Transimperialism and the modern family

You know you’ve got a liberal arts education when essay titles like that just kind of pop into your mind. It sounds so stupid to actually try and explain my course studies to anyone not familiar with American private schools.

“I’m an East Asian Studies Major, which is a very flexible program. For example, last semester I took a class on postcolonialism in greater East Asia, along with an analysis of pop culture as a window on the development of Japanese culture on the twentieth century. We spent a lot of time talking about Godzilla and the A-Bomb. But my favorite was my politics course, and the capstone of that was a twenty-page essay on the role of the PLA as a proxy government during the Cultural Revolution.” And this is before I start talking about my 19th century Germanic Interior Design course and begin my 30-minute prepared defense of Karl Freidrich Schinkel as the great genius of pre-1848 Prussia. I’m not making a word of this up.

Anyway, my dear friend Courtney put up a post on her experiences as a pretty white girl with long light hair running around in Beijing. She’s sick of getting stared at like she has a second head and getting mugged by people for photos with the exotic westerner. Along with most of us. But, mercifully, I am not a blond woman, and therefore am spared 99% of the suffering that Anna, Phillipa, and Courtney get put through here.

 But in the interest of gender balance, and trying to talk more about the issue of culture gaps and the experience of being a white expat and so on, I thought I would try and explain my feelings about the male form of that attention, and then talk about dinner with Huang’s family.

But first, as usual, I want to talk about something totally unrelated.

I was fooling around on Wikipedia, reading about the old Burmese coup and their earlier history, when I found this, a story written by George Orwell about the time he spent as a policeman for the Brits in Burma, which was then under the Raj. It’s real short and I recommend it. As another lefty who believes the worst thing a leftist party can do for the common people is form a dictatorship (because it never really is “of the proletariat”), I really enjoy reading Orwell. He writes from a solid centrist, individual perspective that makes him universally enjoyable.

But what makes this slightly relevant to my point is the feeling of the narrator. Regardless of how I feel about my country’s foreign policy (or lack of a consistent one), the way I walk, dress, and talk gives me away as American, and I was born and raised there. I believe wholeheartedly in American values like personal freedom, egalitarianism, personal informality and fraternity, eating like a pig, and cultural inclusiveness. I love my country, even if I don’t always like a lot of things about it. But I’m an American. I represent the wealthiest, most powerful, most influential country in the world to everyone I meet, and this gets a lot of different reactions.

Almost all of them are positive. The only negative reaction I have ever had was when I was in a Carrefour (France’s supermarket chain caught on here a lot quicker than Wal-Mart’s) and some middle-aged guys chatted me up over the rice cookers. Translated from Chinese:

Random Guy A: (looking up in surprise) “Ah, a foreigner!”

Moi: “Yep. I’m an American exchange student.”

RG A: “Really? America’s pretty all right.”

RG B: (clutching RG A by the shoulder) “Don’t talk to him. Americans are bad news. America only care about America’ problems. Just look at what they’re doing in North Korea.” (exit with RG A stage left)

Moi: We’re not all like that! (fade to black)

But that’s been it, pretty much, and Random Guy B was the only person I’ve met in China with a facial tattoo–a character I couldn’t read, maybe 10 years old, just under his eye. Possibly an ex-con, maybe just a veteran–the only native Chinese who seem to get inked seem to be one of the two.

But there’s always this pressure to behave like an American. A sahib has to act like a sahib, whether or not he likes being a sahib. Squeezed between a decaying empire you disagree with and a colony that gets on your nerves, put in a position of representing the home country, and…

But that’s been about it. Pretty much everything else has been something like, “Oh, you’re American! It’s such a nice country. I hope to go someday. I have a friend who went there once, to California/Texas/New York. I have an American friend in town, do you know him?” I play with peoples’ babies and toddlers on the subway while their parents try and get them to say “Hello” in English and “Ni Hao, Waiguo Shushu” (Hello, Foreign Uncle!). People try to teach me how to hold my pen properly when they see me doing homework and are stunned when they learn that I can’t write at all with my right hand, but that’s pretty much the worst that usually happens.

