My ChinesePod co-worker Colleen, new co-host of The Saturday Show and outstanding Canadian, is a very sweet girl. I was shocked to hear that she recently fell victim to violence on the streets of Shanghai.
She was walking along the side of a downtown street in broad daylight. Bicycles were going by, as usual. Suddenly an oncoming cyclist stuck out his arm and intentionally clotheslined her, knocking her to the ground. As she lay on the street, stunned, she heard her attacker laughing as he rode away.
It was really hard for me to believe this story. Shanghai is usually so free of violent crime — especially against foreigners. I can’t imagine what possessed the guy to do that.
I’ll resist the urge to try to start a Chinese-style internet witch-hunt for “a Chinese guy on a bike in a jean jacket.” This kind of thing really is rare.
My critical discourse analysis class is getting interesting. The professor has assigned small group presentation topics. All five topics are related to homosexuality. Pepe and I have “homosexuality in the West.” Yeah, pretty huge topic. Other topics are pretty narrow, such as “lesbians in China.”
Just as a reminder about what we’re going to be analyzing:
> Discourse analysis challenges us to move from seeing language as abstract to seeing our words as having meaning in a particular historical, social, and political condition. Even more significant, our words (written or oral) are used to convey a broad sense of meanings and the meaning we convey with those words is identified by our immediate social, political, and historical conditions. Our words are never neutral (Fiske, 1994)! This is a powerful insight for home economists and family and consumer scientists (We could have a whole discussion about the meaning that these two labels convey!). We should never again speak, or read/hear others’ words, without being conscious of the underlying meaning of the words. Our words are politicized, even if we are not aware of it, because they carry the power that reflects the interests of those who speak. Opinion leaders, courts, government, editors, even family and consumer scientists, play a crucial role in shaping issues and in setting the boundaries of legitimate discourse (what is talked about and how) (Henry & Tator, 2002). The words of those in power are taken as “self-evident truths” and the words of those not in power are dismissed as irrelevant, inappropriate, or without substance (van Dijk, 2000). [source]
It’s also important to note that discourse includes not only traditional language, but all forms of symbols contained in advertising, media, fashion, etc.
So my idea was to examine what’s going on with the term “metrosexual.” Here are some questions I think are worth exploring:
– Does the “metrosexual” style, by making stereotypical visual clues of homosexuality ambiguous, serve to bring homosexuals closer into society? (Is it a sign of greater tolerance?)
– Are the “sterotypical visual clues” just ridiculous or are they significant?
– How do homosexuals feel about the metrosexual phenomenon? How does it impact the gay community?
– Why is “metrosexual” strictly a male phenomenon? What’s going on there with the gender dynamic?
I’d be interested in hearing my readers’ ideas on this. Helpful links are also welcome. I haven’t really been in the US for most of the metrosexual phenomenon, and I don’t know how widespread it is either.
The presentation will be a mere 10-15 minutes long, so we don’t need to go super in-depth. We also need to provide visuals with a PowerPoint presentation.
I was never particularly interested in homosexual studies, but somehow discussing it in grad school in China makes it way more interesting to me. (By the way, Pepe says “metrosexual” in Chinese is 都市玉男. I’m a little disappointed that the -sexual (-性恋) got nuked in the translation.)
Note: Hateful, ignorant, and useless comments will never see the light of day.
> The private program’s after-school sessions are held in brightly decorated classrooms, where fewer than a dozen children, typically 4 or 5 years old, are taught by as many as three teachers. The program emphasizes scientific learning, problem solving and, most attractively for many parents, assertiveness.
Yes, that’s right, assertiveness. So now that these people have gotten so adept at raising spoiled brats, the next step is to raise assertive spoiled brats.
I recently discussed the article Why Secret Salaries Are a Baaaaaad Idea with my Chinese friend Mike. It’s an interesting read. The main points the article makes for why open salaries are a good idea:
1. Salaries will become more fair. The system gets a chance to adjust itself.
2. It will be easier to retain the best employees because they’re more likely to feel they’re getting a fair salary.
3. The pressure is on the people with the high salaries to earn their keep. Everybody has to pull their weight – the higher the salary, the larger the weight.
