Cultural Appropriation and Microaggression Awareness Post

22 Dec

Since the infamous Miley Cyrus VMA performance with Robin Thicke this summer, and then Katy Perry’s performance of “Unconditionally” at the American Music Awards, and then Lily Allen’s more recent music video for her song “Hard Out Here”, the phrase “cultural appropriation” seems increasingly popular as a quick way to denounce any act as racist, ignorant, or microaggressive.

Yellowface or not?

Yellowface or not?

But what do any of these terms mean? And what about in a totally different context – China? Let’s first take a minute to revisit the most basic definitions of these words that due to overuse have nearly lost their meaning:

  • Cultural appropriation is the use of elements from one culture by another, often more dominant culture. Just Google “tribal print trend” to see the phrase and trend used (read: appropriated) by major media players. 
  • A microaggression is a commonplace behavior that intentionally or not, very subtly implies some form of aggression (such as a slight or a put-down) by the doer to another person of a different race or culture.

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I’ve been cognizant of and even emotionally impacted by these phenomena throughout my life, from the elementary school recess-time Disney princess assignments in which I always got Mulan, to the college microeconomics study session jokes that my math skills are “really bad for an Asian”. But only now have I been able to name these occurrences – and for that I have Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and especially my fellow Asian-American best friend majoring in sociology to thank.

But this semester in China, living amidst native Chinese and western foreigners, both groups used to being the majority in their homes countries, I have observed and experienced cultural appropriation and microaggression on a whole new level. Some of these microaggressions I, having already lived twenty years in America, am used to. For example, being told at a swanky hotel lobby bar in Nanjing by a well-dressed fellow foreigner that “Wow! [My] English is so good!”, which harkens back to the oft-asked “Yes you were born in New York and grew up in New Jersey, but where are you really from?” of my formative years.

But then, I also witnessed some new forms of microaggression and cultural appropriation that totally changed my perspective. For example, a Chinese girl that in enviously telling me, “You’re so thin for always eating hamburgers and French fries!” perpetuated the appropriation of American food culture. Or, an unintentionally microaggressive tour guide who directed her speeches solely at me, only to be disappointed that my level of understanding is on par with that of the other students on my program.

These latter few instances were so mind blowing to me because they were perpetrated by Chinese people. I had grown so comfortable with passively detesting the microaggressions thrown at me as a minority in a dominantly white America, that when someone I wrongly viewed as part of a minority group threw a microaggression my way, I was shocked and infinitely interested. For the first time, I had experienced microaggression not from Americans, but from Chinese. And also for the first time, I had not only the Chinese elements of my cultural background appropriated but also the American. Not only had I been unable to escape cultural appropriation and microaggression by physically blending in in China, I experienced it even more. And in these experiences, I learned that cultural appropriation goes both ways – and any group is capable of it. And more than ever, I became aware of my dual Chinese-American identities.

I recently read an editorial article criticizing the moral compass of hip hop, which commented that cultural appropriation, while extant, does no more than “hurt feelings”, and therefore is not deserving of our attention. I’d like to argue otherwise. As someone always trying to reconcile two different cultural identities, and belonging to two nations both with deep histories of persecuting minorities and being persecuted by more dominant groups, I’d say that there are much more than feelings on the line. I’d also like to extend this supplication: Be critical of everything, and consider the deeper implications of yours and others’ actions.

photos for poster

Caution: many of these links are biased. Even the Wikipedia article on cultural appropriation is not objective.

Background:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microaggression

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation

I actually really love these:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/hnigatu/racial-microagressions-you-hear-on-a-daily-basis?bftw

http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/11/25/memories-of-a-geisha-katy-perrys-amas-performance-stirs-debate/

If you haven’t yet, watch these, and form your own opinions:
Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance

Katy Perry’s AMA performance

Lily Allen’s Hard Out Here music video

The music video for “Chinese Food”

Closing Remarks

21 Dec

As the semester begins to wind down and our time in Nanjing nears its end, I have found myself reflecting on my experiences in Nanjing and how they have informed my schema for China and changed the way I think about Chinese history and culture, America, race, ethnicity, and myself. During our time here, we have seen many places, met many people, and had many experiences not available to normal tourists. Some of the most memorable include our visit to the Pukou campus of Nanjing University, where we were greeted exuberantly by dozens of Chinese college students who were eager to talk to us and to know us; our trip to the Mosque, where we learned a lot about Chinese Islam and diversity of Nanjing and the Chinese state; our experiences teaching at Bainian Vocational School, where we have happily come to know some of the most interested, considerate, and grateful students we have ever met; our tour of Diaoyu Tai, where we were spectator to the collision of social worlds, and the

Some of the Bainian students posing with me.

