Category Archives: Modern Culture

自由的选择

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Translation Help

Today, after a morning spent discussing the natures of both tiger ownership and capitalism in 口语 class, I packed up my things and let myself loose in Xiamen. Most impressibly, I became absurdly cognizant of my 外国人 status. I ran into Echo, Antonio, Christina and friends outside the golden 麦当劳 arches of 西村 around noon, with my everyday ‘super-high-maintenance’ appearance intact: loose and comfortable clothing, my locks more voluminous than a just-baked mantou, and sunglasses perched unassumingly atop the bridge of my freckled nose. I looked like I always did, save for a jacket and a particularly conspicuous spring in my step (my iPod’s Shuffle feature was kickin‘ today) but felt distinctly like the whole world was watching me more closely than usual; people do stare, even in The States, probably just ‘cuz I have really big hair.

“You guys,” I started with concern, “Do I look weird today?”

I received confused looks which said No more than usual, but were translated into words more kindly, along the lines of ‘You appear bright!’ and ‘You just don’t look Chinese’ and my favorite, ‘You look Minnesotan!’ *I assumed that Everett meant, because I was wearing a brightly colored shirt, I was trying to make up for the lack of color in my surroundings- and Minnesota needs all the compensation it can get.

Antonio saw me after this reassertion of my normalcy and immediately started cracking up.

“WHAT, Antonio! WHAT IS IT?”

“Nothing,” he covered, chuckling. I was not going to let this go. Something was wrong.

“Tell me.”

“Well, I remember you telling me that when you went to school, every so often you’d get to wear ‘Civilian Clothing’ and that you guys didn’t really know how to dress yourselves ‘cuz you wore uniforms and… well… you have your own style.”

“My outfit clashes, doesn’t it.”

“It’s cute. It’s very you.”

I suddenly became aware of the crazy nature of my clothing. I’ve always dressed aberrantly, but I try to dress well in my own way, not like I’m five years old and dressing in the dark. I took off my jacket, which was bright blue, and didn’t really go with my bright teal shirt. Lord knows I’m already noticeable enough in China. I’m not one to care about how people perceive my clothing, because I usually like wearing things that are difficult to pull off, but being in China means that when people notice you, they don’t just notice you- they stare until you’re uncomfortable. Even after all the thought I’ve put into self-confidence, and knowing that no one’s opinion of me but my own really matters, I couldn’t have people worrying that I wasn’t aware of my clothing’s clashing nature, and didn’t want to deal with TOO much attention (some is always nice, mind you). By removing my jacket, I was really just assuaging my own worries- Why was I so uncomfortable with being regarded? And whose to say anyone was even judging me? They may have just been noticing the bright colors of my clothing. I could have been introducing some new, loud, colorful Western clothing style, as far as they were concerned.

It was a wakeup call, nonetheless- I’m always dressing how I want, which tends to be kind of differently, and I usually do like attention; but as a foreigner in China, I don’t need to wear different clothes to stand out- any statement I make is an invitation not to regard but to gape. Even when I dress normally, people watch. I like to be able to attract attention when I want it and disappear into the crowd when I don’t. Despite all of this, I intend to push myself to continue being confident in my clothing choices and dressin’ like I always do, even though my personage is pretty much a petri dish under a microscope, and maybe invest in some more ‘Chinese’ interpretations of Western dress to see if that helps me blend in just in case I really need a taste of what it’s like to be Chinese. Not that I expect clothing to mask my 白人 appearance, but it might buy me a few seconds of time being treated as Chinese before people notice that my features are not.

———

While feeling like I’m not getting the ‘real’ Chinese experience due to my loudly non-Asian looks, being easily picked out in a crowd brings its own benefits. Right after this interaction with my group members, I found a table outside and sat down to do some homework. Not fifteen minutes in, a woman with rosy cheeks and eyeshadow like lilac mica sat down at the table with me and started talking. I learned that I write pretty Chinese characters (一般般), that I’m pretty (Uh oh, what’s she tryna sell me?), that she works for Mary Kay (aha), that she used to work at the Overseas Education Center (oh?) that I should bring my friends for a free facial to her office (this has got to be a pitch) but really, I should just come over and speak Chinese with her and her friends at her office by the train station because she can help me practice (awwwwwww!). 黄爱秀 gave me a Mary Kay pamphlet (“Do you use Mary Kay?” “No, but my Grandma might have.” “Oh.”) and her business card, and I decided to use this opportunity to practice my Chinese, asking her about her favorite products, if she liked working for Mary Kay, how long she’d worked there, etc. Luckily for me, because she’d worked at the Overseas Education Office, she could get by in English when I had questions, but was eager to help me use my fledgling language skills. She even looked at my book with me when I told her about the Chinese creation story we’d just read in class, and asked to trade phone numbers with me! It was cool to see how Western business was giving someone opportunities and really changing their perspective on life- Mary Kay is a company that empowers women as individuals, something that’s not so big in China. In the end, I don’t know if 黄爱秀’s intentions were truly anything but business-oriented, but if I weren’t naturally paranoid, she could have fooled me.

