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April 2008 Archives

April 7, 2008

Of Course It's Fake: Catching Rye In China

I’d be really worried if Holden Caufield ever came to China. China is a country where people work hard to maintain good social relations and retain social harmony (a phrase I hear a lot in China and never cease to see on government posters and banners), with the result that telling a social lie or being misleadingly indirect has never seemed easier.

Look at how many words Chinese has for “harmony,” and you can see how important social harmony is in China. My trusty Third Edition Oxford Chinese dictionary lists ‘yizhi,’ ‘xietiao,’ rongqia,’ ‘heshengxue,’ and ‘ronghe,’ although I know from my interactions with Chinese friends that there are still other words for harmony. My apartment building is emblazoned with golden slogans emphasizing harmony.

In addition to the emphasis on harmony, China is also where many actions are motivated by a desire to “save face,” a phrase I as a foreigner have often found difficult to fully understand. Nuances aside, the objective of saving face is to preserve others’ esteem, and this can often mean the desire to avoid confronting unpleasant truths or even a pervasive soft acceptance of social artifice.

All of this isn’t new to me in my understanding of China, but I was recently amazed by how accepted social artifice is.

Recently, a Chinese friend of mine told me a story about how her best friend took her boyfriend to meet all of her friends. Worried about her boyfriend’s impression of her friends, the girl coached her friends down to the smallest detail, telling them what to say, what colors to wear, where to sit—even which style of earrings were permissible. If she could coach them well, her boyfriend would have a good impression and their relationship could continue without a hitch.

I interrupted my friend at this point, with a tone of indignation, “But that way she’s not meeting her real friends. It’s all just fake!”

“Of course it’s fake!” my friend said, surprised at my indignance.

To me, the important difference is not the existence of a phony social interaction. America and every country in the world is full of social artifice, lies to smooth over friendships, marriages, and bosses. If a girlfriend asks me whether a dress makes her look fat, the words, “No, of course not!” will jump from my mouth as fast as my hand jerks away from a hot stove burner.

Rather, the difference lies in the underlying expectation that the world shouldn’t have to have this phoniness.

Even though we have social artifice in the United States, we seem to begrudge the fact that it’s necessary. To my Chinese friends, I must seem hopelessly naive. To me, the ideal world should be real and open, free from artifice, honest and direct. Yet, here social smooth-overs seem to be such an ingrained part of life that they are to be expected without hesitation.

This difference, I believe, is why Holden Caufield and Catcher in the Rye can capture the imagination of so many American youths. But China has no Holden Caufield.

I read with interest, recently, a second-hand account of an American professor who tried to teach “Catcher in the Rye” to a class of Chinese college students and was met with utter confusion.

A Chinese Holden Caufield, walking the streets of Guangzhou with contempt for his teachers and parents is hard to imagine. At the very least, Confucius would be rolling over in his grave.

April 13, 2008

The Loudspeakers That Cared

The school where I work is authoritarian enough to dictate students’ nearly every waking hour; authoritarian enough to proscribe love; and authoritarian enough to control details down to the length of students’ hair. But there’s a softer side to the authoritarianism.

In some ways, my high school is an academic labor camp. Students are woken up by 1984-reminiscent loudspeakers at six in the morning to do morning exercise and then begin studying.

In the evening they’re herded into the classroom building for required study until the loudspeakers release them at ten at night. Afterwards, students have thirty minutes to get to the dorms, wash up, and get into bed before the lights-out rule is enforced by roving hall monitors eager to write up violators.

But control isn’t exercised purely to make the students study all day. At times, control is used in a paternalistic way to care for the students—the softer side of authoritarianism.

Sure, the lights-out rule is enforced in a sneakily authoritarian way by having selected students assigned to monitor and enforce the school’s rule in proxy; but the motivation is to make sure that students get enough sleep at night, instead of spending too much time studying.

Far from encouraging students to study as much as humanly possible, the school effectively limits when students can study. In fact, several students have complained to me that they don’t have enough time study. They want to be able to stay up at night to study, but the school won’t let them.

Afternoon naps are also dictated by the school. After an hour for lunch, students get an hour and twenty minutes to sleep in the dorms or huddled over their desks (if they live off campus).

After lunch, the soft feel-good authoritarianism continues when the campus loudspeakers rumble with the soft sounds of a rainstorm to wake the students from their siesta.

The school also peers into aspects of their lives that would be off limits in the United States as only an overbearing mother could. After a recent mandatory mid-morning tai chi session on the track outside my apartment, the loudspeakers admonished the students not to eat at the restaurant stalls out the back gate of the school because they serve unhealthy food of questionable sanitary standards.

