Snobbery, Guilt, and Good Will
I admitted to Micah the other day that he was a part of the inspiration for the 老百姓 snob I wrote about recently. I didn’t mean it as an insult or anything… it was just an observation of his lifestyle in Shanghai.
Micah recently responded:
But let me say a few words in defense of the 老百姓 snob. I think the reason I put forward the effort to be this kind of snob is because I reject the status boost I might get from the stereotypes that Chinese hold about Western folk: they’re educated, creative, high-flying, party hard, and come to take charge. Consequently, I have to actively try to frame myself back into the same “social status” that I would have had back at home: just your average college graduate working his way into the middle class, feeling out of place in places like Rodeo Drive in Hollywood, considering his pocketbook when he dines out, and still having a warm spot in his heart for the street food and home-cooking of his youth. It’s not that the 老百姓 snob is absurd, it’s that he’s more sensitive to taking advantage of people thinking he’s something he’s not.
Not that I don’t realize I’m different; I will take advantage of being a foreigner abroad by taking English-teaching or translating jobs, but taking a higher salary just because I have a white face is something that weighs on my conscience. Maybe a useful metric to live by would be, if I was an immigrant from Nigeria would I have this option (of taking this higher salary, being invited to this party, being asked to take part in the filming of this commercial)?
On the one hand I kind of admire Micah’s stance. I, too, have felt the sort of “guilt of the privileged” on many occasions while living in China. I see it differently, though.
Can’t a middle class American get a similar feeling when passing through a poor neighborhood in the USA? Yet he doesn’t respond by lowering his standard of living. He learns pretty quickly to cope with any guilt he might feel for being better off than some. He might donate to charity as well, but that’s pretty much the extent of it.
In China, the guilt effect is magnified. That American is automatically even better off than he was back home, and it’s obvious to everyone around him. He can’t blend in. The difference is right up in his face, and reflected clearly in the eyes of the Chinese laborers from the countryside that stop to stare at this first foreigner they’ve ever seen. The American sees how China’s poor live. It weighs on his conscience heavily.
The guilt effect may be magnified, but does that mean the reaction to said guilt should be completely different? To me, it just doesn’t make sense. Most peple spend their days on this planet trying to improve their quality of life. If an American moves to China, that quality of life takes an immediate jump. This is undesirable?
I frequently return to a certain conclusion: foreigners in China are opportunists. No, they’re not necessarily completely without principles, but they’re still taking advantage of certain conditions in China to make a buck, or to live an easier life. I think almost all Westerners in China fall into this category.
Enter the 老百姓 snob. “No, I’m not here to make a buck,” he says. “I readily give up the easy life I could have here in China. I am really here to understand the culture and the people.”
A part of me finds that attitude admirable, but I still don’t think that taking the advantages thrown your way necessarily preclude the depth of cultural experience. At the same time, taking the advantages thrown your way doesn’t mean you can’t remain humble. I still think that attempts to reject those advantages are somewhat absurd. No matter how hard he tries, the 老百姓 snob cannot have a certain “social status” just because he wants it. Social status is granted by society, and only partly determined by individual effort.
I hope it’s not too cheesey, but I’m going to conclude with a quote from the movie Good Will Hunting. I first saw it at an impressionable age, and it made an impact on me.
Chuckie: Look, you’re my best friend, so don’t take this the wrong way, but in 20 years if you’re still living here, coming over to my house and watching Patriots games, still working construction, I’ll fucking kill you. That’s not a threat. That’s a fact. I’ll fucking kill you.
Will: What the fuck are you talking about?
Chuckie: Look… You’ve got something none of us have.
Will: Oh, come on! What? Why is it always this? I mean, I fuckin’ owe it to myself to do this or that. What if I don’t want to?
Chuckie: No. No, no no no. Fuck you. You don’t owe it to yourself man, you owe it to me, ’cause tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be 50, and I’ll still be doin’ this shit. And that’s all right. That’s fine. I mean, you’re sittin’ on a winnin’ lottery ticket. You’re too much of a pussy to cash it in, and that’s bullshit. ‘Cause I’d do fuckin’ anything to have what you got. So would any of these fuckin’ guys. It’d be an insult to watch if you’re still here in 20 years. Hangin’ around here is a fuckin’ waste of your time.