3 Points Toward a More Receptive and Conciliatory Left, Part III

1) Is objectivity really impossible, and what are some pitfalls in valuing subjectivity?
2) Have we placed an undue emphasis on cultural and linguistic factors when considering inequality?
3) When should we commit to ideological positions, and when should we compromise?


Trump is now president, and the Republicans have gained majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the post-election analysis, blame has been laid on 3rd party candidates, the media for covering Trump and giving him free publicity, Clinton’s past indiscretions, unreliable projections, and the electoral college system. One possible factor that the Democrats have identified is that they hadn’t reached out enough to white working-class voters.

I can’t speak to campaign strategies and their miscalculations; however, as a graduate student in a leftist interdisciplinary department, I have been frustrated for years at my fellow scholars’ ideological purity. I believe that a deterioration of civil society is scary, but I also fear that Trump being elected has vindicated a belief on the left that the right is so far gone that we have nothing to work with, while believing ourselves morally and intellectually superior. The use of “social justice warriors” and “feminazi” in dismissive and derogatory ways certainly speaks to resistance on the part of conservatives, however the sheer frequency of these labels makes me believe that the fault does not lie entirely with them.  Finally, the fact that many college-educated men backed Trump, and that even great numbers of White women voted for him, says that there is something we’re missing in the work we do in humanities and liberal arts research and higher education, even as we are trying to educate the electorate.

This is a part of a series of 3 posts that will try to answer the 3 questions above. Each of the 3 questions tries to interrogate a concept that, as I see it, has become common sense to thinkers on the left to the extent that we cannot apply it with nuance or communicate its value to non-believers. Each post will explain and give examples of one concept and its goals, then a response discussing its shortcomings and misapplication.

As this is the last post in this series, I will end on an interpretation of the “urgency” to respond to the world, how we can tweak the concept of radical pedagogy, and finally discuss incentive and not condemnation as the basis of social change.


Progressive Concept #3: Social change requires a revolution that fundamentally changes social structures. Those seeking change have less power and access to resources, and therefore should give no quarter to avoid legitimizing the current status quo.

First, I think American culture has a implicit culture of competition rather than cooperation. Our democratic political system and  legal system are both adversarial: individuals represent their own ideas in the public sphere for contention, where achievement is defined by the ability to maintain one’s ideas and to convince others, not by achieving harmony. Deferring to others is not seen favourably. We have sayings like “give an inch and they’ll take a mile,” and we also attach shame to being a “sell-out.” These are commonly held cultural attitudes that both shape and are shaped by social processes.

More specifically, even when people from historically dominant groups may mean well, they are unable to step outside their own common sense to critique  themselves, and they also have less incentive to create change. For example, in the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, measures such as the Grandfather clause were set up to limit voting for newly emancipated Blacks; even recently, Voter ID laws disproportionately affected older Black voters. While Republicans have denied that this was their intent, the fact that they did not change this policy after criticism from multiple groups suggest that they at least implicitly or unconsciously protect their own interest. To mitigate this kind of problem, social change needs to arise from the people who best understand their needs, and need to work against the entrenched common sense of those in power. In addition, social structure and social rules have been created based on those common sense ideas, further naturalizing them. This means that separatism, which is self-determination apart from the interference of dominant groups, is a legitimate demand.

Groups who have been in power have more access to social and political resources, and thus they can enact sweeping, multi-sited  policies according to their common sense; an example is lobbyists who represent industries, which have more resources and networks with which they can push for favourable policies, whereas a non-English-speaking and less educated neighbourhood living near a toxic waste dump would not. Multi-sited policies are a key difference. Discriminatory voting laws, residential segregation,  employment discrimination, differential taxation and funding, high school tracking, and law-and-order policing are some of the different aspects of social life that cumulatively form a racist social structure in the US, which also accumulates over time. The left, especially Marxist-informed radicals, have argued that reform can only change these issues superficially and in isolation, and only revolution (fundamentally reorganizing social relations and hierarchies) would redistribute power and advance social justice.

If those in power have advantages, the oppressed have limited tools and avenues; thus, their action. This is the logic behind the left calling civil unrest “uprisings” or “rebellions,” whereas mainstream and conservative media calls them “riots.” Those who have instigated uprisings had few advocacy groups to represent their interests, were unlikely to have access to mass media, and also do not have the educational background and network to investigate or communicate the causes of their oppression, so they resort to violence. Rather than fault them for this, uprisings and other forms of violence should be seen as a legitimate, if not ideal, expression of an overall social symptom.


