dishing on sino-american relations

There is a current blurb flitting through virtual space about a fictional meeting between Xi Jinping and Obama, who has just finished watching an episode of CCTV’s popular 舌尖上的中国后 (A Bite of China). A friend described this parody of bi-lateral mis/understanding as hilarious, another called it an example of literary talent, and yet another as nugget of cultural truth so Chinese it could not be translated!

High praise for a political side dish. So, I decided to create a taste challenge for bi-lingual readers, adapting the piece from Chinese to English. Four political facts might enhance appreciation of the spoof: (1) Obama is just Obama, but Xi Jinping is always, “General Secretary”; (2) there is an important role for overseas Chinese figured by US Ambassador to China Gary Faye Locke (骆家辉); (3) subtitled episodes of A Bite of China can be viewed on Youtube, which remains off menu for those of us dining chez Cafe le Firewall, and; (4) General Party Secretary Xi never mentions the iron rice bowl (铁饭碗), an expression used to described the difficulty of removing officials from their posts. Also of note, the expressions emphasize the acting of eating, not food. Consequently, more colloquial English would use variously use “take” or “swallow” or “suck up” or “eat” to translate 吃 — and therein, perhaps, is an experiential entry into cultural differences structuring Sino-American misunderstanding.

After viewing “A Bite of China [literally China on the Tongue]”, Obama said to General Secretary Xi Jinping, “I’ve realized that although Chinese culture consists of extensive knowlege and profound scholarship, it is really an eating culture. Consider: a job is called a rice bowl, working is called living from hand to mouth (糊口); to be employed is called getting enough to eat (混饭), getting by in style is called eating with gusto (吃得开), and things that are liked are said to whet one’s appetite(吃香); to be taken care of is called eating from the little stove (吃小灶), to spend your savings is called eating your principle (吃老本) to take advantage of a woman is called eating tofu (吃豆腐); to depend on your parents is called gnawing on the old (啃老); a man who spends a woman’s money is said to eat soft rice (吃软饭); to overwork is to eat without digesting (吃不消), to take advantage of someone is to eat an advantage (吃亏), jealousy is called eating vinegar (吃醋); to dither is called to eat indesively (吃不准), to do substandard work is to eat dry rice (吃干饭), to take advantage of anyone is also to eat tofu (吃豆腐), to be taken advantage of is to have swallowed the disadvantage (吃了亏), to be afraid to speak up is called a mute eats coptis root (哑巴吃黄连). To have nothing better to do than make trouble for others is called overeating (吃饱撑), to make a decision is called Eight Wang eats the scales (王八吃秤砣), to ignore an order is not to eat soft or hard (软硬不吃), and to have reached one’s limits is called can’t swallow and slink off (吃不了兜着走).

General Secretary Xi interupted him and said, “We should speak about Sino-American relations. Are you talking about this because you’ve overeaten?”

Obama fainted at these words!

When Obama had recovered, General Secretary Xi earnestly said, “With respect to the importance of Sino-American relations, we will eat deeply and throughly, because we haven’t any principle to eat. The way of the world is that big fish eat little fish, but Cold War thinking is no longer appetizing, and cooperating for mutual benefit is the only way to eat with gusto. Only if China and the United States join hands will the benefits be eaten together. There are those who eat at our table and secretly help others; they eat from the rice bowl of harming Sino-American relations. We eat too much bitterness because they eat vinegar, making us eat with effort to establish a partnership. We have to learn from eating the moat (吃一堑长一智), and prevent them from eating from their bowls with their eyes on the pot. This will also let the world eat heart balls of reassurance. Mister President, are you still eating indesively about these matters? If not, I’d like to dine with you in this compound.”

Obama was speachless, and said after a pause, “It really is too deep to be predicted! Only the last idea could be expressed without the character for eating!”

Gary Faye Locke was standing nearby and couldn’t resist reminding Obama, “That’s because he was actually inviting you to eat!”

奥巴马看了《舌尖上的中国》,后对习近平总书记说:我发现中华文化博大精深,其实就是吃的文化。你看:岗位叫饭碗,谋生叫糊口;受雇叫混饭,混得好叫吃得开,受人欢迎叫吃香;受到照顾叫吃小灶,花积蓄叫吃老本;占女人便宜叫吃豆腐;靠长辈生活叫啃老;男人老是用女人的钱叫吃软饭;干活多了叫吃不消,受人伤害叫吃亏,男女嫉妒叫吃醋;犹豫不决叫吃不准,办事不力叫吃干饭, 占人便宜叫吃豆腐,被占便宜叫吃了亏,还不敢声张叫哑巴吃黄连。没事找事叫吃饱撑的,下定决心叫王八吃秤砣,不听劝告叫软硬不吃,收不了场叫吃不了兜着走。

the social media production of mutual assured cross-cultural contempt in the US and China

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].

Unapologetically superior — Bo and Blago

Without a name card, I’m have difficulty distinguishing Bo and Blago. Both are given to rhetorical flourishes — Bo quotes Mao Zedong poetry and Blago quotes Kipling. Both have channeled money out of their country of service. And both have both given highly public press conferences in which they continued to express their righteousness in the face of national misunderstanding.

Indeed, yesterday when I opened my yahoo account I discovered that Bo Xilai was suddenly all over the U.S. of A. (herehere, and here, for example), even in Utah! Meanwhile, literally just up the street, former Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich headed off to prison on corruption convictions, not with a whimper but a full-on press entourage.

Here’s the rub: Bo and Blago are talking the same talk, albeit one filtered through Indo-Eropean grammar and the other through Sino-Tibetan tones — but don’t let it fool you.

When asked about the Wang Lijun affair during his March 9th Chongqing press conference, for example, Bo Xilai admitted, there may have been a “personnel oversight (用人视察)”! This language not only distanced him from Wang Lijun’s actions, but was the rhetorical equivalent of kicking a dog out of the house for crapping on the carpet. Not my fault, but not really a problem. Less than a week later, Blago picked up where Bo had left off, emoting “Saying goodbye is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’m leaving with a heavy heart, a clear conscience and high, high hopes for the future.”

So in the spirit of he said, he said, a few quotes to test how well you can distinguish between the rhetoric of being corrupt unapologetically superior in Chongqing and Chicago: Continue reading

the fable of donkey island and piggy island

乌有之乡网 (Utopia Net) offers socialist stories, analysis, and insight into contemporary China. Two days ago (Feb 21, 2011), they published the Fable of Donkey Island and Piggy Island, a story which challenges mainstream economic thinking – both American and Chinese – about how the past thirty years have transformed the world as we know it. Importantly, the fallout from trade imbalance that progressive Chinese intellectuals are grappling with in the Fable are the same issues to which the Wisconsin protests call our attention. Specifically, globalization has not trickled down to the common people, here or there, and so we continue to labor and not get what we need. I have paraphrased the fable, below; Chinese version, here.

Once upon a time, there were two islands, Donkey Island and Piggy Island.

The people on Donkey Island were industrious, working every day to produce grain. The interesting point is that the Donkeys were also very frugal and unwilling to eat this grain. Instead, they saved it up and then shipped it to Piggy Island, where the Piggies ate it. Continue reading