The China Train

To sum up what I’ve learned in less than two semesters of grad school in China; Studying development in a (developing) country where censorship, hypocrisy and saving-face are embedded in daily life is like falling asleep on the 1 train from Manhattan headed to Brooklyn, only to find out when you wake up that you’re back in Times Square because in fact, the 1 train doesn’t go to Brooklyn at all — the 2 and 3 do, but they’re on the all red line. Basically, the ride was a big fat waste of time and in the end, you end up where you started but angrier.

Here’s the thing about studying development in China; it’s paradoxical. “Chinese Development”, synonymous with economic growth, means only one thing: increase of wealth. But who does the wealth belong to? Let’s sweep that question under the table…

I’m currently taking a Research Design & Thesis Writing course in which the professor warned us against choosing “sensitive” topics to research. “Sensitive” here means anything negatively related to the government. Don’t even think about bringing up the terms “democracy” and “revolution” in a dinner conversation with Chinese officials (unless you’re praising the Cultural Revolution). They’ll eat you alive and feed your bones to the dogs, and then eat them too.

My professor’s specific example of a “sensitive” topic was the Diaoyudao/Senkaku Islands dispute. She is not incorrect to say that finding objective information on the conflict would be difficult in China, and I agree that presenting such a thesis topic to a panel of Chinese professors (many of whom are party members) may arouse uneasiness, but discouraging a group of progressive graduate students of international development from researching issues that are”too sensitive” is both infuriating and laughable.

Tsinghua University is a top-ranking institution and my department is even partnered with the likes of Harvard Kennedy School — impressive, no? — but now that I’m within the institution, it is disgusting how much propaganda and image-building I see the administration feed to its students and the public. Everything looks so good on paper. Our course syllabi look awesome and our professors are famous and award-winning! But as soon as they power on those PPTs (powerpoints) and start lecturing, it’s all China Dream China Dream China Dream. Whose China Dream? Who does the China Dream serve and how? Is the China Dream realizable? These are questions that we scrape the surface of, but no real answer is ever given.

China has come a long, long way since its Opening Up, but its development path is headed in the wrong direction. And just like that 1 train, the China-train might get to the end of the line and turn right on back to Tiananmen Square.

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Brooklyn, The Place Where People Say Hello

I have been in New York City for 2 weeks now, visiting friends and places I’ve missed in the past 9 months of living in Beijing.

As happy as I am to be surrounded by friends again, I can’t help but feel out of place here. Feeling out of place in the city I considered “home” is a truly shitty situation to be in when I only have 2 months to re-immerse. Perhaps it’s counter culture shock, or I feel lost because I can’t remember the name of every station and connecting line of every subway train, or maybe I’ve just changed a lot. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason for this strange feeling, but it better go away soon because I’d like to enjoy myself thoroughly this vacation.

Now how about the good stuff. Well as the title of this post says, Brooklyn is a place where people say hello and it’s awesome! I’ve done a lot of strolling these past few weeks, reacquainting with my old neighborhood. During these strolls, countless people said hi, waved, smiled, nodded, said hello in Chinese, cat called. One guy, middle-aged, waved hello and said hi to every single person he walked past, including people in cars. A little boy with long, curly blonde hair ran past an elderly man sitting on a lawn chair in front of his Park Slope apartment on a busy sidewalk yelling HELLLLOOO! These are just two instances of friendly greetings that put a gigantic smile on my face.

When I was walking up 2nd Ave. in Manhattan, I noticed a short, Latino man karate-chopping some scaffolds. I gave him a smile, acknowledging his Jackie Chan-equivalent skillz and continued on. Then I heard, “China (‘chee-na’), China, do you like to eat?” to which I responded, “YEAH I like to eat (duh!!!)” “You wanna get some lunch with me? Or some coffee? I’d like to buy you something to eat.” “Oh, no thank you, I just ate. Look at my leftovers! Maybe another time.” “Alright…another time baby.”

