Archive for the ‘Chinese Culture’ Category

Confronting a Racist

Posted: October 14, 2012 in Chinese Culture
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One of the things I love most about being in China’s countryside is that people are usually more curious about me than anything else. I don’t get the patronizing “HAAALLLLLLOOOOO!” cat calls that I do in the cities. And I don’t deal so much with people ignorantly informing me about the habits of all foreigners based on whatever stupid movies they’ve seen. In the countryside I usually just get earnest questions and hospitality. This is why I was so surprised in a small village last week when I received my first racial slur.

My girlfriend and I were riding our bikes past a group of four women and one man in their early-50s. As we went by, they stopped talking and just stared at us until we’d gone about 20 meters past. We then heard the man loudly say, “Look at the two guizi.”

Guizi, meaning “devil” or “ghost,” is a derogatory term for foreigners. It was a popular fixture at the recent anti-Japanese protests. I’ve read about foreigners (especially in the 80s and 90s) frequently being called this but I’d never actually heard it directed at me. I’ve experienced hostile comments that were racially-motivated before, but never been called a guizi…at least not to my face.

I turned my bike around and confirmed with my girlfriend that she’d heard it too. I can’t say I really felt hurt or offended, but surprising people with the fact that I’ve understood them talking about me is one of my guilty pleasures in China. In this instance, it could be especially interesting.

I pulled up to the group and asked in Chinese, “Who called us guizi?!”

Everyone looked to the man (confirming to us that it had indeed been him) and burst into the laughter that’s typical when people realize that the monkey can speak.

I got louder, showing I wasn’t amused, and zeroed in on the man.

“Did you call us guizi?!”

He held an uncomfortable smile and looked to the other women as a few other neighbors stuck their heads out to see what was happening. I softened my tone and stayed straddled on my bike a good five meters away so as to avoid the appearance of physically intimidating him.

“I heard you call us guizi. Would you like to call me that directly now?”

“You didn’t hear clearly,” he said, still with the uncomfortable smile.

“Ah, now that you realize we understood you, you’re afraid to directly call me that?” I said.

“Where are you guys from?” he asked, trying to change the subject.

“Nevermind that, we both heard you say guizi. You all heard it too right?” I asked, looking to the women.

They came to his aid, repeating his line that we just didn’t hear clearly.

“Then what did you say?”

“I should call you sir and madam,” he replied.

“Oh, now you become very polite. You should say that, but you didn’t.”

“You didn’t hear clearly.”

“Whatever. You should be careful. We guizi aren’t stupid.”

I rode away, satisfied that his cowering had been sufficiently highlighted to his neighbors.

As a white American male born to a middle-class family, I can’t pretend like prejudice (or anything else for that matter) has disadvantaged me in any way. Pushing the issue and purposely making a man lose face who likely has been disadvantaged was probably immature and unnecessary. And I probably came off just as badly as he did to the other villagers, reinforcing the foreign bully stereotype.

But still, I’m having a hard time regretting it. After being surrounded by racist bile at the anti-Japanese protests recently, it was very enlightening to see how quickly this man changed his tune when confronted face-to-face by the butt of his racism.

After reading about the chaos at tourist destinations and the impossibility of getting train tickets during the recent National Day holiday, I straddled my traveling bicycle even more smugly than usual as I rode around the Shandong countryside.  I try to take these bike trips any time there’s a holiday. It’s partly to avoid crowds, but more because it gives the reality check that anyone who does commentary on China should have periodically.

Two things were especially reinforced on this trip. The first was the second-class feeling that farmers have, and seem to mostly accept.

It’s a bit cliché now to talk about “the diversity of China” but when you spend even a little bit of time in the countryside – which still comprises about half the country’s population – you get a feel for how there really are (at least) two Chinas. This isn’t simply a natural cultural occurrence. It’s cemented into law.

Every Chinese citizen must have a Hukou (household registration) that ties them to their place of birth. It affects opportunities in everything from education and healthcare to employment and it’s divided into two distinct categories: urban and rural. Obviously, those with urban Hukou are at a much greater advantage.

