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.


Disturbing Signs of Anti-Japaneseism

Yesterday a cab driver asked me if I thought China and Japan would go to war. Then today I saw this sign outside a real-estate agency in Wudaokou, the local hub of international students:

I was taken aback by the cab driver’s question because though I was aware of China and Japan’s territorial dispute over the East China Sea islands, I hadn’t realized the seriousness and scale of public discontent it had brewed up throughout China. That is until today.

At first when I read the bright yellow sign, I laughed and took a picture thinking My instagram followers will get a kick out of this ridiculous sign.  I had noticed that the Japanese flag was crossed out, and it had bothered me initially, but I didn’t think too much of it. A few hours later, however, as I kept thinking about the flag it increasingly bothered me to the point where I felt angry. It should’ve occurred to me the moment I saw the sign that the crude image of a bleeding Japanese flag could offend a Japanese passer-by. There were, after all, many Japanese students at the surrounding universities, including mine.

With the surge of my own discontent, I marched out of the cafe where I was “doing work” and walked determinedly back to the real-estate agency. I went straight up to the sign with paper and tape in hand and covered up the threatening image.

One of the real-estate agents hanging-out outside (I’ve never seen them working) asked me what I was doing, so I said innocently that I was covering up the bloody flag because it made me uncomfortable. The next thing he asked was if I was Japanese — I had expected this question. Then another employee, a young woman around my age, accused me of vandalizing their property and that that was disrespectful. To this I rebutted it was disrespectful to display such a threatening image in a neighborhood where many Japanese students roamed the streets. These Japanese students came to China to study, to study our language, our culture, and possibly one day to improve Sino-Japanese ties. Regretfully I didn’t say this out loud because I couldn’t think fast enough, especially not in Chinese. Besides, before I could say anything further another employee came at me exclaiming, “Was the Rape of Nanking not disrespectful?!?” Of course it was; it was disgusting and devastating and plain old wrong. But it happened in 1937, and I’m not saying it should be forgotten or forgiven — definitely not — but if we hold onto these bitter grudges we will never move forward.

What the first employee said next was extremely disturbing. When I asked him why they had drawn blood on the flag, he told me it was because the Japanese should be killed, roughly in those words. And he dramatically ripped the paper off to re-expose the bleeding flag. A very strong sinking feeling, similar to nausea, grew in the pit of my stomach. Finally, I left the situation (which captured the attention of a few nosy passerby’s) and went back to the cafe feeling totally defeated and unsettled.

I’ve never been good at defending my arguments, but I know inherently that what I did was right, or at least okay, even if I failed at it. Looking back on what happened, however, I don’t think I handled the situation effectively. It might’ve been more diplomatic if I had asked the real-estate agents who had made the sign if I could cover up the disturbing image explaining that it made me uncomfortable, rather than march right up to it and arguably “vandalize” their property. I think they would’ve at least considered my argument if I had respected their opinion first (even if it was ill-conceived).

I don’t have strong opinions on who should control the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, but I don’t think they are worth going to war for. And although I don’t think tensions will actually escalate to that level, the cab driver’s question alarmed me and brought to light the intensity of current unrest — everyone is talking about the dispute and protests broke out in various cities in China, including Beijing, this weekend. I am all for free speech (I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts), but when it infringes on the livelihood of people around you — making people scared to admit their nationality, making them scared to even come out of their dorm rooms — shouldn’t there be some kind of (non-violent) intervention? Of course not to the scale of attacking the embassy and killing the ambassador…but something.

My uncle, a former historian, is not a fan of the Japanese. He individually protests by boycotting Japanese products, but he would never resort to disrespectful slurs or violence to express his dislike.

Yes, the Chinese are very patriotic (how can they not be? Patriotism is instilled, internalized, forced into the Chinese people) and their protests against the Japanese is a form of nationalistic pride, but throwing eggs and rocks at the Japanese embassy, blowing up Japanese cars, pulling the flag out of the ambassador’s car and making petty little signs do not make you look good in the international eye and it certainly isn’t a mature response to the dispute.

My own little dispute with the real-estate agents today was a slap in the face. It woke me up to how real the tensions are between the Chinese and Japanese. I came home and caught up on all the news about the East China Sea islands as well as the South China Sea islands territorial disputes, and tried to form my own opinion on who should own the islands. But I just can’t help thinking how ridiculous it is for people to hate one another because of pride and power and possession. On the other hand, it also showed me how unified the Chinese can be during times like these. If only people could aim these collective efforts towards something more domestically beneficial, like protesting against political corruption, or improving urban and rural sanitation, or building safer infrastructure, instead of worrying about piles of floating rocks in the ocean that the ordinary citizen will never be privileged enough to step foot onto anyway.

**I’m curious to know what you would’ve done if you had seen the sign above. Should I have just let it be (in the end it remained anyway…)? Did I try to cover up someone else’s right to free speech (even though there isn’t free speech in China) by attempting to cover up their drawing? Should I protest Century 21 (the real-estate agency)?? What are your opinions on the territorial disputes? And what the heck is this world coming to (with political unrest all over the world)????????


