them math tests symbolized future potential to navigate the “real world”. What would happen, the analogy goes when a child went out in the real world, where life tests weren’t simple and failure meant… although this is actually where the logic stumbles because no one knows how low math scores might ultimately destroy a human life. The immediate source of parental fear seemed to be that if the boy didn’t excel in elementary math, he would do poorly on the Shenzhen high school entrance exam, subsequently do poorly on the gaokao, and then end up in a vocational school or worse, laboring as a construction or sanitation worker. Although here again, the logic blurs, because in Shenzhen rural boys who fail to get scholarships to high school end up working on construction sites and although these same rural boys also collect garbage, cleaning jobs go to rural girls who fail to get high school scholarships. In contrast, the boy’s parents were actually worried that the boy couldn’t do better than getting into a foreign university equivalent of Shenzhen University.
I regret that I didn’t actively listen to either the boy or his parents. Its possible that with more practiced skills I might have helped the boy come to terms with the inevitability of classes we don’t like and how to deal with contradictions between our feelings and our responsibilities. I might also have helped his parents have more reasonable expectations for their son’s test scores and a more respectful attitude toward his likes and dislikes; not their job to tell him how he feels.
When we don’t actively listen to children, we teach them that their desires and fears and joys and accomplishments aren’t important. What matters is that they fit into our graded boxes. Clearly the boy’s parents didn’t care if he actually liked math, they simply wanted to find a way of achieving better test scores. They disagreed with traditions of forcing a child to something he didn’t want to do, and so the solution seemed to be forcing him to like it, so that he would then become a pro-active math student. Equally clearly, I didn’t care about the parents’ fears, I just wanted them to stop wasting my time lamenting a first grader’s math scores. I disagreed with their valuation of exams and didn’t see any way of convincing them that disliking math is okay and thus the solution seemed to be getting them out of my office as quickly as possible.
And there’s the rub: I’m starting to understand the violence of childhood as the lack of respect we have for children’s abilities and desires. And this lack of respect blossoms into grown-up inabilities to actually resolve problems in ways that nourish each other’s lives. His parents left my office more deeply convinced that a huge cultural gap separates Chinese and US American people. I remained in my office anxious that another set of parents would schedule a meeting to talk their daughter into liking a difficult subject, like English. But what seems to have actually occurred was another instance of childhood violence in which none of us adults had the wherewithal to help a six year old learn simple concepts of addition and subtraction.
I am currently reading The Old Man and the Sea with two 16 year old Chinese high school sophomores. They are cousins. One is a “good” student, strong and sly in the self-protective way of students who know how to work the system, but do not reach the upper echelon of test results. The other is delicate and shy, a “top” student, who is being groomed to test into Beijing University, producing results (出成绩) for her school and family. The good student knows that unless she goes abroad, she will no doubt end up at Shenzhen University, no matter how much harder she works at school; fortunately, her parents can afford to send her anywhere and so she is not too sly, and her eagerness to model good student answers quickly gives way to assertive self-confidence. The top student already struggles with contradictory desires and ambitions. She yearns to study abroad, but her homeroom teacher has already begun pressuring her to stop studying for the TOEFL and to use her extra time more productively — taking practice gaokao tests or studying the junior year high school curriculum. What’s more, the child of divorce she knows that her mother can’t afford Chinese tuitions, let alone foreign and thus she must secure a scholarship wherever she attends university.
We sit around a square table, tracking the relationship between the old man and the marlin. Santiago believes that his fish is out there, and his quest begins when he sights the purposeful circling of a man-of-war bird. His faith is rewarded and the contest engaged. As the fish pulls the man further out to sea, away from from the lights of Havana and known landmarks, the old man endures, charts his progress against the stars and his suffering, and the fish becomes more than a fish — first a friend, then a brother, more noble, but less intelligent, a brother who must be convinced that he is less than he who came to kill. It is a grand battle that does not end in glory, but the realization of hubris, “I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish,” the old man says to the marlin’s corpse, which has been strapped to the skiff and is being inexorably eaten by sharks. When the old man finally drifts ashore, all that remains is an 18 foot skeleton and the certainty of death.
I chose The Old Man and the Sea because, well misgivings about Hemingway notwithstanding, he knew his craft. His language is deceptively simple. Any sentence taken out of context seems ordinary, common even, but together his words sculpt moral landscapes that make exquisitely salient the brute masculinity and ultimately tragic consequences of lives lived against nature.
“Americans aren’t very peace-loving,” the good student concludes.
“Did the old man have faith in luck or faith in the sea?” the top student asks.
Thus, yesterday’s lesson transformed from a discussion about human limits into a conversation about how being human is culturally defined and experienced. The old man is not their old man, his fish is not their fish, and the sea that relentlessly pulls us out of our depth, that tests our forbearance and ultimately claims our soul, that sea does not figure their dreams. It may be a generational difference. But perhaps not. Certainly the new US passport is replete with pictures of men taking on nature — cowboys and seamen ruggedly occupying the western plains and Pacific waves, respectively. And that’s the point: the girls read with me because the good student’s mother is a friend and she has entrusted her daughter to me (and yes those words were used “交给你”) for old-fashioned Chinese purpose: edification rather than simple instruction. The goal of our bi-weekly meetings is not to improve English test scores or practice oral English, but rather close reading of novels, essays and poetry, to help the teenagers learn to navigate literary nuance elsewhere, which it turns out is also learning to simultaneously recognize oneself and one’s Other despite and across epic difference, which isn’t quite what Hemingway had in mind when he figured Man through his engagement with the Fish, but nevertheless where yesterday’s lesson ended.