The Personal and Political, Chains of Oppression, and Afterlives of Empire (Or, how Commodore Perry can still destroy relationships today)

“If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”
– Thomas Paine, from The American Crisis (1776)

“I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny.”
– Frantz Fanon, from Black Skins, White Masks (1952, 1967)


Contents

Terminology

Introduction

Part I: British colonialism, Irish immigration policies; global development and migration, US sovereignty, Chinese Communism (Parents)

Part II: American immigration policies, White supremacy, Asian machismo; Chinese imperial tribute system, American opening of Japan, Japanese colonialism, Korean nationalism (Lovers)

Concluding remarks: Survival, forgiveness, and poetic justice

This post will be less like the last one on Doctor Who (Part II of that will be written some day, I promise), more like the one before that on interracial dating, where I am discussing social issues through the lens of personal experience. Again, feel free to skip the drama and tortured ranting. If you are prepared to wade through this, I suggest reading it over a few sittings with frequent bathroom breaks.

The main issue is “Afterlives of empire.” (phrase stolen from an academic conference last year.) Imperialism being one powerful state imposing themselves on a weaker one or incorporating it, primarily for the former’s benefit (often economic), though helping the weaker state might be part of the justification. The “afterlives” is that imperialism creates disruptions on a massive scale, but not only at the moment of what we would think of as an imperial intervention but for a long time afterwards. For example, the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine can be seen as an afterlife of Great Britain imperialist designs stoking competing claims to overlapping territories (British influences in the region is one among a huge number of influences and I probably got it wrong – let me know).

The second issue is “chains of oppression,” which is that victims tend to become oppressors, passing down suffering in one form or another. I first encountered this in Asian American studies – Maxine Hong Kingston’s book The Woman Warrior was criticized by some Chinese American male authors for showing Chinese men as misogynist, which they feared would confirm mainstream stereotypes against Asians as culturally backward. The chain of oppression here being that mainstream American culture denigrates Asians as a whole; in response to this kind of denigration, Chinese American men want to keep the concerns of Chinese American women silent so as to project a better image, and thus become oppressors in their own regard.

The third issue, which also undergirds this whole thought process, is “the personal is political,” and the flipside of this, which is that the public and private are intermeshed. I am still slightly unclear about the distinction between the two pairs. As far as I’ve worked it out, the public being private seems to be a descriptive criticism against the idea that men are public actors and women are private, domestic actors and that the public matters more. For example, housewives doing housework and raising children seem to be private activities that never affected world politics, but men being able to fulfill public obligations relies on having domestic obligations taken care of by women. Or, domestic violence against women isn’t just a problem within the household, but reflects wider social inequalities. On the other hand, the personal being political is an articulation against this from the private to the public, where seemingly small, personal acts can be political statements, or if enough people do it together at any given time, constitutes political mobilization. I am thinking of protestors against the killing of Trayvon Martin dressed in hoodies and carrying Skittles, which are acts of personal comportment but has political significance in-context (here are a couple of good blog post explaining these dynamics: http://mindthegapuk.wordpress.com/2008/01/27/the-personal-is-political/; http://www.gavison.com/a2657-feminism-and-the-public-private-distinction).

Additional key terms are in bold.

I will be looking at how imperialisms have created chains of oppression that still have personal effects, and discuss whether and how living differently might be an intervention against said effects. Of course, if we are talking about car bombs in the West Bank, it’s easy to see how history and global conflicts can affect one’s daily life. But these effects are not all just life-and-death situations; they can be more mundane, but still painful. In addition, these effects reach beyond the embattled territory, ethnic group, or social class that we usually think of as being negatively affected by historical events. As a middle-class Chinese-Canadian graduate student living in the US, I have never really thought of my life as being negatively impacted by past imperialisms, so if I am, chances are a lot of other people are unknowingly impacted as well.

Importantly, my explanations of the impact have either been in very nebulous terms, like it was just bad luck, or in very specific terms, like that the people around me failed to make the right decisions. However, recently I have found that a socio-historical explanation to be a better middle ground, and helps me to forgive. In addition, as I will get to at the end, recognizing that we are impacted by imperialism means that we must also recognize that we might be passing down the effects of imperialism in some way. So, while the analysis here extends from very personal events, it might help someone out there better re-evaluate their own life by taking into account social and historical forces.

I. British colonialism, Irish immigration policies; global development and migration, US sovereignty, Chinese Communism (Parents)

The major reason that I am a socially awkward and inward-orienting person, I think, is that I didn’t have a stable childhood. I didn’t stay in one school for more than 2 years until high school, and I didn’t live in a household with the same family member composition for more than 2.5 years at a time, until started living alone in university. Often these relocations were between great distances and to vastly different cultures.

Skip the biographical details

My life so far: I was born in Beijing and was shunted back and forth between maternal and paternal grandparents, who lived in different cities, until I was 7, with infancy, kindergarten, preschool and the first year of elementary school alternating between Beijing and Harbin. My parents went to Galway, Ireland to do their PhD degrees when I was an infant, and I joined then when I was 7 (this was awful, see next paragraph). At 8 my mother went to Ottawa, Canada, and I joined her at 9, first going to an inner-city elementary school and then, when my father joined us, to a school in the suburbs. When I was living in Ottawa with my father, my mother went back to Ireland and also went to Belgium (where I stayed for a summer), and then had to go to Quebec. My father thought she was having an affair with someone (she wasn’t) and so dealt with this and her constant absence by having an affair for real. Word got back to my mother and they divorced. I went with my mother to Vancouver, where we moved twice more (though thankfully not changing schools – I absolutely refused, and when my mother wanted to move to Calgary I also absolutely refused), the final move being moving in with her boyfriend. Then I went off to undergrad in Toronto, MA in Hamilton, taught English in China for 2 years (in Nanning and Chongqing), then came to LA for my PhD, where I am now. Since undergrad, my mother lived in PEI in Atlantic Canada for several years (I spent undergrad summers there) and then went back to China, whereas my father went to China and then came back to North America, first in Seattle and the Bay area, then Vancouver. He tried to get a job a few years ago in the US but for reasons I will elaborate on later, got a lifetime deportation.

Living in Ireland was terrible; at that time the country was ignorant of the outside world, and I know that my parents were labeled as Asian refugees and exploited at their part-time jobs; my mother worked as an acupuncturist but was paid less than minimum wage. We shared a house with three other elderly single people, one of whom at first refused to let my mother use the kitchen because he believed that she carried something that would contaminate his food. When reasoning didn’t work, she rectified this situation by exploding and literally turning the table one day during dinner. At school the other children’s only understanding of Asia was martial arts, so I regularly got beaten up. Because I was starting to learn English I couldn’t even verbally defend myself, I fought back, and teachers accused me of bullying the other children, and I couldn’t defend myself with the teachers either. I loved the inner-city school in Ottawa that I went to after Ireland because it was all immigrants and working class kids and I was never bullied, but the school in the suburbs was pretty bad again.

Home life wasn’t satisfactory either; my parents showed me a great deal of affection and taught me many things, but they never took care of me before and didn’t quite know how to be parents. While I wouldn’t say I was abused, I was punished severely and in weird ways (one way, which I am certain is Communist-derived, was to make me write an essay on how I’d been bad, sign a contract saying that unless I rectified my behaviour I would be turned out to beg on the streets, and then I was kicked out of the house without my key to drive the point home). Also because I often lived with just one parent who was still technically in school, I had to shoulder a lot of domestic responsibilities at a young age. I had to go grocery shopping by myself and make full dinners by 4th grade, and thought this was unfair. Finally, what annoyed me the most in my teenage years was that my mother would often make me do things according to her value system, which was often antithetical to mine. For example, if we stayed at a hotel that offered breakfast, she would tell me to take extra food from the hotel for our lunch; I thought this was like stealing. Through other relocations and family fractures, literature and other cultural works made better companions than family or peers because they were portable and consistent, and made no unreasonable demands. So throughout my childhood and teenage years I delved deeper into art and literature, and became more and more anti-social.

Due to being anti-social and from what happened to my parents, I also came to avoid romantic relationships. I blamed my father for his distrust and being irresponsible towards my mother and I, and blamed my mother for dragging us around the world for her career, for not being sensitive to my father’s dissatisfaction with our family life, and especially for being absent in my early years. I often felt like I was adopted. The only way to ensure that I don’t repeat their mistakes, I thought (and still think, to a certain extent), is to avoid romance and a potential family of my own altogether. And, paradoxically, I came to continue the pattern of relocating every once in a while – I could have not gone to China to teach English, and I could have stayed in Canada for my PhD, but I didn’t. The psychology major side of me thinks that maybe I feel like I don’t deserve a stable life, or I’m afraid that I would mess up a stable life, or something.

My parents also blame themselves for the same things, and more. I was born 2 months premature because my mother’s health and academic pressures meant she actually couldn’t sustain a pregnancy for the full term. Despite my health and intellectual faculties being all right, I am psychologically more fragile than average, prone to depression and anxiety. So, my mother blames herself for the same things even before I was born and for “not giving me a healthy brain.” She also blames herself for leaving me with my grandparents where I inevitably learned their thought patterns; my maternal grandparents, at least, are a bundle of neuroses and paranoia from being targeted and exiled during the Cultural Revolution (more on this in a bit). My father blames my mother for being a bad mother, and blames himself for not providing a good male role model in my teenage years, which he believes resulted in me hating men. Recently he told me that it would be okay if I was a lesbian as long as I find somebody – for a Chinese parent to say that, even pretty liberal ones like my parents, they’d have to be pretty desperate.

*

In the past few years, my parents have been trying to make up for this, especially my mother. In reverse-parallel, instead of continuing to blame them, I have come to realize that they are not so much at fault (again, especially my mother). Most of this came from my humanities and social sciences education which showed me that my experiences weren’t all that unique, and also showed me the social forces that have similarly affected others.

a. global development and migration, US sovereignty, Chinese Communism

One instance last fall was that I was a TA for a class on immigration to the US, and we talked about push and pull factors for migration. Specifically, we read an article about Latina domestic workers in the US, who leave their own children behind, and send remittances back home and miss their children terribly. However, due to the income gap between the US and Mexico, and sometimes irresponsible husbands, they can’t stay behind to take care of their children if the family as a whole is to survive. Many of my students from China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan also experienced a childhood similar to mine. Part of the discussion for that week was that while Latina domestic workers and the parents of my students, and my parents, do not belong to the same ethnicity or class, they are actually caught up in the same forces. The obvious analysis is that Mexico and China during the 80s and 90s were a lot less “developed” than the West, had fewer job opportunities, and paid lower wages, so this prompts both Latinos and people like my parents to move, but similarities go deeper than this.

One similarity between the Latinas and my parents is the kinds of jobs they were required to do outside their country (more pull factors), which sounds nonsensical, as the Latinas described in the article are domestic workers and my parents are professionals in science and tech. However both of these kinds of labour are what Western countries required of different foreign populations at the time; Latina domestic workers are pulled into the US because US women work their own jobs and can afford to pay them. Similarly, North America needed professional labour like software engineering (my father) and medical research (my mother), and it is a fact that Canada emphasized professional visas during the time my parents immigrated. Correspondingly, push factors between Latina domestic worker and my parents are also comparable. China was just opening up economically under Deng Xiaoping at the time, and aimed to develop like the West and encouraged more students to choose technical professions.

The US has been imposing itself on Mexico even more directly than it has on China; for the immigration class we learned about the Mexican-American war, but more importantly something like NAFTA, in which the US and Canada benefit by more by having lower tariffs for importing good from Mexico and cheaper labour from Mexico, whereas it seems like the Mexican economy is increasingly geared towards supplying what the US and Canada needs (eg maquiladoras), rather than to strengthen its own infrastructure. So, through TAing for that class, at least the point was driven home to me that larger social forces prompts migration, and sometimes the same larger forces prompts vastly different trajectories of migration, and I can’t blame my parents as if it was just their personal decision to move. In addition, while I did always recognize that there is a gender double standard, the stories about the Latina domestic workers really made me appreciate that it was unfair that my father and I blamed my mother for devoting a lot of time to her career.

There are also similarities between Mexican migration to the US and my family in the case where my father got deported. When we think of deportations in the US, usually deportation of illegal Mexicans come to mind, a clear case being the bit of national hysteria in 2010 that Mexican farm workers were taking American jobs. Whether Obama is deporting more people than previous presidents is debated, but it seems to be the case. Anyways, during the economic recession, my father lost his job in Canada but found one in the US. He had been working temporarily as a security guard in Canada and his uniform was in his car. He did not put this job on his resume as the resume was for a computer engineering job, and he was advised by a career counselor that a security guard job on his resume would make it look bad. After getting the job in the US and entering the US again, his car was searched and he was questioned about the discrepancy between the uniform he had in his car, and the absence of this job on his resume, and was accused of falsifying his documents. My father never talked about this – these details I got from my grandmother and my dad’s girlfriend. They believed that he argued with the CBP officers, and got a lifetime deportation both for what they charged him with and for being uncooperative. During the time my father was deported, there was a report circulating in the Canadian media that an undergrad student who went to the US as a volunteer group to plant trees was turned away at the border, where CBP officers accused her of taking jobs away from Americans.

The US needing labour like Latina domestic workers or Silicon Valley technicians has a similar negative flipside, which is that the US has no qualms about abruptly cutting off these sources of labour if its own labour force is threatened. One can argue that of course a nation has to protect its own labour force first, and that is national sovereignty; however, it could do so through means that were less harsh and more systematic and transparent. Eg, if the federal government wanted to decrease immigration during the recession, and said so publicly, this would give lobbyists and interest groups space to deliberate and perhaps figure out ways in which both the domestic labor force and immigrant workers could both benefit, or at least ways where immigrant and migrant labourers would not be shouldering a disproportionate part of the burden of the recession just because they don’t happen to be Americans. In this case the US seemed to have tried to sidestep criticism by curbing immigration unofficially and only through repressive enforcement, in a way that immigrants can’t even appeal. In terms of my personal life, of course I am in no way as unfortunate as children who are left orphans in the US because their parents get abruptly deported, but I exist along the same continuum in that while I study in the US, my father can never come to visit me.

