November 22, 2014

Dream On

Filed under: China,east-west — Kim @ 4:53 pm

Xi Jinping’s contribution to the arsenal of warm and fuzzy CCP catchphrases is “the Chinese dream” and recently I’ve read about it more and seen it plastered on the billboards around Ningbo more. Seems that someone’s trying to get it taken seriously.

What is this “Chinese dream”? First of all, it’s not officially clear what this dream is dreaming for, but it sounds good, leaves a nice warm glow, and can safely adorn billions of billboards and provide the theme for high school public speaking competitions. The other thing, and the CCP must know this of course, is that it alludes to and is derivative of “the American dream”. But the differences are very revealing.

The original (and best) American dream has meant slightly different things to different folk at different times – and that’s inevitable with such a vague and dreamy term. But the kernel of it is that anyone can achieve the good life for themselves in America because the chance is there for everyone to take. Oh, yes, and anyone can become President! It’s an aspiration for the individual, and it’s also a message, or a slogan if you will, that was never foisted from above but was popularized by a historian and picked up and used by we the people.

The Chinese dream, in contrast, came from a speech by the Chinese President and is plastered all over the official media. But what dream is it that the president wants his people to have? What does Xi who must be obeyed want you to yearn for, you huddled masses? Well, sadly it’s nothing along the lines of Xi Jinping dreaming that he’s a butterfly and wondering whether he is just a butterfly dreaming that he’s the boss of the CCP. And since Prez Xi hasn’t deigned to spell out what this dream is all about, then let me, in the spirit of Herr Freud, take a stab at interpreting it. (“Dreams, in Freud’s view, are all forms of “wish fulfillment” — attempts by the unconscious to resolve a conflict of some sort, whether something recent or something from the recesses of the past.”)

It’s a very wordly dream and my take on it is that the Chinese dream is a geo-political dream of a return to a strong China that sits at the centre of the world. It is a dream of a China that will never be bullied again, and so “the century of humiliation” can be finally forgotten because China will be strong, mighty, and feared. (Just like the US!) That’s why China has instituted an “Air Defense Identification Zone” that, it knows, has managed to piss off all its neighbours because it covers territory they consider to be their own. And the Chinese dream is why China is building artificial islands in disputed territory in the South China Sea. As the good old East-West cliché goes, the Chinese dream is a collective dream vs the individualistic American one. China united will be powerful, and any subversive desires that undermine this collective dream will be dealt with harshly. That’s why there’s a crackdown against almost all dissidents these days, and heavy handed attempts to limit the expression of Muslim (and other non-Han) identities.

Someone once defined the difference between authoritarian and totalitarian states as being that the authoritarians just want to stop you from doing certain things whereas the totalitarians want to tell you what to do. Well, seems like the Chinese dream is a totalitarian one in that respect. President Xi is a strong man and he can get inside your head! However, that’s not to say that it’s not a real and genuinely popular dream for a lot of Chinese people. There does seem to me to be a real hunger for military and geo-political power, because it’s equated with respect. When the Japanese “nationalised” the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands a couple of years ago many of my students (mostly but not only the males) thought it was outrageous but told me that they were sure the Chinese government wouldn’t take any military action “like you British did with the Falklands” because they were too cautious. One even told me that “China needs to man up!” Depressing stuff, but not surprising. I remember the cheers that rocked my university dormitory in England when the bombs started falling in the Iraq war. To hear those cheers you’d think it was the UK not the US dropping them. To hear those cheers, you’d think it was intrinsically a good thing to drop bombs. Humans need to grow up, not man up, and you can dream on if you think that’s going to happen anytime soon.

September 17, 2009

Delicious Irony

Filed under: China,east-west,food — Kim @ 5:19 am

Can’t remember why, but I found myself reading Peter Mandelson’s Wiki profile and came across the below. Old, but priceless…

In 2008, melamine added to Chinese milk caused kidney stones and other ailments in thousands of Chinese children, and killed at least six. To show his confidence in Chinese dairy products, Mandelson drank a glass of Chinese yoghurt in front of reporters. The following week, he was hospitalised for a kidney stone; despite the apparent irony, the events were probably unconnected.[25][26]

May 28, 2009

Two Tribes

Filed under: culture,east-west — Kim @ 12:44 pm

As is well known, the world is divided into two types of people: those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. For the purposes of this post, I am going to plump my arse firmly in the former camp and be lavish with my dichotomising divisions.

