re/membering undocumented histories

An Interview with Filmmaker and Artist Hu Jie in the New York Times Review of Books reminds me just how important it is to pay attention and to remain curious: we will be called upon to bear witness to that which we have seen and that which we did not. Indeed, Hu Jie attempts to document histories that at the time could not be documented, such as a series of wood block prints that document rural famine during the Great Leap Forward. Unlike many who lament the loss of material culture during the anti-four olds campaign and the Cultural Revolution, Hu Jie remains focused on the fact that people died as a result of policies and campaigns.

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in a globalized world, is the categorical imperative still “universal”?

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

礼貌 and 文明: what’s the difference?

This is an open question to all speakers of Chinese: what’s the difference between 礼貌 and 文明? My sence is that 礼貌 are practices of appropriate intimacy, while 文明 refers to practices for navigating amongst strangers. In turn, 礼貌 would map onto the moral territory of 脸, while 文明 is about presentation and being seen, hence mapping onto 面子. Am I wildly off, or have I stumbled into a difference that makes a difference? Thoughts?

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?

more confucian business ethics: collect the bags!

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?

unsafe worlds: of gutter oil and loaded guns

Today, I’m thinking that there’s a perversity to the way in which our highest values come back to haunt us. Consider for example, the functional analogies between feeding the people in China and protecting one’s rights in the United States.

In Shenzhen, for example, ingesting gutter oil (地沟油) symbolizes all that might go wrong when interacting with unknown persons in the big bad city. Likewise, back in Southern Pines, all sorts of bodily harm might happen because “the wrong people” get guns and go off half-cocked.

Life is hard, they say in China. Here, there’s no guarantee that you’ll eat your fill. Instead, you not only have to take great precautions to make sure you get enough to eat, but also to work diligently just to ensure that what you do eat is healthy, let alone being able to truly eat as much of whatever you want. Moreover, just when you think you’ve made it, some greedy bastard serves you a portion of gutter oil, ruining your digestion and damning you to a life of porridge and bland vegetables.

Life is hard, they also tell us in the US. But here, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a fair deal. Instead, you not only have to be vigilant to make sure you can make a life for yourself, but also to ensure that what you do end up doing is what you want, never mind having a chance to truly enjoy the pleasures of freedom. What’s more, just when you think it’s going your way, some nutcase shows up on your porch, forcing you to pull the trigger or suffer the consequences.

I concede that Chinese cuisine and American independence organize desire differently. Indeed, on the face of it, Chinese preoccupations with food seem radically different from American obsessions with self-realization. Nevertheless, today I suspect that the differences between Chinese celebrations of fine food and American glorifications of independence merely muddy the cross-cultural waters. Rumors of gutter oil and loaded guns remind us that no matter how different Chinese tones and American syntaxt may be, nevertheless they tell the same story — we have constructed unsafe worlds for ourselves and our loved ones.

of law and hope…

The Chinese legal system and Rule of Law are emotional topics for both westerners and Chinese alike. I haven’t spoken enough with westerners to understand our emotional investment in the development of China’s legal system. However, that may be the point — we’re emotionally attached to our investments… Nevertheless, tempted though I am to pursue that line of thought, what I’m actually pondering is how the promulgation of specific laws might serve as symbols of hope. Continue reading

ungodly creations

i have been thinking about the phrase “and god created the world in his own image.” i’ve also been wondering about how worlds get made and unmade in everyday life. a weekend of arts festivals prompted this speculation, which is necessarily permeated by the ongoing re- de- construction of shenzhen.

god’s gender provides a useful point of departure for thinking about what it means to create in one’s own image because, of course, there are (at least) two possible interpretations of “image”. image could refer simply to god’s face, snowy white beard and amazingly grecian and white toga. obvious and understandable target of feminist outrage. more interestingly and less exclusionary, image could also mean whatever happens to be going on in god’s head, which opens us to discussions that veer into dream interpretation. if we are every part of our dream, by analogy, god would be every part of the world as it was in the beginning, is now and every shall be…, begging the question: which part of god am i? and oh my god. you, too?

the play between image as what is visible and image as what we think was central to the subtlemob performance piece, as if it were the last time, which i saw saturday evening as part of the microwave new media arts festival.

the title of the piece itself, as if it were the last time is in the subjunctive, the tense where we suspend our disbelief and live the story as truth. the piece was created through the interaction of audience members with each other, a small commercial area of tsuen wan, and the other people in the area. the audience was divided into two groups, “lost” and “found”. both groups were given an mp3 with a mix of music, story, and instructions. throughout the 30-minute piece, the members of the two groups variously performed, watched each other, listened to the music and story creating a cinematic experience in the space.

last time played with both senses of image. on the one hand, none of the performers looked like an actor. on the other hand, in order for the piece to work, audience members needed enough familiarity with audiovisual conventions in order to appreciate what was happening. indeed, one of the more moving effects of this process was how the performance opened me more fully to those around me as if we were part of the same story and therefore the same world.