Finally, China as the sending country for my parents’ migrations means that I can’t let it off the hook either. If the Qing dynasty in China wasn’t so self-absorbed and better able to respond to demands for reform, and each successive government / warlord / cabal were able to put the nation’s interests truly at heart, China would have sorted out national development issues more efficiently and long before this, instead of scrambling to do so in the end of the 20th century. However, I also see China’s opening up being due to the West pushing free markets and ideas of what a modern society should be onto China, which China ultimately had to buy into if it is to exist in an interstate world system (Wallerstein alert! and I still haven’t watched Nixon in China and I really want to). Extreme political regimes might be seen as a country’s domestic problem, however I do believe that any extreme political system is a reaction to foreign intrusion. Not to excuse the Nazis, but I think historians generally agree now that the treaties hammered out at the Paris Peace Conference after WWI were overly stringent on Germany and contributed to Fascism taking hold. In the Chinese context, something like Communism setting back economic development for decades can be seen as the evils of Communism or China’s own incompetence, however the country was really a mess from 8 foreign nations all poaching bits of China in the beginning of the 20th century, Japanese invasions in WWII, and instability on the Republican side of things, so it’s no wonder Communism seemed to present a better solution. This can be seen as decades removed from my life, however I did mention that my grandparents are paranoid and neurotic from being targeted in the Cultural Revolution. The reason they were in Harbin, which is practically Siberia, is because they were exiled after criticizing the government as a part of the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Consequently, they both have anxiety disorders and take high doses of Valium, and get irrationally fearful about daily life events; my mother can’t even make a phone call to a friend without my grandparents whispering warnings that the friend might be a spy. I’m sure some of these mental issues were passed down to my mother, and in turn got passed down to me, so my mother’s self-blame that she failed to give me a healthy brain isn’t exactly her fault. My grandparents were also kept away from home a lot of the time when my mother was young, so I think that might have contributed to her believing that not being around to take care of me wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

b. British imperialism and Irish immigration policies

“Act of Union”
– Seamus Heaney, from North (1975)

I
To-night, a first movement, a pulse,
As if the rain in bogland gathered head
To slip and flood: a bog-burst,
A gash breaking open the ferny bed.
Your back is a firm line of eastern coast
And arms and legs are thrown
Beyond your gradual hills. I caress
The heaving province where our past has grown.
I am the tall kingdom over your shoulder
That you would neither cajole nor ignore.
Conquest is a lie. I grow older
Conceding your half-independent shore
Within whose borders now my legacy
Culminates inexorably.

II
And I am still imperially
Male, leaving you with pain,
The rending process in the colony,
The battering ram, the boom burst from within.
The act sprouted an obstinate fifth column
Whose stance is growing unilateral.
His heart beneath your heart is a wardrum
Mustering force. His parasitical
And ignorant little fists already
Beat at your borders and I know they’re cocked
At me across the water. No treaty
I foresee will salve completely your tracked
And stretchmarked body, the big pain
That leaves you raw, like opened ground, again

Another sore spot I held was that it was fine if my parents moved for career opportunities, but this didn’t mean that I had to be left behind in China as an infant, or that we had to move to Ireland of all places and then had to leave there too. One consolation from my immigration class is that it made sense for serial migration to occur, which is that one capable head of household to go somewhere first and set things up, and this happened to be my mother. Again with the gender double standard, if it had been my father maybe there wouldn’t have been as much resentment between them. In terms of why it took years for me to go to Ireland, my mother explained to me that they would actually have liked to stay in Ireland but Ireland had a zero-immigration policy at the time, and pretty much kicked us out, so we had to go to Canada. She also explained that she had tried to get a visa for me to go to Ireland on many occasions but my visa was denied every time until I was 7; apparently even a visitor’s visa application was rejected at some point. Again part of the zero-immigration policy. From my studies on American immigration restrictions, I know that one strategy of ensuring that immigrants don’t settle is to not families come and “breed more of their kind”; during the railroad building days in the US, Chinese men were welcome but not Chinese women (more on the effects of this in Part II). Ireland was doing the same thing.

So, instead of blaming my parents, I could blame Ireland. My mother still does; recently she had to contact the university she studied at in Galway for documentation of her PhD, and called me afterwards in tears because the registrar was rude to her, and this brought back all her memories of discrimination there, and said that she really wanted to go on a shooting rampage through the country. However over the last summer, I also realized that Ireland wasn’t entirely to blame, either.

Last summer I revisited the works of Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet and the winner of the Nobel Prize (sadly, he passed away at the end of summer). I had read his poetry in high school English class, and it didn’t register to me at the time as anything relevant to my life, especially not the ones where he imagines how bog people (like the Tollund man) came to be. This time I was drawn to his poems about the relationship between England and Ireland and the effects of British imperialism there, like “Requiem for the Croppies,” “England’s Difficulty,” and especially “Act of Union,” the poem opening this section. It is rendered as England speaking to Ireland as a male perpetrator of rape towards a female victim. I hadn’t taken History in high school but I knew that England and Ireland had always had an embattled relationship, with Ireland partitioned between North and South in 1921; British loyalism and Protestantism had a strong presence in the North but the South were mostly Irish nationalists and Catholics. These groups clashed over the course of a few decades; when I was living there, the fighting was still going on in Northern Ireland, and girls my age were pelted with rocks in the streets. I remember in 2nd grade, the teacher made an emotional announcement that a cease-fire had been reached; I know that a few years after my family left, Great Britain and Ireland signed the Good Friday Agreement. Still, most of this knowledge was just an intellectual understanding, not personally relevant.

Re-reading Heaney’s poems really changed my intellectual understanding to an emotional, sympathetic understanding, and I saw the larger picture. While Ireland made sure I could never be Irish, oddly enough I would have align myself with Irish nationalists, because making Ireland whole again sooner would have been a first step in its healing, and thus speed its eventual opening up to foreigners like my family. When I look at a map of England and Ireland, I am always a little indignant that Northern Ireland is a different colour from the rest of it. So, I understand that the zero-immigration policy was part of a defense mechanism from a country that had been under attack and threats of political and cultural erasure for centuries, and it makes sense that its first priority was self-preservation. At a ground level, the ignorance of children at school and of adults that my parents met were a by-product of the country preoccupied more with their own political upheavals and maintaining itself culturally, which is also part of self-preservation. Ireland has changed its policies since then; I recently met a Chinese student in LA who went to Ireland as a part of a specific Ireland to China student exchange program. I suppose it was still bad luck that my family went to Ireland when it was not ready to receive foreigners, but if I need someone to blame I would have to blame it on centuries of British imperialism that prompted Ireland to make the choices it made. Or, to go back even further, Great Britain existed in a highly competitive European interstate system, so it had to be strong to survive, I suppose, so in the end blame fizzles out.

II. American immigration policies, White supremacy, Asian machismo; Chinese imperial tribute system, American opening of Japan, Japanese colonialism, Korean nationalism (Lovers)

Everywhere in the world
the roving Yankee
takes his pleasure and his profit,
indifferent to all risks.
He drops anchor
at random…
Milk punch or whiskey?
…He drops anchor
at random
till a sudden squall wrecks
the ship, hawsers rigging and all…
He’s not satisfied with life
unless he makes his own
the flowers of every shore.

– Pinkerton, in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904)

In the post on interracial dating I have already discussed a bit about how choice of partner has political significances – for example, my Vietnamese house mate who grew up in a Black neighbourhood in Oakland refuses to date White men because she feels like White men tend to have unacknowledged privileges and tend to not be aware of how history has impacted people of other ethnicities. I also discussed how a classmate who is Black wanted to date me and how this could be seen as a small but politically significant gesture of understanding between two ethnicities that usually have nothing to do with each other. Part II is similar but the sad flipside of these examples, which is that social and historical forces can overwhelm these personal acts of solidarity.

Skip the biographical details

I was in a brief romantic relationship from December of last year until this January. While it was brief, and it was almost entirely long-distance (with me being in LA and he in Hong Kong), it gave me a lot to think about. The man I was with is Korean, and two relevant points derive from this. One, his family is descended from royalty from the Silla dynasty, and he is the oldest male of his generation. To continue his family’s royal legacy he must marry a Korean woman and produce pure-blooded Korean children, and pass down thousand-year-old genealogical records down to the next generation. This seems archaic and pointless and even he has said this is archaic and pointless, but he has to shoulder this responsibility, and this has been a burden on him. As I am not Korean, this means that the relationship will have to end at some point, and he point-blank told me this. Two, less significant for altering the course of my life but equally theoretically significant, he said at one point that he has had sex with White women (apparently in Korean it’s called “riding the white horse”). Apparently, this is seen as an achievement among Korean men, and he also sees this as a point of pride. The implication, I suppose, being that since I am not White, a relationship with me doesn’t carry the social prestige of having a relationship with a White woman.

My friends and family who have seen me through the ups and downs of this relationship have largely laid the blame on him as being ideologically weak for going along with a tradition he doesn’t agree with; additionally, my more ethnically conscious friends who grudgingly understand why he needs to settle down with a Korean woman are furious that he seems to be buying into a structure of White supremacy, where compared to White women, I am somehow lacking. Going into a relationship knowing it will end, and having the problem be my race, was difficult at both emotional and moral/intellectual levels. I took some time to think about whether to continue the relationship or not, and importantly whether I could still be a good partner with this hanging over my head. While I ultimately decided that I could, he said he also needed to think. Some time later told me that long-standing psychological issues (which have their roots in family issues) arose on his end while I was deliberating, and so he could not maintain a romantic relationship. He also cut off contact completely, and 7000 miles of ocean isn’t conducive to trying to negotiate if one party does this. I was devastated and always will be to a certain extent; however, since I have the benefits of insight from figuring out the socio-historical factors that contributed to my unstable childhood, this situation also merits similar insights.

*

a. American immigration policies, Asian masculinities

The whole thing about White women didn’t contribute to the end of the relationship but it still hurt, and prompted me to think about race and gender structures and specifically the problems with Asian masculinities. Historically, Asian exclusion in the US meant that Asian men couldn’t bring their families, and women were not allowed in so as to guard against producing families, though some prostitutes were – I believe the justification was that unless the working men had a sexual outlet somewhere, they’d channel that towards disobedience and rioting. Anti-miscegenation laws meant that Asian men weren’t allowed to marry White women, and as “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” any White woman who married an Asian man would have her citizenship revoked. Since only men could own property and vote and such, marrying a non-citizen pretty much meant no livelihood and civil and social participation. Due to the smaller stature of Asian men, and that earlier Chinese immigrant men had long hair, plus getting shunted off into businesses like laundry and restaurants, meant that Asian men were seen as effeminate and not “real men.” On the other hand, because early on the few Chinese women were let into the US only as prostitutes, this generated a sense that all Asian women had some special, deviant form of sexuality; additionally, American military interventions in Asia put American servicemen in contact with local women, many contacts being in the context of sex work. There is also the idea that Asian men treat women badly and that Asia is poor and so White men can save Asian women, but because Asian women are used to being treated badly they will be happy with little and be submissive partners. In contrast to Asian men seen as not being men, Asian women are seen as overly feminine and hypersexualized. Plus the whole Madam Butterfly thing where Asian women are supposed to be more loyal and self-sacrificing, possibly because of her inferiority complex as Asian and not White drives her to devote herself to a man of a superior race, possibly because her strong cultural traditions make her fully committed. If I’m missing any historical influences please let me know.

Anyways, both stereotypes against Asian men and women gave rise to the idea that it is fine for a White man to be with an Asian woman but it is out of the ordinary for an Asian man to be with a White woman. Among Asians, this created the gender double standard that an Asian woman who dates a White man is a race traitor, whereas an Asian man who dates a White woman is heroic for challenging the status quo. In terms of the Korean man I was with, this situation triggers opposing reactions in me; as an Asian person and to be crude, I would say good for him for challenging the racist status quo and having sex with White women; however as a woman, I would say he seems to be using a fellow woman, regardless of race, to bolster his sense of masculinity, especially if/since they weren’t long relationships but just casual sex. And, as I stated, since I am not a White woman this somehow places me beneath White women. In this case, because gender and race are both implicated, oddly enough challenging the status quo ends up buying into it. Asian men who have relationships with White women seem to be going against White supremacy, which historically disallowed unions between Asian men and White women. However, in choosing White women over Asian women, Asian men would be repeating White supremacy.

Similar to my opening example of what chains of oppression are, in this case White supremacy has targeted Asians, but then Asian men, in trying to work against White supremacy, end up becoming oppressors again by devaluing Asian women. A similar pattern also contributed to my parents’ marriage not working out, though in their case there was no White woman in the picture. But because my mother was always more career-oriented and successful, I think my father felt like his masculinity was being compromised, and so he blamed her for not being a good wife and mother. I have been angry about how fraught Asian masculinities have played out in my own life in both cases, but after thinking through the historical forces that affected how Asian men respond, I have to say that I am disappointed but not necessarily angry. I especially understand that this is not just an issue in America. In a Chinese context, Communism insisted on gender equality, however I don’t think it really rooted out traditional Chinese gender hierarchies. So with Communism slipping into capitalism during the time my parents grew into adults, I think my father would like to say he advocates for gender equality but still subscribes to the idea that gender roles should be clear cut; also, in a modern capitalist society, he is disappointed that my mother succeeded as the driving force behind our family when he was unable to be. Korea has been encroached upon by the US (more on this below), where the US is often depicted as a masculine saviour of feminine nations in need of rescue. In addition, modern development has vastly restructures social relations, and so Korean men may tend to feel like they have lost their collective national masculinity. It is unfortunate that they react to this by encouraging each other to have sex with White women, and I am sorry that someone I otherwise respect for his ideas buys into this, but I can see where it comes from.

As for my decision to keep going with the relationship, I do worry that I am repeating the stereotype of Asian women as Madam Butterfly kind of figures. Personally, my decision is partly due to what I mentioned in Part I, that my parents were in different ways irresponsible to each other. If I do stumble into a relationship, I want to maintain a relationship to the best of my ability, even if I come away with little. But the synopsis for Madama Butterfly on Wiki reads: “She is a 15-year-old Japanese girl whom he is marrying for convenience, since he [Pinkerton, the American officer] intends to leave her once he finds a proper American wife.” In my case, it would have been that I am a Chinese woman he is dating until he finds a proper Korean wife, though I don’t think it was for “convenience.” Anyways, Pinkerton goes back to the US for 3 years and Butterfly waits despite the advice of those around her, and when Pinkerton comes back with his American wife, Butterfly kills herself.

