Niggas in Shanghai: “no one knows what it means…”

 

We were one of the first ones to arrive at Gate 2 of Terminal 1 back at JFK on August 29th. As other passengers began to arrive, I soon noticed a “what are you doing here?” expression on their faces. Not an offensive/racist look but a genuinely puzzled one. Those looks were of course directed to my roommate Daniel Seabrooks (henceforth, “DJ”), and myself. What were we doing going to China?

WTF

I must admit that I was a little worried about how my blackness would be received once we landed. Upon doing my research, I got a little pessimistic about my soon-to-be experience in Shanghai. I read a lot of bad stories on the Internet about how black people were treated but I decided not to let that discourage me. The first reason being that I wasn’t going on a vacation: I was going to be there to study and learn as much as I can. The second reason being that after having lived in West Texas for a little under 2 years and having experienced both passive and [very] active racism, I figured it couldn’t possibly be worse. Finally, I also realize that we as human beings tend to point out the oddities and the bad a lot more often than we do the normal and the good. In other words: I was obviously going to find a ton of example of black people being treated badly, than I was going to find articles of black people being treated… “normally”, I guess.

And I was right to not worry: I had my first pleasant experience during the [terrible] flight when a random passenger decided to start a conversation with me. I found it interesting that he began the whole thing in Chinese rather than in English. Later, whenever I would approach a vendor, they’d first attempt to communicate with me in very broken phonetic English, until they realized I could talk with them in Chinese. Through similar interactions I soon found out people were really enthusiastic and borderline pleased upon realizing I could express myself in their language, especially when they initially address me in English but I choose to respond to them in the Chinese.

I think they respect the fact that despite it being theoretically (because of their broken accent) easier for me to carry on the conversation in English, I deliberately choose to put myself through the struggle they were initially willing to put themselves through, for me. I learned to appreciate these simple exchanges through others’ experiences:

There are some Asians on this program who speak less Chinese than I do and get very disapproving looks because of that; especially GTFOwhen Lincoln, a Caucasian (the most fluent in Chinese of us all) has to step in and serve as a translator.

 

 

 

 

 

But being black here is not all black and g-, peaches and cream. It goes from nice experiences similar to those described above, to others that are more… disconcerting, to say the least. For instance:

– Random by passers asking DJ and I to pose in pictures with them.

– Kids that (by my standards) are grown enough to know better than to point at us because of our skin tone. I address this grievance to their parents who should have taught them better.

– Whenever I ask employees at food stores advice on what to pick, they just so happen to point at the chocolate dessert. I would be willing to concede that it’s a coincidence if 1, it hadn’t happened 3 times already and 2, “Africa Town” (the black version of Chinatown) wasn’t referred to as Qiaokeli Chengshi (Chocolate City) smh…

– Finally, what I find most annoying is being around fellow black folk. Allow me to explain: if I’m walking by myself and there happens to be another black person in the vicinity, I usually only notice him or her through the locals’ increased focus on me (they were already staring anyways). They begin to look at me, then at the other black person, back and forth like a Nadal-Federer game, waiting, expecting for us to interact just because we’re both black -___-  :

That last example unsettles me the most not because of Chinese people’s behavior in those instances, but rather because of the resulting effect of that behavior on us, black people in China. I’ll be honest: in all those cases I was [to an extent] going to interact with that person. At least say “hi” or “what’s up”. But because of my temperament, I have this natural incline to not do what this crowd expects of me. The idea that everyone around me is expecting me to behave a certain way, stops me from saying hello. Kind of like when you go to a zoo to see animals and you expect them to behave the way they’re expected to, in their natural habitat.

And I’m not the only one who exhibits this characteristic. I’ve tried to get over this annoyance by ignoring my surroundings and doing what I feel needs to be done (i.e., performing for the crowd), but I soon noticed that other black people would intentionally avoid making eye contact. One could make the case that they just don’t care and are oblivious to what’s going on; but I’m 22 years old and can read body language pretty well: I can tell when someone is avoiding eye contact. Besides, there are so few of us that eye contact is actually inevitable unless it’s intentionally avoided.