Response #3: (since this is quite long, each point is linked to its respective section)

a) Sometimes the left advocates for separatism, yet denounces the right for being intractable and stuck in echo chambers

b) even as we allow that revolutionaries might not get it right when they are creating change, we are not forgiving or encouraging when the right and people in power fail to understand progressive perspectives

c) Radicals on the left advocate a complete overhaul of society by any means necessary, and this is sometimes reduced to disrupting the status quo without a corresponding emphasis on how to reconstruct our ideal world.

+Last bits on “urgency”, radical pedagogy, and incentives.

a) I should note that I support voluntary separatism in private life. In Part I I mentioned Black students at Scripps who asked for a room mate of colour in an ad, which lead to charges of reverse-racism. While I take issue with the singular focus on race, I do not categorically take issue with excluding certain people in the ad. To me, whom to bring into your home is part of your private life, should be allowed as long as there are no demonstrable wide-ranging or public effects (ie, Black students asking for a non-White roommate would not cause a housing shortage for White students). To a certain extent I also support separatism for Indigenous communities because there is material resources at stake with quite a different view on how to manage the resources, which is unlikely to find compromise under the current world order that emphasizes automation and economic growth.

It is also true that many progressives were set on their path due to having endured discrimination. I am also not saying that the burden is always on the oppressed to understand their oppressors.  However, researchers, educators, journalists and other social critics in their professional careers should not isolate themselves from dissenting opinion, and should take on responsibility to understand all elements of society, including those who have oppressed others. This is especially the case for academics on the left whose research rests on the premise that prevailing social structures and discourses are faulty and that those outside the prevailing social discourses, ie them, can do better. If they have taken up the mantle of being a social critic or an academic, they should then not refuse to entertain ideas that might help advance society because it infringes on their personal comfort. If they cannot do this, they need not become social critics or academics.

In addition, exposure to the hurtful actions of the right does not equal exposure to the complexities of their position and ideology. As per Part I, one of the interventions of progressive thinkers is to deconstruct the universal subject. In doing so, many people who have been disenfranchised for not fitting into the universal mould have been somewhat redeemed. However, leftist separatism, taken too far, can replace the universal subject with the good liberal subject in a way that does not necessitate an understanding of why some people do not have access to liberal beliefs. I will give a few examples from my graduate student time that demonstrates how separatism and its simplification can induce backlash, and how seeking to understand can be constructive.

My first time TAing was for a Women’s Studies class, and after a few weeks other students started acting out. On November 11th, the professor discussed how celebrating veterans and soldiers (often male) ignores how female civilians can become collateral damage or the target of sexual assault, and a student interrupted the lecture to ask for a moment of silence for the troops.  Students who weren’t enrolled in my classes started dropping in. Other TAs reported that students didn’t read course materials yet argued with them in class. The year after, a classmate told me that one of the TAs had started her term by telling both her classes that she hated men. I recalled that once during lunch she had also told me that she refused to read novels written by men. Her students got a negative impression of women’s studies from her statements, and acted out indirectly or behaved in a confrontational manner. This TA was not in general an unpleasant or unintelligent person, and seemed to have truly believed that her actions were feminist, yet her oversimplification of men and the oversimplification of appropriate attitude towards gender inequality turned students against Women’s Studies.

On the other hand, one of the most positive experiences I had was seeing a professor encouraged a fellow student, who is White, to stop thinking about her family merely as perpetrators. The student comes from a family whose male members have enlisted in the military for generations, and are firm believers of traditional masculinity and straightness, the American right to power, and a firm division between good and evil. However, the professor said that working-class White men are easily targeted by sociocultural discourses such as masculine pride and white supremacy. At the same time that these narratives are harmful and her family members have perpetrated harm, it is also possible to see that they have been targeted by these narratives, which cannot be reduced to individual actors.