Family Portraits (and a Petition)

While I was having fun with my new iPhone, I came across the Hubba Hubba app that so accurately captured the finest features of my family. My mom, a.k.a. Goody Two-Shoes, thinks Daddy-O looks like Saddam Hussein, but I think she’s crazy because Daddy-O’s got a heart of gold. “Sweet Mama” (that’s me) doesn’t quite fit my image, but that’s because it takes time to grow into the title and I’m still young! By the way, don’t be fooled by Goody Two-Shoes’ name folks. Once she finds out I posted that photo  online for the world to see, she’s going to pick that feather from her hat and shove it up who-knows-where! No, no, I was just joshin’. She wouldn’t do that. I’m an only child! Anyway, that’s my family in a nutshell!

Another thing now that I have your attention (hopefully), while I’m here downloading useless (but fun) apps on my iphone, tens of thousands of other Chinese people are suffering from exposure to toxic chemicals, losing their hands, and even attempting suicide from the horrible working conditions of Apple, Inc. factories. Like most people I’m sure, I was totally unaware of this fact, and to be honest, the thought to ask where my iPhone and Mac laptop came from didn’t even occur to me.  While the American version of the iPhone might say “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China” on the back, my Chinese version somehow forgot the “Assembled in China” part. Oops. How clever! The Chinese 1% doesn’t want anything Made in China. They want Made in America/Italy/France/Japan/Anywhere-but-China, and Steve Jobs and gang knew just this!

Now, I’m not asking anybody to discard their iPhones and iPads–I’m certainly not. What I’m suggesting, and it’s not a lot for you to do, is to click here and sign the petition to “Apple: to protect workers making iPhones in Chinese factories”. As you may have seen in the news, Foxconn, one of Apple’s main suppliers has already increased their workers’ salaries (probably to the salary it should’ve been in the first place) showing some success in the case. Apple is obviously not the only corporation that exploits its workers. However, with Apple being one of the most powerful industries in the world, it should do more–and quickly–to demand safe working and living conditions and fair wages.

I was taxed up-the-butt for this darned ol’ thing. That extra cash should go straight to the pockets of the overworked factory laborers, not California.

The Petition: https://www.change.org/petitions/apple-ceo-tim-cook-protect-workers-making-iphones-in-chinese-factories


“The Classical Music Revolution of China”

I just read an editorial piece in the New York Times about classical music and it’s place among the Occupy Wall Street movement that got me thinking about my own family. “From the Medici family and Ludwig of Bavaria to Andrew Carnegie and David H. Koch, classical music, like other performing arts, has long depended on the 1 percent,” writes Anthony Tommasini. This is not so far off in China either, at least not nowadays.

The arts are an important component to China’s cultural inheritance. Mao himself was a poet and a lover of music — granted, the only music allowed during his regime were “Red Songs” with lyrics from his own poetry, but it was music nonetheless. Classical music was not introduced to China until the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. A professor from the Central Conservatory of Music had written Deng a letter requesting permission to enroll students after a 10-year dry spell during the Cultural Revolution–a timely request as Deng was set on modernizing China, opening doors to western influence, and consequently classical music. Permission granted,  17,285 people lined up for the college entrance examination. Narrowed down to 105 total enrollments, my mom was one of 20 singers from all of China to join the ranks. This was the first wave of a new revolution — what I call the “Classical Music Revolution of China.”

My dad followed my mom’s footsteps shortly after, and post graduation, followed her to the United States where she pursued her career in opera, and had me. Growing up,  classical music and the arts in general, surrounded me. (I am writing this post while my mom’s student is roaring Italian lyrics downstairs.) Our family friends were literally all involved in the arts, and while I dabbled in it, I did not end up a musician–a great mystery and shame to many.

My mom as CioCio Sun in Madame Butterfly.

In the west, my mom could study music with American and European teachers, while in the east, the field was still developing. I remember as a child touring around the States watching her perform in Madame Butterfly, La Boheme and Carmen, among others. She also traveled all over the world, singing operas in various European languages. Her career flourished in the west, where opera was an occasion for dressing up and showing off wealth and culture. In the wake of rising tuitions and increasing economic disparity, this is one of Occupy Wall Street’s arguments; performing arts are elitist.

There is no doubt that classical music has historically been limited to the upper class, but as Tommasini points out in his article, there is today an abundance of free and affordable performing arts events throughout New York City.  Similarly in China, attending a performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts is not a cheap ordeal. But there are events scattered throughout Beijing that are accessible to those who are curious or interested. The school my mom works for (the high school attached to the Central Conservatory of Music), for example, often puts on free performances for the public. Too bad the turnouts remain to be low.

