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)????????
In March, I made a spontaneous and skeptical decision to apply to grad school in Beijing. When I told my friends in America and my Chinese students my plan, both groups asked, “Why on earth would you go to grad school in China??!” Here’s what I told them after convincing myself these were legitimate and good reasons:
1) 10 months in China wasn’t long enough; there was more to accomplish! And if I’m going to stay longer, then I’d like to make friends, and if I’m lucky, also find that twinkle in my eye. It has been long enough.
2) A Master’s degree in International Development is relevant to my career goals.
3) Tsinghua University is the Harvard of China.
4) I can live in the dorms and have some privacy from my nosy parents.
So…in August, without great expectations, I moved into my dorm room single, filled it with plants and ikea goods, and stayed up ’til 3 in the morn’ because the bed is so hard. Aside from an uncomfortable bed, controlled hot-water hours (very inconvenient, especially on weekends!), and mediocre dining hall food, living on campus is actually quite nice. The paths are lined with trees and there are plenty of sports fields (being built). There are also sculptures dotted around campus and even a famous water-lily pond, a hotspot for tourists.
Three weeks in and I’ve met dozens of people from all over the world, and for the first time in my life, the number of my Asian friends to non-Asian is greater. I’m surrounded by them! In my program of 17 people, we represent 10 different countries: America, Canada, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Peru, Ethiopia, Italy, England, and South Korea. The school of Public Policy, which I’m in, also has a Master’s program geared towards government officials from various African countries, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Grenada, Cambodia, Laos, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan, among many others. They’re a generally older crowd, and the fact that I am sharing a dormitory with these accomplished, government officials and leaders is somewhat laughable.
Judging from the first week of classes my professors are not stimulating enough. I want to be challenged, pushed, treated like a knowledgeable adult with lots of potential (I can pretend). But like I said, I didn’t enroll with high expectations. The International Development program is a relatively new one (to all of China, actually), so administrators and professors are still building it up. Unfortunately this means I’m one of the guinea pigs, but with a title of “Tsinghua University Graduate” it still puts me ahead of the game, at least in this country.
Tsinghua and Peking University are China’s Harvard and Yale, respectively (I think…does Harvard have a better reputation than Yale?), and getting into one of these top schools is the dream of every Chinese family. If you are admitted into one of these universities, you and your family will be forever celebrated in your hometown because it is such a great and near impossible feat that you’ll make your entire hometown, or even province, proud. When my family found out, I got text messages left and right and a personal phone call from my grandma in Chongqing congratulating me. Of course I didn’t tell her how unjustly easy it was for me, an international student, to apply (30 minutes to fill out the application including the personal statement, 2 emails to professors for recommendation letters, and an online request for my transcripts and graduation certificates to be mailed to Tsinghua). Chinese students, on the other hand, go through a grueling application and testing process. Might I add, they don’t have air conditioning or hot water in their dormitories (they have special shower areas); we do (international students live separately from Chinese students).
The choice to attend Tsinghua binds the next 2 years of my life–I’ll be 26 when I graduate, ah!–but I’m happy to be here. It’s a new experience and it feels great to be sharing it with a group of new friends (who are all brilliant by the way).
Okay. Now that I’m a student again, I must set a curfew that requires me to get into bed by a reasonable hour (it’s already 1 am). Then, it’ll take another 2 hours to fall asleep after tossing and turning on a slab of concrete. By the end of my 2 years, if I don’t learn anything valuable from school, at least I know I’ll have an iron back.
Attn: Friends with horrible exes, Christmas/Hanukkah present ideas
If you’ve ever questioned your man’s love for you, just take a look at the presents that you’ve received from him during the course of your relationship. Perhaps you can the remember the story behind that 50th birthday diamond necklace, or the memories from your 10th wedding anniversary when you were whisked away to a remote tropical island, where there were straw huts with thatched roofs and monkey butlers serving you meals in hollowed-out coconut shells, while playing The Girl from Ipanema on their mini-accordions.
But if you’re like me, you’ll wonder why you have a soup ladle that’s larger than the size of your head and ass combined. It may also take several months for you to realize that no amount of washing and drying that size “L” Turkish bathrobe is going to bring it down to a “XS”. And, despite your best efforts, you discover there really are…
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The people of Guizhou province are the friendliest, most hospitable and generous individuals I have ever met in China. This observation is even clearer now that I’m back in Beijing, where everyone snarls at one another. Could be southern hospitality like in the States, though I wonder if I’d ever feel comfortable enough to ask a stranger to use their toilet in Texas…Probably not.
I was hiking down a hill toward a small village in Langdong when typical bouts of stomachache set in — bathroom emergency. The first house my friend, Yoyo, and I came across we asked to use the bathroom. Not only did the grandfather agree to let me let my bowels loose in his home (excuse the graphics!), he also provided generous amounts of toilet paper!! This, being in a place where public bathrooms still charge tourists and everyone carries toilet paper on them at all times (except me because I always forget)! I was so grateful I didn’t even mind the snorting hog in the next pen.