You have to have binaries if you want to have meaning. Without yin there can be no yang. Without evil there would be no meaningful good. Without contraries, there is no progression. Where is West without East? Where would North Korea be without the South?

And what is a nation without a foil? The Irish stand-up Tommy Tiernan once pondered aloud the question “What does it mean to be Irish?’ and quickly answered, “It means we’re not fucking English…that’s what it means!”

And what is a match without two teams? Last night saw Man U and Barcelona square off and sitting behind me and a few other English teachers were some French students. Gauche young men full of beer and Dutch courage, and good illustrations of the “football is vicarious war” thesis. Just before kick off the chant went up “Les anglais sont homosexuels!” and – many beers later – when Messi headed in the second goal, one of the well-oiled Gallic provocateurs could not resist getting all too literally in the face of an Englishman Man U supporter, taunting him with his loss. Red mist descended, the words “French cunt” were spat out and invitations to a pugilistic encounter were proffered. But it didn’t kick off.

The English and the French were enemies for centuries but I do not and cannot feel any tribal hatred for them. ’Twould be absurd. To my surprise though, I did feel that there was some hatred of “Les Anglais” in the air last night and not just dislike for a rich and successful football machine/team.

Oh well, the world can be divided into two types of people: Tribal and post-tribal. And I fear the former still massively outnumber the latter.

Alas, plus ça change…

April 5, 2009

Adult Reading

Filed under: China,culture,east-west,teaching — Kim @ 9:02 am

My new job at “The University of Nottingham in Ningbo” is a good one and things are going well so far. The compact little campus is lovely: clean and green and pleasant, peaceful yet not dull, family-friendly, multicultural, (sounds disturbingly similar to a Jehovah’s Witness cartoon paradise actually) and full of mixed-race babies and toddlers for my own little mutt to make friends with. It is not really China, it’s more like a little Sino-British bubble tucked away on the edge of the city. The staff hotel I’m staying at has a bar/restaurant called “The Robin Hood” (so we ‘hang out in the hood’ for beers of course) and there is cricket and tennis, a properly stocked library, a computer in every office, a chicken in every pot, and – a real reverse culture shock here- the toilets all have toilet paper.

The only problem is Ningbo. After Dalian, Ningbo comes across as a decidedly drab little city and sadly deserves its nickname of “Ningboring.” But not to worry because Hangzhou and Shanghai are close by, and they both rock. Like, totally.

But in any case…on to my “thought for today”. A couple of weeks ago I went on a daytrip with a group of staff and students (mostly first and second years – 26 females, 1 bloke) to listen to some talking heads at the Shanghai literary festival. We went on Saturday March 21 and listened to Simon Schama talking away wittily and at furious pace about “The American Future” and to a presentation by the two translator’s of Wang Gang’s “English:A Novel” (英格力士 – Ying Ge Li Shi) which featured Wang Gang himself reading a couple of extracts in the original Mandarin. (Followed by one of the translator’s reading the same extract in English, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to write about it, you understand.)

One of the extracts was an amusing piece of “toilet humour’ in which the main character, a little boy called “Love Liu”, ends up peeing in the urinal next to his English master and, on sneaking a peek, is bowled over by the size of the teacher’s todger. The second passage took us from comedy to tragedy and described a scene in which Love Liu is watching his father paint a huge portrait of Mao on a wall. The novel is set during the Cultural Revolution when any depiction of Mao had to be treated with great reverence of course, and it wasn’t hard to sense trouble on the horizon. Sure enough, while the father is painting Mao’s body – having finished the head already – along come two cadres and criticise him for leaving out one of Mao’s ears. The father protests that the laws of perspective demand he do this but the cadres insist he paint the ear on anyway. When he does so they complain that it looks strange and accuse him of trying to make Mao look ridiculous, then one of the cadres gives the father a resounding slap on the face while berating him. The boy of course is left smouldering with shame and impotent anger.

I thought the piece portrayed well the paranoid “spirit of the times” and was especially good at conveying the shock – and loss of innocence – of the young boy on finding out that his beloved and respected father could be treated with such contempt. But this second snippet did not please many of the students we’d bussed in for the day. One of our little darlings stood up at question time after the speech and demanded of the Chinese translator (the lovely Jane Weizhen Pan) why she had chosen to translate a book about “a time that is rather strange to my generation and gives foreigners a bad image of China”. Ms Pan chose not to answer, and indeed looked a bit put out, but fellow translator Martin Merz smoothed things over by saying that they had been given the book as a job to do by the publisher, “so the book chose us” he said.