I was thinking that maybe I am even worse than Butterfly, since she doesn’t know for a fact that Pinkerton abandoned her, whereas I would have gone into the relationship with the knowledge that one day I would be. Also, even now that the relationship is over, I find myself wondering whether I should wait for his psychological issues to lift, and I suppose that being similar to Butterfly, waiting with no word across the Pacific, isn’t any comfort. I’m obviously not going to kill myself over this, but preoccupation with this has led to a lack of concentration for other matters, which has led to minor accidents. In the worst of my distress I found myself thinking that it was rather pathetic that Butterfly at least actively kills herself, whereas if I do manage to kill myself it would only be by accident. The fact that in my life the man is Asian and not White, I think, doesn’t change the fact that I might be reinforcing stereotypes of Asian women. I am not sure how to balance responsibility towards others with something like the need to address historical stereotypes, or personal dignity, and in this way I am in a reciprocal but same position as Asian men. This will continue to bother me.

b. Colonialisms and nationalism

I suppose in terms of the Korean man I was with, both White women and I are in the same boat in that we were both temporary. The direct cause of the ending of the relationship are personal issues, but I see Korean nationalism as a factor in what happened. Or, I suppose a more specific term would be ethnonationalism, where the nation is defined as being the point of identification for a specific race and culture to the exclusion of other races or culture. There are similar cases to mine; one of my mother’s co-workers in China dated a Korean woman for the last 8 years, but her parents adamantly refuses to let her marry a non-Korean, and made her break up with him. This is also most definitely a race and ethnicity issue and not a class issue. My parents would be uncomfortable with me dating a Black man, but mostly because they believe that Black people are predominantly “lower class,” or that African American culture somehow evolved to hold lower class values. So, if a Black person I date fits into my parents’ idea of what a nice upper-middle class gentleman is supposed to be like, they’d actually have very few objections. When my mother was telling me the story of her colleague, she kept on emphasizing that he comes from a good family and has a PhD and a great job, as a way of saying that his race is the only grounds for objection. Another example of nationalism is what I pointed out in the post about the animated series Hetalia, where the South Korean National Assembly concluded that the way Korea was depicted is equivalent to a criminal act, and banned the series. This act has baffled fans in the West who couldn’t understand why Korea is so nationalist.

In my relationship I see a repeat of Ireland, which is that I am again running up against the reactionary tendencies of a smaller country that it has developed as a coping mechanism due to being historically trampled on by larger imperial neighbours (and it seems like I’m again running up against the exclusionary policies of the southern half of a partitioned country. Either there are indeed weird patterns in my life or I have apophenia). Arguably Korea has been worse off than Ireland; geographically Ireland is isolated from the rest of continental Europe, and while there was Norman presence in Ireland, largely it was only Great Britain that sought to take advantage of it. Korea, however, is in the middle of Russia, Japan, China, and more recently among the US’s transpacific designs. During the Korean War, Korea was partitioned with the USSR plus China and the US taking respectively North and South. There is still American military, not the mention economic, presence in South Korea – popular culture references to this appear in the movie The Host, as well as a controversy last year over anti-American songs from the Korean pop star Psy. In ancient times Korea was a buffer zone between Japan and China and got alternately invaded by China and Japan (eg Hideyoshi invaded en route to China in the late 1500s) or sucked into the Chinese imperial tribute system. In the tribute system, the Emperor of China is the only person who can call himself “emperor,” sees China as a superior leader that should govern other territories, and demands tribute or payment in return. I think historians have generally seen it as a economic structure rather than a political one, and usually imperial China didn’t interfere too much with local politics elsewhere as long as they got their tribute. However, Korea being part of the tribute system means that China technically had say over Korean royal succession, which I find bitterly ironic for my case (and the dynasty the Korean man is descended from also had alliances with China’s Tang dynasty at the time, which I also find bitterly ironic). Anyways, in the 20th century Korea was under Japanese annexation with language and culture suppressed, a large number of historical cultural artefacts plundered, and in WWII Korean men were drafted while women were abducted en masse as “comfort women” and forced to work in military brothels. Also, from the Korean war with American military presence in South Korea, there is a sense that White men are taking up Korean women (Nora Okja Keller wrote 2 novels on both of these issues, and here is more information about Korean prostitutes for US soldiers). Given this kind of history, Korean nationalism isn’t all that surprising. Just as I understand Ireland for its seemingly extreme procedures for self-preservation, I also understand that Korea is in a similar position.

As a woman, the atrocity of comfort women makes me especially ill. While the abduction of women as prostitutes is part of military and political imperialism, I think it also has an afterlife separate from military and political affairs. A history of political and economic encroachments might make a small country emphasize political sovereignty and economic development, however something like the abduction of women as prostitutes, or having foreign (US) soldiers stay in your country while buying the women of your country as prostitutes, would affect what the country sees as appropriate structures of intimacy and kinship. In addition, from a History book we recently read for class (Race for Empire, by Takashi Fujitani), I learned that under Japanese colonialism, there was a lot of propaganda trying to make Japanese and Koreans form family units so as to assimilate Koreans faster. The theory of biopower would be useful to explain this. Michel Foucault (a theorist / social and political philosopher that American Studies tend to refer to a lot) defines biopower as a nation-state using all kinds of processes to manage the bodies of individuals and to manage populations (populations here being a group of individuals sharing some biological similarity, eg the census asking for gender gives the state an idea of the male and female populations in the country).

Foucault’s theories about power in general are important because he goes beyond defining power as a force that has negative impacts and shows that power operates just as much where it has positive impacts. In biopower specifically, something like historical US anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriages has essentially the same kind of reasoning behind it as giving pregnant women and mothers in the US today maternity leave – in the first case, a threat to a population (America, defined then as White) is to be forestalled, in the second a contribution to a population (American) is to be promoted. What this (seemingly crazy) kind of thinking allows us to see is that it very well may be that in every case of positive biopower exercised upon a population, someone is the negative target and excluded from this population. In the case of American women given maternity leave, while Americans are no longer defined only as White and it seems like this benefits everybody, women like undocumented Mexican mothers would not be getting maternity leave because the US does not want to support more “illegal” Mexican children. While this seems like common sense, as in of course if they’re illegal we don’t want their children either, it’s precisely by limiting breeding that no more illegals are produced, and this regulation of bodies and what they do is biopower in action. In the case of Korea, the response to decades and centuries of outside imperialism is to go beyond ethnonationalism in the cultural sphere to biopower, where social discourses set the goal of Korean racial purity (much like earlier US anti-miscegenation laws). In turn this dictates appropriate unions of intimacy and what kinds of bodies are produced to further the nation.

In addition, in light of the removal of historical artefacts and Japan’s and later the US’s encroachments on Korea, it also makes sense that Korean people today would believe they bear extra responsibility for preserving the historical legacies they have left. A friend of mine in political science was exasperated on my behalf and said that nations need to move with the times, however I do think that if a nation emphasizes a seemingly archaic and pointless tradition, or even a graver tendency like biopower, this tradition must have a social function even if it doesn’t have a utilitarian function. Again, just my bad luck to date a Korean man while the country is still recovering from various imperial interventions, and it was his bad luck to be born at this specific cultural time and into a family who has extra incentive to maintain their historical legacy.

However, I have also been re-thinking Japanese colonialism. After all, during the Tokugawa period Japan didn’t really bother anyone else despite having domestic and economic and production issues, but then Westerners, most notably America and Commodore Perry, came along and forced Japan to open to foreigners. And it looks like Perry was a part of the Mexican-American war and the War of 1812 – this goes to show how far American imperialism can stretch. Specifically, the American idea of manifest destiny meant that the US believed that it was destined to and responsible for spreading its civilization through North America. This prompted the wars with Mexico to acquire the American West, and once it reached the Pacific, manifest destiny pushed onwards to Asia. Like the Chinese decision to open economically, which affected the careers of my parents, Japan’s opening up was due to Western intrusion and demands for resources and markets – the Convention of Kanagawa and subsequent treaties established economic and trade concessions for the US. Japan’s 20th century designs to unify Asia and to create colonies like in Korea came from the model of Western imperialism and colonialism, and Japan believed that to survive among the world powers it must emulate them. I am the last person who would absolve Japan of its atrocities, however I do believe that Japan is in the middle of another chain of oppression, with American imperialism and Western free market ideology again at the top. And in this case, perhaps, understanding is not necessary to excuse. I suppose I should hold these forces responsible for why my last relationship didn’t work out, just like in figuring out the forces behind my childhood instability leads me to ultimately hold British Imperialism responsible. Well, that was a productive Valentine’s day weekend.

Concluding remarks: Survival, forgiveness, and poetic justice

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
— T. S. Eliot

If I sound like a crazy person for saying that it’s American free market ideology that messed up my love life, then yes and no, it is what I am saying and it also isn’t. Yes: from an American Studies perspective, which focuses on the negative aspects of American social, political, and cultural decisions, yes, American free market ideology messed up my love life; this is the afterlife of empire. In addition, imperialism goes on. Everyone living in the US today is potentially a Commodore Perry, operating through a common sense structure of bettering their own life and the status of their nation at the expense of others. As I said to my Business Administration students in the immigration class, as future CEOs of their companies, they might prioritize higher profits over granting benefits and time off for their employees who are also mothers. In turn, those mothers might need to hire Latina domestic workers, and so the separation of Latin American families may get perpetuated; my students also exist in a chain of causality. No: sounding like a crazy person is part of the point. I doubt Commodore Perry could be aware that opening Japan would trigger a chain of oppression that would result in war, Japanese colonialism in Asia, vehement Korean nationalism, continuing international conflict, and less significantly, a Chinese-Canadian woman having her heart broken 150 years later. Of course, there are plenty of intermediaries in this chain to make the next person miserable. From a non-American Studies lay person point of view, the take away conclusion is that responsibility is not invested in those immediate to us but distributed across history, and institutions, and collective consciousness beyond the control of individuals. Those immediate to us are easier to reach with blame, that’s all. I can no more fault the Korean man I dated and his family for operating in a structure of Korean self-preservation than I can fault Commodore Perry.

A broader question remains, though, which is how much responsibility we can attribute to individuals and collectives in the chain of oppression. On the one hand I want to say that we are all individually responsible for not passing down oppression to the next chain. In this formulation, Ireland should not have adopted a zero-immigration policy regardless of the fighting in the North and the history of British imperialism; instead of staying in Ireland, my parents should have gone back to China so they could have stability and be responsible to each other, and me; China should have tried to make Communism work instead of caving to free market ideology, or it should have sorted itself during the Qing dynasty. The US should have granted Asians an equitable place in society if it needed their labour, and Asian and Asian American men should not put their masculinity before behaving ethically towards all women. Japan should not have tried to emulate Western imperialism despite being forced to open its ports; Korea should not over-insist on racial purity and cultural preservation even if Japan and the US has encroached on both; the Korean man’s family should realize that their family traditions can potentially impact his happiness and not expect him to carry it forwards. And one day he will be faced with the choice of asking his own children to continue this legacy or not. These sentiments are encapsulated in the quotation from Tom Paine at the beginning, and this quotation is actually one of his favourites. I never got to ask him about it, but I can guess that feeling the chain of oppression weighing on him is why he is drawn to Paine’s statement.

However, I also believe that holding everyone responsible, especially those in the lower sections of the chain, is an unreasonable demand. I have had arguments with my classmates in American Studies about this. They rightly believe in taking action against oppression instead of compromising or allowing oppression to change oneself. However once I brought up something I learned in a Canadian Literature context, which is that Margaret Atwood has argued that all CanLit has something to do with the theme of survival. I have repeatedly characterized Ireland and Korea as adopting policies of self-preservation – to me this is the politics of survival, which might have to take priority over recognizing that oneself or one’s country can potentially be an oppressor. This would be like a social or national version of the psychologist Maslow’s theory of a hierarchy of needs, where an individual needs food and shelter before self-actualization. With this insight, I also revised my view of my mother’s values (eg taking extra food from hotels). I still don’t agree with a lot of the values she held, and she has changed to not hold those values either, but we both realize that those values comes from survival. Growing up with poverty in China meant that to ensure survival people often needed to take maximum advantage of what little they were offered, and unfortunately this informs patterns of thought and behaviour that persist long after the conditions that led to these behaviours have changed. My paternal grandmother is even worse – she is getting subsidized housing and a monthly pension from the Canadian government, however she still constantly goes to the food bank because the food there is free. 10 years ago I would have been angry at her, but I understand that this just comes from having so little for most of her life that she can’t change it. My dad’s girlfriend, who thankfully does not torture herself over these things, told me quite practically that we cannot change my grandmother’s behaviour, but the least we could do is to make sure she doesn’t eat anything from the food bank that is already expired.

Maybe a slightly schizophrenic way of thinking is in order – we need to each live to recognize whether we might be one in a chain of oppression and do our best not to pass it down, but we also need to forgive others – and ourselves – if we cannot achieve this. I forgive my parents, and given my understanding of the social and historical forces around both them and me, I’m uncomfortable saying that I could even “forgive” them like it was in my right or power to do so. I have explained my thoughts to my parents and told them I no longer blame them, and I think they also no longer blame themselves. As for my recent relationship, there are two entities that I need to “forgive,” one being the Korean man himself, and less obviously, Korean women. Pettiness can overtake me sometimes; for a few days after being told that not being Korean was a problem, I couldn’t stand the sight of Korean girls on campus, since each of them automatically had a better chance of being with the Korean man than me by virtue of their birth. I have already discussed how emphasizing racial purity in Korea can be an example of biopower. Here I would add that seeing that biopower always operates through both positives and negatives at once would mean we also see that a) there is no positive application of biopower without the negative, and vice versa; b) both those negative and positively impacted by biopower are victims of power, even if those positively impacted seem to have more privilege. In the structure of Korean ethnonationalism, I am the victim of the negative exercise of biopower since I am deemed unfit to reproduce; however Korean women are the targets of the positive exercise of biopower, saddled with the extra burden to reproduce. So, Korean women might have romantic privilege over me in this case, however this does not mean they are in a vertical relationship to me and passing down oppression onto me; we exist horizontally in the same boat (sorry for the mixed metaphor), just on different ends of the boat.

