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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“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.


My First Crime: Teachings of the Tiananmen Square Massacre

I have been teaching Luke, a Chinese high school student, spoken English. He comes from Zhejiang, an eastern coastal province, and traveled by train to Beijing, the only other Chinese city besides Shanghai he has ever visited, to study English. He’s an awesome kid who yawns a lot, but he is very enthusiastic and diligent about his studies. Luke’s regular school schedule in Zhejiang would be unimaginable to anyone outside China; 6 days a week, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with two breaks in between for meals. Personally, knowing what I know and seeing what I’ve seen, life would be utterly unbearable forced to stay within school walls for more than half the day, everyday. For Luke, though, it is a nice thing to be around his friends all day.

For our English classes, I have been selecting newspaper articles from the New York Times and BBC for him to summarize, but more importantly, for him to learn about the world outside his home. To my surprise, I, a foreigner, was also teaching him about his own country. I have had him read articles about India’s missing children, Arizona’s immigration law, orangutang habitats, former NBA player Stephen Marbury now playing for the Beijing Ducks, and most recently about the Chinese government’s attempt to censor the nation’s microblogs against “rumors,” aka any utterances against the government.

Somehow Tiananmen Square came up in one of our heated debates (I like to play devil’s advocate with Luke–he hates it). I mentioned the Tiananmen Square Massacre, after defining what “massacre” was, but Luke had no idea what I was talking about; he vaguely knew about the protests, but he didn’t know people were killed, tanked. My jaw literally dropped below my knees, and so I began my rant about dictatorship, censorship, Communism, and the Chinese education system that intensely suppresses the smallest ounce of information that suggests anything negative about the government. This he knew; many Chinese students I have met know that information is missing from their lessons but they also know that any questioning of or disagreement with a teacher is pretty much forbidden, unless you’re a masochist.

I forgot to mention that my 22 year old cousin also had no idea about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Can you picture my jaw literally scraping along concrete as we were walking in the street talking openly in Chinese about this national incident hidden from Chinese youth?

After sharing with Luke what I knew about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the only crime I’ve probably ever committed, I then asked Luke if he had heard of Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner (crime #2). This time unsurprisingly, he said “no.” So, I went on spilling the rotten beans about his home country. Thankfully Luke was very eager to learn more–he likes anything “tragic”–and pressed me on to continue my disenchantments of China. Don’t worry, after our lesson I wiped all the new vocabulary–dictator, censorship, freedom of speech, Communism, massacre–off the board.

A few days later, I had dinner with a Chinese friend I met in my first year at Ithaca College, in the States. I brought up my shock and horror of China’s ability to manipulate and suppress news, simultaneously wondering how that is even possible in the digital age where information is accessible to everyone–except China obviously, although sites like Wikipedia, BBC  and NYTimes are still available. So then how can people still be so oblivious to horrific crimes that occur in their own country?

Well, my friend said plainly, if there is no interest, no suggestion that would lead one to search for such events, why would anybody go out of their way to find the information?

That made complete sense to me. If nobody ever told, or hinted, to Luke that violent crimes occurred in 1989, what are the chances of him googling “Tiananmen Square Massacre” or Liu Xiaobo on his own? None! You can’t find what you’re not looking for.

I have been in China exactly 4 months and my mind has already been blown to pieces by numerous and various forces. As I am still unaccustomed to many Chinese ways and have much more to learn about how this country works, I will take advantage of this “ignorance” as defense  in case any scary Red Guards chase after me and continue my rants about what I think my students deserve to know. Information is meant to be known; it can’t be hidden forever. I have much to uncover, much to learn, as do my students, and the Chinese government. It’s just a matter of (jail)time, exiles, and many disappearances.

I’m writing all of this in the wake of Kim Jong-il’s death. Oy.

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Well-known Chinese Human Rights Activists/Dissidents (that I, and you probably already, know of):

Chen Guangcheng – blind civil rights activist who defended women’s rights against forced sterilization and abortion

Gao Zhisheng – a defendant of Falun Gong practitioners (of which there are many now living in New York City and I think Russia)

Ai Weiwei – an influential artist highly critical of the Chinese government

Liu Xiaobo – a writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped draft Charter 08, calling for political and legal reforms

My list is a short one, but it’s a hopeful one.