Some of the Bainian students.

destructive forces of modernization; our observations at the ‘marriage market’ at Xuanwu Lake, where we discussed the matters of love and marriage with the concerned parents of Nanjing’s single twenty- and thirty-somethings; and, of course, our encounters with local Chinese bureaucrats in the Anhui countryside.

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Talking with the Imam.

These experiences have served as practical examples, enriching and supplementing what we have learned in the classroom about China’s state and society. As we have adjusted to a new culture and tried our best to process everything we have seen and done, several themes have emerged in our thinking. One of the most troubling is the problem of race. In terms of numbers, China is a largely homogenous state, with roughly 90% Han ethnicity, and we are living in area that is inhabited primarily by Han people. As such, race is a big deal for many people here. As 外国人 waiguo ren, or foreigners, we have all had to deal with it in our own way. As I wrote in my last blog about Diaoyu Tai, one of the most troubling problems faced by the more Anglo-Saxony members of our group is being treated as an outsider–specifically, as an outsider who looks down upon China and comes here with malevolent and exploitative intentions. It is sometimes easy for white Americans born after the 1980s to forget just how badly Europe and America treated China historically and just how recently America’s relationship with China became one of cooperation rather than contention. For me, it has been very difficult to be treated in such a manner. Perhaps this is because I am very sensitive about matters related to race. Even in America, I have always had mixed feelings about my European and American heritage; I cannot help but detest the large majority of my ancestors, hating that my birthrights as a white American were won by conquest, genocide, exploitation, slavery, imperialism, racism, and oppression, but at the same time I have never known and can never know what it is to be anything but a financially-secure, educated, white American. However, in China, I have found myself confronted in an ugly way by my heritage. When I am treated as an insidious and malignant presence by people who do not know me, I cannot ignore the racial implications. My encounters here have made me question my right to study Chinese history and culture as if it were mine to study. Is it okay for me to believe that the world’s history, cultures, and customs are things to be shared while I am reaping an uneven amount of history’s benefits? Do I even have a right to feel wronged by these prejudices, since I belong to a race that historically committed far worse crimes, and I have inherited and enjoyed the privileges stolen from others? These are serious questions, and they are questions that I cannot answer.
Unfortunately, there is another component to this prejudice, and that is the simultaneous contempt and adulation ? idolization ? of America and American culture by many Chinese. I have heard many Chinese people say that America is a great country, or a wealthy country, in contrast with the poor and weak China, but I have always had the feeling that they were saying it in an insincere way, as if they took it to be fact but disliked the fact. In one instance, a Chinese man asked me if America has vendors who lay out blankets of merchandise on the ground. I told him that I have never seen any, and he quickly replied in an almost sarcastic way that oh, yes, everyone in America is rich. I clarified that there are of course homeless people, and that I haven’t been to big cities like New York or Chicago, so my experience is limited. However, I have always been slightly put off by this attitude. Why should China compare itself to America? Especially when many people ignore the problems–or worse, believe that normal Americans don’t understand the problems and that we must compare China with America and look down on China and so hold us in contempt for thinking that our country is great, which many of us don’t. This view is endorsed by the government, which engages in many ‘face’ projects to enhance its cities while ignoring many other problems, and only makes the problem worse.
Happily, encounters that feature overtly prejudicial tones are outnumbered by pleasant encounters with people who are very interested in sharing their culture with me and in sharing in my culture; nonetheless, concerns regarding race have tinted my entire experience in China. In class, we have studied many social problems, environmental problems, and problems in governance faced by China today. However, I have come to understand that my concerns about China’s future are not always appreciated, and I have also come to question how legitimate my stake in China’s future is, and how much of a right I have to feel concerned about these problems, and especially to try to involve myself in solving or understanding them. The answers to these questions all depend on whether I would be viewed as a concerned world citizen wanting to resolve world problems or as a greedy and manipulative Westerner who only wants to put a finger in China’s pie.

With the Ayi from Diaoyu Tai.

With the Ayi from Diaoyu Tai.

I hope that as we return to America and share what we have learned about China — highlighting the many educational, enlightening, and wonderful experiences we have had here — we not only discuss the societal and governmental issues we have studied, but we also do so in a manner that promotes the discussion of race, place, and rights. If we want to overcome the problems associated with race, we must first respect and understand how these problems arose. I believe problems associated with race must be overcome before we can truly contribute to China’s or any other non-Western country’s society.