On my way out, the grandfather invited me and Yoyo to stay for breakfast with him and his grandson. We courteously refused — we wanted to witness the process of making handmade tofu at another home in the village — but we sat for a little while.
I was invited to “sit a while” by numerous neighborly strangers throughout Guizhou. I experienced a similar kind of welcomeness in Morocco where I was constantly invited to have tea and stay for free in peoples’ homes. Sometimes yes, the hosts had intentions of making money. But in one of China’s poorest provinces, how could I not buy the handmade batik (wax art on cloth) that the nice lady overcharged my American companion for and then for which she offered me a “local” price? Especially after she voluntarily showed us around her ancient stone village?
Though Guizhou is home to many ethnic minority groups, I spent most of my time in Qiandongnan Prefecture where Miao villages are predominant. We saw people, most noticeably women because of their dress, from other minority groups such as Dong and Gejia, but most were Miao (Hmong).
When I told a Beijinger that I spent time in Miao villages, she remarked that Miao women are very beautiful. It’s true. Miao people have different features from Han (the majority–I’m Han). They have big, deep-set eyes and creased eyelids (now available via a simple surgical procedure), and their skin is darker from the powerful southern sun. Their costumes vary from region to region, as well as by age. In Huangping, for example, older women wear plain, bun-shaped hats while younger women wear more colorful ones. Old women just wrap towels around their heads, and instead of flowery garments, they wear undecorated royal blue robes. In Kaili, Leishan, Langde and Xijiang, women wear their hair in buns on the top of their heads, often supported by black yarn to resemble more hair. They decorate their hair with fake flowers and colorful pins and a special comb, but with different details from village to village.
Photo credit: Judy Manton
(2nd photo credit: Judy Manton)
And how ’bout this fine gentleman sporting a Soviet winter hat in the middle of summer?
Stone Village, Anshun
Whole elaborate outfits are only worn for festivals. Women spend lots of time and money — often thousands and thousands of Yuan — embroidering, sewing, pleating and decorating these garments by hand. A small piece of hand-embroidery is worth hundreds, even thousands, of Yuan because it is so meticulous.
The silver they wear around their necks, on their heads and in their ears weigh a lot. But silver is believed to cast away evil spirits, so people always wear it, most often as a bracelet. Naturally, I bought one for myself. I like to think that the silver not only protects me from evil, but also connects me to Guizhou.
It’s a relief to know that there are still people in China who are kind, un-abrasive, patient, and honest. I’ve been in Beijing for 3 days now and already feel anger and frustration in the pit of my stomach because people here can be so cold, which is ironic because it’s steaming outside.
Remember the 11-day traffic jam in China 2 years ago? I wasn’t there — thank goodness — but I felt an ounce of fear last night that something similar would happen to me on my way from the airport in Guiyang to Huangping, where I am comfortably air-conditioned now. After 2 hours of racing (I’m talkin’ The Fast and the Furious) through the windy mountainous roads, we came to a halt. For the next 2 hours. By the time we were rolling again, it was already 8:30 pm and would be another 2 hours before dinner. Oh, what’s a 4-hour delay??
(Indiscreetly peeing roadside.)
We were dropped off at the side of a highway (the first time was at a fork in the road), walked through a toll booth with our luggage, only to be picked up by another manic driver who would fly us to dinner, and eventually to our hotel. We were going 60 on roads that would’ve been marked 20 in the US.
I am safe and sound in Huangping county now, where it’s humid and grey and surrounded by green hills. The majority of the population here are Miao, people from one of the largest ethnic minorities of China.
The locals are very friendly and don’t stare rudely (as they do in Beijing) at the American teacher in our group, a 70-something lady from Jersey who has been teaching English in various countries for over 32 years. But she happens to love Guizhou–its terrain, the Miao and Dong people–so here she is again to train local/rural English teachers on developing their own teaching methods, and I am here to assist.
Nothing spectacular has happened yet, but getting here was certainly half the fun–if you’re into adrenaline rushes from near-death fright.
**If you want to see beautiful photography of Guizhou, check out John Fanai’s site.**
Apologies for the hiatus. I’m sure you’ve all been suffering since my last post…from the heat of course! It appears that a heat wave has swept across the globe, or at least in all the areas I’ve been visiting, rendering me into delirium — hence the corny humor (you must think I live in a tropical climate).
I returned to Beijing a couple of days ago to unwelcoming heat, humidity and smog. It thunder-stormed last night, which normally clears up the sky the next day, but not this time. The dense smog is here to stay, hovering above this crowded city like Dementors. At least there’s a bit of breeze this morning. How refreshing.
In just a few hours I will be flying out to Guizhou, a province in southern China that is rarely sunny, has ample rainfall, and is at its hottest in July. But don’t let my whining fool you, I am very excited for this 3-week teaching (ESL) trip!
More good news, I finally caved in to paying for a VPN service so I can access WordPress, Facebook, Youtube and the likes in order to keep up with you fine people.
I’m keeping this post short, but there’s lots to come because I have lots to tell you from my visit to New York and what’s to come in Guizhou. Stay tuned!
Hope all of you have been well and your joints not too swollen (from the heat)!
And now, some eye-candy:
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.