As for the Korean man himself, I can’t assume his psychological issues are a direct result of his family pressures, but I’m pretty sure these are a part of it. So, historical forces do not only impact his choice of a partner but may also affect his mental health in general. Thus, all of his relationships are affected, and sadly especially his relationship with himself. In turn, I am affected twice over; historical forces have precluded me from a long-term romantic relationship with him, and then when I reconciled myself to this, their impact on his mental health excluded me from even being his friend. I could be angry at him about this, and friends have generally taken me not being angry as a sign of weakness or that I am deluded as to his character, or something along those lines. However, I have reached an understanding that is helping me cope: he is like Korea and Ireland on a smaller scale,and needs to withdraw to ensure self-preservation. Again, if I have any right to forgive, I forgive him too.

I am even more uncomfortable saying I am in a position to forgive him, because I believe I’ve passed my chain of oppression onto him as well. Maybe my mother is right that living with my neurotic grandparents shaped my thinking. But, I think as a teenager, I had a period of obsessively thinking of all the factors that contributed to my parents getting divorced, and I think this developed into a general cognitive tendency to dwell on things and overthinking them (this post being a case in point). The Korean man once said to me that he has a lot of baggage, and I replied that my heart was big enough. When I lamented to my mother that I can no longer offer him support as someone close to him, her way of making me feel better was to say that given my tendency to make a big deal of things in this manner, I would probably end up increasing his burden instead of lightening it, so it’s not really his loss. I resisted this idea for a while, but realized that it may very well be that seeing me so distraught about the impending ending to the relationship made him realize that I indeed could not share his burdens, and he put the blame on himself and his issues so as to preserve my self-esteem.

Even if this was not the case, if I were a better-adjusted and secure person without all the (various imperialism-chain-induced) baggage from childhood, I might have been able to more quickly shrug off the prospect of the relationship ending, and I would have been here for him when any psychological issues manifested. I suppose how we pass down oppression can be both actively doing something oppressive or failing to do something supportive. Japan modernizing and trying to establish an empire in Asia would be an active way of passing down oppression, whereas my anxieties getting in the way of supporting someone dear to me would be passing down oppression by failing to act. I told a friend that I wanted to make up for avoiding relationships in the past by not holding back with this one, and that I would rather cross the line than commit sins of omission. However at the crucial moment I did not act; it looks like I committed sins of omission anyways, and my heart wasn’t big enough after all. So, in the end, I can only hope that I am forgiven, and I am still working on forgiving myself.

Two things have been hard to work through in the process of self-forgiveness: one is precisely what my mother accused me of, that is overthinking. I have always taken my ability and willingness to engage with complexity as a positive trait, despite being told that most people just want to find a partner or friend who is “light.” Gendered notions aside (where a grave man who thinks deeply is attractive but a grave woman who thinks deeply might not be), this situation made me realize that engaging with complexity does slide too easily into making things a bit deal, and potentially hurt those around me. I am still wondering whether I can turn this kind of thinking on for something like my PhD program, but turn it off everywhere else.

Two, as a subset of overthinking, I have lived in the belief that I am never simply me but rather a product of historical and social forces, and therefore my personal is political. This sentiment is actually the kernel of Frantz Fanon’s quotation at the beginning. Fanon was a Black psychiatrist and philosopher who studied in France and lived in Algeria, which had been a French colony. On the face of it, the quotations sounds like he just wants to live as a free individual of the present day and forget about history, but in the context of his writings, it means the exact opposite. Fanon believed that the history of subjugation and the psychological damage it has caused Black people should be confronted, analyzed, and rectified if true self-determination is to be reached; destiny is not in history but in working through the problems presented by historical oppressions. I have always aligned myself with this. As I was obsessing earlier about the similarities between me and Madam Butterfly, centuries of East-West relations and race and gender hierarchies operate behind whom I choose as a romantic partner and how I behave. It is hard for me not to see the matrix of historical and social forces that operate around us, and I expect this awareness of others. This is why I am the most annoyed by the historical amnesia of other Chinese people whose only goal is to make money and enjoy life.

However, in interacting with the Korean man, I have come to realize that perhaps the personal being political is not necessarily a good thing. My personal being political is largely self-imposed. No one determined from before I was born that my nation’s history must find survival in my bloodline, that my worth as a person depends on marrying a Chinese man and producing pure-blooded Chinese children. I could leave my PhD and do a regular 9 to 5 job and never think about all this again, but the Korean man does not have this privilege. To phrase it in terms of the personal being political, the Korean man’s personal is predetermined to be political and he has no say in the matter; thus, it is the result of oppression in the form of ethnonationalism and biopower. Also, along with the realization that my sense of social and historical responsibility is self-imposed, I realized that I am privileged to live a life that is already to a large extent not determined by history and politics. Going from this, since I am in a privileged position, I have no right to expect that other people take up history, since I really have no idea what it’s like to really live with its burdens. In an email I wrote to the Korean man, I wondered why he just doesn’t limit himself to dating Korean women, since that would spare someone like me, and potentially himself, distress. In light of my realizations, though, it would be unfair to demand that he pass up a chance of being happy with someone, even for a short while, just so he could fulfill a nationally pre-determined life trajectory. Someone like the Korean man might only be able to take Fanon’s statement at face value, and run from history; someone like me has no right to judge, and even less to add to his burdens. Even if analyzing centuries of imperialisms helps me to come to terms with events in my own life, he doesn’t need to be reminded of any of it.

I am not ready to give up on the personal being political just yet, though. Despite what I just said about how overanalyzing history might not help everyone, I do hope that the Korean man will be able to see how history has put him in the position he is in; and, while the demands that he settle down with a Korean woman and produce pure-blooded children is outdated, it is not so unreasonable given everything his country has been through. In short, I hope he forgives his family, his society, and history in general. This might lead him to accept his position and make the most of it; his happiness and his reponsibilities are not mutually exclusive.

As for myself, perhaps I need to take on extra social and historical responsibility because I now recognize that there are people who are really not in a position to do so, and as I have tried to show, it helps with forgiveness. I want to end on a positive note, which is why my relationship with the Korean man is so significant to me for social and historical reasons. Although my relationship with the Black classmate didn’t work out last year, I derived from it a new standard, which is that relationships I have should not just be about two people; it should have some larger social or symbolic significance. As I have said, in that case it was bridging two ethnicities that don’t want to have anything to do with each other. In the case of the Korean man, the larger social significance relates to the historical events in Asia that I have described. As someone who is in Asian American studies and who has been taught that coalition among various Asians in the US has been a heroic way of combating discrimination, it saddens me that Asian countries all hate each other for various reasons.

Unfortunately inter-Asian solidarity is a long way off. No one likes Japan for what it did in WWII and its continuing denial of WWII atrocities; in January, PM Shinzo Abe visited the shrines to pay respect to WWII casualties, including war criminals, which triggered waves of outrage from China and both Koreas. South Korea holds a grudge against China for imperialism in ancient times and for participation in the Korean War, and China has even recently launched “research projects” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_Project) that suggest that certain Korean territories should belong to China. Japan sees itself as more civilized than other Asians and sees itself as aligned with the West (John Lie’s book, Multiethnic Japan, shows how Japan has disavowed connections with other Asian ethnicities). China is still sunk into Sino-centrism and believes that it is fountainhead of all Asian culture, and that its own culture is somehow more valid, which causes resentment. It is also passing down a chain of oppression by citing “national humiliation” from foreign encroachments in the beginning of the 20th century as a reason it needs to “self strengthen,” screwing up its own populations in the process and encroaching on smaller neighbours like the Philippines and Vietnam. Finally, right before I told my father that the Korean man and I were going to try a relationship, he sent me an article saying that recent historical research in China has uncovered that most of the soldiers who committed atrocities during the Rape of Nanking were Koreans; I took this to be a bad omen. Anyways, I don’t know if this is true or not, but I do know that Japan drafted Korean men and sent them to other parts of Asia as part of the Japanese imperial army (described in Takashi Fujitani, Race for Empire). In terms of a chain of oppression, I have a twisted understanding of why soldiers in this miserable position might be the most cruel – they couldn’t react against their oppressors, so their only outlet would be to make someone else just as miserable.

I spent enough of my childhood in China to have absorbed some vehement anti-Japanese rhetoric, however I do recognize that anti-Japanese rhetoric is often used by the Chinese government to mask its own failings. I don’t approve of certain US policies or Western imperialism and I don’t approve of how the Chinese and Japanese governments are running their countries foreign policy-wise (I don’t know enough about South Korea to say), and I am very invested in inter-Asian solidarity at a personal level to counteract both Western imperialism and the failings of each individual Asian government.

What I saw in my relationship with the Korean man, other than personal reasons like sharing greater understanding than with almost everyone else I know, was that this was a small act of solidarity in light of the historical conflicts in Asia and the mutual hatred still going on. At the start of our relationship Kim Jong-un had his uncle Jang Sung-taek executed, and there was media speculations that maybe Kim Jong-un would be mad and power-hungry enough to attack South Korea. Since technically China is still backing North Korea, I joked to a friend that if China helped invade South Korea then then we would have to break up. Then I explained that actually if that happened, it would be extra incentive to stay together, as a small measure to counteract international conflict. The personal doesn’t seem that political, it is true; but just like the argument that if everyone in the world diligently recycles, the environment might improve a bit because of it, then if every Asian person became friends and family with another Asian of a different country, maybe there would be less ignorance, lesser tendencies to buy into propaganda, greater tendencies to admit past wrongdoing, and greater tendencies to forgive.

In addition, when I decided that I could continue the relationship, one consideration was Chinese imperialism and its tribute system in ancient times (crazy person / overthinking alert). My mother told me about the colleague who dated a Korean woman for 8 years as a warning of what would happen to me, that I would “give my best years” to someone who ultimately would leave me. I thought about it and came to terms with it, because this is an element of the personal being political. I believe karma and that poetic justice exists in life, and both of these are continuous between individuals and the societies they live in. That is, I believe that both the virtues and the sins of a society are visited upon the individuals of that society, and that these individuals should both reap the rewards of their society’s virtues and bear responsibility to address the sins their society has committed. Eg. I consider myself Canadian, so along with benefiting from a free k-12 education and a subsidized public university education, I also accept that a First Nations student might have lower grades than me and still get into a university that I can’t get into, because that is addressing Canada’s past sins (whether affirmative action is the best way to address past sins is another topic entirely).

I still consider myself Chinese, so if historically China has relegated Korea to tributary status, possibly interfered with its succession, and is even now pushes its boundaries, then maybe it’s some kind of distilled karma, or poetic justice, that I do end up “giving the best years of my life” to a Korean man. This would be true especially since he is so burdened by the demands of his family and society, which I understand are the result of all these historical processes I have described. Even if the relationship is temporary and the end inevitable, it would still mean that I would be helping to delay the culmination of the effects of various colonialisms and nationalisms on a personal level, and I might have helped him heal from the toll these historical processes have taken (not to mention him helping me heal from the tolls historical processes have had on me). Sadly, I arrived at this conclusion a few days too late, and ultimately I didn’t need to and didn’t get to give him anything. Given the distance and silence on his end I don’t think I ever will. A large part of why the ending of the relationship devastates me so much is because I am unable to make an intervention in historical inequalities and ongoing social conflicts by having this relationship (and if I sound too academic and abstract, yes, I am saddened by the end of the relationship for normal, personal reasons too).

My house mate jokingly asked if I would ever date another Korean man, and I said that on the contrary, I might keep dating Korean men until something works out. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will carry forward the awareness that my life and social/political/historical issues are connected. As with the overthinking, this could be a good thing or a bad thing; I am taking a course on Transpacific history right now, and my university is running a film series titled “Transpacific Intimacies.” Because I linked my life to broader historical forces, sometimes class discussions and emails telling me about the films can trigger hours of gloom that my own transpacific relationship didn’t work out. It also doesn’t help that the class is in a conference room in the East Asian Library, which constantly reminds me that East Asians should be counting on their similarities, but in my life it didn’t work out. Anyways, I hope that with the insight I have worked out through this post, the gloom will eventually turn into an incentive to dedicate myself to my studies; certainly a lot of the concepts I am learning is helping me come to terms with misfortune, and I haven’t even touched on how my other more philosophy-based class is helping me think about interpersonal relationships in general. And with the personal being political, I can make an academic intervention where I failed to make a personal one.

Strategy vs. Sportsmanship

Not a week into the Olympics and we hit a scandal. Women’s badminton doubles from China, Korea and Indonesia were disqualified for losing on purpose. Normally I don’t really post about sports, since it’s not something I’m too invested in, but I am worried that this will advance/confirm the idea of “Asians are cheaters” (another thing being  Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen being suspected of doping), or that “those communists are privileging the group over the individual again.”

Wang and Yu played to lose so that they could avoid playing another Chinese team, and were disqualified for being “unsportsmanlike.” I argue that the idea of what being “a sportsman” constitutes is a little problematic because it’s based on the idea of individual effort leading to individual success*, and actually that’s at odds with the structure of the Olympics. The Olympics is not entirely about individual achievement. Athletes are representing their country, and the medal count each day is a list of countries and their medals, not a list of people who have won medals. In addition, the nomenclature of these athlete-representatives is “Team [country name],” meaning that each athlete represents a team, which in turn represents their country. Allowing one team of a country to lose to give another team of the same country a chance to win is based on a consideration of how best to make the country pull forward, which seems to be in line with what the Olympics are implicitly emphasizing. Also, success aside, while doing one’s best is important, I don’t think this principle trumps the principle of self-sacrifice and putting others before yourself.