 

Some interesting further reading:

http://www.forbes.com/2009/11/08/china-race-racism-opinions-columnists-reihan-salam.html

http://chinatripper.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/why-many-chinese-distrust-the-west-the-18th19th-and-early-20th-centuries/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_guilt

A Word on the Environment

21 Dec

Poster’s note: the following post is a paper I wrote for Professor Plum in October. As a GECS major, I believe the environment is worth talking about, but I realized that none of my blog posts were related to environmental issues, so I decided to share this. It was originally titled “Picture in 1,000 Words: Tree SOS“.

 

The photograph below depicts one of the many ‘tree nutrient bags’ or ‘tree IVs’ that can be observed attached to trees throughout Nanjing. In this paper, the significance of these bags will be discussed in the following two contexts: 1) that of the environmental problems resulting from China’s recent industrialization atop a long history of environmental degradation, and 2) that of the social problems caused by economic disparity and environmental degradation in China and how these problems lead to different attitudes toward the environment in the cities and the countryside, especially with regard to sustainable development.

Sustainable development is one of the most talked about topics in the world today. With many countries currently undergoing rapid industrialization, concerns about the future viability of the world’s ecosystems and the ability of future generations to secure resources have become very serious. At the same time, millennia of gradually accelerating environmental degradation have created ecological crises the world over that are becoming more and more glaringly evident as continued urbanization places extra burdens on the environment. There is perhaps no place on Earth where the trends of recent urbanization and historical ecological degradation have a greater impact on peoples’ lives than in China. China’s recent history details incredibly rapid industrialization and urbanization atop a 5,000 year-old civilization’s worth of environmental degradation. This process has resulted not only in some of the world’s most severe environmental crises, but also a huge income disparity between urban and rural areas and resulting disparities in the education and political power available to the populace in urban and rural areas. Today, a national and global emphasis on sustainability has led to some incredible projects such as the “Great Green Wall” and other reforestation and sustainable energy initiatives across China (Li). However, peoples’ attitudes toward and participation in these projects vary with their access to education and ability to open a dialogue with their local government. Sustainable development initiatives certainly aim to raise the quality of life, not only by abating environmental crises, but also by creating more green and livable spaces, which have been demonstrated to have benefits for both the mind and body (Wilson). As part of the trend toward sustainable development, Nanjing has emerged as one of China’s greenest and most sustainably developing cities, and its sustainable development initiative is considered a future beacon for developing cities (Jim et al.). Taking the example of tree IVs from Nanjing, we can discuss the environment and society in Nanjing.

On both July 3rd and 4th, 2011, Nanjing’s temperature exceeded 35℃, which caused great stress for some relatively young trees along Magnolia Road. The trees, undergoing a “test of life and death” (生死大考验), did not stand up well to the heat and began to wilt. What happened next made the news: city management (管理部门), worrying that the trees would die from heat or in their weakened state catch disease, hung more than 2,000 bags of nutrient solution in order to save the trees (顾 et al.). This is not the first instance of tree nutrient bags (树木营养液袋) being used to save young trees in China, but it is the first instance of tree nutrient bags being systematically used in Nanjing to sustain huge numbers of trees. Now, if you walk along the roads beside Nanjing University Campus, you will find a tree nutrient bag attached to nearly every tree. For an environmentalist, it is like walking through a scene from a sci-fi horror movie that takes place in a future where even the Earth’s most capable and magnificent organisms cannot take care of themselves. But what does it mean?

The problem comes from Nanjing’s soil. Because China’s land has a long history of agrarian utilization and China itself was home to arguably the world’s earliest modern civilization, complete with cities and a blossoming population, most of the soil in China is rather poor. Furthermore, many of Nanjing’s trees are planted in narrow plots between pavement, and as a result the soil around them is smothered by pavement, contaminated by roadside runoff, or otherwise devoid of soil-building organisms, so the trees are very often unable to obtain the nutrients they need from the soil. In recent years, many trees have become diseased or begun to wilt. This is evident throughout Nanjing and is a very easily observed phenomenon. In response, city management and the citizens of Nanjing have begun to hang more tree IVs. Despite the hope this story inspires in the abilities of China’s urban governments and citizens to recognize and address some fairly serious environmental problems, it is obvious that this kind of measure is an extreme, last-ditch response, a band-aid solution that is not sustainable over the long-term. In some ways, the tree IVs represent both China’s historical environmental problems and the difficulties faced by those today who are trying to solve them. Citizen involvement in saving these trees by setting up and maintaining the IVs represents the willingness of those in the city who have access to information and who have a real potential to influence their environment to stand up for the environment.