So, while I sometimes want to fade into the woodwork, sometimes it’s useful (and more fun) not to be able to- I get to interact with people who might not have been comfortable enough to approach me (but whose curiosity gets the best of them), I get to practice my Chinese skills, and most importantly, I get free facials.

Why do you do what you do? Or, 哪儿 isn’t there Narcissism?

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WARNING: Get ready for some RAAAAAMMMBBBLINNNNGGGGG

During one of my early morning jaunts about town, I ran across an older man exercising all by his lonesome in the middle of the street. Chinese roads are relatively less crowded before 8 am (which is like saying there’s relatively less water near the beach at low tide), and he managed to find a sphere of personal space in which to practice 太极拳 (Tai Chi Chuan). I gawked as I walked by, and he didn’t even recognize my passing as I took this picture (everyone’s a paparazzi in China, sue me).

From an American perspective, I assume that this action if conducted in America would be about on par with ‘wearing a fanny pack because it holds your belongings best’: a decision wholly rational, but still a bit odd in nature, and requiring guts to pull off successfully. My thought process?

1. Wow, this guy’s weird.

2. Wow, this guy’s awesome, he totally doesn’t even care that this is weird.

3. Wait, everyone does whatever the Hell they want wherever they want in China.

4. Everyone in China is a total BAMF.

5. Everyone in China is intimidating. They know what they gotta do, and they get it done through whichever means they want. These people wear surgical masks for goodness sakes. They honestly could care less what I think of them.

6. Are Chinese people just so confident in themselves that they know they can accomplish the end result, so the oddity of their journey in a social context is of no matter to them?

7. Are Chinese people so self-confident, or do they just do what’s expected of them, just because, and they find a way to accomplish what they need to do without considering the social implications of it?

8. Are all Chinese people alike, Hannah, really? Can I even tell what’s going on in someone’s head, from another culture no less, just by looking at them, when I know nothing about modern culture?

9. Am I even looking at this from the right angle? Are the judgements I’m making even coincident with Chinese values? Is it weird to practice Tai Chi wherever? Do the Chinese care? They like saving face, right? And saying ‘Screw You and Your Beliefs’ isn’t exactly a belief harmonious with saving face, if your pride is found in external validation. Maybe they aren’t so self-confident? How does self-confidence relate to making oneself the best one can be in China? Is it a duty to be your best because you have a responsibility to contribute to society, or do you do it because you are taught to think you can, and that you’re wonderful, because each person is needed to make the whole effective, and your helping society is a gift to other people instead of an obligation?

I jotted this especially rambling sentiment down in my journal- it’s disjunctive and barely coherent, but there’s no real way for me to answer the questions I have yet without doing more research:

Possible Chinese view of self and responsibilities to self, summary: 

1. You are ballsy and you do what you want- probably not, b/c China is all about community

2. You know what you’re capable of, and you expect a lot from yourself pride, narcissism (either external or internal validation)

3. You know what you need to do and you do it cuz you’re worth it- self-confidence

4. Possible other extreme- You know what needs to be done- pragmatism-You save face by doing what’s expected of you, – honor- and people expect you to do whatever you need to do to do that, weird or not- end results are all that matter

——

A few day’s previous, Christina, Camilla and myself sauntered by the lake, holding bags of fruit while eating choice breakfasts of ice cream and pastry. Autumn weather is still far off, and Asian families appreciate warm rays of sun in droves. For every baby-faced father cradling his cuddly bowling-ball of a child, and there were many of these, there was a pack of teenage girls directing each other in vanity photos. They draped themselves over rocks, hid behind trees, dipped their feet in the lake, popped their heels and tipped their hats. Every location has picture potential, and I half expected to see them cushion their pale chins in their hands, smiling, elbows atop a recycling bin.

“Look at all the girls taking pictures of each other!” I exclaim, scanning the scene. “Either they’re all really narcissistic or photography is just something Chinese people do.” I’ve thought that maybe photography is big because cameras are technology, and owning technology is a sign of status.

“They’re definitely narcissistic,” Camilla replies automatically. She’s been to China before, to a small village without such technology, so I figure she’s in a better place to make comparisons; at least, she’s had more experience.

“But isn’t China a community-oriented society?”

“That’s the thing,” Camilla replies, “In order for society to function, everyone has to participate. Everyone’s important.”

“So a community-oriented society, next to an individualistic-society, almost places more emphasis on the individual because everyone depends on everyone else to succeed?”

“Exactly.”

*I have since talked to Camilla about her views on Chinese self-confidence: She says that the Chinese are narcissistic yet without any degree of self-confidence.*

“It’s funny,” I note, parasols bouncing by our heads.

“What is?”