The pressure to punish someone was heavy, and I the motives for punishing someone ought to be examined. First of all, the audience response from thousands of spectators makes inaction impossible. However, I feel like the majority of the audience has at least an inkling of “I object to this because I’m not getting my money’s worth” in addition to the more noble “I object to this because it’s not sportsmanlike,” as evidenced by articles saying that there will be no refunds. The punishments to the athletes, in this case, caves to a kind of consumer logic. Frankly I think this proves that the Olympics are totally already unsportsmanlike – each athlete has trained extremely hard and endured hardships, yes, but the Olympics themselves have become first and foremost an entertainment spectacle. If what I just said was false, then the Paralympics ought to draw more supporters, yet for most people the Olympics take precedence because it’s just more exciting to watch. Frankly, I think some of the spectators who were angry ought to disqualify themselves as fans. Also, the athletes were the ones performing and the ones who were visible, not the referees or the organizers who set up the round robin system, and I think that’s partially why they ended up being targeted the hardest in the media, essentially being placed on the sacrificial altar because it’s harder to punish anyone else.

I actually hope this controversy doesn’t die down soon. At the basics, the competition system needs to be reconsidered, and more broadly, I think the Olympic organizers, spectators, referees, athletes and governing bodies all reconsider what the Olympics are really about, and if it’s to include the world, to include different cultural definitions of winning and success.

 

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* not to mention, individual effort based on individual success, from a starting point presumed to be equal.  Except there’s a long road before the starting line and it’s hard to see if that’s equal or not. Apparently part of the 70-minute waiting time Shin Lam, the South Korean athlete fencing in epee, had to endure as the judges debated their decision was because her referee didn’t have enough money on hand to submit an appeal.

One Man’s Battle: The Unappreciated Depth of Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly

For a literature course at the Chinese University I’m crrently teaching at, I decided to make the course about Chinese and American blockbuster movies instead. For the genre of War dramas, I put Saving Private Ryan for the American film and Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly (集结号, lit. “assembly signal”) for the Chinese one. While reading up on Assembly, I got the impression that most Western reviewers didn’t really get the point of the film, and especially when they compare it to Saving Private Ryan, they feel that Assembly is lacking. Most reviews seem to laud the technical aspect of the film and praise the heroism of its characters, but are uncomfortable with what they believe is yet another propaganda film saying how wonderful it would be to sacrifice yourself for the Communist government. Actually, I think the message of the film is exactly the opposite, and that the film techniques from Saving Private Ryan is used in a more compelling way.

Assembly was released in 2007 and apparently it was very popular in China, earning a hundred and eighty million RMB after running in the theatres for a few months (Baidu). Feng Xiaogang is also a very established filmmaker, though usually his focus has been dramas involving people in everyday life, like Cell Phone and If You Are the One, and most recently noted on an international scale, Aftershock. There are some things about Feng’s filmmaking that I personally aren’t used to, like the pacing [1] – for example, it’s not a Western storytelling pattern to have a climactic battle 1/3 of the way through the movie and spend the rest of the movie on character digging up a coal mine, but this is a cultural difference that I can’t count against him. Anyway, the story of Assembly is that Gu Zidi, an illiterate commander of a People’s Liberation Army Company, decides to fight to the last man during a battle against the Kuomingtang’s superior forces at an old abandoned mining site; he is the sole survivor, and spends the rest of his life trying to find a place for himself in a post-war China and prove that his company did in fact fight to the last man and didn’t desert or defect. The story pivots on the call to assembly, from the main forces behind them, that would tell his company to retreat, which his superior commander tells him to listen for (they had no radios for communication, by the way – the PLA was rather poor). Due to a blast from an enemy tank close to Gu, he couldn’t hear anything for a while, and while some of his soldiers say they heard the call to assembly, others say they didn’t. Since he is the commander, the decision rests with him, and he decides to stay.

One thing I agree with most reviewers on is that there is displays of heroism and personal growth during war represented in Assembly. Since I had it compared to Saving Private Ryan, I showed students the way Upham in SPR was too afraid to intervene in the knife fight between Mellish and a Nazi soldier, leading to Mellish’s death, and then at the end where Upham shoots “Steamboat Willie” at point blank range for reuniting with his fellow Nazi soldiers and helping to get Captain Miller killed.

Wang Jincun emerging from the trenches to shoot at a tank

Similarly, in Assembly, Gu Zidi picks up a timid man called Wang Jincun as his political commissar (the man in charge of administration and ideology in a PLA company), who at first couldn’t even look at a dead body (33:20), but in the end saw so many of his comrades die that he risks his life shooting at a tank (50:30) and agrees to blow himself up along with the mine (1:53:15).  So, in terms of identifying Assembly as a war movie that glorifies heroism and sacrifice, I don’t disagree.

What Western reviews of the film concentrate on is limited to just this heroism, and refer to it as conventionally following better war films or criticising it as being part of Communist propaganda. Perry Lam’s review in Muse apparently says that the filmmakers put “bad faith and naiveté” in “the value of unquestioning obedience to authority and sacrifice as the highest manifestation of patriotism” (can’t get at original article, only Wikipedia entry for this source). The best praise other reviews seem to offer is along the lines of, China has finally decided to show each individual small human being instead of the power of the masses, like Kozo’s review on LoveHKfilm.com, saying that the human element is the focus, but “there’s nothing complex or challenging here.” The review on Twitch was at best an apologist for the film, saying “Every nation has its war stories, and the way these stories are told are as varied as the nations from which they originate. Thus, to criticize Assembly for not addressing specific political issues is to hold the film to a standard to which few films are held.”

I believe that Assembly does exactly what the Twitch review says it doesn’t, which is that it does address political issues. While it does glorify heroism and sacrifice, if that was its only focus it should have ended after an hour. As I said in comments on the pacing of Assembly, the climactic battle starts 30 minutes into the film and then ends halfway through, and the rest is about Gu trying to prove his company’s heroism. After the battle, the audience is given a title card saying that all of the 9th company died except for Gu; then the next scene is Gu in an infirmary for POWs, wearing clothes belonging to KMT soldiers that he stole, and having the infirmary administration threatening to kick him out because they can’t verify his identity. It turns out later that no one can confirm his company’s existence because shortly after the battle at the mine, massive personnel changes took place, and no one can prove how his company died because their bodies were never found. Their families received less compensation for being MIA (vs. KIA), and are suspected to have deserted. He rejoins the army and is sent to North Korea. There he saves the life of his commanding officer, Zhao Erdou, who in return helps him track down his company; he also runs into Wang Jincun’s widow, who heard that Wang was executed by his superiors, and joins him to clear his name.

The second half of the movie is important because it’s not about heroism and sacrifice on the battlefield, but persistence and resolve in dealing with inconsistency, insincerity and bureaucracy on the part of the leadership.

Looking at this as a still picture now, the chair actually looks like it’s going to go into Mao’s face.

The first kick in the teeth is in the infirmary, when an officer tells him that he’s met many men about Gu’s age who pretend to be soldiers so that they could get cheat the military for benefits (1:02:30). Then, when Zhao finally arranges a meeting with the party officials (1:30:40), they return to questioning Gu’s identity, accusing him of possibly being captured by the KMT before the PLA found him and hence possibly a traitor, when Gu has explained that he took a dead KMT soldier’s clothing because he was cold. The meeting ends with Gu throwing a chair at the Party official(!)What was worst started off as good news. The Party finally finds traces of the 9th company, the bugler who was supposed to be the one who blue the assembly call, now working as a groundskeeper in a memorial cemetery. He tells Gu the truth – the call to assembly was never sounded, because their overall commander decided to let Gu’s company sacrifice themselves while they retreated. So the situation was two disasters multiplied; Gu and the good nature of his company was taken advantage of on the battlefield without him knowing, and then the Party refused to acknowledge their sacrifice. In the end, Gu returns to the mine, which is completely covered, and takes it upon himself to dig up his company’s bodies. An official tells him to write letters to his superiors (1:40:55), but he says “I’ve already written nine.”

Full sentence: “Their parents gave them all names…how did they become nameless men?”

Perhaps the scene that best shows the predicament of those who sacrificed themselves is a scene of a makeshift gravesite of nameless soldiers, each with a piece of wood above their graves marked “nameless hero” (1:21:00). Alone, it speaks to the horrors of war, where soldiers die and cannot be identified and of course there are such sites in any war-torn country. But as a film, this scene can be compared to the neat rows of the Normandy gravesite shown in Saving Private Ryan, where Ryan, as an old man, can still identify the gravestone of Captain Miller. What comes from this comparison is not just that the soldiers in Assembly have not been identified, but in context of what has happened to Gu, perhaps the country didn’t care enough to identify them. After all, the whole basis of Saving Private Ryan is…saving Private Ryan, which was an edict issued by the Secretary of State. In Assembly the equivalent organization took decades just to ascertain that Gu’s company were indeed not deserters. Maybe it’s because I’m Chinese and not American, but when I watched Saving Private Ryan, I did admire the soldiers and felt very upset on their behalf, but I not to the extent about what was happening to Gu Zidi. Also, the film makes it clear that Gu is not alone. When Gu returns to the site of the battle after returning from North Korea, the PLA is handing out compensation to the local families who had lost soldiers in the battle (1:14:50). In a seemingly arbitrary fashion, the PLA officer lists one man as KIA and gives his family 700 jin (weight measurement, about 500g) of rice, but then lists several men as MIA and only gives their families 200, despite protests from the crowd. To reinforce this point, a soldier tells Gu over a meal how unfair it is that two soldiers who died with his brother were identified as KIA but his brother wasn’t. For me, this makes the film compelling, because it shows the kind of arbitrary decisions that the average Chinese citizen has to put up with on a daily basis. This I think is the point of the movie, and the first half of the film was just to establish the sacrifice of Gu and his company, so that the betrayal of the Party is that much worse in the second half.

Another criticism from Western reviews, which is mostly Lam’s Muse review about the technical expertise being sophisticated while the ideology was hamfisted, I also take issue with. A lot of people compare Assembly to Saving Private Ryan, and I can see why; SPR shows many sequences filmed in a very in-situ manner, such as making the camera shake as it follows Captain Miller up the beach in Normandy, or cutting off the sound when he is witnessing the beach landing massacre, and at the end again when a tank fires at him beside the bridge he is defending. SPR was revolutionary because it is about “one man,” and not necessarily Ryan; it is about the personal, subjective experiences of soldiers on the battlefield, and taking this humble position paradoxically but successfully makes it more heroic than if it was trying to tout abstract patriotic truths. The cinematography and the sound editing reflect this; the camera does not try to establish what is “true” in war, but instead it of often takes the point of view of a soldier, and implies that this limited perspective is all we can know about what happened. This is what you should have seen if you followed Captain Miller; this is what Captain Miller would have actually heard after the tank fired. The objective truth of the moment is that there is sound in the world, but Miller’s subjective truth is that he can’t hear anything. Thus, the film is unified in its message and execution, and therefore it is successful.

The audience can see similar techniques in Assembly, especially when a shell renders Gu temporarily deaf, and the audience cannot hear anything either, aligning them with Gu’s experiences. While these techniques are also present in Assembly, they are far from derivative because they carry a strong political message that is extremely relevant to Chinese society and politics. In SPR, the subjectivity of the film techniques establishes a general idea that individuals cannot pin down something as big and complex as war, much less pin any truth on war (eg. the justice of sending men to die to rescue one man is questioned but never conclusively answered). In Assembly, the idea is a lot more specific. The one-party system in China has essentially asserted for many years the idea that what the Party dictates is the absolute truth, and of course this is an extremely arrogant assertion. The story of Assembly already shows one man struggling against the Party, and his complaint is essentially that his personal knowledge of his company’s sacrifice doesn’t fit in with the party’s official truth. In this way, all the film techniques on the side of subjectivity in this film implicitly supports Gu over the Party. At the end of the film, Zhao manages to locate the commissar of the main forces and the Party acknowledges that the 9th company died as heroes, however what is interesting is that Gu, who has spend months digging by himself in the mine by now, no longer seems to have public approval as his goal. When he hears the news, his response is, “My brothers, why can’t I find you? Come out for a breath of air” (1:50:40).

The film ends with the bodies being discovered years later during a reservoir construction, and there is a ceremony honouring the 9th company. At the end of the ceremony, the bugler, who is also present, is asked to sound the bugle call. The impression I personally get from the ending is not that the Party is wonderful in doing justice to Gu Zidi and his soldiers, but almost a “too little, too late” kind of feeling. If the assembly call had been actually blown during the battle, i.e. if the 9th company hadn’t been treated like insignificant sacrifices, , then Gu’s life would have been significantly better. A quotation taken from Feng on Baidu says that “This film is not meant to explore themes like the value and meaning of sacrifice and so forth, but personally, it’s a story about a wronged hero who has to endure an eternity of being misunderstood” [2, link]. Also from the Baidu website is a summary of how critics in China have reviewed the film, and one prevailing idea is that “this is a movie for anyone who feels they have been treated unfairly” (link to section). Given my last 5 posts about the state of China, this is practically the whole population. Here is a page on a Baidu page (link)sort of like Yahoo! Answers, and the question was “What do you think about the film Assembly? / We need to respect history…” and the answer with 18 more approvals is “I’ve watched Assembly, and the Party’s unreliable” (the two phrases actually rhymes in Chinese, making the remark humorous in a flippant sort of way). The response to this comment is “I see this comrade has got the point, thanks everyone.” I think the lack of faith in the Communist Party is one reason this film is popular in China. Contrary to Western reviews, it’s not because this film has a safe and happy message, but that it is borderline radical and speaks to buried radical feelings that Chinese citizens have. I especially wanted to get his posted on June 4, which helps reinforce the point of the film. After all, on this day, university students who wanted to make China better died. Even worse than Gu Zidi, the Party not only refused to acknowledge their sacrifice, and then them and their families as criminals, but was the ones who issued the order to kill them in the first place.

Lastly, I hope western reviewers stop looking at Chinese media in a unilateral way and label everything as propaganda. This is unfair to the filmmakers who are in fact risking their careers and trying to get their message across at all, and also unfair to the citizens, who are clearly not cultural dupes.