Many of my mom’s students come from the wealthiest of families — sons and daughters of leaders in the coal industry, an army surgeon, TV/movie stars, political figures, and various successful businesspeople. This is a major difference between music students today and music students from my parents’ generation. My parents were extremely poor when they began schooling, as were all families during that time, but again, classical music was just a budding interest then. Now that the west has full-blown influence over Chinese society and culture (much to Hu Jingtao’s dismay), classical music has become a popular career path. However, only those who can afford the education can find a place in that field, unless you are blessed with a voice that penetrates the heart and soul of the judges at your audition.

I completely agree with Occupy Wall Street protestors that “the main issue regarding performing arts institutions is not inaccessibility but insularity,” because as I said, you have to have the funds to pursue this career. I have questioned my parents’ morality for working for government-run and arguably profit-oriented schools, but after having witnessed their frustrations, the dead ends, and watching my mom teach tirelessly, my mind changed. My parents’ passion for music and grounded dedication to their students are reason enough for my admiration (besides being their only child of course). And from personal encounters with these students, they’re not so bad. Sure, some are snobby teenagers with brand name clothing and a private apartment, but where in the world are there not such people? They are like any other child striving to achieve their dreams as musicians–just like hip hop artists, baseball players, doctors and lawyers–who happen to come from the 1% (most who work their butts off to support their child’s dreams).

There are  many things I find wrong with Chinese society (as you may have determined from my previous posts), but one thing I have come to appreciate during my time here is the cultural fervor. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that many Chinese artists are suppressed, exiled, jailed, because I am lucky to have an outlet to both eastern and western news, but just knowing that they exist excites me because I sense the kindling of a counterrevolution. And knowing that my parents are part of this movement — whether they see it as that or not — makes me very proud to be their daughter.

Life is definitely different now that my parents are classical-music-big-shots as opposed to lower- to middle- class immigrants, but I will never consider our family elitist. We are just a loving bunch of teachers committed to passing on what we know to whoever will listen.


YueYue

2-year-old Yueyue’s untimely and tragic death has struck the nation and the world. It is unthinkable that there are people out there who can casually stroll by a bleeding body–not to mention a young child–and not do anything about it. It is also most bizarre that two cars that likely avoid large rocks and potholes normally, somehow did not see a walking child.

At first, yes, I too dropped my jaw and was near tears in horror at the indifference of the 18 passers-by , but then I remembered that fear and selfishness proceed helping others in this country (in many cases, anyhow). However, I also remind myself that there is greater context to why people behave this way. It is much deeper and more complex than just heartlessness and indifference.

In a conversation with my mom, she told me that many people are scared to help others because they literally cannot afford it. (This is possibly why in a news clip you might have seen, one of the drivers that ran over Yueyue talks about money.)  There are many cases where innocent strangers help victims of accidents but are blamed nonetheless for their money. According to my dad, for a while, it was even common for people to stick out their feet to be run over by cars so that the victim could gain a small profit. When hospital bills are outrageously high for people who can barely afford to feed their families, well, I guess I can understand why a passer-by would be unwilling to help someone else if they can’t afford the risk of being responsible for the victim.

Where do morals come into the picture, then? I’m not sure I have an answer. Although, it is possible that the frequency of good deeds going punished in this country might have something to do with it.

Adults tell me all the time to not be too nice to people nor to react to obnoxious and infuriating people as both may incur unwanted consequences such as being taken advantage of or stabbing, respectively of course. In the many years that I’ve been visiting China, I have seen countless accidents, and never do I see people helping people–not even the police.

So, where have my people gone wrong? No, no, not wrong, just misguided. It’s all in the history, and quite recent history I’d say. History that has advanced so quickly in the past few decades it has forced its way into an international playing field where it’s all about $$$$$. Everything is about money nowadays–food, driving, friendship, love, education. Where did all that money come from? And so quickly? And what has come of that money? A cut-throat society, not on purpose, but consequentially. Therefore, in times of need, if you won’t help me, then why should I help the next person? It’s a bitter never-ending cycle that I wish would end so that tragedies like Yueyue’s never happen again. Ever.

I’m not sure if I’m making any sense here, but I’m trying to make a point that those passers-by were indifferent for a reason that can be explained by placing their situations in context, and not just pointing our fingers at the “degenerative” Chinese society. There are too many reasons that these people just walked by Yueyue, and I think fear is one of them even if it doesn’t appear so on the surface.

You don’t have to agree with me, and may continue to think that those passers-by were simply heartless beings, but before passing judgement on Chinese people as a whole, I think everyone should take a look at this post. (It is a leftist blog called “The Maoist Rebel News,” but it makes excellent points even if you don’t agree with them politically.)

Finally, I think Yueyue’s undeserved death is a much needed, though heartbreaking and unforgivable, reminder to Chinese society–and the world, actually, because this could have happened anywhere–that we are all human beings and it is our duty as fellow human beings to help other human beings in times of distress no matter what the situation. And we must rid our expectations of reward and lend a hand non-conditionally because that is the only way to overcome our current state of fear, greed and indifference. As unlikely as that may sound, I believe it will happen some day. Slowly but surely.