At the Delicate Steve show last night at Mercury Lounge, somebody mistook me for the Asian keyboardist of the opening band, People Get Ready. I was chatting about China with a bouncer I used to know from my days of frequenting bars. The bouncer had just said something about me wearing all red (haha, China, Communist, get it?), when another dude interrupted to ask me something. I thought he asked, “Are you a spy???” thinking maybe he was just chiming in on our China conversation, so I said, hahaha yes, I AM a spy! He was like, huh? Well, did you? Did I what? DID YOU JUST PLAY? I finally understood he thought I was the girl from People Get Ready. No siree, I know all of us Asians look exactly the same and I’m flattered you thought I was her because she was beautiful and hip, but unfortunately I am not her. I am Emily He, queen of all that is good and holy.

I’m sitting in a sunny cafe called Tiny Cup drinking delicious Counter Culture coffee (HOW IRONIC) and life is good. My mind is all over the place, likely from too much caffeine in one sitting. The brownstones on all the tree-lined streets and people hanging out on their stoops are so Brooklyn-y. Drinking coffee, listening to indie music and blogging on my Mac is so Brooklyn-y. Mommies pushing their babies around, mail-men and -women chatting with the locals and kids running through the streets after school is all so Brooklyn-y. Everything takes time. It’s going to take time for me to get back in the swing of what it means to be Brooklyn. But wait, I think what I loved most about Brooklyn is that everyone can be exactly who they are and still find their niche or niches or even complete isolation if that’s what they want.

So, I need to let down my hair (after I get my haircut tomorrow!) and just be myself and embrace every moment I have in this awesome city I once, and still can, call home. Oooooh, optimism is a good feeling. It’s good to be back.

 

 


Missing Brooklyn

I had a Cranberry White Chocolate Mocha (my parents insisted) at Starbucks the other day while waiting for my flight at the airport. Normally, I don’t step foot in Starbucks, but the cozy couches and the Christmas decorations lured me in. That was the first moment I felt homesick for America.

I was disappointed they didn't have Peppermint Hot Chocolate.

Around this time of year back home, I would be walking out of my way just to step in piles of dry, crinkly leaves to hear the crunch, crunch, crunch under my boots. My roommate would probably be working on her stewed beef recipe or baking something delicious with Golden Girls or Christmas music playing in the background. Our apartment would be decked out in oranges, yellows and reds in preparation for Thanksgiving. I would be brewing up a Hot Toddie with fresh apple cider from the farmer’s market…

Just writing this is making my Brooklyn-sickness stronger. This is the best time of year to be in the States, and particularly in my former neighborhood, South Park Slope, where everything inside and out just feels so homey. I miss window shopping in the cold and stepping into one of the many cozy coffee shops to warm my hands and stomach with a hot cup of coffee. I miss walking down the block to my favorite neighborhood bar (Bar 718, if you’re ever in South Slope, you should pop over for a visit–you’ll feel at home in no time) for my typical whisky-ginger and a good chat with good people. I miss the smell of apple pie, the excitement for the holidays, the decorations, and even the music. I miss my backyard.

The most beautiful Red Shack in my backyard

One thing to be grateful for this holiday season, however, is that I will be spending it with my parents. I can’t remember the last time I spent Thanksgiving or Christmas with them. My mom moved back to China 6 years ago, my dad 4, but even when they were still living in the States, they always worked then. But life is about compromises, so I guess this year–and maybe the next–I will compromise the Hot Toddies, the decorations (I don’t know where to find a pumpkin around here!), the crunch, crunch, crunching, the apple pies, and the strolls in Brooklyn for time to spend with mom and dad. That’s what the holidays are all about after all–family! This winter won’t be Park Slope homey; it’ll be a different kind of homey, but that’s just as well.

Besides, I can still watch Love Actually.

Photo credit: http://millefiorifavoriti.blogspot.com/2011/11/autumn-in-park-slope-brooklyn.html This blogger captures in photo precisely the stroll I was reminiscing above. Take a look!