Notes:

[1]one thing I noticed from watching Chinese movies is that Chinese cinema and drama aren’t affected by Aristotle’s three Unities (action, time, and place) as Western drama and cinema are. I can’t say this is a failing – it’s just a cultural difference that I’m not used to. Western audiences expect movies and stories that follow Freytag’s Pyramid with tight sequence and a climax 4/5 of the way through, but that’s just one storytelling mode.
Time-wise, Chinese movies sometimes talk about a series of events happening over a long time, to the point where the audience feels like they’re watching 20-minute episodes in a miniseries. Action-wise, they also sometimes bring in seemingly pointless characters that seem to do nothing to advance the main plot (this is especially true if you’re watching an adaptation of one of the 4 Chinese classics, like Three Kingdoms or The Water Margin. I couldn’t stand watching The Water Margin especially, because there would be 3 episodes on one character in the beginning, and just when I thought he was the main character, there were 20 episodes about other characters, and then by episode 23 we went back to the first character and I’d already forgotten who he was, and he was one of the main characters after all). Assembly has this trait – Wang’s widow seems to serve no function, and she gets married with Zhao Erdou after no character development on their part. Though I suppose thematically she’s another person wronged by the government, indirectly.

[2] 这部影片并非为了探讨牺牲的价值和意义这种形而上的主题,在自己的心目中,这就是一个在漫长的岁月中不被人理解的“英雄受了委屈的故事”

Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills, Part 4: The Crack (Gulf) Between

I.
Tourists in China are advised about pick-pockets and robbers a lot. Perhaps one could argue that in a country with a huge population, the proportion of petty thieves would also be high, and foreigners stand out and so attract these thieves. However there are some differences between petty thieves in China and petty thieves in North America. From being mugged once and hearing stories of friends getting mugged, people who commit this kind of crime (and shoplifting etc) are mostly teenagers and young adults who are fooling around. In fact the ones who mugged me were positively cheerful. In other words, in most cases their next meal doesn’t depend on the contents of your wallet. Or, perhaps, they have a drug habit that they need to support, but that’s not a question of survival either.

In China, however, many people who rob others are middle-aged men with families. There is an overpass that goes over a highway close to where my mother works, and her colleagues often use this to get to the bus stop on the other side of the highway. Both rails of the overpass are covered by giant advertisement billboards, and so the overpass is like a tunnel with both sides completely shielded from the road below. In the past half a year, there have been several incidents of mugging on the bridge and one woman was mugged three times. When I went to visit my mother during the Lunar New Year holidays, we visited a colleague who was in the hospital because first the men mugged him and then chopped halfway through his knee with a machete. The police have their hands full with “more serious” issues and the people placing the advertisements refused to take them down. So this situation continues. Descriptions of the mugger is that he is alone and not a young man, and the colleague who had his knee chopped open was mugged by several men banded together. It is likely that their wages are not enough or that they weren’t given wages at all. The fact that what partly enables muggers to assault and rob people who use the overpass is advertisement billboards, is, I think, bitterly ironic.

In China, for many thieves it is a question of survival. Capitalism dictates competition, so there are bound to be people who lose, especially if they didn’t have a lot of resources to start with. Due to a combination of circumstances such as their families being in poverty and no money for schooling (university used to be free in China, but hey, profits) , families without reasonably connections, born in the countryside instead of the city, many people have no chance in the Capitalist system at all. There are tons of slums in Chinese cities where migrant workers squat (there will be a separate post about this with some photos), and even when walking around metropolitan areas, you can see men (and very occasionally women) in poor work clothes with a long stick of bamboo. These people, called “棒棒” men (pinyin “bangbang,” pronounced closer to “bongbong”), haul boxes for a living, and many of them just sit waiting for their next job . My co-workers tell me that often these men can’t start a family of their own because their social status and pay are so low that no one would marry them. In North America, we tend to think of art and writing careers as very freelance and hence insecure, but these people don’t even know whether they could get any more work in the same day, and also with less spiritual/intellectual satisfaction to compensate.

Bangbang men waiting at a street corner

Bangbang men waiting for work at a street corner in towntown Chongqing

The Western legal system plus the unions system, at least can ensure that work is paid for. When I was in leaving Beijing in the November of 2010, the taxi I was in passed a protest/riot on a street where factory workers held up standards and flags made from sheets and written on with red paint to look like blood. The taxi driver explained that these protests happen frequently because factory owners do not pay their employees as agreed. It was like a nightmare out of a Victorian novel. Anyway, additionally, in early 2011 I was coming home from grocery shopping and I saw an open manhole. The covers of the manholes all along the sidewalk had been removed, with a threat beside each one etched in white chalk, saying that unless the manager pays workers their dues, they will continue to pry open manholes and make people fall in. Basically, the average Chinese labourer has to turn to terrorism to ensure their survival.

I have been warned that especially during holidays, when advertisements urge consumer behaviour, thieves are particularly active because it is during these times that the gap between the rich and the poor is the most obvious. What bothered me about this warning was that the woman who said this to me was wholeheartedly wishing for my well-being and completely cold about the giant gap between the rich and the poor. Another situation that disturbed me was when workers came into the apartment that my mother is renting to install air conditioning units. The owners of the apartment where also present because the contract stipulates that they pay for this type of installation. The work was taking a very long time, and after a few hours I offered the installation workers some tea. They smiled and refused, and then the owner of the apartment took me aside to tell me never to offer water to “these kinds of people” again, because they might have communicable diseases that I don’t know about. Again, well-intentioned, but only for me. This shows the same attitude of the bystander apathy that started this series of posts, and comes full circle, with an extra layer of class unconsciousness. If taxes can go towards vaccination and universal healthcare instead of being embezzled, then such attitudes would not be so prevalent. Selfish attitudes in the exacerbate existing differences between the rich and the poor, to the point where I cannot offer water to another human being.

Beggars

A young couple kneeling in the rain, begging for money to help get their mother into the hospital, because they can’t afford it on their own. They may be trying to swindle money, but they might not be.

Thankfully not everyone thinks in this way. A family friend, whom I met in a dinner once, was the one who got me thinking about these problems. He said that when he is interviewing for his company, he would put forth a situation to the candidate. Suppose that you were on a bus, and as the bus pulled into a stop, a man grabbed another person’s mobile phone and ran out the door. If you were standing beside the door, would you try to stop the thief? (And yes, this often happens – in China people get their cell phones wrenched out of their hands in broad daylight)

When my mother heard this, she said that of course I would try to stop the thief, given what I did after I was mugged. I was thinking along the same lines, but then the man said that the answer they were looking for would be that you would let the thief go, and not because you were afraid of bodily harm. Rather, you should have a social outlook that appreciates the kind of life some Chinese people lead if they would be willing to risk bodily harm and imprisonment just to steal one mobile phone.

This response made be start to think about not measuring the whole world by the same yardstick, and that social justice should be relative. In China, as many tourists know, you need to haggle to save money, and many items are overpriced. However, since I was presented with this hypothetical situation, I’ve stopped haggling. I am a foreigner in China and compared to most peddlers, I am wealthy. Items they are selling may be overpriced, but now I consider the overprice amount to be a donation. Another matter is contraband items. Being pounded on proper citations and intellectual property all my schooling life, I naturally saw contraband items and products snuck out of factories as violations of this code of ethics. But then, why should women in sweatshops work so that CEOs reap profits? Who decided that manual labour is worth less than management work? While in Nanning, I started buying summer clothes from a man who worked in a factory making export clothes, and I didn’t bargain. He was risking his life sneaking them out of the factory, and I’m not the one to judge how much his life is worth.

The thieves and petty criminals of China are still, however, operating alone. I believe that affecting lasting social change requires that the majority of social stratifications work together. I’m not a history expert, but in the French Revolution, there were different assemblies; the working class, peasants, the middle classes, and intellectuals all wanted change, both men and women, and combined they could shake the monarchy and aristocracy. However, because of the dual system of Communism and Capitalism in China, it is only a very small portion of people who are unsatisfied. The leaders in government are secure based on lipservicing Communist ideas. Many people in the lower classes are probably too caught up in getting their next job to be worried about national social security, and many of them might not be able to read or write well enough to broadcast their own message. People in the middle class believe they have a chance in Capitalism and don’t want to risk their upward trajectory by being noisy. In addition, there is still some Confucian values governing Chinese society, which is that people generally trust and obey their superiors.*

Any anger that would motivate social change is displaced. In Part 2, I described cultural theories regarding the media being a lie. And also in my post about The Mummy 3, I described it as an outlet for Western fears of the rising East. I am not saying that all media is propaganda, but media, art, and literature does serve as social outlets for both positive and negative feelings. One thing I have noticed in China is the number of highly biased television shows about World War II, and I feel that 15 years ago there were more shows about ancient Chinese history instead. Most of these WWII series have stock Japanese villains, and often shows that try to be objective are taken off-air or heavily criticised.** This trend bothers me, because I feel it is deliberate to feed into anti-Japanese sentiments (which I mentioned in the post about Code Geass). Of course Japan did cause enormous harm to China in WWII, however these anti-Japanese sentiments has even caused some Chinese people to feel that Japan deserved the deaths and damage in last year’s earthquake, which is overboard even for in-group favouritism.

I didn’t make the connection between the media and social ills in China until a student made the connection for me. Right now I am teaching English, and one student monitor (sort of like a class president) wanted to discuss how I could communicate better with the students. He was talking about why many students in the class don’t have a good learning attitude, which is because they know, deep down, that even if they study hard they would probably not get a good job in the future. He then said that any dissatisfaction with the job market and the social system is diffused by issues like the Fishing Island dispute with Japan, which creates unity at the expense of outgroup hatred and turns negative feelings towards someone else. The more I think about this, the more disturbed I become. This is almost exactly like the faked wars that Eurasia has with other nations in George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four.*** [4 June 2012 edit: Li Jun, a Chinese student, was recently brutally murdered in Montreal, and the Chinese government seems to be encouraging its citizens to think that this was a racist crime. It really doesn’t seem so. I grant the head tax and other discriminatory policies in Canada’s history, but they have nothing to do with a psychotic killer on the loose right now. Since this IS June 4, it’s most likely another example of distracting citizens from the conditions of China itself].

So, because of the combined factors of most people being happy with the system and unhappiness being diverted elsewhere, I think social change in China is still a long way off, unfortunately. I believe that Deng Xiaoping said something like, the country can be improved if we enable a portion of the population to get rich first. And perhaps this is true to a certain extent; because of the hierarchy of needs means that people usually have to have their basic needs met before they worry about lofty morals. Perhaps this is all just growing pains. What I am worried about, though, is that a portion of people getting rich first won’t necessarily instigate a trickle-down model.

II.

The problem has probably just become more pressing again. I am living in Chongqing, which as recently seen the Wang Lijun incident. Wang, the right hand man of the municipal governor, Bo Xilai, turned on him and sought asylum (perhaps) in the American consulate, and was later shipped off to have a “vacation-style health treatment” (wtf…) because the top brass said he was stressed and had a breakdown. Nothing is confirmed yet, but Wang supposedly had evidence showing that Bo was involved in corruption and had criminal ties or something. Bo Xilai was a darling of the CPC because of his crackdown on local gangs and initiating massive municipal developments, however he seems to be a throwback to earlier Communist ways of government, like being the centre of a quasi cult of personality, taking the law into his own hands, and trying to shove “red culture” into people’s lives (red culture = Communist ideals and the expressive culture and paraphernalia to this end – apparently he sent quotes from Mao in a text message to Chongqing residents, though I don’t remember whether I received one ). Correct me for not being terribly well-versed in politics, but I believe that Bo leans towards the “New Left” in China, which see China as too capitalist and widening existing disparities, and therefore needing to be restored to a “true” Communist road, where the state plays a bigger role in regulating the market. But, due to Wang’s betrayal casting a shadow on Bo, what seemed like a plan that works wonders in Chongqing is now in doubt.

service poster

“Lei Feng-style service policy” – Lei Feng is a Communist folk hero known for his self-sacrifice

From everything I have posted, the conclusion would be that I also support the New Left. I certainly don’t believe in Capitalism because I have seen it create mass inequity on a global scale. Capitalism only works well, I think, if the playing field is level to start with, however it is never level. Communism has also proven faulty because people are not just a community but also individuals with individual ambitions and desires, and there are limits on how one can expect people to think about others and not oneself, as evidenced by letting a girl getting run over twice.

From a certain point of view I do support the New Left. I think a couple of years ago, Jackie Chan was lambasted for saying that Chinese people aren’t ready for democracy. From a certain point of view, I agree. Take my students for example: in the literature class I teach for second-year university students, I have them write an essay before the midterm and another one after. The way I organize the class is that next week’s literature will be handed out the week before, so students can come to class with some basic knowledge, and also essays on a particular literary work is handed in at the beginning of class so the papers can be the students’ own thoughts and not a repeat of what was said in class. Last term I gave my students the option of choosing what to write on without signing up, ie if they get next week’s literature, read it, and become interested, they would write their essay and hand it in at the beginning of class. To me this would be equivalent to democracy**** – in any given week, the students would choose their essay based on what they have read and make an informed decision about writing their essay or not. The reason I used this model was that it has worked in classes I took at both the graduate and undergraduate level.; invariably a few students would find that week’s topic interesting enough to hand in work on it, and if many students waited until the last minute, it wasn’t a huge number. However it failed terribly last term because none of the students read anything before class and almost every single student waited until the last week before the midterm to hand in their essays. Because of this, I could not give feedback before the midterm in terms of writing long papers, and if they were dissatisfied with their grade they had less chance to redo their work, and I had 40 papers to grade in one week with 40 midterms to look forward to the week after.

In short, I believe that for democracy to work there needs to be a certain level of personal responsibility. For people to get what they want means that they have to think clearly about what they want and do research in order to make an informed decision. This is not only the case with political voting, but also in arranged vs. self-selected marriages, getting slotted into a university based on your grade vs. applying for universities yourself, etc. I don’t think Chinese people are ready for a democracy because I don’t think that most of the population wants to take this kind of personal responsibility and do the necessary work. I am definitely not saying that this is an innate quality of Chinese people as a race or anything like that – factors that create this kind of laxity might include having too much pressure heaped on young people growing up due to the competitive nature of university entrance exams, and so they have learned to take breaks and cut corners when they can instead of being proactive and seeking more work to do. If there was suddenly a multi-party system in China and people over 18 were suddenly asked to vote, most people wouldn’t know what to do or care enough to do the work of choosing whom they support. ***** Last year, when a professor from Australia visited the college I was working at, the Foreign Affairs staff took this teacher, me, and the only other foreign teacher out to dinner. I don’t even remember what we were talking about before, but at some point the head foreign affairs staff said to the Australian teacher, “Chinese people don’t really want democracy, you know.” There was a slightly awkward pause after this, where I made a face and stopped eating, and then the other foreign teacher quickly stepped in to say that yes, China seems really capitalist now, and everyone hurriedly started talking about earning money instead.