Another example of Nanjing citizens participating in tree-related matters comes from a 2011 story about citizens who protested the uprooting of some fairly old plane trees to make way for subway line 3. Despite the fact that the protests did not save the trees, they did create significant political pressure that resulted in the formation of a “green assessment” advisory board consisting of urban planners, architects, engineers and botanists with input from the citizens and the promise that in the future, all urban projects involving the removal of trees will be posted for public comment (Zhang). This example again serves to highlight the willingness of educated citizens to raise awareness and involve themselves in environmental discussion.

Unfortunately, things in the countryside are quite different. When I was in Beijing, one of my professors arranged an excursion to the countryside of Shanxi to study environment and rural governance in China. On the bus ride from Beijing to Zhangjiakou City, Shanxi, we passed innumerable coal yards and factories, including a plastic processing plant that was spewing fire and thick black smoke into the air. This black smoke billowed through the atmosphere, forming a hazy gray shroud similar to those that covered all the cities we visited in this coal-dependent region. Later on, we had the opportunity to hike through the area surrounding Zhangjiakou, where our professor pointed out burial mounds believed to be from the Warring States period or earlier, which upon excavation have yielded coffins made from huge slabs of wood. The graves are so numerous that they can only have been made on the scene, which means that the huge slabs of wood were taken from the area. This indicates that perhaps as few as two thousand years ago, the provinces of Shanxi and Hebei and most of the Loess Plateau were covered with huge forests and grasslands. Looking at the fragile, crumbling yellow soil, harsh brush, and gullies that constitute the Loess Plateau today, it is hard to imagine the region was ever any other way. Even worse, where coal mines exist or have existed, there is hardly any vegetation, only barren, nutrient poor yellow soil that cannot be cultivated because it has been contaminated by poisonous metals like mercury.

Though the continuing air pollution and soil erosion are huge problems, they are not the worst examples of environmental problems in Shanxi.The most heartbreaking stories come from the people forced to put up with increasingly harsh surroundings, and my fellow students and I had the incredible opportunity to spend the night with some of these people. In a most glaring example of the national and local government’s failure to care for or understand its people’s needs, under the national government’s recently imposed renewable energy initiative, a large number of wind turbines have been installed in the mountains of Shanxi. In the name of “environmental protection”, the government has allowed huge truck paths to be forged on already fragile mountainsides, destroying many of the trees and bushes that had managed to take root there, reversing whatever benefit they had brought to the region, spurring soil erosion and leading to the formation of new gulls in the mountains. This process has taken a huge portion of farmland away from the villagers and threatened their livelihoods, but they have not been compensated. They have not even received any subsidies on the electricity produced by the wind turbines; they are still paying the full price for what little electricity they use, which can be very expensive for them but is practically nothing in terms of the national budget. Though I (speaking as an environmentalist as well as a scholar of China) was deeply hurt, bewildered, upset and outraged on behalf of my Shanxi Ayi and Shushu, they seemed to be complacently resigned to their living conditions. They were both very old and it was as if they have long accepted that the possibility of dialoging their needs and concerns is virtually nonexistent. Although one of my professors told me about an old man he interviewed in Xinjiang who, when asked what he thought about the environment he lived in, began to cry and lamented that he knows the farming he does is unsustainable but he simply has no other choice, it appears that most villagers in Shanxi and similar places do not even know that their land was once among the most lush and sophisticated ecosystems on Earth.

The lack of opportunities afforded for the rural populace is both a symptom and a cause of their poverty. They lack the knowledge and the political power to protest measures, made both with blatant disregard for the environment and the people who have to live in it, and–most frustratingly of all– under the guise of creating a more sustainable future. While Nanjing’s citizen protests and tree IVs indicate a high ability among  the urban elite to recognize and address ecological problems, they also serve to indicate the severity of the environmental problems that plague all of China. Unfortunately, these problems are very severe and will require lots of planning and citizen participation to resolve. People in the urban areas are on their way to achieving that kind of power, especially in Nanjing. But the problem remains that if the social and economic inequalities surrounding the issue of environmental protection are not addressed, things will never get better in the countryside, and one has to wonder how people will be able to continue living in China once the countryside is lost.

 

Works Cited

Jim, C. Y., and Shuang Chen. “Variations Of The Treescape In Relation To Urban Development In A Chinese City: The Case Of Nanjing.” Professional Geographer 55.1 (2003): 70-82. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.