These 2 contrasting ways of characterizing the right also emerged after the election. From observing people in my department, on the one hand there have been professors and graduate students who stated that Trump’s victory cannot be rationalized, that economic arguments are not an excuse for supporting Trump, and characterized Trump supporters as a simply taking pleasure in being racist and misogynist. To me, this attitude is exactly the same as White attitudes during the Watts and Rodney King uprisings, which characterized Blacks as having no economic excuse to riot, and it’s just that Blacks are simply more predisposed to violence. It disturbs me that academics, who are professional thinkers, can be blind to the fact that they lodged themselves in the same position as those that they critique on the other side of the political spectrum. Thankfully, on the other hand, there are grad students who have said that they see a greater need to go back to their White working class families on holidays for dialogue, and professors teaching ethnic and gender studies who have revised their syllabi to include readings on how inequality involves and impacts Whites and men.

b) When enacting change, the disenfranchised and those in power do differ in their ability to enact policy. However, while at the group level access to social resources is vastly different, on an individual level access to conceptual resources may not be that different.

To me, common sense and values for the average person does not come from either book learning or from access to social and political resources. These sources can expand possible perspectives, but these impersonally learned perspectives are not substantiated without long-term exposure involving personal relationships. Ie, abstract and impersonal stakes such as social well-being, or the pursuit of knowledge, are not as good motivators as a personal connection that you might lose if you can’t come to an understanding.  The most fundamental shifts in my thinking have come from having built a social circle among societies with very different values. I would say that the size and internal variation of this personal and most immediate social circle is probably roughly the same for most people in North America, regardless of identity categories, especially when young – ie a wealthy young White person is not likely to have more friends and family, or friends and family with a greater range of values, than a poor young Black person. And thus, people with privilege are not better primed to understand kinds of common sense that are not their own, even if they have more opportunities to learn about differences in an abstract way.

In other words, I believe that no one can really help the way they think and see the world, privilege doesn’t make much of a difference, and any changes made to one’s thinking would take concerted effort. Expecting otherwise, it seems to me, contradicts the point made about subjectivity and objectivity in Part I. If those on the left insist that people who have been in power have not succeeded in being universal and objective, then they are just as subjectively positioned as anyone else; if they are as subjectively positioned as anyone else, there’s no reason they would be better primed to change their subjective positions. This may sound patronizing, but what the left can do is lower our expectations of the centre and the right (while not categorically denouncing them, as per the (a) section).

Thus, when the centre and the right haven’t grasped or enacted what we think is right, our response should not be condemnation. Many of my friends are international students who do not understand race relations in the US, and have had negative experiences with American people of colour who cannot understand their positionality. A friend from Asia related an experience in an MFA filmmaking program where another Asian classmate casually commented that she would not like to live in a neighbourhood with high crime rates, such as X Black neighbourhood. Another Black film student overheard and refused to come to class, petitioned student services who in turn mandated  extra readings and lectures on cultural sensitivity for the international students, and used her racism as the topic of her MFA project that was later showcased to the whole class. The international students, my friend included, felt singled out and punished for being ignorant of something they had no opportunity to learn about, and certainly did not feel more motivated to learn about US race relations afterwards.

Similarly, another case is the film Selma, about MLK’s organization of the Selma to Montgomery marches. The film depicts Lyndon B Johnson as being obstructionist, which caused a great deal of controversy, as historically LBJ seemed to have done the best that he could (though I’m not a Historian and can’t attest to the details).The controversy was framed in terms of historical accuracy vs artistic license, where the director defended their choice to have characters in diverse political positions for a good story. To me, the issue with Selma is better framed in terms of encouragement vs condemnation. Especially since Selma was a widely-released film in 2014, its depiction of various parties involved in Civil Rights can serve as examples of how to overcome new forms of racism in the 21st century. This includes allies in the 1960s setting an example for potential non-Black allies in the present. Discounting LBJ’s efforts and accomplishments seem to be counterproductive for gaining new allies, since one interpretation of the filmmakers’ decisions would be that White people’s efforts would be unrecognized or even falsified by Black activists, so why bother?

A rejoinder to what I point out above might be that achieving social justice for the disenfranchised is more important than protecting the feelings of the privileged, which is something I hear radicals say often. While I don’t disagree with this in an objective sense, subjective experiences are immediate and real to the individuals who have them. Especially for people who did not grow up with a liberal arts education that reinforces for them a sense of objective equity, what is left is their feelings, and it seems an oversight for the left not to factor that in. The behaviour of Trump’s voter base shows that there is a cost to steamrolling over someone’s feelings in an attempt to achieve justice. Moreover, the example I gave of international students bewildered by American race relations point to a danger of leftists becoming imperialist without knowing it. Saving face is an important concept to people from Asia, and I don’t think achieving social justice for the US should bear the cost of so casually steamrolling over other cultures’ sense of appropriate behaviour.