this spirit of creative exploration continued on sunday, when i enjoyed an afternoon with friends at the shenzhen bay fringe, including fun mime by the trip of mime, a group from hong kong and then participated in the fifth shenzhen pecha kucha night, showing twenty images of the transformation of houhai since 2002. uncanny moment that. the slides were projected onto a screen in the middle of a decorative pond where once was coastal water now a coastal mall. indeed, it was the sense of displacement that foregrounded for me the slippage between images as what appears and images in the mind’s eye. houhai has been razed and reconstructed so many times that there is no there on which to hang a history. the place crumbles away only to re-emerge as another version of modernity from someone else’s sketchbook.

now, i don’t know if our creative conflation of what is and what the mind’s eye sees makes us divine. it would be nice to think so, but my experience in last time has me thinking otherwise. the success of the experience hinged on collaboration, more on the idea that we are all part of god’s unfolding, so to speak and less on the imposition of individual images onto that world. more explicitly, the history of reclaiming houhai teaches that when we impose one image onto the diversity of life, we end up with less life and more pollution, not to mention fewer refuges for spoonbills to nest and mangroves to flourish.

and there’s the ethical rub. it is so difficult to understand myself not as a source of world transformation, but rather as an expression of the world itself and the role i am assigned.

we’ve all done that…

Generation 90, as the teens born after 1990 are known, are reputedly even less socially responsible than the little emperors of generation 80. Not unexpectedly, Shenzhen’s wealthy second generation (富二代) is considered one of the most materialistic and selfish (最功利最自私) in the country. They have all (and yes making absolute generalizations about these teens is a national passtime) bought and then neglected to death goldfish and hamsters and bunnies and turtles; they all engage in competitive consumption, throwing out cell phones and laptops and gameboys as soon as a new model comes out; they all disrespect grandparents, ignore their parents, and only listen to their teachers when they are forced to. As a parent summarized the situation, “There are so many children today with great test skills, but are morally bankrupt (今天的学生功课好,却是个混蛋).”

Like all hyperbole, the stereotypes about Generation 90 carry grains of explosive truth. Most obviously, these stereotypes refer to rich kids, not the children of working families and definitely not the children of migrant workers. The parents of generation 90 think and spend in terms of 10,000s of yuan and not 1,000s (the working class) or 100s (migrant workers). These are kids who only have to face the consequences of their actions should their parents choose not to buy a way out for them. The most egregious examples are all school related: how much parents have spent to get a child into a top school; how much parents have given to a child for getting top grades; how much parents have spent when a child has been caught breaking rules.

In a country where the gaokao structures opportunity, it is easy to understand the resentment that fuels Generation 90 stereotypes. Resentment is further enflamed by the fact that even if these teens don’t test into a famous university, their families can finance a second chance abroad. I also empathize with the nervousness that infuses Generation 90 stereotypes. After all, these teens will hold key positions in the new world order; they are being trained as the next generation of political, military, economic, and cultural leaders and their parents are working hard to make sure that in this new world order China has a strong and respected position.

And yet.

As a child of America’s postwar ascension, I share Generation 90’s conundrum. I was given puppies and hamsters, a top education, and access to key institutions. I was not only allowed, but also expected to make life choices based on desire and personal inclination, rather than on material necessity. My parents also worked hard to ensure that I would have opportunities to learn from, rather than be condemned for my mistakes. I don’t always like or agree with many of the decisions my students make, but I understand how difficult it is to unlearn privilege, especially when it doesn’t feel like anything but everyday life. Moreover, I realize that the wealth and prestige and opportunity that I inherited as part of GenX is the world that Generation 90 is struggling to overcome.

thoughts on the culture of commerce

information about the shenzhen bay fringe festival is now online. the dates are december 4-12, 2010. there will be events everyday at the nanshan culture center, which is in fact the string of malls that run from baoli in the east through coastal city over houhai road to nanshan book city. and yes, the conflation of “culture” with “commerce” is both strategic and unfortunate. strategic because commerce is the way shenzhen artists step around politically sensitive questions. unfortunate because most shenzhen residents do not see interesting frissions between commerce and culture.

the hopeful aspect of commerce as culture is that what starts out as a strategy to introduce shenzhen residents to a wider variety of cultural forms may pry open an alternative space within the relentless commercialism of the area. the more distressing aspect, of course, is that the commercialism is relentless and, for many, an unquestioned good precisely because of its alliance with culture, especially, education. after all, commercialized shenzhen art remains primarily a means of earning additional gaokao points, even when a student actually enjoys music or painting or the ballet. for adults, art is a hobby.

the shenzhen conflation of commerce and culture is not unlike the american confusion of freedom to purchase with human emancipation. we buy sniper dolls for our daughters and do not question the principles organizing our toy stores (why dolls? why plastic bullets? why do we differentiate between children based on what their parents can and cannot afford?) and yes, this confusion annoys me; on bad days, i end up snapping at mothers who have done nothing more than ask if their daughters can earn alot of money if they go to the right colleges. (i haven’t recently taken out my frustration on americans because i left the country. next trip home i’m sure i’ll be snapping with the best of the turtles. sigh.)

come anyway. be the fissure that cracks open our hearts.