Mike is an accounts manager for a Chinese company in Shanghai, and he has business experience in several companies. Unsurprisingly, he was convinced such an idea could never work in China. The main ideas we discussed:
– The open salary system is based on an overall assumption that the boss is devoted to the idea of a fair workplace. In Mike’s words, “no Chinese boss wants to be fair.” The average Chinese boss exploits unfairness to the benefit of the company. The example he gave is that for the exact same job, a Shanghainese employee might be paid 5,000 RMB per month, whereas an employee from Gansu would only get 1,000. That’s just the way it is.
– Many Chinese companies keep two sets of books in order to pay less taxes. If the company were to make public the fake books, it’s a meaningless action. But you obviously can’t make the real books public.
– Mike’s conclusion: “It’s a nice idea in theory, but it would never work in reality. It’s like Communism!“
I thought this kind of thing could only be seen in movies and comic books. A very old lady slowly shuffled to the edge of the street. As the light changed she glanced fearfully to both sides, looking very uncertain at the start of her journey across the street. A middle-aged woman–clearly a stranger–appeared at the elderly lady’s side and exchanged a word or two in greeting. The old woman then gratefully held onto her savior’s arm as she was very patiently led to the safety of the opposite curb.
The other day I was working when I got a call on my cell phone from an unfamiliar number. I picked up my cell phone, but before I could answer it, the call stopped. Figuring it was a wrong number, I went back to work without giving it a second thought.
Then I received a text message. The message read (in Chinese):
> I dialed the wrong number just now. Sorry about that!
Some mornings on the subway when I’m packed in tight with the commutants, it’s all I can do to just stay stone-faced and hang onto my sanity. Other mornings, I notice things. Instead of pushing, I see people actually talking. They say things like, “Are you getting off at the next stop?” and “Excuse me, I need to get off at the next stop.” What’s more, the other person politely steps aside!
Today on the way home from work, after the subway doors opened and expelled us, we surged up the stairs as a group. On the way up the stairs, in two separate incidents, two men just barely bumped into me. Both promptly apologized.
Kindness and courtesy in Shanghai: there have been multiple sightings. There will be more. Keep your eyes open.
The Shanghai Metro (subway) commuters are infamous for their “enthusiasm.” The subway philosophy of 先下后上 (let people off first, then board) is blasted repeatedly during rush hour by station attendants each and every day, but it always falls on deaf ears as the hoarde surges to board the subway cars the split second the doors open, forcing the passengers who wish to disembark to shove and claw their ways through the subway doorway battlefield. It really is insane, and it shocks most newcomers to Shanghai.
I once said to a Chinese friend that the rush hour commuters are “like animals.” That comparison didn’t sit too well. Although at rush hour they may be doing their best imitations of subhuman creatures, the commuters are, in fact, human beings deserving of respect (if only because they are human beings). Somehow Shanghai’s particular societal circumstances–including cultural factors and a massive population–contributes to this inexplicably barbaric commuter behavior.
I’ve been riding the subway a lot lately on my way to ChinesePod, and I am forced to ride both Line 2 and Line 1 (the Evil Line) every day during morning rush hour (oh, the horror!). I have quite a few thoughts I plan to share about these commuters with whom I rub elbows (among other things) on a regular basis.
But somehow the term “commuter” doesn’t seem entirely appropriate. Social conditions have transformed them into something beyond what the mere term “commuter” implies; their behavior has already mutated into something else. They are… Shanghai’s commutants*.
I always think it’s kind of funny when I hear people talking about the “Chinese work ethic.” Usually it’s an American who knows plenty of successful Chinese immigrants in the States and just assumes that China is a nation of the same kind of people. It doesn’t take too much thought to realize that the hard-working Chinese immigrants in the States were able to immigrate to the States because they’re smart and hard-working, and so many of them are successful in the States for the same reason. (There are exceptions though.)
Of course there are hard-working Chinese in China too, but it is by no means a universal cultural trait. I thought I’d give one little story related to just one tiny facet of the complex “Chinese work ethic.” (The more I think about it, the more I think that the idea of a unifying work ethic for a nation as large and diverse as China is almost entirely meaningless, but I’m going to tell a story anyway.)
I left the subway station and took a shortcut down an alley on the way home. I passed by a low wall, and lying stretched out on the wall, sound asleep, was a young man. Judging by his appearance, he was a migrant worker. Next to him on the wall was an electronic produce scale, and just behind the wall was a big cart full of apples. It was late afternoon.