There has been the following argument about China: Should people like Bo Xilai succeed in restoring “true socialism”? Is the gap between rich and poor because historically the state has interfered too much in what should be people’s private decisions, or is the gap between rich and poor due to not enough state regulation? I think it is both. Problems in China may be due to too much state regulation where the regulation is aimed at personal gain for those already in power, and not enough regulation where the regulation is aimed at actually raising the living standards of average citizens. Here I do not support the New Left, because the New Left believes that state regulation will be regulation of the latter kind, whereas I believe that any more regulation would just be more of the former; from failures of Communism, one cannot expect all of the CPC to maintain selfless regulations, much less expect that citizens in China would follow suit . The double bind is that the alternative may just create an even bigger mess, because it is not just the government that is corrupt; businesses also embezzle and cut corners and commit nepotism, often without any qualms, and without state regulation these instances would remain unchecked by any laws.

I am not a political scientist, so perhaps my answer is too naïve. I support government regulation for the short term but to me that is not the end, only a transition. I believe that China needs to stay with one-party rule for some time, at least for the next couple of generations. However this party’s scope of influence of this party should gradually shrink until the citizens are comfortable in an environment where they are expected to make informed decisions about personal choice of all kinds, not just political ones. For example, currently there is a Party representative in every major organization that oversees operations and makes sure this organization follows the Party’s regulations. My mother works in a herbal research institute, and even in a scientific unit such as this, there is a Party representative. Perhaps replacing this Party representative and voting an employee to do the same job would go towards democracy. This would also be a training ground for people to become more proactive about their decisions. I think it is easier to skip out on national votes because the nation seems so big and the government so far away, and it’s hard to imagine how their decisions would impact one’s life, so this becomes an excuse not to vote. However, if it’s on a small scale and closer to one’s work, it might make people care more.

One problem I see with China’s political system is that many people in positions of government are appointed and not elected, so often the government really has no ties or feelings of responsibility towards the people they govern, and that reduces whatever qualms they may have about cutting a portion of disaster relief for the people into their own pockets or something like that. Recently I heard on the radio that a wave of university students are going into the countryside to help manage towns and villages. These students are usually called “村官,” literally “countryside official.” Most people in China would applaud the students for doing this, since they would be enduring much poorer conditions than they are used to in cities. However, this also means that the person governing the village or town isn’t one of its citizens. Even when there is an election, there isn’t really any choice. One student told me that when she went to vote, she was instructed who to vote for, since that candidate already has major political backing.

When all organizations and communities, from small to large, can elect members to be management, perhaps then the one party can allow factions to properly define themselves as factions while still being part of the party (i.e. agree with the central party on most but not all regulations), and let the elected representatives affiliate themselves with whichever faction they believe best. Next rounds of voting will determine whether the voter base agrees with the representative’s affiliation, or whether they choose another representative who chooses a different affiliation. This perhaps needs to go on for a couple of decades while the factions actually gradually split from the one party to form their own parties, with their own distinct platforms. From what I know, it looks like there’s already two factions on the rise within the central government, the Shanghai Clique and the Tuanpai, the former seen as more elitist and the latter more populist. It seems that Shanghai Clique would like to see the economy in China grow at whatever the cost, whereas the Tuanpai are more hesitant and wants to see benefit for everyone before they allow steps for economic growth to be taken. Neither is always the “right” direction – though I would have to say that currently the Tuanpai would make more sense. In a democracy, the voting would decide which ideology prevails over which areas of the country and when, however since voting is moot there is no such balancing effect.

But for the government to allow multiple parties to exist is a long way off, because as I said in Part I there is no outright resistance to the system because most people are not yet directly affected, and can go on earning their money and living their lives, and so while what the Foreign Affairs member said last year was terrible, it’s true. As I said, I’m not remotely a political science person, and for part II I feel like I’m going out of my league. “If you can’t be a part of the solution, be a part of the problem,” a classmate in high school said, and I agree that pointing out problems can be as important as giving solutions, however I feel bad making 4 posts about China pointing out problems not offering any solutions. By all means, leave comments and suggest some solutions, or if I got anything wrong then please correct me.

* Discussing the hierarchy in China merits its own post, but just a few brief examples:
a) Numerous television shows are about when Communism was still an underground movement, and whenever an operative runs into some insurmountable problem in their spying work for the Party, their superior will tell them, “Put your trust in the Party and everything will be all right.” In fact, lately there has been a lot of broadcasts on the radio about “learning from Lei Feng,” who is a popular Communist folk hero known for his self-sacrifice. A student told me that her Marxist Studies professor said that people are encouraged to sacrifice themselves without a second thought because it makes it easier for higher-ranked officials to rule over them.
b) Last November I was on a work-holiday organized by the university I am working in, and we went to Hainan, the Chinese Hawai’i. The Chinese colleagues who went also bought boxes of fruits for their superiors as gifts, and I commented that it was nice to bring gifts and I ought to think of this more often. A colleague commented (a little sardonically) that “this kind of behaviour is generally expected but not reciprocated.”
c) In China one generally does things one’s superior dictates, even outside of work matters, and sees this as part of one’s duty. In the West there is no such idea. I am working as part of a joint program between Chinese universities and Canadian universities, and so I am acquainted with people both in Canada and in China regarding my job. Anyway, the management on the Canadian side started a separate school for children, the opening of which I was invited to. The Chinese management side was also invited. It was a small prep school kind of place and there was no coat check, only cupboards for students. When the gentleman on the Chinese management side saw that I was there, he asked me to hold his coat for the entire opening ceremony because he didn’t want to put it into the cupboard. In the beginning I was rather offended by this, but then I realized that he didn’t mean to offend me; he gave me his coat quite naturally. I asked one of the school staff to take care of the coat, seeing as they were taking other people’s coats, but then it was just the poor girl was holding it instead of me. So I just put it into a cupboard and then told the gentleman later. He didn’t seem offended by the fact that I didn’t want to hold his coat, and explained that he didn’t want to lose his phone. I’m still not sure whether I handled this situation very well, though. Should I have just hung on to the coat? Suggestions?

**Two that I can think of are first, Towards the Republic (TV series), with a really good University of Heidelberg page here, and second, Nanjing Nanjing (feature film, also called The City of Life and Death). The former tries in part to revision Li Hongzhang, an advisor in the Qing court, who has been decapitated by Chinese history as selling China out to Japan and other imperial powers. The latter was lambasted for rationalizing the Rape of Nanking and making a Japanese Imperial officer an actual 3-dimensional character with feelings.

*** Strangely, this book is not censored in China, and there are numerous translations. I have no idea why it isn’t, since if I were the Party censor this is the first one I would go for. Maybe Chinese literary scholars back in the day read it as an attack on Capitalist nations. This is beside the point, but I am finding exclusively Communist readings of literature a little annoying – a student wrote (copied) an essay about how Moby Dick was supposed to be a metaphor against Capitalism.

**** Frankly, I think of Capitalism as a kind of democracy, because if one defines democracy as freedom of individuals, one of the fundamental freedoms individuals would like is deciding how to earn money, deciding how much money to earn, and how to spend it. For example, you own a business privately and you use your decisions to run this business instead of interference from another source, and when you have profits you can choose to buy a clock that doesn’t have Mao’s face on it (and conversely if you do want to look at Mao’s face you can buy the other one). Socialism is probably seen as opposing Capitalism because it makes public good the goal and uses this as a reason for the state to participate in what Capitalism sees as personal decisions; for example, the government requires you to part with a certain amount of money out of your business profits and give it to other people as taxes, where it is not necessarily your personal decision to do so, and so this portion of your profits cannot go towards buying that clock you want so much, whether it bears Mao’s face or not.

***** Contrawise, maintaining morals and being considerate of others in the face of the temptation of personal gain also takes a sense of personal responsibility and, I think, entails hard work of a spiritual kind, and so an open capitalist market in China plus not wanting responsibility and work may be factors contributing to rampant corruption and so forth.

Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills, Part 3: The BMW and the Bicycle

[Sorry for the long delay from Part 2 to Part 3. I did have a 1-month holiday during Lunar New Year but I mostly slept through that.]

So I said in my post on misconceptions about China that many people of the older generation aren’t that materialist, and that is true. Most people in China still don’t have a lot of money and so they learn not to be wasteful. In fact many people in China are in poverty, and this isn’t even in the remote mountain regions or anything. My mother has a friend in Canada whose mother is living in the same Chinese city as my mother now, and my mother found that that the old woman and her husband are getting less than 2000 RMB ($300) per month. With pork costing up to 15 RMB per pound and chicken even more expensive, the old couple can only afford to eat meat once a week. They have three children, the youngest of whom is in Canada, the second one is working but somehow still expect his parents to chip in money for his condo, and the eldest is rich but gives most of his money to his wife, who plays mahjong all day.

In the last post I mentioned that part of the problem in China is the new Capitalist system plus having foreign media (or foreign-style media) suggesting that material wealth is important. Most TV shows do not try to convey a get rich philosophy, but there are undertones running throughout. TV series are mostly about middle class citizens living in tastefully decorated houses or condos, with at least one family car. This seems like average in the West, however for most people in China it is an unreachable material standard.

For middle and upper-middle class single women in China, a potential boyfriend is out of the question unless he is able to provide a home and a car. However, the huge population in China means that real estate prices are soaring, not to mention the state of the traffic. Apparently $1000/square metre is an average price for condos in China. If a new graduate earns somewhere around 3000 RMB a month (which would be about $500/month, and this would be a pretty high salary for new grads), lives with their parents to save money, and buys nothing for themselves, they would have enough money to buy a 2-bedroom condo of 80 square metres in 13 or 14 years. Of course, as they advance in their career they would earn more, but if most men would like to get married and settle before 30 years old, this seems rather impossible. (see this link for details on purchasing homes in China)

Having a home and a car is one expectation for young male professionals, and another expectation is encapsulated in the saying “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.” This phrase surfaced on a popular Chinese dating show called Feichengwurao (which in English is called “You Are the One,” but it is a Chinese 4-character idiom that translates to “if you’re not sincere, don’t bother me”). Briefly, in this show, several men are brought in every episode to introduce themselves to 24 women, who stay across a number of episodes until they need to leave for other aspects of their lives or until they find a match, and usually if they do find a match the couple win a cruise or holiday package. Through a series of introductory videos about the male candidates and questions from the hosts, the women stand behind their own podiums and decide whether to keep their podium light on, expressing continuing interest in the male candidate, or switch their lights off, if they decide he’s not the one. The women’s contact information are shown on screen when they are introduced, and the men’s contact information also shown at the end if they leave without a match. It’s a show that many people love to hate, since the (lack of) values that get tossed around can be deliciously frustrating.

In most episodes, only one or two men are successful in finding a partner (if any), and most men with even a slightly negative record would leave with no lights left on. For example, in one episode the introductory video featured a friend who said “he likes to flirt,” and all the girls immediately turned off their lights. One episode I remember particularly well was from last year, which featured a young man who returned to China after working for several years in Japan. He seemed to do quite well until one of the hosts asked what criteria he has in a girlfriend, and he said that he would like his girlfriend to be reasonably thrifty. For example, ordering just enough food for a meal and not leaving uneaten food wasted*. The reason is that when he had first gone to Japan, he had very little money and starved quite a lot of the time. At this request, the remaining women turned off their lights. One said apologetically that it was difficult for her to know how much she would like to eat and so she always orders a lot, and sorry, she can’t change this habit.

Perhaps the other women thought that he would try to control minute aspects of their lives or that he wouldn’t spend enough money on them or something. When I saw this, I was extremely indignant because I didn’t think that this man’s request was at all unreasonable. In Canada I would never think to contact someone on a game show, much less a dating one, but I was so indignant that I emailed the man assuring him that it’s not his fault, that people who have lived abroad often don’t have the same values as those who have lived in China, and asking how he found Japan’s society different from China’s. He replied saying that life in Japan is rather different, for example there is no requirement for a house and a car for a relationship, and “personally, I don’t like the materialism that comes with the development of the Chinese economy.”

It was Chinese New Year after that and we didn’t keep in touch, but this exchange left a deep impression on me. Last week I heard that because one woman on the show said “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of your bicycle” to a male candidate, this comment prompted the Chinese government to make plans to adjust the ratio of different programs for every channel, since it believes that there are too many programs currently that exhibit this lack of sound moral value. Instead it should replace them with more “cultured” programs like history and art and music.

I have to say that I do approve of government-regulated media to a certain extent, because I feel like a lot of North American television are programs to fill gaps between commercials instead of the other way around, and many shows pander to the lowest denominator. The philosophy of the place of cultural programming, from media programs to even community centre sports classes, in China is different from the West, I think partly because of the Capitalist profit-driven system. In the West, I feel that cultural programming is based on enjoyment and taking a break from the pressures of work, so what is made depends on what people would enjoy. However, in China cultural production has mostly been based on a philosophy of self-improvement, so what is made depends on what people can learn from it or how it can affect their behaviour and thoughts in positive ways.

One can get into all kinds of arguments about government-controlled media and democracy and so forth, but I just want to focus on whether the government controlling the media would actually help. And I do not believe that changing programs on television will make Chinese society that much more morally upstanding. Although I do believe that cultural production is very important, I also believe that cultural production needs the right social environment to affect change. In another words, if government-sponsored “morally sound” programming is the only thing in society that teaches positive values, most people would just forget about it. Bringing back traditional Chinese values on television is all very well and good, however the social pressure to succeed, marry, earn money and live a rich material life will ultimately swamp morals built during a one-hour program.

