Talking About You: Traitor

American Born Chinese, also known as ABC’s, are always looked upon as not fellow countrymen but as a different breed of Asians. This story begins at the Lantern Festival in Lanshun Park, where many Chinese children were with their parents or grandparents. There were also Asian and foreign couples at the park. I went with a group of Davidson students and took pictures of the different exhibitions. When I looked around me, the only person next to me was Katie Wells. We became separated from the main group and had lost them. Katie and I decided to continue forward and take more pictures of the park. Katie focused on the small children in the park, while I focused on the lit attractions that were scattered all over the park.

As we walked together, I started to hear different Chinese people saying “Mei-guo Ren”, or Americans. I did not notice it at first since the Lantern Festival was so beautiful. But as we walked further into the park, I listened intently to the conversations of the Chinese people who were talking. They were talking about Katie and I and how crazy or treacherous I was for walking with a foreigner instead of with an Asian. Only two couples had talked, but as Katie and I decided to go home, another couple started clucking their tongues as soon as I walked past them. I did expect this to happen to me. Of course I would seem like a traitor for speaking English instead of Mandarin or some form of Chinese while in China. But only now have I understood that instead of an occasional person giving me an evil glare or talking badly about me, it was more than I had anticipated.

It seems there are still pockets of xenophobia among the Chinese population. China has been suspicious of foreigners since the humiliating defeat of the Opium Wars and the imperialism of different Western countries. These events definitely left a black mark on China’s history. The Chinese government has always made a push for nationalism through propaganda and subliminal messaging. I thought that a century would change the older and current generation’s minds into forgiving foreigners and the people who are associated with them. However, I am wrong and have personally seen and been the target of old and young couples disapproving of me hanging out with foreigners. Chinese nationalism is definitely stronger than ever and is a force that has caused xenophobia while causing most of China to always be wary of foreigners.  I hope that one day the people of China would all be accepting of not only foreigners but also their countrymen who live in other countries and become a welcoming country like Canada.

Biking in Shanghai

Exact Portrayal

From Google

Unearth all of the repressed memories of learning how to drive a car – the speeding up and the slowing down, the parental yelling and writhing in the periphery, and the nerve-racking first time experience of getting on the interstate – and you will understand all emotions that accompany riding a bike in Shanghai. Although many may speak disparagingly of riding in this city, I’ve concluded that it’s liberating, beneficial and by emerging yourself on the streets with one, you start to gain a holistic impression of what it means to be Chinese. I am still amazed by the plethora of bikes that ”orderly overcrowd” the sidewalks and streets in the city and I am still seeking (to understand) its place in Chinese culture. On the surface, I’ve concluded that bicycling in Shanghai (more, the greater China area) is more than a commodity, it’s a commonality; its more than an characteristic, it’s the quintessence of China. Having one is an absolute must in the city, but caveat riding one in this city really gives life to the new age adage “Y.O.L.O. in Shanghai!”

One would think that at the frequency that Chinese people fancy bikes, they would have created the bicycle (or at least have promoted it as a patriotic symbol). However, that doesn’t seem to be the case, just an understood reality that Chinese people love bikes (or perhaps appreciate them more). The culture implication of the “bike” is different in China than in the U.S. Here, it’s a means of cheap, inexpensive transportation. This idea of using a bike to get from point A to point B is engrained in this culture, so much that it has presented itself in our latest Chinese chapter.

Tonghe Bikes

In this chapter, Wan Xiao Yun attempts to convince her mom that she needs to buy a car, but her mother was nonetheless supportive. She continues, “Not only do you get to exercise, but you get to save money, too! Your father his whole life did this, why can’t you follow him?” (NPCR, 166). Although the market on automobiles is on the rise, the simple truth is that everyone rides bicycles here – mom, dad, sister, brother, grandma and grandpa, aunt, uncles and the entire extended family. It is not an odd occurrence to see students sharing bikes to class and a professional businessman (or woman) in a suit pass within 20 seconds of each other.

Despite the fact that the majority of our Davidson in Shanghai group has not adopted this Chinese biking tradition, I have and I adore my sleek black and metallic grey bicycle. I admit that traveling in Shanghai has been difficult to adjust to – safe and secure walking is undoubtedly an extreme challenge – but adding extra velocity (without protective equipment) to the equation makes it that much more difficult. I’ve had to learn two main tenets for the road: 1) I share the same road, and 2) I am not the same vehicle. I’ve become more bold and abrasive with general traffic, but I still let major vehicles (i.e. the 713 bus) whiz past me. Still, I am glad that I bought one and can travel with the rest of the natives, but maybe not like the natives. I feel that they are too uptight in the way that they ride the bike – two hands, slow paces and all in straight lines. I ride with no hands, fast paces and I constantly receive scrutiny from my peers for riding in winding shapes. I think… “Y.O.L.O. in Shanghai!” and that’s how I’m living.