Li, Wenhua (2004). Degradation and Restoration of forest ecosystems in China. Forest Ecology and Management 201: 33-41, 2004. Retrieved from: http://www.elsevier.com/locate/foreco on March 20, 2013.

Wen, Dong-mao, 2006,‘Impacts of social economic status on higher education opportunity and graduate employment in China,’ Higher Education Press, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 426-438. Available from: <http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11516-006-0019-y&gt;.

Wilson, E. O., 2001, ‘Nature matters’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 241–242.

Zhang Kun. “Fate of Nanjing’s trees firmly rooted among the public.” Chinadaily [Nanjing, Jiangsu, China] 24 03 2011, n. pag. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2011-03/24/content_12218569.htm>.

顾小萍 , and 葛妍. “玉兰路景观树挂2000多带营养液.” 龙虎网 [南京,江苏,中华人民共和国] 04 07 2011, n. pag. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. <http://city.ifeng.com/cshz/nj/20110704/111530.shtml&gt;.

 

Works Consulted

Mao, KuoRay “Underinvestment or Overdevelopment: A World System Perspective on Neo-liberal Development and Migration in Northwestern China, the Case of Northern Shangxi” Perspective on Global Development and Technology.

(Note: this is the citation as it appears in Dr. Mao’s CV).

 

Islam in China

2 Dec

We recently had the unique opportunity to visit a mosque in Nanjing, which was a very interesting experience. Before going to this mosque, I had very little knowledge of the practice of Islam in China. I knew that the Hui and Uyghur minorities, predominately Muslim ethnic groups, are two of the largest of China’s 56 minorities. I was also familiar with Zheng He, the famous Ming Dynasty explorer, who happened to be of Hui ancestry. Other than these two bits of knowledge, I have had very little contact with Islam in China, outside of the occasional trip to one of the many Hui cuisine restaurants in Nanjing. As such, visiting the mosque was a very enlightening experience.

At this particular mosque, over 600 people come to service on Fridays, one-third of them foreign. There are 12 other mosques in Nanjing, so there is likely a sizable Muslim population in the area, including people of China’s many Muslim minorities. Of course, this number pales in comparison to the amount of Han people (China’s main ethnic group, which comprises over 91% of the population), but Islam certainly has a noticeable presence in Nanjing.

IMG_1199[1] The entrance to the mosque

Before this visit, I lacked proper understanding of what freedom of religion in China really means. Freedom of religion is not extended to all religions in China; the government recognizes the rights of only a few religious groups to practice openly. Even when a group is granted permission to practice openly, they may still be restricted. For example, the government has officially sanctioned Protestant and Catholic churches, but these are often regarded as illegitimate and restrictive by Chinese Christians, many of whom prefer to practice in illegal, underground Churches. However, as Islam is one of the government approved religions, the people at this mosque are generally able to worship openly and freely. We had the opportunity to talk to one of the mosque’s Imams, who told us that, despite the fact that China is a largely secular country, people are much more open now to Islam than they were twenty or thirty years ago. He explained that now many young people are converting to Islam, and it is no longer only practiced by those with a long family history of Islam. The open attitude towards Muslims he described may be due to the long history the religion has in China.

IMG_1201[1]

Inside the Mosque

However, the rights of Muslim minorities are not equal; the Hui can practice their religion openly, but Uyghurs, whose population is mostly concentrated in Northwest China, particularly Xinjiang province, are not so lucky. While Islam is an officially sanctioned religion, Uyghur Islam is not. However, this has less to do with the differences between Islam practiced by Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities than it does with the ongoing Uyghur separatist movement.

Throughout Chinese history, there have been periods when Muslims were severely oppressed, most recently during the Cultural Revolution when the practice of religion was outlawed and many mosques and cultural relics were destroyed. Now, with evidence that the recent car crash in Tiananmen was related to a police raid on a mosque in Xinjiang, tensions with Uyghur Muslims and the government have increased. There is a large concentration of Hui Muslims in Xinjiang and Northwestern China as well, but despite their shared religion with the Uyghur Muslims the Hui have not been heavily scrutinized by the government. I recently had another conversation with the Mosque’s Imam on how Hui Muslims relate to other Muslim groups in China or other countries. According to him, although their religions may be the same (in his opinion, there are no differences in the beliefs of Hui Muslims and Uyghur Muslims), the Hui regard themselves as very different from other Muslim groups. He described to me that Hui are not closely associated with Uyghurs because of their different racial and cultural backgrounds. He also feels that Islam practiced in China is very different from Islam practiced in many Middle Eastern countries (particularly Yemen, where he lived for 3 years), because China is largely a secular nation. There is a time and a place for religion in China, but it does not define every aspect of your life. This is the first experience I have had talking about religion in another country, and it made me wonder how much culture effects religious beliefs in other nations.