I suppose that “English:A novel” is in some ways “shaming” for China insofar as it deals with what is often termed as a ‘shameful” period. Indeed, the Amazon spiel about it says it is “a transcendent novel about a boy’s self-discovery, a country’s shame, and the transporting power of language.” But the point is that through its humour and its humanism, the novel transcends petty face-saving concerns over “shame” and “country” and it can help readers to do the same…if they will let it.

Anyway, a little later myself and one of my colleagues had a chat with some of the students about what they’d thought of the session and especially about issues raised by the question. Drastically summarised, the conversation went something along these lines:

Middle-aged Western teachers...Don’t you think that all of a nation’s history needs to be explored? Even the uncomfortable bits? So as to be able to understand and face up to mistakes.

Young Chinese students…We shouldn’t show the bad times from China to the world. Why do foreigners always want to talk about the Cultural Revolution?

Teachers….But it’s not the job of literature to promote a country. Literature is about exploring human behaviour, not showcasing a country’s achievements.

Students…Chinese writers should write about China in a way that gives foreigners a favourable impression. Chinese literature should inspire young Chinese to love their country and be better people.

Gah! Cultural mismatch ahoy! But also – I am starting to think – it was perhaps more fundamentally an age mismatch…albeit an age mismatch affected by culture.

Let me explain: In my humble opinion, Asian youngsters take longer to become young adults than their counterparts in the West. When I first went to Japan to work in a Japanese university I was horrified by the Freshman Party. It involved balloons, pass the parcel, lots of photos with the teachers, and lashings of ginger beer and cola. (Yes, it sounds like a McDonalds’ birthday party.) I looked back fondly to my fresher’s partying in England in which any game of pass the parcel would have probably involved prizes of condoms and joints. Now, I know sex and drugs and KTV are not what maketh a man, and there were other differences too, like the Japanese freshman’s lack of political and historical awareness, lack of ability to think critically, and lack of cynicism and irony. But the youth in asia (sounds like euthanasia, innit?) catch up within a few years, and I don’t just mean they start drinking and shagging. Most of the final year students I talk to in Japan and China are much more clued up and look and behave like adults.

There were echoes of this point recently on Mr Thinkweird’s blog in which he – a young Chinese male blogger – asserted that

I was a Fenqing myself several years ago (anti-Japan), but now I moved on. Fenqing can’t survive very long after they are exposed to the realities and truth. Once Fenqing enter the society, see more and get busy making a living, they will change.

That said, the Gang Wang incident reminded me of another literary anecdote from my time at Dalian University of Foreign Languages when about a year ago, as a very rare treat, we had a guest lecture by the Irish Kafka specialist and top translator,Mark Harman. The lecture was OK but anyway in a post-lecture bar conversation (where most of the interesting stuff gets said) Mr Harman told us of a curious incident that had happened to him up in Beijing. He had opted to conclude his lecture there with a quote from an appropriately titled article called – if I remember properly – “Kafka in China” in which the author had proposed that Kafka was a universal writer who by rendering the fundamental strangeness/absurdity of the human condition so strikingly was able to spring the locks of mind forg’d nationalist manacles and usher readers into the broad sunlit uplands of a post-nationalist perspective. Or something like that…in any case Prof. Harman was rather startled when one of the Beijing University literature professors stood up at question time and vigorously denounced this piece of whimsy by stating that any Chinese reader worth his salt would always stay first and foremost and fundamentally Chinese, and that this sort of post-nationalist talk was insidious propaganda that was probably designed to weaken Chinese love for the motherland and etc etc etc. Mark Harman has a nice wry sense of humour and although an Irishman in a bar has been known to embellish a tale occasionally, it rings true. And can you imagine any Western literary scholar talking like that? Or at least if they did, they’d be laughed out of town for sounding so childish. “We just don’t think that way anymore” as Mark Harman put it. (Though just who the “we” in that comment is referring to is a bit problematic.)

I suppose my point is that, generally speaking, Chinese are more prone to see literature through the prism of nationalism than Westerners – and young Chinese much more so. It takes a while for them to get rid of their high school “education”, I guess. Wang Gang’s “English” is at its heart a novel about “growing up” and my hope would be that those “patriotic objector” students we bussed in to the Shanghai Literature Festival will read it and let it help them “grow up” too.

As a happy ending, I find it refreshing, and inspiring even, that such an irreverent and “adult” novel as Wang Gang’s “English” should become “A major bestseller in China, where it was voted best novel of the year independently by the critics and the general public” (Book blurb). Surely the book’s success is a sign that China’s civil society is growing, and growing up.