Right after I passed the sleeping guy, I saw another man and a girl coming down the alley towards me with another cart of apples. I guessed that they were working with the sleeping guy, so after they passed me I walked a few steps further and then stopped to observe what happened next.
Life for immigrants to Shanghai is not at all easy. Migrant workers have to work extremely hard for very low wages. I wasn’t sure what the relationship between the two men was, but I fully expected the older man to really let the young guy have it for sleeping on the job.
The older man stopped by the younger man and walked around to the other side of the wall, near the apples. I saw the young guy stir, and he noticed the older man. The older man said something, and I saw a smile spread across the young guy’s face. He slowly sat up, and the two men began chatting happily. The girl looked on, a big grin on her face.
Browsing at the new Zhongshan Park Carrefour’s book section, I discovered this book called 父母不该对孩子说的100句话 (literally, “100 Sentences Parents Shouldn’t Say to their Children“). Since I didn’t grow up in China and I almost never watch Chinese TV, I really don’t have much of an idea of what Chinese parents say to their young children. So this book caught my attention. Some of its content is easy to anticipate, but at times also offers tidbits of social insight or even some cultural humor. I’ll share a few of the ones I found interesting (but I’ll spare you the book’s child psychology counseling).
1. 你是从垃圾堆里捡的 (We found you in a trash heap.) I thought the stork bringing babies was kind of weird, but it’s better than this alternative. The crazy thing is that it seems that the majority of young people in China today are told this by their parents as a joke! They think it’s funny, and the kid believes it. Unbelievable.
2. 你就这成绩以后扫大街去 (With grades like this, you’re going to be sweeping streets someday.) Apparently in China being a street sweeper is worse than being a garbage man. I think the guys that wash out the septic tank trucks down the road might envy the street sweepers, though.
3. 你怎么这么笨 (How can you be so stupid!) Classic!
4. 你的脑袋里长草了 (You’ve got grass growing on your brain.) Chinese caustic creativity.
5. 你看看人家的孩子 (Look at the other kids.) One of my Chinese friends has told me that she believes that Chinese parents’ constant comparisons between their children and other children are the single most damaging thing to Chinese children’s development.
6. 千万别得罪老师 (Whatever you do, do not offend your teacher.) Ah, Confucius would be so proud.
7. 别动，等你长大再帮我 (Don’t move. You can help me when you’re older.)
8. 你的任务就是好好学习，其他的别管 (Your job is studying. Don’t worry about anything else.) This is why modern Chinese kids never have to do any chores or help out around the house in any way.
9. 妈帮你去说对不起 (Mommy will go say sorry for you.) Yeah, you wouldn’t want your kid to realize he is responsible for his own actions.
10. 我没本事，咱家就看你的了 (I don’t have any real skills. Our family is depending on you.) No pressure, though.
11. 当心，摔下来我可不管 (Be careful. If you trip, I’m not going to help you.) Is this supposed to teach independence?
12. 那么难看，你还喜欢 (You actually like something this ugly?) Sometimes kids need to know they have horrible, horrible taste.
13. 你哪有钱去捐款呀 (Like you have enough money to make a donation?)
14. 你在等我表扬你吗 (Are you waiting for me to praise you?) Sometimes teaching modesty goes a little too far.
15. 那个人真不是东西 (That person is nothing.)
16. 没事，反正没人看见 (Don’t worry, no one saw us.)
17. 不准失败 (You may not fail.)
18. 你问我，我问谁 (You ask me, but then who do I ask?) I can’t help but find the thought of saying this to a child funny.
19. 闭嘴，小孩子问那么多干嘛 (Shut up. Kids don’t need to ask so many questions.) Ah, nipping curiosity in the bud at a young age. This helps prevent the later problem of ingenuity and/or problem-solving.
20. 别问这些不要脸的事情 (Don’t ask about such shameful things.) Is he asking about the garbage heap, maybe?
21. 你怎么不明白我的苦心呢 (Can’t you understand how much I’ve sacrificed for you?) The Asian parent guilt game! Gotta love it.
22. 早知道这样，当初就不该生你 (If I had known you’d turn out like this, I never would have given birth to you.) Ouch!