To wrap up points a) and b): by virtue of sheer logic, isolation works both ways – if the right is isolated from the ideas of the left, then the left is also isolated from the right. This isolation can only be breached from both sides trying to establish a dialogue. An acquaintance once joked about how radicals and missionaries respond differently to people who are unconvinced: leftists say “you’re a horrible person,” whereas missionaries say “it’s fine, I’m sure you will find your own path to God.” This is true – missionaries derive from their beliefs a capacity to be patient with nonbelievers, whereas those on the left often write off those on the right as lost causes. I’m not religious myself, however I think it’s a shame that religion has a bad rap for those on the left – at the same that that we are attentive to abuses perpetuated in the name of religion, we can learn a lot from them regarding how to practice and disseminate what we believe in.

c) a) and b) addressed how those on the left may simplify and condemn those on the right, and this last section will address how internally on the left, radicals often adopt a purist position that invalidates work being done by liberals and the centre. In this politics of purity, change is conceptualized as effective only if it it comes out of tearing down the status quo, and not working within the system. Part of this does come from the fact that inequality necessitates fundamental changes, as I have discussed in the first half of this post. However, a politics of purity fosters a mentality of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” and this can relegate radicals and their visions to the fringe because they cannot reach others who want change (As I come from an academic setting, most of the examples I give are observed from fellow academics who identify as radical).

First, among radicals, agency and complicity are often diametrically opposed. That is, someone who goes along with the status quo (complicit) has been brainwashed into doing so and are not exercising their agency, and only standing against the status quo is proof of agency. This is an overly simplistic view of choice and leaves out the possibility that someone could have used their agency and chosen to be complicit, or that someone who stands against the status quo had been coerced into doing so. This creates a scenario where radicals become pressured to disagree because this more easily demonstrates that they can exercise agency, rather than reflect on what they are disagreeing with.  An instance from a PhD class reflected this. We read an academic book called X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent, which argues that the “X” signatures made by Native leaders on unfavourable treaty documents in the past should not be seen simply as a sign that they gave up, but that they exercised agency in assenting to certain forms of colonialism. Almost everyone in the class criticized the book for being an apologist for colonialism and capitalism. In doing so, they implicitly communicated that the only those who have stood against capitalism and colonialism are worth studying. In addition, in a class setting they seemed to have been trying to show their critical thinking abilities and leftist tendencies by criticizing the book rather than reflect on its argument.

The emphasis on disagreement can lead to a progressive politics that is increasingly negatively articulated. Recently I saw an article in the New York Times asking the same question: “A ‘Resistance’ Stands Against Trump. But What Will It Stand For?” One section goes as follows: “A call to resist is different from a call to ‘organize’ or — to borrow a word from the long-ago Age of Obama — to ‘dream.’ Those words conjure visions of better worlds. Resistance names what you don’t want and leaves the vision thing for another, less urgent situation.” The article also ends by saying that “But the mere act of refusal often turns out to have its own momentum. As people learn that they can indeed say ‘no,’ they may begin to find new ways toward saying ‘yes.'” While this is hopeful, I believe it further strengthens the negative articulation of politics, and it is also a little naïve to think that criticism of the status quo has a direct throughline to enacting change. It is definitely urgent for Middle Easterners excluded by Executive Order 13769, refugees and otherwise, but I do not think that Trump is such an urgent matter for most of the US such that we only have time to say “no.” In fact, I think those most urgently affected by the travel ban are preoccupied with surviving day to day or visiting immigration lawyers, not taking the time to demonstrate just so they can say “no.” In other words, being critical of the status quo is the beginning to change; criticism and disagreement is a necessary, but not in of itself sufficient, condition for social change.