I do get stares and double takes, harassed by salespeople, the odd photo, and bland food at restaurants unless I make myself very clear to the wait staff that I want REAL spice, but to be honest I don’t really mind it. I’m not a girl and so it’s never that invasive or personal. Except at dance halls, every once in a while, but that’s what you’re paying for, I guess. Instead of getting casual assessments of my beauty in daily conversation with strangers and mobbed by long lines of Chinese tourists for photos anytime I go anywhere scenic, I get occasional nervous girls that ask me for a photo and asked about my family and school instead of my hair. Much more tolerable.

But there is just an element of performance in the whole thing, more so than there is in normal life. I do buy into a lot of the all-behavior-as-performance theory, the idea that we don’t really have any innate qualities, we’re just taught to believe in the idea that we do and try and perform to that standard.

But this is a country that hires white people in suits who don’t speak Chinese to do nothing at all but look professional, project a cosmopolitan, international flair, and try and build international connections in a very chancey, personal, abstract, Chinese kind of way. A country that covers its products in English that 99% of its marketing base doesn’t understand. That photoshops its models to look whiter, curvier, and more Anglo whenever possible. That mindlessly adopts the “western” products that international companies have carefully tailored to Chinese tastes and markets. Everything is perception here. And people-watching is the number one national recreational activity, way ahead even of the NBA.

There’s just this idea that we need to perform, that compared to them we aren’t being western enough, that they’re chasing us across the Pacific and we have to hide in more and more American places as they chase us and learn from us and become global citizens and change it and take all we have and twist it into something foreign and different and sour and wrong. Like they want us to be different and strange and powerful, so that they can justify the whole system and have something to turn into. The whole country wants so desparately to find something new to be, to find something new to believe in, and the Cultural Revolution made it impossible to either turn red or turn to the past. And being international cosmpolitans is nice, but you have to have somewhere to come home to, some kind of center, some kind of ideal, and something to move toward.

It’s weird being so many things to so many strangers. To an old woman I might be both the reason she survived the Japanese invasion, when we sent them food and medical supplies, and the reason her brothers were drafted and killed, sent unarmed and screaming into the front lines in Korea, and a guest to be treated with respect, and a customer terrified of getting cheated by the dastardly Chinese merchants, and an arrogant foreigner with lousy Chinese. To a teenage boy I might be something both to be envied and disgusted by, laughed and stared at. To a small child I’m a giant white hairy clown, and to a pretty girl I’m a giant white cute hairy clown with a big wallet. To everyone we’re walking jokes, waiting to deliver a punchline, and to everyone who sees me furiously studying Chinese textbooks, I’m an object lesson in globalization and a symbol of national pride in what China has become in the last twenty years.

It’s just…odd. I wonder if I could spend my life here.

Lots of people say that there are tens or hundreds of thousands of expats and foreign businessmen here all the time, and there’s no reason to give us a second glance any more, at least not in Beijing or Shanghai. I guess the way I do the math, Twenty million people divided by a hundred thousand expats (pure guessing there) is like five tenths of a percent. Given the income imbalance, political and economic history of China, and the visual difference, I guess it makes us a pretty remarkable minority–even if there’s a bunch of us, there’s a BUNCH more of them, and they don’t see a honky too often unless they spend a lot of time in upscale hotel lobbies or in Wudaokou–not places the average Zhou spends a lot of time in.

That’s a pun, for people who don’t speak Chinese, because “Zhou” is pronounced “Joe.”

Anyway, in the usual fashion of my essays, I will now actually talk about what the title references after thirty pages of exposition. Dinner with the Huangs! After work the week before last Saturday, Huang and Gao drove us to their second home in the southeast suburbs of Beijing. When I say suburbs, Pittsburghers, think one of the emptier areas around East Liberty or Lawrenceville. Lots of old closed factories, migrant worker communities, and houses for government workers, pensioners, and the nouveau riche–either people who can afford the car trip and the theoretically better air quality or who are too poor for more convenient housing. Our host family belongs to the former. It’s a very nice neighborhood, although it looks quite normal on the outside. They’re sturdy, warm, comfortable, four-story houses, probably even larger than my house at home, and this is a house built for three people at Beijing real estate prices and housing demands. Yeah.