Clearly, we shouldn’t be too hard on Chinese parents. They have a tough job, and they’re imperfect just like the rest of the world’s parents. But here’s hoping some of these sentences become less common in the future… for the children. (OK, sorry, I’ve never used that phrase before, and I had to do it just once.)
On the cusp of 2000, I made my first trip to New York City with my friend Alex. We wanted to be in the most exciting place when the ball dropped in Times Square. Some people gave us dire warnings of terrorist threats or Y2K mayhem, but we weren’t worried about that. There was something alluring about the year 2000, and we were two twenty-one-year-olds that would not be stuck in Tampa for it.
For part of our adventure in New York City, we stayed with my friend Dave, a crazy budding director I had befriended in Japan. Dave was a guy that was always excited about something, that loved the 80s, that was fascinated by new toys, and that infected you with his enthusiasm as he leapt from topic to unimaginable topic. He was just the kind of person Alex and I wanted to hang out with in New York.
Grand Central Terminal
Our actual New Year’s Eve was a wild ride, but one of the most memorable incidents for me happened well before December 31st, in Grand Central Terminal. Dave led Alex and me into the station during rush hour. The main lobby was magnificent, and it was swarming with commuters. It was at this point that Dave told us about his game.
“This is how you play,” he told us. “Just run, and don’t stop. Keep changing directions so that you don’t hit anyone. It’s a blast!”
“Wait, what?” I started. But Dave had already shot off straight into the crowd. Alex and I quickly followed suit.
We had no time to even notice the reactions of the people around us. There were so many, all melting into a blurry wall, and it was all we could do to avoid collisions as we dodged, weaved, reversed direction, and sidestepped ourselves into exhaustion. Finally we all ended up against a wall, panting and laughing. The masses continued their milling beside us.
This is the kind of thing kids do. Adults reason that it’s silly, that someone could get hurt, that it’s a waste of time. But presented with the idea in the right way, a kid will just try it. And damn, what a thrill.
The way I feel about China is much the same way. This country is like one big Grand Central Terminal. Society is milling about as it always does, but here there are a lot of people doing the chaos run. Some are natives, some are foreigners. Some of them just like the thrill, but many are out for big profits. There is no question that on this scale, the game is very dangerous. Innocent people get knocked down and bowled over. Others run themselves headfirst into walls. And yet, China’s powers of seduction remain unshaken. There’s something about this place that keeps me in a near-perpetual state of excitement. I know there are risks and sacrifices I must face for living in China long-term, and maybe I can’t do it forever, but damn, what a thrill!
The other day in the subway I couldn’t help but overhear this mother-daughter “dialogue” as I was going up the stairs.
> Mother: 男人要胖。女人要瘦。 (Men need to be fat. Women need to be thin.)
> Daughter: …
> Mother: 你胖得已经像男人了。 (You’re so fat you’re already looking like a man.)
> Daughter: …
I couldn’t help taking a look at the daughter. She wasn’t skinny, but she wasn’t either obese or manly. She was probably not much above average weight. She also didn’t seem very bothered by her mom’s comments.
In the same lecture on the rules of speech acts in which my professor quoted Confucius, he talked quite a bit about race. His point was that the rules of speech acts govern what we can and can’t say about race in society.
According to him, the rules depended on who “the weak” (弱者) were. The weak could be spoken of positively by the rest of society, but if they were spoken negatively of, there would be strong resentment. Furthermore, the priveleged in society could not be spoken of too positively, as that would incur the wrath of the weak.
As an example, he gave holidays. Why are there Teacher’s Day but not Student’s Day, Secretary’s Day but not Boss’s Day*, Nurse’s Day but not Doctor’s Day, Labor Day but not Rich Man’s Day? To this a student asked, “well what about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day?” My professor laughed. “Parents are the most downtrodden of all!” he replied. The class, chuckling, agreed.
He went on to talk about a Chinese song which had been popular in the 70’s. The song glorified the Chinese people, along with their “yellow skin,” “black hair,” and “black eyes.” At that time, everyone thought it was a great song. And yet, such a racially-fixated song would be out of place in Chinese society today. Why?
Back then China was really struggling. It had not yet experienced the economic growth that it would under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. China was undeniably a member of “the weak” on the world stage. As such, it could glorify its racial features, and no one would have a problem. As China’s economy grew over the years and the nation prospered, it became less “weak,” and the situation changed.