Second, I’d like to address radicals aiming to fundamentally change society. While this is a noble goal, i) it discourages social engagement that is currently possible while not offering any paths to the ideal, and ii) lead to radicals accusing liberals of pandering to the system when they try to work within it, which can alienate potential allies. An example of this attitude is a blog post on Occupy Wall Street by Judith Butler, one of the most influential thinkers on the left, especially with regards to how gender is a socially constructed concept. In this post, Butler responds to criticisms against Occupy that they did not make a coherent list of demands. She argues that a list of demands does not explain how these demands are related to one another, and “We cannot fix the one form of inequality without understanding the broader trends of inequality we are seeking to overcome.” She also responds to criticisms against Occupy that demands should be realistic, saying that a demand that the government is willing to fulfill usually means that it would not be a demand that fundamentally challenges government. In addition, “to appeal to that authority to satisfy the demand would be one way of attributing legitimacy to that authority” – that is, at the same time as disagreeing with the government on policies, appealing to the government to change policies still implicitly agrees with the government that they should be in control.

While all of this is true, and while I appreciate that much critical theory and cultural studies do point out assumptions we hold, often I (and my undergrads) are left with a question, “So what should we do?” Last September, when TAing a general education course that included a book with a similar position to the blog post regarding Occupy, a student asked in frustration, “Does this mean we shouldn’t vote?” A rejoinder has been that it is not the job of the liberal arts and critical theory to prescribe, but challenge us to think differently. While this is also true, I believe that these disciplines that challenges us to think different operate at a level that is disconnected from Business, Management, Accounting, Policy, International Relations, Economics, Law, and a whole host of other disciplines (not even counting the Sciences and trade jobs) that focus on things to be done. Without some gesture to possible actions based on leftist critiques, the demands to act in mainstream disciplines and to earn a living in those jobs might overwhelm any critical thinking in the abstract. In addition, critical theory can choose to position itself against these disciplines to critique them, but in doing so, it may fail to speak at all to their adherents.

This leads me to an issue with the radical left condemning politically neutral humanities and social science disciplines. It’s understandable to be critical of professional disciplines like Business Administration, however it makes less sense to be categorically critical of a research field like Political Science. As I talked about at the end of Part I, social science disciplines are suspect because they rely on implicit assumptions which have biases towards those in power. For example, Political Science to a certain degree assumes that we need a government of some kind, which leftist anarchists would reject. In addition, I have seen fellow scholars argue that disciplines that rely on big data cannot address inequality because the complexities of personhood and subjectivity becomes lost in the data. While all of these criticisms might be true, saying that data-driven disciplines are entirely complicit with power would be writing off knowledge that can look at broad material differences in society.

It also conflates what a discipline tends not to do with what it cannot do. It is true that Political Science might get funding from the establishment, or that International Relations are located in a country which seeks to use IR training for is own advantage in world politics. However, this does not mean that those disciplines are inherently uncritical; if we can historicize the reasons that they developed to be such, we can change the discipline. An example of a discipline which has changed is History, which had almost entirely been about monarchs, wars, and territory, but increasingly taking into account the histories of topics such as immigration, women’s movements, and cultural practices such as theatre-going. A discipline also has recourse to multiple methods which can offset one another’s weaknesses, for example using oral history along with census statistics.

What it comes down to for me is a different definition and approach to “urgency.” To me, urgency is not about demonstrating on the streets to express disagreement with the status quo. It is about being able to proactively engage the system as it is, because the consequences of not engaging can be immediate and severe. I’d hate to think, for example, that teaching radical theory to undergrads meant that we had dissuaded some of them from voting in the last election.

I also disagree with radical thinkers who suggest that having short-term goals with a focus on results undermines our ability to imagine long-term ideals (see, for example, the first comment to the post regarding Occupy). To me, this position does not give thinkers on the left enough credit to simultaneously hold short-term goals and long-term visions, or to implement short-term goals with an awareness that they might be provisional, and also to think of how to pre-empt ways provisional goals might be co-opted. Finally, incremental goals should also not be conflated with isolated goals, which the post on Occupy addresses. It is true that we cannot take one aspect of social life, ie policing, or education, or employment discrimination, and hope to solve all inequality, which impinges on many different spheres of life. A more realistic model that still can lead to the abstract ideal would be incremental changes in each sphere of life, with dialogue between the spheres to evaluate the synergy of changes over time.

Engaging the world with a sense of urgency is different from wanting an overnight revolution.   First, there is the matter of material infrastructure for a new way of life. Second, people and their mentality are like an infrastructure that needs to be built up so they can fit into a new way of life. I think this is what revolutionaries on the left forget. People on the left have spent a great deal of time thinking about and acting on their ideal world, that they have already mentally primed themselves to be part of it. They cannot imagine the mindset of someone who has not, for whom the new ideal world necessitates a longer transition period.