Yikes.. Y.O.L.O.?

A Believer Among _Believers_

Full disclosure: I’m a Christian.

In America, this is something people often take as a given. In a country where 76% of the adult population self-identifies as Christian, this is understandable. It’s a safe assumption to make. Furthermore, because the United States has such a large Christian population and has historically had a similarly large Christian population, the majority of Christians in America were raised by Christian parents and at a young age were exposed to at least a modicum of the Christian religious experience. Even non-Christians in America are exposed to Christianity, which is engrained deeply into Western culture. Biblical concepts like “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,”  “Noah and the Ark,” and “Jesus turning water into wine” are widely known.

Imagine, then, the following conversation:

Person on the street: So, how do you know each other?

Chinese friend: We’re both Christians, we just came from a Bible study.

Person on the street: What’s a Christian?

Chinese friend: We’re people who follow Jesus.

Person on the street: Who’s Jesus?

Seems bizarre, right? I understand why the average Chinese person would not have heard of Jesus – it’s just a matter of statistics – but the idea that someone has not heard of Jesus still seems bizarre to me. We’re talking about Jesus here, a man who, regardless of whether or not you believe in him as a Christian, can probably be safely considered the most important historical figure in Western culture, by sheer impact on that culture alone.

Christianity is growing in China. This means that most Chinese Christians were not raised by Christian parents and simply adopted the religion by osmosis, but were converts to Christianity later in the lives. For them, becoming a Christian was a life-changing experience; being baptized made them into a new person in a profound way.

This became clear to me as I sat in the living room of a woman I was introduced to by a Chinese friend, participating in a Bible study she hosts weekly. After singing a few hymns, everyone in the room introduced themselves: “Hi everyone, I’m [name], I’m originally from [place], I was baptized [time], I’m really glad to be here with everyone tonight.” These introductions were not set up this way (no one told us to share this particular set of information), but yet almost everyone in the room was drawn to sharing this information. For them (most of whom had been Christians for only a few years), the fact they had been baptized and the time of their baptism (one individual even shared the exact date of his baptism) was as fundamental to their identity as their name and their home. For me, this was a new experience; in churches I have been a member of in America, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone share how long they’ve been a Christian.

Among these people, I felt a little out of place. For them, their conversion to Christianity was perhaps the most important, defining moment in their life. For me, my faith is important, but I can’t say that I’ve ever felt transformed by it.

After the Bible study had ended, the woman hosting it came over to speak with me. I shared the observations and feelings mentioned above. She told me I shouldn’t be worried: “I had been a Christian for ten years before I really became a Christian, really let it change my life. I think that’s what being a Christian is really all about: allowing Jesus to change the way you live your life.”

That seemed to be a belief shared by almost everyone in the room. What is interesting to me is that as China changes rapidly, the lives of its people change rapidly as well. What drives people already confronting so much change to seek out another change in their life, particularly one as fundamental as religious conversion, is something I still don’t understand, however.

For some great insights on Christianity in China, check out Chinese Christians are filling vital roles in their communities and Talking with Christians in rural China from the blog Seeing Red in China.

The Spectacle

To be Black is to be dangerous.
To be Black is to be ignorant.
To be Black is to be lazy.

Our society perpetuates ignorance. According to our one-sided lens of the media, I am a loud-mouthed ho’ who is promiscuous, broke, and living off of food stamps. That might explain why as I walked past, a local woman stared me down as she inched closer to her husband and child. Or why when Nicky, DJ, and I are walking many women shift their purses closer to them. Or maybe that’s why the bus driver pushed me to avoid me entering his “personal space” (HILARIOUS given no one here has the slightest conception of that, at all). Either way, China’s claim to “Welcome you with open arms” is a bit far stretched.

I came here well aware that I am a far cry from the norm, but it has occurred to me that I am one of Shanghai’s newest spectacles. The infiltration of foreigners of course generates stares, yet some of these instances went beyond simple expressions of curiosity, to invasive scrutiny resulting in my discomfort. To add to the my affliction, while looking up information about the notorious 查克力市 (Chocolate City), I stumbled across a few articles, one of which thoroughly disheartened me 1. In fact, it was the subsequent commentary from the locals that literally brought me to tears:

“The majority of blacks are representatives of promiscuity, violence, and AIDS.”