As a similar example, my professor pointed out the situation in the United States. Black Americans could have black pride, but white pride was frowned upon (particularly by “the weak” in society). Similarly, Americans–including black Americans–would not really care about Chinese racial pride, because to Americans both black and white, the Chinese are still “the weak.” He predicted that a Chinese show of racial pride would, however, be offensive to many Africans.
On Tuesday I got a morning telephone call. I was still sleeping at the time, so what I was about to hear didn’t make much sense to me. I was told I was supposed to come pick up some information that I needed. “Who are you?” I asked. “This is the blah blah blah Center,” she told me. Never heard of it.
“What information is this?” I asked. “Why do I need it?”
“Have you bought stock?” she replied.
“Do you have insurance?”
“Well, then, you need this information on new financial regulations applying to your insurance. Please come to our office this afternoon at 3pm and pick it up. Don’t forget to bring your ID (身份证).”
I wrote down the address (some place in Xujiahui) and got the phone number. Then I forgot about it.
The next day the woman called back and asked why I hadn’t come and picked up the information. This time I was more awake, so I demanded more information. Who was this? Again, the blah blah blah Center. Meaningless. I decided to be a wuss and put my girlfriend on the phone to get to the bottom of it.
My girlfriend ascertained that the woman didn’t know what insurance I had or even what my name was, but still insisted that I needed the information. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t Chinese. My girlfriend asked why my insurance agent hadn’t notified me about this, and she was given some excuse. My girlfriend asked why it couldn’t be mailed or sent by courier. It just couldn’t. It all seemed veeeeerrry fishy.
I called my health insurance company (AIA), and my agent told me she didn’t know anything about this “financial information” I supposedly needed. She advised me to ignore this woman. She thought that if I went to the address they would probably try to sell me some kind of fake insurance.
Well, the conwoman called me again for the third time today, wanting to know why I still hadn’t picked up my “information.” Even though I wasn’t planning on going in, my girlfriend already told her yesterday that I’d pick it up tomorrow. Since I was now convinced that it was some kind of scam, I yelled at her and told her I knew it was a scam and to never call me again.
I’ve gotten very few telephone solicitations in China, let alone such a bold telephone scam. Does anyone have experience with this kind of thing?
How are American yuppies different from (Shanghainese) Chinese yuppies? This is a question I discussed with a Shanghainese friend recently.
I have to admit, I feel pretty unqualified to describe the modern American yuppy, since I’ve been living outside of the United States for so long. For example, in the year 2000, I might have put “talking on a cell phone wherever they go” in the list of yuppy behavior in Florida, but now that cell phones are so widespread, that just seems silly. Still, we were able to list just a few contrastive characteristics of both breeds of yuppy.
The American yuppy:
– has a big house in a gated community in the suburbs
– drives luxury sedans and (luxury) SUVs
The Shanghai yuppy:
– owns a home not far from the city center, lavishly decorated in a certain (quasi-European) style which includes certain ubiquitous features such as a prominently placed large-screen TV
– owns a car
What other contrastive features are there? I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to this kind of thing.
Aside from income level, what is the difference between the Chinese nouveau riche (暴发户) and the Chinese yuppy (雅皮士)? My friend replied that the stereotypical Chinese yuppy is interested in art, although he doesn’t really know what fine art is. The nouveau riche is not even interested. The yuppy tries to cultivate a style by carefully choosing fashionable brands based on a variety of sources of information, whereas the nouveau riche blindly buys whatever expensive brands he thinks are famous (such as Louis Vuitton). I think these kinds of differences are pretty obvious, but what I find interesting are specific examples. For example, do Shanghai yuppies eat at Pizza Hut, whereas Shanghai nouveau riches prefer super expensive Chinese food?
I’ll admit I don’t know a lot about all this, so I guess the main aim of this post is to elicit reader responses. Let me know what you think.
Recently I was discussing the Chinese education system with a Shanghainese friend, and she told told me a story. [Note: This is just one person’s story, not a blanket generalization. I’m sharing it because I found it interesting.]
> When I was in fifth grade, there were two girls that were at the top of the class. One of them was my friend. The other was the teacher’s favorite. I remember that there was a big test, and my friend got an amazing score of 98%. The other girl had earned a 95%, but the teacher had given her five extra “neatness points” giving her 100%.