“That in a community of 1.3 billion people, people can still feel certain of their own importance.” *I write this now with a tinge of self-consciousness; I write a blog and possibly believe that I’ll write something novel when I’m one of billions myself.*

——–

If I were one of 1.3 billion in a country with a history of community-oriented conceptualizations of the self, or even more cognizant of being one of almost 400 million, I think I’d be less likely to think something of myself. But knowing that, if every cog doesn’t play its part right, the whole machine will collapse, I feel a degree of importance and responsibility; still, I don’t think my importance merits photo albums of peace signs and doilies simply because if I don’t work, I threaten the whole- or if I do work, I affect the whole exponentially. Every minute I’m inanely taking pictures of myself and my friends is a minute I’m contributing to stagnation. However, when someone’s self-concept is at stake, a person might be more likely to cling to the delusion that they’re incredibly important, as a defense against the knowledge that there are millions and millions of people with similar qualities that could replace them and that they can’t control everything. In China, though, a country that’s been really insular, every person DID need to play their part because there were no external outlets to depend on.

What do you think? Does any of my thought process and semi-conclusions make sense? I kind of want to do a research paper regarding Chinese views of the self and importance of the self for my final project.

A Quick Update

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In brief:

Class-

1.super tough

2. was able to understand a bit more by the end

3. know significantly more about giant panda vital statistics than before class

4. want to drop- listening, reading, and speaking abilities at least 3 grade levels behind writing abilities

5. stubborn

6. Ruskie and Swede convince me to stick it out until the end of the week at least

 

Yesterday-

1. Stressed

2. Went for walk (Don’t worry it’s safe Mom), came back, roommates freaked out b/c they thought I’d been abducted or something cuz there was blood on the floor?!?!

3. Stressed still b/c made others stressed

 

Day-

1. Haitians can play mad soccer

2. Still can’t use chopsticks, answer= chopstick as shishkabobs? Caveat: Rice is tough to eat, tofu falls off shishkabobs, do they make handheld tofu?

3. When am I ever going to have to say ‘peony,’ textbook?

4. Lots of time walking around by self mumbling words in Chinese like ‘pupil’ and ‘eyesight’ and ‘peony’ and ‘live in seclusion.’ Blind hermitage= chapter theme?

5. Met Israeli. He wants to get coffee. I only have time to study. And update this.

No French

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“Chinese doesn’t have any French,” I stated purposefully. Echo and I traced Furong Lake as we made our way back to the dorms. She’d just finished helping me unfreeze (or, in Chinese, un-ice) my mysteriously frozen student card.

“Grammar.”

“What?”

“Chinese doesn’t have any grammar.”

“That’s what I said.”

“No. You switched the characters. Thank goodness Chinese is my first language,” Echo proclaimed emphatically.

I found this sentiment strange. I’ve always considered English, not Chinese, to be the language that everyone struggles to learn, and fortunate that I won’t have to toil fruitlessly for years in order to understand a basic waiver. The state of our global society today, however, gives Echo’s proclamation even more significance: not only is Chinese harder than a frozen diamond, but it is increasingly becoming the vogue language pursued out of necessity. I learned about the difference between soft and hard power in a freshman year political science course, and I staunchly believe that language is the most significant and scarily inconspicuous form of soft power- even if you can’t get people to agree with you, you can get them to think like you. When I was in 2nd grade, Linda Katirji (a 4th grader) conducted a survey of the entire primary school, asking, “What is the most important technology?” and I was the only one who answered (or misunderstood, possibly) the question, answering ‘Language,’ while other kids were giving rational answers like ‘Cars’ and ‘Electric Toothbrushes.’ An alteration in the stratum of significant languages signals a very important shift in the balance of power. You tailor your thoughts to suit the culture with the means to affect you most, for the sake of efficient communication. Economics shift language and politics, and right now, China has a first rate economy.

While I still can’t speak fluently, I’m getting better about tailoring my behavior to coincide with Chinese culture. Oddly enough, Chinese culture and etiquette almost suit me better than their American counterparts. For example, today, Echo corrected me about my habit of thanking people excessively. I’m always worried that people don’t know how much I value them using their time and effort to help me, but in China, it’s practically offensive to thank people- it means you don’t think you’re close enough to assume the other person would want to help you. I don’t have to worry about people knowing I’m grateful.

“We’re friends. Don’t say thank you,” Echo insisted after helping me put money on my newly unfrozen card.

“Right, thanks, sorry.”

“We’ll work on it.”

“I appreciate that you understand,” I

“Bye.”

Kentucky Fried Cool: Of Giblets and Grandeur

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Way yore in Business Chinese, we did a chapter on the Asian obsession with KFC. I’ve definitely seen American cultural entities playing central roles in certain Chinese locales, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe that the KFCs in China actually have adjoining art galleries until yesterday at Gulangyu Island. The following images should tell you just how much merit holding your event at a fast food restaurant (where the service is excellent, the facilities are clean, and the food is not half bad) can bring.