I think that many people can be negatively affected by change, even if it is a change for the better, because it requires effort to break old patterns and attachments and to learn new skills and ways of being. It is probably only the people already very committed to change who are willing to wade through the mundane realities of setting up a new infrastructure. People who don’t care strongly either way, which are most people, may oppose change just to keep the pattern they are used to. Instead of characterizing this tendency as reactionary, I think it is more generous for the left to recognize it as human – that most people want familiarity and want what they know and do to be valued. From a subjective perspective, I think it may be just as hard to ask people on the right to change their world view and way of life as asking an inner city worker to learn new professional skills when those jobs move offshore. It might take generational turnover for attitudes to shift. So, even as we engage with world with urgency for specific concrete problems, we should also be patient and acknowledge the deep time of social change. Reform is not opposed to revolution; I would say that revolution only occurs superficially without a longer history of reform.

Building the material infrastructure of a new society requires a new mental and affective infrastructure, which brings me to pedagogy.  I think academics and other thinkers should do theoretical research that has no immediate application, even if staving off social disintegration is urgent. However, pedagogy may not take the same approach as research. Academics on the left have espoused a concept called “radical pedagogy,” which is that education should help build students’ political awareness and advance social change, rather than just giving them technical knowledge. While I fully endorse this as a goal, radical pedagogy should not simply comprise of telling students about radical positions. In Part II I mentioned professors who took grades off if students did not use specific terminology, such as “undocumented” instead of “illegal” immigrants. To me, this is a lazy way of exercising radical pedagogy, as it punishes people for the beliefs that they had been previously taught. To truly succeed, radical pedagogy (or any education for that matter) should begin from the positionality of the learner and build upon what they know, rather than invalidate it. Understandably this is difficult, since due to inequality and segregation, upcoming privileged generations have very little on which a leftist educator can build upon. However, I think that because we are in the role of educators (and older and more experienced people), the task of finding how to work with very little falls on us. Since Trump’s election, there has been a growing blacklist of university professors who are accused of disseminating leftist propaganda and brainwashing students. This is alarming, however at the same time I also think that professors should not be shielded from public critique just because they are part of an institution, and I also hope that the silver lining would be that it enables educators on the left to revise their pedagogy.


To wrap up this series of posts, I’d like to bring in Part II’s point about paying attention to resources rather than attitudes, into the points here about understanding, encouragement, and being realistic.

Stokely Carmichael, a prominent thinker of the Black Power Movement, was disillusioned with Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent approach that tried to instigate social change by gaining sympathy for Black suffering. Carmichael notably said, “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” Given Trump’s election, I would amend this to, “In order for nonviolence to work, our potential allies must have an incentive. We have not given them enough.” While I do think the Black Power Movement’s recourse to violent resistance is  justified in their historical context, I also don’t think that a minority in the US can cause enough disincentive to really outweigh the US’s promised incentives, or outweigh the desire on the part of the privileged for things to stay the same.

Part of this may be needing centrists who are committed centrists, rather than people who don’t care enough to be on the far left or the far right. I traveled to Australia for a conference recently and read on the in-flight magazine about Waleed Aly, who got an Australian of the Year Award for being nuanced and understanding when approaching Australia’s equally divisive political scene. I doubt someone like Aly would win an award in an American cultural context, due to a legitimization of what he calls “the cycle of outrage.” I think the issues covered earlier regarding a negative articulation of politics, and a general American culture of adversarial democracy and justice, has made extremism and and expression of outrage the most valid expression of dedication, when there is really no inherent correlation between the two. I mentioned earlier that the left choose to disregard the feelings of the right at our peril. If we do, we fuel backlash and and contribute to a cycle of outrage.

In the carrot and stick analogy, the criticism and negative articulation of politics that I see on the left is like the left attempting to beat the right with a small stick. What I am advocating for is a shift to thinking about social change motivated by carrots for as many segments of society as possible. This involves acknowledging the right as human, with both shortcomings that we need to work with rather than demonize, and with potentials that we can play into. It involves understanding their positionality so we can imagine a future that takes in account their benefit, and pitch it convincingly. Instead of seeing the right, centre, and even liberals as opponents, we need to see them as potential allies; even when they oppose us, we can see them as a source of critique through which we can refine our visions for a better society that is productive and inclusive.

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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.

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.