Making Connections

27 Nov

Strangers in China can be dismissive, or even rude, toward one another. Yet once a connection is made, strangers will treat one another like old friends. As a foreigner, I feel that I have had an exaggerated experience with these disparate attitudes. In my observations and experiences, on the street Chinese people tend not to be overwhelmingly respectful of fellow citizens. Because I am a foreigner–and especially because I am a foreigner with blonde hair–I am often stared at and ogled at. Thus, I have deducted that there do not seem to exist any social rules with regard to attitudes toward strangers.

It was only after coming to China that I realized that in America, strangers are relatively friendlier to one another. Yet being in China has also provided me with the perspective to realize that this is a superficial friendliness. In the US, a stranger may smile at you and ask you how your day is going, but the conversation rarely goes deeper than that. In China, once a connection is made, there is usually no faked attempt at conversation; the interaction tends to immediately enter a deeper level. I think that because I am a foreigner, meaningful conversations occur especially often because people are curious about where I am from and why I am in Nanjing.

In the nearly three months that I have been in China, there have been many moments in which casual contact has turned into in-depth conversation. One moment that stands out to me was an interaction that took place a few weeks ago at the gym I belong to here in Nanjing. I was working out in the mat room, which doubles as the boxing area. I had my headphones on and was in my own world as I worked out. Suddenly I noticed that one of the young men who had been boxing had approached me and was trying to get my attention. Although I thought it was strange that he was interrupting my workout, I paused my iPod and began talking to this guy. 

I soon forgot my annoyance with being disturbed when the conversation revealed that I was the first foreigner this 26-year-old boxing coach ever spoken with. I am also always looking for opportunities to improve my spoken Mandarin! This young man asked me basic introductory questions, but was not satisfied with just knowing that I am a liuxuesheng, or a student studying abroad. He wanted to know why in particular I chose to study China and Chinese language. He also boldly asked me what my impression of China is, curious about whether my response would be positive or negative. After I provided my perspective, careful to say the right things, he immediately offered his own opinions on China’s strengths and weaknesses regardless of the fact that he had known me for only a couple of minutes. The two of us talked at great length about the differences between China and America. Our conversation was so lively and in-depth that I nearly forgot I had only just met this person.

While abroad, my perspective on social interactions between strangers in China has evolved. Yes, some of the social norms in China are foreign to me and have been difficult to become accustomed to. But I have remained positive about interacting with strangers because, for every time I have taken an elbow to the rib on public transportation, I have had a meaningful conversation with a stranger. It is interactions like the one with the boxing coach that prove to me that Chinese people place a great deal of emphasis on respect, manners, and interpersonal relationships.

Outsiders in China: What is lost in translation?

8 Nov
In conjunction with some of our collective experiences, recent class discussions, and motifs of misunderstanding and foreignness that some of my classmates have blogged about, I would like to share an experience I had last Friday and my thoughts on it.

An aerial view of Diaoyu Tai from the top of Zhonghua City Gate.

An aerial view of Diaoyu Tai from the top of Zhonghua City Gate.

Last Friday we went as a class to see the Zhonghua City Gate and some old houses in the surrounding area, a neighborhood called Diaoyu Tai (钓鱼台,  literally Fishing Neighborhood). Diaoyu Tai is one of Nanjing’s remaining old neighborhoods, really more a network of houses with paths just big enough for motorists to pass through one at a time. Some of the dwellings here are very old, many constructed in the traditional Southern style in which single-storied chambers alternate with small courtyards. Almost all the houses in this neighborhood lack indoor plumbing and only some have makeshift pipelines to supply the residents with running water. Many of the houses here bear the scars of the Japanese War, the Communist Revolution, and the Cultural Revolution, when scantily-windowed concrete walls were erected in order to add second stories to many of the houses.
Upon entering the neighborhood, we split into two groups. I went with two classmates, Heather and Christina, and Yu Laoshi. Yu Laoshi’s husband, Liu Shushu was with us as well. Several meters from the street entrance, we encountered some middle school students standing outside of their school. Yu Laoshi and Liu Shushu stopped to talk with them, and we were very fortunate to meet one of the students’ grandmothers, who happened to be bringing her granddaughter lunch. Upon seeing us, our new Nainai (奶奶, grandma) became very interested and offered to give us a tour of the neighborhood. She took Yu Laoshi’s arm and led us down the narrow street past many clothing shops and food vendors, asking about us and telling us many little stories about the neighborhood. Part way down the road, she stopped and brought us through one of the road-facing gates into a house.
The house, as it turns out, is actually an old estate owned by landlords who live in the city and rent it out (our Nainai was very good friends with the landlords). In the past twenty years, as economic reforms have created greater mobility as well as an enormous floating population of migrant laborers, many of the people who used to live in Diaoyu Tai have saved enough money to move to more modern and “desirable” quarters. They have retained their properties and now rent the rooms out to migrant workers. The workers have built walls within the chambers and courtyards, so that what might once have been an impressive or admirable estate during the Ming or Qing is now a small village within itself, a patchwork of small worlds that belong to workers from Anhui and Jiangsu and Henan.
After looking around the house, we continued walking down the street. The whole time we had been walking, all the old houses and shops that we had been looking at had been on our left, while on our right were clean, empty and rather new-looking two-storied houses that were built almost like rows of apartments but in the old style. Eventually, Yu Laoshi asked our Nainai about the houses and our Nainai answered that they were very new, probably three years old, and that there were once houses like the one we just toured there.
We turned down a new street and began to see some piles of bricks and tiles on the ground, and among the lively and bustling homes