> I really didn’t think that was fair, so in front of everyone, I pointed out to the teacher that my friend’s test paper was every bit as neat as the other girl’s, and if it weren’t for those five extra “neatness points” my friend would have the highest score in class. The teacher rewarded my sense of justice by making me stand for the rest of the class.
> When I went home, I told my mom about the incident. She told me that I shouldn’t have opposed the teacher, and that I had a lot to learn.
Chatting in that coffee shop, I had felt quite at ease. But then when my friend came out with that story, I suddenly felt so foreign again.
The Chinese media is way too excited about plastic surgery. It’s pathetic. Time is writing about the Asian trend too, although this “news” is far from new. But it’s not dying down.
I don’t watch much TV or read a lot of Chinese news, but even I have seen quite a few “丑女变美女” (“ugly woman turns into a beautiful woman”) stories. Here are two sample shots from an online story that came out last week:
In the “before” shot she’s not even that ugly! She’s clearly not wearing any makeup, not wearing nice clothes, and she’s purposely looking dejected. She probably hasn’t washed her hair for a few days just for this picture. According to the story, “because of her appearance, she was driven away when she applied for jobs, scared people when she went out, and didn’t have any friends.” What bullshit. It makes me angry.
Then in the “after” shot… well, all I can say is, congratulations, you’re now a clone of the super generic Chinese “pretty girl.” (The surgery was actually intended to reproduce the look of a certain Chinese star. See the story for pics of that.)
OK, so I’ll admit that she looks prettier on the right, but the actual difference is not very extreme. What would drive this girl to seek out plastic surgery? Well, the Chinese media hyping it for all it’s worth sure didn’t help.
I also saw a short portion of a TV special which featured another “ugly woman.” The woman in that special was a different story. She looked extremely odd — unhealthy. I strongly suspect she didn’t get the proper nourishment as a child. She was way too thin, and her voice sounded like a child’s. The way she talked seemed to indicate that she was of lower than normal intelligence, too. But she had definitely decided that the only way her life could be worth anything is if she got plastic surgery. The show was about her quest to get the surgery paid for somehow despite the fact that she didn’t have much money. It was basically a “look how ugly I am — pity me!” campaign. Really sad.
I don’t mean to judge these people. You can’t argue with quotes like this (from Time):
> “I always wanted to believe people were ultimately judged by what was inside,” she muses, her gaze hesitant and sad. “But I knew from my personal experience that this wasn’t true. It’s always the pretty girls who win the good things in life.”
I also don’t mean to suggest that this trend is China- or Asia-specific. I’ve just been seeing it here so much lately. The whole thing is just so sad. It’s the media that should be condemned. It really seems like the media has made some kind of promotion deal with plastic surgery providers. The hype is just everywhere.
Micah recently did a summary of the Chinese Blogger Conference. Then he updated it with a link to Rebecca MacKinnon’s thoughts on the matter. Wow. I thoroughly enjoyed her post, and was glad to be able to read a condensed list of key ideas. I recommend you read her whole article (blocked in China), but here are some key quotes to represent what I considered the most interesting ideas:
Web2.0 is potentially a very Chinese thing.
One of the most important words in the Chinese language is “guanxi.” It means “relationship.” Whatever you think about the term “Web2.0”, the point is that social networking and relationship-building are at the core of today’s most exciting web innovations. The Chinese happen to be the most natural and skilled social networkers on earth.
Individual empowerment with Chinese characteristics.
A key theme of the whole conference was how the semantic web empowers and amplifies individual voices. On Sunday afternoon, Blogger “zuola” described how his blog is his personal platform for his own ideas. Blogging, he believes, helps us understand our lives better. Chen Xuer, one of the bloggers who volunteered to work on the conference, said he started blogging and reading blogs because he wanted “to hear the truth and speak the truth.” Sound familiar?
Web 2.0, just like Web 1.0, is not going to spark a democratic revolution in Chinese politics any time soon.
People here find it annoying that the Western media keeps framing the Chinese internet story within the question of whether the internet will or won’t bring down the communist party. The real story is about the cultural and social implications of the semantic web as it continues to spread among China’s fast-growing pool of internet users. In the very long run, cultural and social change may have political implications, but to people here any attempt to speculate on that is counter-productive.
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.
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.