January 25, 2009

Wired on House

Filed under: asia,culture,east-west — Kim @ 4:09 pm

My name is Kim and I am an addict.

Over the last 2 months I have been working fairly hard….lots of essays to mark and no days off! Diddums. But I have also become an addict. After a hard day’s work followed by a couple of hours playing with baby, tickling the missus, etc etc, I somehow found the time to work my way through all 5 seasons of The Wire and the first 3 seasons of House.

All of which led to lack of sleep, irritability, dyskinesia, loss of concentration, pulmonary edemas and vasculitis…no it can’t be vasculitis, there’s no temperature.

DVD box sets can be the saviour of some expats. We need a prolonged dose of fantasy/western culture delivered in English to get us through the “bad China days” and keep our mental health.

Movies are OK and have their time and place, but they don’t really do it for the authentic addict. I need to spend long long hours with these people to get to feel at home with them. I need to watch them talking about lots of different topics, fighting their case over more than a few issues, eating various types of food, interacting with multiple people, and tested by a myriad circumstances before I can know them well. I need to make friends with my box set characters and making friends takes time.

It’s also nice to get to know a new city. David Simon, the brains behind The Wire once said in an interview about the show that “My favorite character would be the city of Baltimore, god bless her.” Now, I have never been (and seriously doubt I will ever go) to Baltimore but The Wire has helped me see the place’s soul a little. The camera went all around the city and into people’s homes and hearts and minds. Baltimore is a beautiful fucked-up place and The Wire is a wonderful show.

But it’s not all about the soulful stuff. I get kicks out of simply watching somewhere which is not China and seeing westerners doing familiar things. It must be something about having lived in Asia for a long time that makes it so deeply satisfying just to watch Doctor House eating a Reuben sandwich. I am not American and have never even had a Reuben sandwich….but still, it feels comfy.

And I need the English too. Living in China, I occasionally crave an infusion of English the way I used to crave crack cocaine back in the bad old days. Dr House and his medical pals give me a huge hit of medical jargon, and The Wire had me saying “alright” in Ballmer-ese (aaah eye-t) and learning sum street slang like hoppers and shorties and re-ups.

Getting hooked to a TV series is like gorging on a long novel. Part of it is the power of the art to pull you into the story and make you care about the characters, and part of it is about escapism, and some of it is because you feel you are learning something as you watch. House is obviously appealing to the amateur Doctor inside all of us, but The Wire can make you feel like you know a bit about the druggy subculture of the Baltimore streets and the life of a Police in a big bad American city.

For an English expat in China, getting lost in an American TV series makes the escapism part kind of sweet and sour. I am “escaping” from China into a “home culture” that is not my home and is not somewhere I particularly want to live. Actually, I have never been to America but in many ways I know that life there would feel familiar. Asia does not do cynicism, irony, individualism and immorality (immorality on TV that is) to the extent that the west does.

And now I’ve finished my feasting, what is there to say? Well, there are a couple of coincidences that recently occurred to me and the first of these is that in both The Wire and House the central character is an intelligent, unconventional, and stubborn American male; acted by an Englishman. I think it’s fairly well known that Greg House is the well known English actor Hugh Laurie, but it’s also true that Detective Jimmy McNulty is a rather less well known Englishman called Dominic West. Both do a nice job with their accents.

I hereby resist the urge to indulge in snarky comments about how Americans need to hire Brits in order to come across as intelligent.

The other rather more meaty thing the two shows have in common is that they both have drugs at their core. This is not a weak pun on medicinal drugs vs recreational drugs but what I mean is that Dr House is by far the most important character in the show and he is hooked on Vicodin, and the whole of The Wire revolves around the Baltimore drug trade.

Americans, it seems, cannot bear too much reality. What I mean is that Americans don’t like being straight and sober very much, and so be it booze or coke or Vicodin they want to use and abuse some substances to soften the blow of life in modern America. The question is: why? And the answer is because they aren’t high on nationalism like the Chinese or high on religion like the Iranians. Drugs and drink are filling the meaning-shaped hole in the post-modern western soul. Discuss.

So this is my America of the last two months: fiercely competitive, drug-riddled, gun-ridden, crime-ravaged, riven by race and poverty…and completely absorbing.

Thank God for Obama! He’ll make it all better. Oh no, wait! He’s a smoker, so we can’t trust him either. Damn.

Next box set please! (Any recommendations?)

PS. Happy Chinese New Year. MOOOO!