Traveling around these villages, it was apparent that there’s often an inferiority complex among rural farmers when meeting urban dwellers. At one point my (Chinese) girlfriend and I stopped to rest alongside a group of farmers harvesting corn. We heard someone say, “Ah, look at their skin. They must be urban citizens.” (They then debated as to whether I was urban Chinese or foreign. They eventually came to the correct consensus).

In conversations, the farmers were very deferential to both of us, sometimes almost in awe. One young woman told my girlfriend how smart she must be. She lamented that she didn’t know anything.  In several instances, even when I wasn’t with my girlfriend, she’d ask people where the cheapest hotel was. They’d tell her things like, “The hotels here are really too poor for you. You should go to [the nearest city].”

The obvious gap in urban-rural incomes is of course a big part of this. But the mere existence of separate rural and urban hukou wreaks of the “separate but equal” American segregation policies of the early 20th century. The 1954 Supreme Court decision abolishing it correctly stated that “separate but equal” is inherently unequal. When one group is obviously disadvantaged compared to the other, separating them through law resigns them to a self-fulfilling expectation of social inferiority.

The second thing I felt on the trip is how separated these rural farmers tend to be from the items that typically dominate the news cycle about China. I met several who had either faint ideas or no idea about things like Bo Xilai and the Diaoyu Island dispute.

This was the height of corn harvesting season, so farmers were especially busy, but I got the sense that the average rural farmer’s daily schedule goes something like this:

Sunrise-noon: Farm work
Noon-2:00: Afternoon Siesta
2:00-Sunset: Farm work
6:00: Dinner
7:00: Watch provincial dance/singing/dating program
8:00: Bed

You’ll notice nowhere on that schedule is anything like “debate one another on the merits of Communist Party rule” or “scour Weibo for juicy tales of official corruption.” Most have simple lives that focus on extracting the most they can from their two-acres of land. Political developments outside those two-acres are non-issues.

Most young people in their 20s and 30s go out to do migrant work and undoubtedly have more complex lives than that. What I found interesting about this trip was that there were a lot more of these people helping with farm work than I’d seen in the past. I’m not sure how much that has to do with it being the holiday and peak harvest season and how much is a result of the economic slowdown.

We made a point of talking to several of these young people, but none expressed too much concern. Even if the economy stagnates and jobs are hard to find, eventually something will come along. They can help out their older parents with the farm work until then. At least that’s what they seem to believe.

These are just some simple observations from one rural corner of Shandong. I don’t mean to generalize them completely to all of rural China, but they come from the type of area foreigners don’t tend to go to. When pondering China’s social/political/economic future, it’s important to remember that nearly half of China lives in areas very similar to this.

On this blog I often write about the systematic nature of corruption in China and how it’s become something that people now just take for granted. To be clear, the lion’s share of the responsibility lies with the system. But to be fair, there are certain aspects of Chinese culture that make corruption much easier. And they’re unlikely to disappear anytime soon, even with significant reform.

Let’s say for instance that Mr. Li runs a widget factory. One day he receives an invitation to the wedding of Mr. Guo’s daughter. “How nice,” you might think. Mr. Li hardly knows Mr. Guo and he’s never met the daughter. But Mr. Li isn’t too pleased. It so happens that Mr. Guo is one of the official regulators responsible for Mr. Li’s factory.

When he arrives at the wedding, Mr. Li brings a hongbao (red envelope) full of cash, as is the custom at Chinese weddings. Normally for a casual acquaintance Like Mr. Guo’s daughter, the amount could be as low as 100-200 yuan ($16-$31). If it were a close friend, several hundred. If it were immediate family, maybe one or two thousand.

But Mr. Li’s hongbao contains 10,000 yuan, maybe more. When he enters the wedding hall he hands it off to someone specially designated to collect them along with dozens of other guests doing the same. Later, after the ceremony, Mr. Guo comes to Mr. Li’s table, gives him a cheery drunken pat on the back and toasts him. Mr. Li’s factory continues to churn out widgets without problem – regardless of what regulations he might be breaking. Not a single word was explicitly spoken about the transaction that just occurred.

