Bullet Points

I haven’t posted since returning from Hong Kong. I thought I should at least throw some anecdotes on here.

- For assignments in my classes I’m moving from having them write about personal experiences into analysis of existing ideas or things about Western culture. One reason is that all their experiences are becoming same-y in their responses. The frustrating thing is that I don’t think it’s just a limitation in their manner of writing or their skill level, I think that so many aspects of their childhood are mass-produced that there aren’t as many differences, because most of childhood is school and studying the rest of the day. All because of that accursed “gaokao,” the infamous Chinese college entrance exams. Here was one of my students’ perspectives on it: “For gaokao, we paid too much. We paid the hard work of 16-hour per day for three years. We paid youth, enthusiasty, and creativity. What we keep is only scores. Can you understand the anguish of a Chinese student, especially in such a poor place like Guangxi? And the gaokao scores which I paid my life in is useless in college and in future. It’s nothing. I feel sad for the reality sometimes. But I can’t refuse the reality at the same time.” The students in China are woefully unprepared for engaging the world.

- Sports are not as much of a thing here. At least, not in the sense that sports are in the West. True, students play basketball, and ping-pong, and badminton, but it’s all on a small scale. In the US and other Western countries, we have our city teams and there’s a lot of spirit and pride and support for your city team, and that’s completely absent here. At first glance one would suspect the whole thing is contrived support for nothing but the Chinese national Olympic teams, a quest for unity that makes the whole thing homogeneous. A lot of the things they consider “sports” are what most of us consider sports only for things like the Olympics. I’m sorry but I’ll never consider running or lifting weights “sports” — that’s exercise. One of my students mentions her favorite sport is jump-rope, which (1) isn’t a sport, and (2) doesn’t sound like a sport someone her age would be crazy about in the US.

- Sometimes it’s shocking how blatant racism is here. For my classes last week I showed a TED talk by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, about what she called “the danger of the single story,” and how stereotyped narratives of places or peoples leads to a lack of understanding. I thought it would be a good topic for the students to analyze, and I have yet to see what they come up with for it. Just 30 minutes after this class, I ate lunch with one of my best and brightest students in the class, who casually mentioned in conversation how scared she was of the “dark skin people,” by which she meant the African foreign students in the university. She had never met any of them, and none of them had done anything wrong or illegal that she had seen, and her only experience with them was seeing them playing soccer very enthusiastically and roughly with each other.

Certainly there’s a lot of racism and the life in America. But in much of the US, we’ve become multiracial/multicultural enough that, even if someone thinks or believes things like that, there’s a social filter that encourages people to keep it to themselves, not wanting to be publicly racist. China is a monoculture; don’t let any talk of its 56 official ethnic “nationalities” fool you, because those all are less than 10% of the population and are often unthinkingly denigrated like how Native Americans have been in the US, such as tourist attractions that reduce them to a “traditional costume” (if that! sometimes people are decked out in fake leopard skin as “primitive man”). The notions of unity and group cohesion brush ethnic social issues under the rug, content to have big CCTV stage performances of people in their assigned traditional costume harmoniously performing together. It may not be a matter of greater or lesser racism in the two countries, but China’s more open about perceived stereotypes about other races or countries.

When Sarah and I performed in this big foreigner TV performance for Guangxi TV in Nanning last December (essentially nothing more than a chance for each city’s foreign affairs office to show off their foreigners and curry favor with the provincial government), we thought our performance was embarrassing until we saw how other groups of foreigners got reduced to being nothing more than their home countries. One group had a black African foreigner who was visibly displeased at the performance that had been set up for him by people who didn’t know what to do with Africans except put him and a bunch of Chinese people in leopard skin and doing a stereotypical “tribal dance.” Seriously what is it with this place and leopard skin? I try to remember that China is a lot like America was in the early 20th century, but there’s still a lot of secondhand embarrassment.

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