Why would I say hello to other black people in the first place you ask? I know this isn’t Davidson or your typical southern town where you say hi to everyone. But still: in these cases, you just do. It’s hard to explain really… Although there isn’t any actual struggle per se, saying hi to each other is a form of support. A simple nod means a lot and usually suffices to say:

“Hey man what’s up? Don’t you miss being back home around the people who understand you? Yeah I’m also fed up of behaving a certain way just because the real me might unsettle those around me. By the way do you know where I can get a good edge up? Also, I’m out of grease and I lost my durag: hook me up. Hey I gotta say: it feels good to walk into a KFC and not be judged or laughed at for being there. I’m bout to start a TT #blackpplstrugglesinasia. Yeah, I miss my bruhs too.”

But even that little nod is expected so no shot: we don’t use it. Once again, as I discover a new culture and learn a new language in a new country, I’m forced to change a part of who I am by changing how I normally behave. Once again, as I move from point A to point B, a part of me is Lost in Translation.

Praying in Chinese

Within earshot of the Yuyuan Gardens thronging with loud tourists, there is a quieter and more serene area that houses the unassuming entrance to the City God Temple. Like much in contemporary China, the temple has blurred the line between tradition and modernity. Although the City God temple is ostensibly rooted in ancient rituals, the current commercialization shows the tension between modern development and traditional beliefs in Chinese culture.

The City God Temple is officially a Daoist space dedicated to the worship of the Tudi Gong, or City God. The temple is more linked to popular or folk religion than Daoism, but the government does not allow popular religion spaces. With the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, China officially became an atheist state in conjunction with the Marxist concept of rejecting religion. Despite the CCP’s campaign for secular faith, many religions and philosophies, including Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, continue to flourish in China. Popular religion worship continues too, but it is rarely identified publicly as such.

Traditional belief dictates that the City God is like a spiritual governor that watches over the area and its people. There are other minor gods throughout the temple as well. In Chinese popular religion, there is a hierarchy of bureaucratic gods that protect and regulate their constituents. Each human bureaucrat has a counterpart office in the spiritual world. There are bureaucratic gods at each level with progressively increased power all the way up to the Jade Emperor.

Outside the temple, there is an open area for making incense offerings. For 5 or 10yuan, a worshipper can buy incense and then perform the appropriate ritual. With the guidance of a peer, I gave an incense offering. First, I let my incense burn in a pit (without lighting it). Once my incense has charred, I bowed three times to each cardinal direction. While bowing, I thought about my prayer or wish. Afterwards, I put my incense in a large cart with the rest of the smoldering incense. I noticed that the physical act of offering incense made my ritual feel more significant. More than simply thinking my wish, acting out the ritual helped me connect to the practice.

At this spiritual space, the tension between modern development and traditional faith is clear. The temple is under construction to maintain its traditional appearance, but it is still well within sight of urban development. Even at the temple, a visitor is never far from a Western franchise or a skyscraper. While there are clearly sincere worshippers at the temple, there is also a souvenir shop. Tourists taking pictures stand alongside worshippers offering gifts in ritual. Worshippers must buy a ticket to enter the temple, and purchasing offerings is another cost. Like at this temple, it seems that the commercialization of traditional Chinese culture is widespread in Shanghai.

Modern China has felt this tension between the past and present throughout the country. Although China is often presented as one continuous and uniform civilization, public opinions on the past and the country’s traditions often change. For example, Chairman Mao decried the Forbidden City as opulent and decadent. Now, however, the government embraces the Forbidden City as a symbol of the past’s glory and grandeur. Likewise, the Cultural Revolution infamously called for the new, young, and modern. Older ideas were passionately persecuted. Now, the Cultural Revolution is considered a mistake. In a similar cycle, Confucianism went out of fashion during the Communist push for egalitarianism, but the government supports Confucianism again because of its connection to tradition and continuity.

China now has a combination of modernity and tradition, but the balance still seems uneasy. In particular, Shanghai seems like a glittering Western city, but people actually denounce it for that exact reason. Tourists expect a traditional Chinese experience, even as the business world encourages China to modernize and commercialize.

Visiting the City God temple was a really memorable day because I could see how traditional beliefs flow and intermingle with modern urban development. Personally, I really like that ambiguity about China. Almost simultaneously, the country seems to push rapid development while also fighting to hold on to its traditional Eastern qualities. The contradictions are ubiquitous and unforgettable. The tension between the old and the new is what makes Shanghai so interesting and irresistible. 