Nobody besides Mr. Li and the Guo family will ever know how much was in the hongbao. Even if they did, what could they do? It was a simply a “wedding gift” that Mr. Guo never even asked for.

Perhaps it wasn’t his daughter’s wedding. Maybe Mr. Guo had a party celebrating the hundredth day since his nephew was born, or a birthday party for his mother.  And perhaps it wasn’t so high level. Maybe Mr. Li just runs a small shop and instead of giving Mr. Guo a pile of cash, it was a 500 yuan pack of cigarettes (which Mr. Guo won’t actually smoke, but use later as a gift for his superiors).

Whatever the “special occasion” and whatever the amount involved, from the moment Mr. Guo made the announcement and Mr. Li received it, both sides knew what it was about.

When we think of corruption in China we tend to think of handing over huge briefcases of cash in tense, shady backroom deals. But this is what’s far more common and far harder to do anything about. As much as genuine systematic reform would accomplish in stamping out the major corruption cases, these low-level “understandings” are much more engrained in the culture and will take much longer to get rid of.

When I used to teach in Nanjing, a regular discussion topic I’d give my students was to describe the happiest day of their lives. Without fail, I’d always have a few students in each class who said their happiest day was July 1st, 1997 – the day Hong Kong returned to China. For the past few days I’ve been in Hong Kong asking locals the same question to see if the feeling is mutual. It pretty clearly is not.

When asked what their happiest day was, those Hong Kongers I talked to said things like when the day they graduated college, the first time they went out drinking with friends, and a Dragon Boat Festival. Unsurprisingly, not a single person mentioned the territory’s handover to China. The more interesting part however was what they said next. I’d tell them I was asking because many young mainland people would say Hong Kong coming to China was their happiest day. When I said this, there was uniform laughter. Here’s a few of the responses:

Of course they say that. It’s like if you give someone a diamond necklace. It’s the happiest day for them maybe, but not really for you.

We remember that as the day dark clouds came over Hong Kong [Note: The day of the handover was literally very cloudy and rainy].

That’s ridiculous.

It doesn’t mean anything to us.

England, China – there’s not much difference. We’re still just Hong Kong.

Ha, more like the worst day of my life.

I just talked to about two dozen people at bars and my hotel and they were all under 35, so this is by no means a fair representation of greater public opinion. But I think it’s pretty telling that not a single person had positive things to say, even after I tried to nudge a few in that direction. Just more to suggest Beijing has a very long way to go in winning the hearts and minds of Hong Kong.

Over the past week I’ve been in the process of collecting meaningless documents, paying extortionate prices for official translations of meaningless documents, and capping it all off with a wholly arbitrary and costly trip to Hong Kong. As I’ve been going through this process of changing my Chinese student visa to a working one LEGALLY, I’ve forced myself to stay away from this blog; lest I succumb  to posting a cliched or hateful rant. But this week I found a shimmering glimmer of hope a midst it all that’s allowed me to sit down and write this overdue post.

Whenever you go to a train station to buy tickets in China, you can almost always count on at least 1 or 2 people for every ten standing in line to just cut right to the front. This gets even worse in lower tier cities or when there’s abnormally long lines. This week though when I went to buy my ticket to Hong Kong I found this:

It’s a one-way turnstile with surrounding guardrails that allow people in line to get through, but prevent cutters from getting close enough to the teller to slap down their dirty dirty money. Sure enough, as I neared the front, one confident jerk approached the front out of nowhere, only to be thwarted by the device. He tried to reach his money over the turnstile and yell to the clerk, but alas, he was out of reach. He sighed in exasperation, looked around for a few seconds mulling his options, and then begrudgingly walked to the back of the line. I had to restrain myself from applauding as a slight tear formed in my eye.