The night before the dinner, Huang and Gao were busy cooking up a storm, so they shooed us upstairs to make us do homework and watch television on a flatscreen larger than some beds I’ve slept on that they don’t know how to use. Phillippa found an English channel and we watched New York Minute, a film starring the Olsen twins, cameoing Simple Plan, and keeping them both in as few clothes as possible and encountering as many bad ethnic stereotypes as possible. I feel like I am a stronger person for having sat through the film, but I still want those two hours of my life back.

The next day, the house was filled with people and the food Huang had prepared for them. He’s an excellent cook, in addition to being a former national basketball player (Gao was an Olympic swimmer and at one time was the best in China; that’s how they met) and a former Ministry of Health bigwig. His mother, father, three older sisters, their husbands, his (second?) oldest sister’s daughter and granddaughter were all there, pretty much all of whom are from and live around Beijing.

I caught the gist of a lot of the conversation and was able to participate in it a little. We got all the usual questions–what are our families like, what do our parents do, how long are we studying, what are our majors, how old we are, what we think of the food and China in general, yada yada. After a while they started talking about what each other had been up to, what the people who hadn’t come were doing, and so on.

To be honest it reminded me a lot of family gatherings in Erie and Kentucky, and some of the food did, too. The way Huang spiced his Mala Tofu and prepared the sauce made it came off as a veggie Italian dish I might pay $12 a plate for back in the States, and they served a very American style potato salad, although it was sweetened with red beans, rather than raisins, not that I regard this as a flaw. Pork and potatoes, those fermented eggs that are so popular here that I’m really developing a taste for, a nice fish dish that Gao served me lots of, Chinese bread rolls, and so on. Also, it might have been because the brand was high-quality, or because it was warmed, but when we had baijiu (sorghum wine that is VERY cheap and quite popular here), it didn’t just taste like acetone, which makes me think I might actually be getting used to it a little. As much as that is concievably possible.

The entire family dissected the granddaughter’s Chinese name, and weighed it against the other options they had been considering, and then the old-timers asked us about our names and told the naming stories about themselves or when they had been naming their kids. Chinese names have all kinds of literary and cultural meaning, and you want a real high-class name, one that sounds smooth and old but crisp and modern and may be difficult to write, but that can’t have any bad or weird homophones. So coming up with new ones is a problem when your language has as few sounds as Chinese. Previous to this discussion, I thought these kinds of discussions were just stories in Amy Tan novels, urban legends to scare white guys from getting involved with asian girls. Guess again!

After dinner Huang’s parents went up for a nap, lots of people went upstairs to play with the toddler, and Phillippa and I got dragged into a long, rambling political debate with a slightly drunk brother in law of Huang’s. Like I said, it was a lot like a family gathering in Erie or Kentucky. I started off understanding about three-quarters of what we were discussing, and that gradually pared down to maybe a fifth to a third. I was contributing and following along, which I’m very happy with, but not nearly as much as I oughta be. People were very impressed when I brought out my father’s thoughts on North Korea, and were amused by my explanation of Pittsburgh’s economic history and comparing it to Jilin and Manchuria. I was just happy I could say that in (very much simplified) Chinese.

“The untrained members of the labor union, who were the unions’ strongest supporters, pressured the factories not to modernize, because their jobs would get automated, so the factories couldn’t stay competitive” becomes “Many poor people, workers without education, needed the workers’ groups, so they told the managers that they couldn’t modernize the factories, so they didn’t have any competitiveness and had to stop after a while.” Of course, management didn’t want to spend the money on keeping themselves in business. They deserved each other, but in the process they ruined tens of millions of lives and destroyed entire generations of young working-class people. Grr. Angry pinko moment over.

Phillippa and I also got a real good look at the one-child problem. Two grandparents. Six aunts and uncles. Two parents. One toddler. So the poor kid is getting passed around from adult to adult while I’m trying to play with her and make conversation and she’s just trying to play with her train set.

Your generation is gonna be so messed up, sweetie. You’re never gonna learn how to share. Or take care of anything dependent on you. It’ll be real interesting when your folks count on you as their retirement fund. Man, this country is a real trip.

Compassion is the root of all right behavior,


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