"This residence has already been collected"

“This residence has already been collected”

we began to see rows of silently gaping houses, boarded and branded by some in-nominate official, the words “此房已征收” (“this residence has already been collected”, meaning that the residents have either been bought out or forced out) glaring, shiny and red, out at us.

It was in this area that we encountered a young man. He walked by us twice, and then disappeared into an alley. As we were filing out onto a broader horizontal street, some of us stopped to take a picture of the rows of abandoned houses behind. He walked back out of the alley and up toward us. He came up behind our group and as he was passing, he muttered something like “这儿有什么好拍的?” (”What is there good to take a picture of here?”) and then he slouched sullenly away. At first, I was truly, utterly devastated. This young man’s comment revealed two things about his thinking that made me cringe with chagrin, wanting to explain myself while also feeling forced to really think about why I am so interested in seeing places such as Diaoyu Jie.
Walking down one of the streets in the Diaoyu area.

Walking down one of the streets in the Diaoyu area.

First, his comment revealed to me that he is not proud of his neighborhood and that he thinks of it as something not noteworthy and even backward. Second, it revealed that he didn’t understand why foreigners would be there, that he most likely believed we also considered the neighborhood backward and that were taking pictures simply in order to exploit that backwardness. The fact that he said what he did blatantly and right behind us revealed that he didn’t expect us to understand him, which also revealed that he truly thought of us as outsiders who would not have invested our time in studying his language and who also probably do not have a deep interest in China and its many cultures.

Normally, I pride myself on my frankness, openness, and ability to appreciate and understand people and cultures from all parts of the world. In places such as Peru, I have been able to explore the countryside and have had wonderful encounters with indigenous people across economic strata, and I have never before been forced to be so aware of my status as an outsider or to think of my presence as intrusive. I certainly never imagined that I could be construed as exploitative or malignant; I have always considered myself an apple that fell as far as possible from the tree of imperialism, white supremacy, and American exceptionalism that was planted and tended by my ancestors for centuries. Yet what was I doing in Diaoyu Tai (not in terms of the assignment or trip, but in terms of my own interest in being there)? How do I honestly feel about the small, close, bathroomless quarters there or the migrant workers who have built shantytowns within the walls of centuries-old estates?
After grappling with my thoughts, I have come to this conclusion: while I was born in America by chance and am an American citizen by formality, I was born to the world by design and am a world citizen by default. I cannot see the relevance or usefulness of being an American without understanding my place as a member of the world community (that goes for everyone). We live in an era of globalization, and that is not going to change within our lifetimes. Moreover, I am honestly interested in making personal connections with other world citizens and in understanding as much as I can about the world as it exists. Places such as Diaoyu Tai exist, and they are very real parts of China. How can I say I understand China without understanding these places? What’s more, I do not view them as backwards at all. On the contrary, they are vibrant communities full of history, and not just history that the State has deemed worthy of telling or retelling (i.e. manipulating), but real and tangible human history. How could I ever write off the stories or the existence of real people? Why would I ever want to?
It is true that there are still a few people out there who do not think of things the way I do and who head into places such as Diaoyu Tai with the intent to exploit them as backward, but people like my classmates and I outnumber that other kind of person by a lot. All we want is to understand the world better–to understand China better because we recognize its significance as a world power and the beauty of its historic culture, and because we understand that as citizens of the world, China’s problems are our problems too–and I hate the fact we have given people in China bad impressions of Westerners and Americans simply because they are unwilling to understand us.