I’d never been to this particular train station before so I can’t say whether or not this device is new, but I’d never seen one before. A few months ago I wrote about an equally impressive customer service rating machine that could revolutionize the country’s economy. I can only hope potentially game-changing innovations like these will continue to emerge in China and spread to every train station, hospital, post office and bureaucratic institution. A thousand pieces of flowery propaganda can’t come close to achieving the same sense of satisfaction and renewed appreciation for China’s development that these simple, yet tangible, measures bring about.

This week President Hu Jintao touched millions of his compatriots by pulling a sticker off his shoe. At a G-20 photo-op, he and all the world leaders had a small sticker of their national flag on the floor marking where they should stand. As they were leaving, the Chinese flag sticker got stuck to Hu’s shoe, so he bent down to pick it up. The story reported in the Chinese blogosphere and media, however, was that Hu so revered the Chinese flag that he felt compelled to respectfully and gingerly bend down to save it as the other world leaders coldly discarded theirs.

“I am deeply touched and proud of being a Chinese,” People’s Daily reported one netizen saying about Hu’s bending over two feet to the ground, as China’s first female astronaut continued orbiting hundreds of miles overhead unnoticed.

The fawning over this incident reminded me of this lesson that Chinese children are taught in school. Perhaps there’s a connection:

In 1990, UNICEF invited Beijing middle school students to visit the Netherlands in order to participate in “Children of the World for Peace” activities. Liang Fan flew to the Netherlands to represent Chinese children. She stayed in a comfortable hotel and met many little brothers and sisters from all around the world. It was a very happy time!

As the activities began, banners of more than 50 countries were raised in front of the hotel.  Liang Fan looked for the Chinese flag, but couldn’t find it. So Liang Fan immediately went to the organizer and solemnly demanded, “The Chinese national flag must be raised since I’m here representing China.”

Later, it was almost lunch time and the Chinese flag still hadn’t been raised yet. So Liang Fan brought the organizer to the table, pointed at the pink tablecloth, and said, “If you cannot find a Chinese national flag, it’s ok. I am going to paint this red and make it into a flag!” Liang Fan’s patriotism touched the organizer deeply and the news spread quickly, which caught the organizing committee’s attention. They ordered somebody to find a national flag for the People’s Republic of China and raise it in front of the hotel. Liang Fan was admired by representatives from the other countries who praised her as a qualified representative of the People’s Republic of China.

What can we learn from this?

A Curious Sense of Justice

Posted: June 12, 2012 in Chinese Culture

Last week Global Times reported a story of one Shanghai woman’s very shitty day. While walking home with her son, she was all-of-sudden hit by a blob of falling poop. After complaining to the neighborhood committee, it was determined that the feces-flinger must have come from one of four apartments above where the woman was hit. She was awarded 600 yuan in damages (the article didn’t make clear by whom) but since the exact perpetrator couldn’t be nailed down, all four apartments were ordered to pay 150 yuan each.

The story shows one of the peculiarities of China’s legal rationale that’s presumably a remnant of socialism, or perhaps even Confucianism. Several years ago I read a very similar case (which I can’t find now) where a woman was hit by a falling plant vase and sustained nearly 100,000 yuan’s ($15,749) worth of injuries. But investigators could only narrow down the origin of the plant to 30 balconies, so, you guessed it, the residents were all ordered to share the burden at about 3,300 yuan ($520) a piece.

Over the years whenever I’ve gotten on legal topics with Chinese friends, I’ve mentioned this case. To my surprise, more often than not, they support the verdict. When I ask how they can justify punishing 29 completely innocent people, they’ve basically said “100,000 is so much money for that one innocent woman to pay, but 3,300 is relatively little for the others.” They admit that they’d be very upset if they were one of the 29 innocents, but in the end 3,300 yuan would merely inconvenience their life, whereas 100,000 yuan on top of debilitating injuries could very well ruin the victim’s life.

I can’t say I agree with this rationale at all, but it is intriguing. It’s especially interesting imagining what other circumstances are influenced by this collectivist mindset – where suffering is spread equitably and manageably at the expense of complete fairness.