I have been a curious lightening rod for Sino-American perceptions of each other, especially with respect to the meaning and importance of Shenzhen in all this global restructuring. I have confounded gendered stereotypes because my body signifies an elite position within global hierarchies. As a white, upper middle class American woman, I have been expected to enjoy and choose from the best that the world offers, which is apparently not to be found in Shenzhen. Or if in Shenzhen, I have been expected to stay only for the time it would take to complete a project and then return to where I belong. This past trip to the US, I discovered that my life choices had become mainstream in profound and (often) distressing ways.
The first time I went to China (1995), I stayed three years before I returned to the US. My ability to speak Chinese and decision to study cultural transformation in Shenzhen (rather than Beijing or perhaps Shanghai) shocked most inhabitants. Indeed, they consistently urged me to head north to conduct valuable research. More tellingly, when I went shopping or stopped at a telephone kiosk, venders and recent migrants (even from Beijing and Shanghai) frequently mistook me for either (a) English by way of Hong Kong or (b) Russian by way Window of the World. Once they realized that I was actually American, the same vendors immediately proposed that Yang Qian was (in order of plausibility): Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Singaporean, and Hong Kongese. Only with great reluctance (and then disturbingly cheerful surprise), they said, “You’re Mainland Chinese!!!” At which point, they asked where we had met in America.
Once I started making annual trips back to the US, however, I realized that my decisions to live and study in Shenzhen were equally shocking to mainstream Americans, who had not heard of the SEZ, its importance in reforming Chinese society, or the scale of what was happening just north of Hong Kong. When I was in West Lafayette, IN, pursuing a Master’s at Purdue (circa 1990), an undergraduate student asked me what the point of studying Chinese was if I couldn’t use it to find a job. Indeed, as late as Spring 2000, members of a job selection committee at a liberal arts college asked me, “What’s so international about Shenzhen?” and then hired someone who studied urban life in Beijing.
The past five years, I have noted how more and more young international professionals are coming to Shenzhen – to work, to invest, to conduct research, and to create art. In Shenzhen, I am no longer strange, but an expected feature of the urban fabric: the foreign investor / English teacher, and also the foreign intellectual, who now appears regularly in Shenzhen’s many international events. Only in conversation, do I still manage to surprise Chinese interlocutors. Likewise, this trip, several incidents suggest how deeply aware not only of China, but also Shenzhen my U.S. family and friends have become. In Seattle, Natasha’s five-year old daughter, Roman is studying Chinese in an immersion program and could speak and write some Chinese. Meanwhile, Natasha and I brainstormed possible collaborations in Shenzhen. On the plane from Seattle to Houston, we met a young college graduate, who chatted in Beijing accented Mandarin and was constructing a multi-national life. In Southern Pines, NC, my two-year old nephew, Emanuelle watches Nihao Kailan and enjoys saying xiexie.
And yet. All this mainstreaming seems to be quickly congealing into stereotypes that perpetuate the kinds of ignorance that shaped early perceptions of my presence in Shenzhen. Most Chinese and Americans continue to believe that (a) the US offers a better life than China and that (b) the only reason one would go to and remain in Shenzhen is to become rich. The most glaring example of this kind of thinking is that those in positions to deny visas (to me in Shenzhen) and entry into the US (YQ when we come back) continue to suspect that there is something not quite right about a mixed couple, who have chosen to live in Shenzhen (rather than, for example, West Lafayette, IN). And yes, they act on these impressions. I am still not eligible for a Chinese green card because eligibility is based on investment or Chinese blood, rather than marriage. Immigration officers still bully YQ when we enter the US because we have chosen to create a life in Shenzhen.
All this to say that China and Shenzhen seem to have been mainstreamed in ways that conform low expectations – get in, make a buck, get out, rather than in ways that might encourage new ways of being global citizens. Moreover, all these bucks continue to sustain illusions of American supremacy, not only because more and more of China’s young elites bring their dreams, talents, and money to the US, but also because many who go to Shenzhen do so looking (and therefore) only finding economic opportunity. Thus, both US and Chinese officials continue to read YS and my lack of visible economic progress as suspicious activity.
I’m happy my nephew can say xiexie. I wish he was also being taught that the appropriate form of courtesy is to jiaoren – to call older people ayi and shushu, or nainai and yeye and that too many xiexies often seem overly formal (at best) or sarcastic in Mandarin contexts. Such are my thoughts as we enter the Year of the Tiger.
Hear me roar.