Wisdom, Wrinkles and Workouts

Lu Xun Park is a green space located in the middle of residential high rises in the Hongkou area. Katie and I arrived in this neighborhood early on Saturday morning, hoping to capture some photos of the older residents practicing t’ai chi in Lu Xun. Getting to Lu Xun Park proved challenging. After walking around the neighborhood block for half an hour and asking the locals for directions, we managed to find a smaller park hidden behind cement walls. We walked down the park’s path following the music playing close by. With each turn, I observed people peacefully practicing their morning exercise routines within the enclaves of the garden. In the main opening a large group was following the instructional voice of the loud music. The older men and women of the group massaged their temples, patted their legs and swung their limbs in unison. Seeing as it was only 6:30 in the morning, I was thoroughly impressed by the group’s energy and movement.

Without wanting to interrupt their routines or show disrespect, Katie and I asked for permission to shoot photos of the individuals nearby. Our one question quickly evolved into introductions with over ten exercising participants. Our new friends were eager for a photo shoot and a conversation. What struck me the most during our exchanges and conversations was the reoccurring subject of age. As I attempted to chat in Mandarin with three older women, each one voluntarily and proudly stated her age without being asked.

“I am seventy-five,” said the first woman gazing up at me.

“I am eighty-eight,” stated the next in line.

Lastly, “And I am ninety!” the last woman exclaimed.

Their age transparency was refreshing and, in my opinion, contrasts the majority of American women who intentionally try to mask and hide their age. The elderly exercising in the park and on the streets of Shanghai represent the importance of longevity in Chinese culture. Nonetheless, the American and Western concerns for youthful beauty and sexuality are visible in Shanghai.

According to Suzanne Z. Gottschang, “the importance of sexuality and interest in bodily appearance are increasingly a concern that urban Chinese women must contend with as a part of their identity” (2001: Kindle Location 1173). Gottschang observes new mothers in urban China and their reactions to commercialized breastfeeding campaigns versus formula company advertisements. Both the government’s posters and the formula company’s brochures emphasize the prepregancy, fit body. This strategic tactic is ideal for reaching a generation of women who strive against the signs of aging, including motherhood. I question whether this advertising approach would have been appealing to the elderly women of the park when they were beginning their journey as mothers.

Rules that aren’t Rules

Scholars and media pundits alike are quick to point out that Confucianism is enjoying a new resurgence of official veneration in China. This resurgence has many reasons: it fits the Chinese Community Party’s (CCP) message of a continuous, five thousand year old China and it’s a basis for promoting China to the Western world that the West is already familiar with (or thinks it is familiar with). Most importantly, however, the views of Confucius blend well with primary concern of the current CCP leadership: maintaining social harmony (Wasserstrom 2010 China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know).

While the policies of earlier post-Mao political leaders emphasized economic development and redefined who the CCP stood for (Deng Xiaoping Theory and Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents), Hu Jintao’s focus on developing a harmonious society (和谐社会 hexie shehui) demonstrates just how important the maintenance of social order is to Beijing (and, by extension, to local leaders).

The signs of this emphasis on social order can be seen everywhere in Shanghai. Public security officers are ubiquitous, public signs ask citizens to “be cultured,” and at the entrance to every subway station is a metal detector through which passengers are directed to pass their bags for inspection. Rules and the enforcement of rules seem to be of central importance to the leaders of Shanghai.

“No Loitering”

Some of these rules aren’t really rules, however; or rather, they’re rules, but no one cares enough to enforce them. As has been pointed out before on this blog (see here and here), traffic in the city seems chaotic to a Western visitor, despite the presence of traffic lights that count down the last few seconds the light will be green, traffic cops, and public security officers everywhere. On the subway, it’s common to see people hopping turnstiles. If you’re carrying a bag when you enter, a subway official points towards the metal detector, but does absolutely nothing if you walk by without stopping. As people rush on and off buses, it’s common to see individuals dodging paying the fare, and the bus drivers don’t even blink.

Perhaps these “rules that aren’t rules” are really not that strange. As the state has realized that micromanaging every aspect of life in China is not an easy task, it has pulled back in some areas of management while re-entrenching its control more firmly in others. Yes, harmonious society is important, but who really poses a threat to the CCP’s hold on power: citizens in Shanghai who skip already lax security checks, or Uighur activists in Xinjiang who feel mistreated at the hands of the Han majority and the Communist Party?

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