“Blacks are simply a low-level race—– This comment is something I heard elsewhere. Think about it and you know it is true… In reality, black people are gluttonous and lazy, unrealistic, and those who can work hard are rarer than rare, wanting in their bones to do little but still get a lot. They don’t seek to improve themselves!!”

“Chinese people know their place and are orderly wherever they are, an active and motivated people… As for black people, they are lazy and carefree wherever they are, and like to cause trouble, not diligent in learning, nor in work.”

“What can Africans bring us besides AIDS?????!!!! I am a customs officer who monitors infectious diseases, just look at how many people checked that are AIDS sufferers from Africa and you’ll know we should keep such garbage far away.”

Clearly negative notions of “Blackness” have penetrated not only our nation, but also abroad.

Photo courtesy of MacDougall’s “The Visual in Anthropology” 2

This is frightening.

But none of this is new. Selling the fractured image of the “Other” has always been profitable. Not only did media generate revenue by creating a spectacle of the “Other” (through exhibitions such as those in the World Fairs and commemorative postcards), but it also reinforced a Westernized notion of civility and primitiveness through means of visual comparisons:

“For a general public imbued with ideas of Social Darwinism, the visual appearance of exotic peoples was the most obvious way of placing them on a scale between civilised man and animal.” 2

Since the colonial era, the camera has helped establish the social construction of racial superiority. While ethnographic films and documentaries are meant to facilitate an appreciation for other cultures, often ethnographic research was performed to manipulate “human categories reinforcing colonisers’ sense of difference as their sense of power.”3 In other words, the media has done a fine job of projecting prejudicial images for ages.

Unfortunately, the damage is done. Though we are living in an age of increase global awareness, much more progress is necessary. As disturbing as the reality check was, I will not passively accept the negative stereotypes that follow me wherever I go. Rather I must challenge myself to impact the community, as it has done to me. While I may not be able to change the world myself, I do hope to demonstrate the pride, joy, and beauty in being Black, that has been all too neglected in the media.

2 David MacDougall. 1997. The Visual in Anthropology In Rethinking Visual Anthropology. Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy, eds. Pp. 279. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
3 David MacDougall. 1997. The Visual in Anthropology In Rethinking Visual Anthropology. Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy, eds. Pp. 280. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

Who Am I?

What does it mean to have an identity? How do we choose to self identify? For the first 18 years of my life, this question rarely crossed my mind. I was in a community of people similar to me and never though to question who I was or what made up my identity.Moving to Davidson definitely changed the way I viewed myself. Suddenly I was a minority and didn’t feel like I fit in with everyone else. I found myself craving the food from back home. Just 2 months before, I had taken such little things as this for granted. I ate what I had been eating for 18 years and simply took it for granted. It amazed me how much less happy I could be when I did not have a simple bowl of rice, meat, and vegetables for weeks at a time. I began to question who I was. I knew that I was American. I also knew that I was Asian. But what did it mean to be Asian-American? How could I blend these cultures together and be happy with who I was?

This question would come up frequently in my everyday life. There was more than one occasion when I was spending time with friends and a simple Asian stereotype came up. “Why are all Asians so smart” or “Dang, you Asians are so good at ping pong”. While these comments were meant playfully and not meant to cause harm, they hit me differently than they had in the past. When I was back home and surrounded by people just like me, it was easy to joke about silly stereotypes. But when it was just one other person and me and the joke was about us, suddenly I didn’t feel so comfortable. I wasn’t sure why, but it felt as if this was an attack on my identity and on me personally. I did not have the same comfort level in my new environment and thus simple jokes about my identity made me question myself.

While I’ve started to become more confident with my identity and what it means to be “Asian-American” while in America, coming to China has caused me to ask an entirely different question about identity. When I am walking around the streets or entering a shop, people view me as a native Chinese person. But the moment I open my mouth, it is clear to them I am a foreigner. My lack of oral Chinese skills has created a large gap between my ancestral roots and me. I find myself longing to be able to hold a conversation with a friend or simply have an argument with a shopkeeper with making myself look illiterate. There is little more embarrassing than having someone stare at you, wondering why you can’t speak to him or her. It is as if something is wrong with me because I can’t speak my “native language”. To many people, I have the look of a Chinese person and thus should be able to express myself as a Chinese person.

So if I often feel like a minority back in America but also feel like I don’t quite belong in China, then where do I truly belong? This is something I hope to figure out. I know that learning the language will be a start to help me bridge the two cultures. Once I achieve this goal, I hope to interact with people more and continue to soak up the culture of my ancestors so that I can one day not only better understand what it means to be Asian-American, but also understand what it means to just be me.