Nanjing: An Ancient Melting Pot

6 Nov

As a country made up of immigrants, America likes to call itself the melting pot of the world. Besides the diverse ethnic backgrounds that Americans have, many places throughout the country have adopted a variety of traditions, beliefs, and cuisines from around the world. But this melting pot is simply one of more recent existence. Historically, there have been many melting pots of people and culture. A more ancient melting pot is China and even more specifically, Nanjing.

The reason why I give Nanjing as an example of China’s diverse heritage are the field trips we have taken to numerous temples throughout the city. Within a week we visited the Jingjue Muslim Temple, which was situated nearby the famous Nanjing Fuzimiao (Confucian Temple), and Qixia Temple, a Buddhist temple built on the outskirts of Nanjing. After visiting these different temples, I was amazed at the coexistence and the integration of ideologies from these different belief systems. Though I had known of the importance Confucianism had to state and general ideology, and the prevalence of Buddhism as a religion, I could never have imagined how large Nanjing’s Muslim population was had I not visited.

In China, Islam can trace its roots back to an ancient version of international trade between the Middle-East and East Asia. As a major port city along the Maritime Silk Road, Nanjing was a gateway for Islam to enter China. The history of the Nanjing Jingjue Mosque began in the 4th century A.D., but it became more popular during the Ming era, under the guidance of Zheng He, China’s famous maritime explorer. Despite the struggles that the Islamic leaders and the religion’s Chinese followers had to face, the Jingjue mosque leaders informed us that the religion was able to integrate itself into Chinese society by adapting its beliefs to fit with Confucian ideology.

Inside the Jingjue Mosque

Inside the Jingjue Mosque

However, during Mao’s era of leadership, China’s cultural heritage disappeared. During the Cultural Revolution, the CCP criticized Confucianism (primarily because of the hierarchy that it imposed on the population) and attempted to eliminate religion in China. The result of these early Communist policies led to the shutting down and re-designation of the Jingjue mosque until China opened up in the late 1970s, and the destruction of ancient Buddhist sculptures at the Qixia Hill’s ‘Thousand Buddha Caves.’ It has also given some the impression that today’s China, under communist rule, has very little diversity in regard to beliefs.

Headless Buddha Statue at Qi Xia Temple

Headless Buddha Statue at Qi Xia Temple

In our domestic politics class, we have questioned whether or not the communist ideology from the mid-20th century has disappeared in modern times, and if so, what fills it today. Based on the restoration of Nanjing’s temples as well as the number of Chinese who visited the different temples at the same time we did, one might argue that religion and traditions from before the CCP could be a possible answer. However, during our visits to Qixia Temple and Fuzimiao, I could not help but feel as if the attempt to excise religion from China had left scars on society’s relationship to its traditional beliefs. Qixia Temple and Fuzimiao, highly commercialized with rows of vendors, ready to sell incense to the crowds of visitors (not just worshipers) who had purchased their entrance tickets, were more historical landmarks and tourist sites than places of worship and thoughtful reflection. Although there were some who looked like they were there to seriously worship, the admission fee might be a deterrent from regular worship.

Crowded afternoon at Fuzimiao.

Crowded Afternoon at Fuzimiao.

That being said, though Islam does not have as much of a root as Confucianism or Buddhism does in China, its followers were able to protect its place in Chinese society. Simple observations like the number of Muslim cuisine restaurants in Nanjing as well as the large Muslim communities built up around the city indicate the importance faith has in the lives of many Chinese. Though the Jingjue mosque lies outside of official government institutions, by providing social outreach for fellow followers, it plays a major role in the lives of many Chinese. The devoutness of the Nanjing Muslim community can be seen if you visit on Friday when many worshipers fill the entire temple grounds. When we met with the leaders of the mosque, they told us that they have new followers who have come from outside of previously converted Islamic Chinese families. These new followers were also comprised of many different generations leading one to question the role of religion and whether or not it may fill the gap that was left by communist ideology after the late 21st century.

Visiting a wide variety of temples throughout Nanjing has given me both insight into and many more questions as to how traditional Chinese religions and ideologies are viewed by the modern day Chinese population. While their role in today’s society is questionable, the existence of these temples demonstrates how incorrect the one-dimensional image of modern China’s population is. Nanjing’s historical sites and China’s syncretism illustrate how a country that many considered closed off to outside influence before the 1980s was actually a melting pot for the world.

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