I don’t have any neat solutions for this problem. I would like to think that cultural production like art and literature have the power to change people, but sometimes I think they just change with politics and economy and are radical only when it’s a bit more permissible to do so. As one friend said to me, there’s no point trying to build a better image for China, because if they clean up their democracy and socioeconomic issues, a better image would already be there. I believe it was Deng Xiaoping who justified opening up China for international trade by saying that he wants a portion of the Chinese people to get rich first, and hopefully that would trickle down to everyone else. Maybe this is true and morality works this way too; I certainly cannot expect animal abuse to stop in China when the owners live like animals – there is a hierarchy of needs there. Perhaps morality is higher above survival**, and like the incident with the Foshan girl being run over twice, if morality impedes survival in the long run then one cannot afford to be moral.

The problem, then, is what “survival” means. For most middle class people in China, survival means living the good life, or else they are failures and haven’t survived in a more metaphorical sense. This is weird in a system that purports to be Communist, because every occupation is supposed to be just as valid as any other occupation, and as long as each person makes an effort they should be considered equally with everyone else. However in a Capitalist system it is how much profit each individual makes that determines their worth, and so the massive instability in Chinese society might come from one system changing into another in a very short time. I hope that these are growing pains that the country will overcome.

* A part of Chinese food culture is that people rarely pay for only themselves or split the bill, unless it’s like a work lunch in the canteen or something. Each social meal usually has a host who is expected to pay for everything, and she/he is usually expected to order more food than is needed to show generosity. Apparently recently there’s been a trend of leaving some food uneaten, either to show the host that he was indeed very generous or to show that the guests are rich and can afford to leave food uneaten or both, so this is what the man on the show was reacting against.

** Some psychologists explain altruism by saying that it comes from group behaviour where saving someone else of your own species creates a better chance of species survival even if you die, so in some ways it’s still utilitarian. I think my Psych major totally darkened my view of humanity.

Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills, Part 2: Turning Right on a Left Signal*

* for an explanation of the title, see this article in the New York Times.

One reason I decided to return to China temporarily is that there is a certain energy in China that seems absent from Canada. Other Canadian acquaintances have said that this energy comes from the fact that China is still developing whereas most of the “developed” countries have done exactly that, finished developing, so there’s little to strive for, and this feeling of stasis enters the attitude of each citizen. And to be stereotypical about Canadians, we tend to be more distant, to hold back, don’t take sides and often just don’t bother. In China, though, there’s a kind of metallic vehemence in the air. You can practically feel that everyone on the street is striving for something and believe they deserve it. For someone who has gone through long periods of feeling undeserving, I was hoping being in China might give me a bit of a backbone.

But as my friend commented in my post on misconceptions about China, issues like Sanlu Milk Company putting too much melamine into milk comes from precisely from this atmosphere of self-centred entitlement. After Den Xiaoping opened China up economically, there has been a sense that everyone’s lives ought to get better in the new system, and so many people are doing whatever it takes to get ahead.

Going back to Lijia Zhang’s The Guardian article, it seems to be true that Chinese people are mostly brought up to be very good to people they know and distant from people they don’t know. For example, my mother took a job as a director of a research centre in China, and her the administration is responsible for finding her a suitable apartment, buying her a car, and even paying for her gas and assigning her a chauffeur. However, the chauffeur would never think to stop and let people cross the road, despite being a decent guy. In some ways this can be seen as an improvement, after the Orwellian world of the cultural revolution where children were given extra points for denouncing their families, and seems almost like a warped kind of individualism. However it does make the average Chinese person more myopic than the average North American. Added together with the sense of entitlement, this means that most people are unwilling to think about the repercussions of their actions beyond the good it could do for themselves and their own.

I have thought about this question a lot, and one day I realized that it wasn’t Communism that was the problem, as most people in Western countries seem to think it is. Leaving aside the Chinese government’s Maoist version of Communism for a moment, nothing in Communism suggests that a person should risk danger to others for the sake of his or her own gain. In fact that sounds more like Capitalism. Being capitalist means that accruing personal capital eclipses all else, and supposedly this would motivate people into genuine competition and then the “best” would come out on top. I think the current problem in China shows a failure of Capitalism more than it shows a failure of Communism, since this kind of motivation, carried too far, would make people do terrible things for profit, and even if the best does emerge sometime in the future, all the exposed failures along the way would have killed many more babies. In addition, foreign media such as movies and TV shows still subtly show how being rich could improve one’s material life and that this is desirable.

I bounced this idea off my mother and she offered a very helpful amendment. She said that the current state of affairs in China was the combination of both Communism and Capitalism. Before Communism established itself, China still operated by traditional Confucian ethics and Buddhism. The Communist party, believe that religion is the opium of the masses, supplanted it (destroying the “Four Olds”:
Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas)and became a kind of religion, with values such as self-sacrifice and goals such as a classless society (and getting signed at the local party leader’s office when getting married and getting a little red book as a wedding gift…). However, the Chinese government became aware that it also needed to operate on a Capitalist economic system if it were to survive as an international entity, such as having a free market. Recently Cuba has also gone this route after holding out for so long. If older Communist values and procedures went against this Capitalist system, then they could not stay, and the other general values of Communism like self-sacrifice and public service are suspect by association. The problem is not that China is Capitalist but that it is Capitalist after Communism destroyed many traditional values from philosophy and religion that would have provided a check to the evils of Capitalism.

As an analogy, a European parallel to exploiting vast numbers of people for profit would be the slave trade. One might say that traditional Christian values didn’t prevent the slave trade from happening, however against this there is the idea that by the time that the slave trade began in earnest, the Western world had shifted to a predominantly capitalist one already. And also, Christian values was instrumental in appealing for the end of the slave trade as well. Currently in China there isn’t an established moral system like Christianity that people can default to, and new ideas of global humanism haven’t yet taken root. Hence each man for his own and social myopia, because there is no deep-seated moral structure left.

The worst part about this alliance between Communism and Capitalism in China is that Chinese communism isn’t a dictatorship anymore, but a hegemony. This means that it doesn’t make you follow extreme laws and enforce extreme punishments, but adjust itself to incorporate opposition to make opposition difficult. Insofar as Capitalism is the opposite of Communism, then yes, Chinese Communism has already incorporated Capitalism into its modus operandi. What happened in Libya and Egypt probably won’t happen in China anytime soon because in Libya and Egypt there was a dominant system that was seen as oppressive, and there were no other viable option than to start a revolution, and there was very little to lose and a lot to gain. In China, however, both Communism and Capitalism are operating, so there is no one dominant system. I believe that people in general try to avoid conflict unless they have to defend themselves, so if they feel that they can get ahead with opportunities in the Capitalist market, this keeps them docile enough not to start a revolution against the Communist government. However, due to hegemony, Capitalism isn’t so much another really another option outside Communism but under Communist control. Only people in China may not realize this and thus they are exactly as the stereotype accuses Asian North Americans of, of being model minorities, only model minorities in their own country.

With Communist ideals out the window and nothing left from before Communism, Chinese society is a world of tooth and claw. Embezzlement, funding scams and shoddy production all have their roots in placing personal material wealth before all other objectives in a Capitalist system that suddenly promises a more luxurious life. This is probably the mentality of most middle and upper-class people, and to a certain extent also the poor and disenfranchised. They have realized that a harmonious (和谐)Communist society, which the government tries to broadcast, isn’t true. There is profit, and competition, and those who lose, and they would rather trust that the Capitalist system will make them winners. From a year of cultural studies, however, I know that there is a cultural theory that the media lies to consumers, insinuating, for example, that your worth can be raised by cosmetics or having a better car. The problem with China, I think, is that both systems are lying to its citizens. China is in the period of rejecting one lie, but rejecting one lie means buying into another one.

Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills, Part 1

As people around the world know already, a week or so ago, a girl in Foshan, China was run over twice on the street and no one stopped to help her. People both in China and outside it are outraged about what happened. This incident has drawn commentators shaking their fists at the cold social atmosphere in China as well as responders claiming that one cannot use this incident to generalize to a whole nation.

This is the link to news coverage of the incident with footage from CCTV cameras showing the girl being run over twice and people passing by (Unfortunately blog functions don’t seem to work through VPN and I can’t insert this as an embedded video).

My friend in Canada sent me an article in The Guardian about this, since she read my post on misconceptions about China and didn’t entirely agree with me. I realized that I’ve been meaning to talk about the dark side of the moon for almost a year now and haven’t gotten my thoughts together, but this incident showed me that I need to stop procrastinating. Everything to be said will probably take more than this post to cover. Consider this post as an introduction to other posts to follow.

Generalization? Human nature?

Many of the top comments when I first read the article in The Guardian was that yes, this incident is terrible, but it doesn’t mean that everyone in the whole country would be so crass. I owe that this is a fair point. Another counterargument that occurred to me was the case of Kitty Genovese, a waitress in New York who was murdered by a stalker on her way home from work, and although whole blocks heard her, no one helped her. Most psychology courses seem to cover this, and it is an example of bystander apathy and the failure of altruism: most people choose not to help others if they believe that it is not their business or if they might get hurt.

But against this point, helping a little girl on the street in broad daylight is very different from confronting an armed murderer in the dark. In the Kitty Genovese case, the bystanders had a lot to lose in the immediate moment as well as a lot to gain in the immediate moment. Rushing out to help Genovese might mean that she would live, but it might mean severe injuries or death. The case in Foshan had no immediate dangers – it is unlikely that whoever tries to help a little girl on the street would be run over as well. I believe that people in general tend to be more afraid of immediate consequences, which is why behavioural therapy works. This means that in the absence of immediate costs, all the passers-by in Foshan calculated a future cost to themselves and this was a stronger deterrent when weighed against the immediate gain of alleviating a little girl’s suffering. Well, I suppose you could call this their 5-year plan.

Against the first point, yes it is very important not to generalize from one incident to the character of an entire nation. However I do not believe that this was what the writer, Lijia Zhang, was suggesting, the title of the article notwithstanding. She herself being Chinese would know many decent Chinese people, and she is certainly not saying that everyone would behave this way. But her example of the Nanjing judge does show that the legal system in China tends to adopt perspectives like persecuting the young man who helped an injured elderly woman to the hospital. So it is a nation-wide issue.

Because I have lived in China, I have had similar experiences, though thankfully I was never the one run over or hurt. My grandmother, who has a slight anxiety disorder and rather paranoid from her experiences in the cultural revolution, has actually warned me over the phone not to help other people on the road if I see them hurt. I have a post in Ideogrammatica about being attacked with a giant wrench at a glasses store, and thinking back on it, although many people were standing at the door watching the fight progress, no one tried to do or say anything to the two parties except for me (has Guy Debord written about spectator apathy? I wonder*). There was also an incident a few months ago when I was still living in Nanning. I lived beside a small road, almost a highway ramp, which was always neglected for repair for being the dividing road between two municipal districts, and so neither district wants to take responsibility for it. Nanning being in the south of China, many people own mopeds and motorcycles instead of cars, and once when my mother and I were driving by, we saw an overturned moped and a woman sitting on the sidewalk with her leg bleeding. Other cars were passing and no one stopped. I got off to help pull the moped to the sidewalk and ask whether the woman needed help, and all the while cars behind my mother’s were honking their horns at us.

My mother backed me up in this case, but not so when a few weeks after this, we were in a hotel meeting with a professor from Austria, and another lodger returned from the hotel after missing his flight. I’m not sure what sparked the issue, but he sat smoking and calling all the waitresses the Chinese equivalent of “you ugly dinosaur” for half and hour in a carrying voice. I finally told him that he was making other people uncomfortable. He nonchalantly told me he wasn’t calling me ugly and continued to smoke, and then my mother’s meeting ended and they pulled me away, saying that I shouldn’t get involved.

I always wonder about the correct level of social action and compared my views with other Chinese people’s. I was mugged in Toronto (well, Scarborough) on the way home from university a few years ago, and I called the police immediately afterwards from a nearby house. A Chinese student living in the same house as me got mugged 10 minutes after I was, and we were both subpoenaed to go to court and testify. My mother told me that most Chinese people would just think, “it was my bad luck” and not call the police, and she discussed this situation with her PhD supervisor, an elderly Irish gentleman, and he was rather surprised and said that of course he could have called the police as well. Why did I call the police? Did I believe that I could get back what they had stolen? That would have been nice, but more than this it just seemed like what I ought to do. Anyway, the housemate always seemed sort of frosty towards me afterwards and was extremely worried about retribution, and seemed to think that I could bring this upon him by calling the police. The police officers who handled the case eventually reassured him that this was unlikely, and in the end we didn’t have to appear in court, for which he was thankful.

(I also think a lot about this because a friend of mine is consistently the opposite of this kind of immediate apathy (I believe this differs from long-term apathy, where people just don’t care about where the world is going instead of not caring about consequences in the present). For example, he was also mugged but fought back. If someone was being an asshole around him he would tell them so to their face. He would break into an office building to use their computers if he was bored and then helpfully install security programs on their computers before he left. However, he has been going to counseling and so forth for not being able to adopt “normal” responses in social situations, and although he has said that I ought not to encourage him, I sometimes wonder whether the “normal” people ought to be more like him rather than the other way around. Are people with this kind of outlook not normal? Have we just played too many online RPGs when we were young or read too many comic books?)

Anyway, I mean for this introduction to conclude: the incident in Foshan is not a case representing all human nature and it is also not just an individual case. It does reflect the social climate of China and it is symptomatic of much turbulence therein. I do not pretend to be a social analysis expert, but to allude to Robert Frost’s epitaph, maybe I am just trying to resolve a lover’s quarrel.

* incidentally, Chinese people do really tend to adopt the role of a spectator. Maybe it’s the whole modernity thing and flaneur and all that hitting China later than Europe. My father once did a fun experiment in a park in China. He stood in the middle of the bridge and looked into the water at absolutely nothing for 5 minutes, then left. When he came back five minutes later and there was a crowd standing on the bridge staring into the water. There is also the tendency in China for shoppers not to buy from a shop if it looks like there’s no one else buying from it. Usually I go up to a lonely stall and then people follow me. Apparently people get hired to stand around and pretend to be customers so that they would attract other customers. Sheep?