While I used to live in Hangzhou, I made the observation that Chinese people seemed to have an unreasonable fear of germs. True, China is not always the most sanitary place on earth, and there’s no question that many Chinese germs live out a blissful existence where antibacterial disenfectants are restricted to germ horror stories. Still, I felt that the germ threat was overplayed in a lot of cases. I will offer but one example.
One time before class started, I was eating a little bag of M&M’s and casually eavesdropping on my students’ conversations. I overheard an exchange about germs, and it prompted me to ask my class the following question:
“What if I were to take one of these M&Ms and allow it to drop to the ground — a place that looks clean — and then pick up that same M&M, dust it off, and eat it? What would be the chance that I would then get sick from eating that M&M?”
My students gaped in shock at the mere suggestion. They required prodding to take the question seriously enough to actually answer it. What would be the probability, from 0% to 100%?
I started getting some answers. 80%, one said. 90%. Even 99%. One or two students ventured as low as 40% or so. I couldn’t believe it.
They laughed at me when I told them I thought the chance was less than 5%. I was really tempted to drop an M&M and eat it right there in front of them to prove my point, but that didn’t seem like a very teacherly thing to do. Plus, if I did, by chance, catch a cold (it was early winter), I would never live that down.
For a nation of people that believes in Chinese medicine’s power to boost the body’s natural defenses, I would think they would have a little more faith in the human immune system.
Or maybe they just knew way better than I what had been on that floor…
When I lived in Hangzhou, the “snobs” were the foreigners that lived in Shanghai and thought it was so great.
After I moved to Shanghai, the “snobs” became the foreigners in Shanghai that didn’t learn any Chinese and spent all their time and money in Western over-priced restuarants and bars.
Carl helped me realize how “snobby” I can be, towards foreigners that spend a lot of time in the bar scene (some actually are cool). They’re not all assholes.
There are so many kinds of snobs, really. (Maybe it cheapens the term to apply it so liberally, but who cares?) When I still lived in the US the ones that annoyed me the most were the music snobs. Here in China (and especially in Shanghai), there are so many other kinds of snobs to be found in the expat community…
There are the “Real China snobs”. Their experience in China is the real one, in some part of China that the snob deems respectably “rough.” This type of snob holds nothing but contempt for the expats in Shanghai. The funny thing, is, you can find this type of snob in Hangzhou. (Life in Hangzhou is anything but “roughing it.”)
There are the “Chinese study snobs”. They’re usually bookish and don’t openly show contempt. But they might mention that they don’t hang out with foreigners.
There are the “I speak Chinese snobs”. They speak at least basic Chinese, and unlike the “Chinese study” snobs they do hang out with foreigners, mostly because they’re always trying to impress them with their Chinese skills. Their snobbery is only half-hearted, because they love to be needed by those without the Chinese skills. They limit their contempt for the Chinese-unequipped to occasional snide remarks.
There are the “I am so 老百姓 snobs”. These are the opposite of the traditional snobs. They arrive in China and move right into the slums to live with their Chinese “brethren.” They get 5 rmb haircuts and eat 5-10 rmb meals, exclusively Chinese. They usually don’t show a lot of contempt for those who want normal conveniences, but neither do they recognize the absurdity of their own actions. This kind of snob is specific to big cities, but is otherwise basically the same as the “Real China” snob.
I am guessing that some of my readers find me writing about this ironic, as on more than one occasion I have been accused of being one of these types. So here’s where I’ll get honest.
I was certainly never hardcore about it, but I did feel the “Real China snob” in me resisting the move to Shanghai. I lived out my “Real China” snob fantasies in my first year in Hangzhou and when I traveled in my first 2-3 years in China.
I was sort of a “Chinese study snob” my first year in China, but that was mostly because I was poor and didn’t really know any other foreigners. I’ll admit that I am still somewhat bewildered (frustrated? shamed? saddened?) by foreigners who live in Shanghai long-term and don’t make a real effort to learn the language. I’m not sure if that makes me a snob.
Despite the occasional accusation, I don’t think I am a “I speak Chinese snob,” although certain friends of mine might say I have definitely exhibited symptoms. (It was tough love, I swear!) But yes, I speak Chinese, and not badly. If you want to label me a snob for that, have fun.
I am not a “I am so 老百姓 snob,” but I think I know a few people who exhibit symptoms.
So… how many kinds of snobs did I miss? What kind of snob are you?