So sure, life in a Chinese high school, with rules covering everything from evening to study to hair length to love is not the envy of your average adolescent. Yet it’s not the case that all the authoritarianism is put into making the students slave over textbooks. Instead, when I listen to the loudspeakers bark both orders and the soothing sounds of rainwater, I know that there’s a softer side of authoritarianism.

April 23, 2008

An Offer You Cannot Make

I ran into a problem when I was offered a supplementary English teaching job earlier this year.

My problem wasn’t with the pay, the conditions, or even the legality of accepting employment. Instead, my problem was how to tell my friends.

It was only after receiving the offer that I realized that I had no idea how to say ‘offer’ in Chinese. I searched my trusty Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary with its cover falling off, but neither of the translations seemed right.

The first entry under ‘opportunity’ was “jiyu” (给予), but that sounds more like ‘give.’ Sure enough, when I checked the entry for ‘jiyu’ it was defined as ‘give.’ So that wouldn’t do.

My other option under ‘opportunity’ was ‘tigong,’ (提供), which seemed promising because it was used in an example sentence, “They offered him a good job.”

But this wasn’t quite right either. ‘Tigong’ is more accurately ‘provide,’ as in, ‘The city provides fire protection services for the city.’

After asking friends and colleagues, I’ve concluded that there’s just not a good translation for ‘offer’ in Chinese, and I think there’s a reason why.

‘Offer’ is hard to translate because to offer implies respect for the freedom of choice and action of others. ‘Offer’ was translated by my dictionary as ‘give’ because in China people don’t offer; they give.

People have to give because it’s impolite to express your desire for something. A polite host is supposed to anticipate the needs of the guest and to give the guests what will make them happy.

Guests, on the other hand, are supposed to appear gracious and not demanding or needy. Guests are supposed to politely reject offers until the host finally forces the favor upon the guest.

In my own experience, I’ve found it entirely ineffective when I tell Chinese guests to “make themselves at home” or “just tell me if you need anything.” These are both asking guests to be active and come to me with needs and requests, both of which run counter to the conception of a gracious guest.

Conversely, I’ve found it very difficult to politely reject things that I don’t want. I’m often pressured to sit, eat, or drink, when I have interest in neither. It’s often “Sit, sit, sit, sit, sit!” “Eat, eat, eat, eat, eat!”

In America, it’s OK to express what we want and don’t want more or less directly as a part of the freedom in social interaction (the cost of which is not having others constantly caring for us).

In China, however, there’s less freedom in social action, and the language reflects that reality. So in China, people seem to make me all of these offers that I cannot refuse, but rather I think it’s the offer that cannot be made in the first place.

April 29, 2008

What Troubles The Chinese Mind: A Sign of Problems To Come

Psychological problems and modernization seem to go hand in hand, and China seems to be no exception.

Yet, as much of a blunt, whitewashing force that modernization is, each culture brings its own quirks into the modernization process. Again, with the psychological problems breeding in modern China, it seems that China is no exception.

Having the privileged position of teaching children growing up in a modern Chinese city, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many students who have come to me to discuss their troubles.

Ironically, as an outsider, I’m actually considered a better person to open up to. As someone not connected to their whole network of friends, family, and teachers, I’m seen as one of the only people who can be trusted.

I recently had a student send me an uncommonly self-aware email in rather eloquent English describing her troubles. Although she refused to tell me her name, she revealed unprompted some of the deepest corners of her mind.

“It’s sad but I don’t think I have a true friend here and I never thought I ever did. Well,whether one considers he has a true friend or not depends on what he thinks a true friend is. In my opinion,a true friend is a friend … with whom you can share your secrets and pains and never have to be afraid that he’ll laugh at you or give them out… . The students are so polite that they just smile at each other! That’s horrible! I don’t know who to trust. I feel lonely. But it’s said that every individual is lonely deep inside. I don’t know. You understand that better than I do because you study psychology. I long for the kind of friendship in Friends but it seems impossible, at least in China.”

The problems she details, I think, are representative of a lot of what I see in China. The same issues came up at a recent English corner, where my students said that they didn’t feel they ever had anyone to talk to.

One student chimed in, saying, “If I tell my parents about my problems, they’ll just blame me for them and criticize me. I can’t tell my friends because they don’t want to listen or they won’t understand. Even they will criticize me too.”

It’s not just students at elite high schools either. In my own experience, after a friend of mine died last year, I went to visit a friend of mine from China. I showed up in tears explaining that a friend had just died, at which point my friend tried to change the topic. “Think about something happy! Think about something happy!”

The motivation to make my mood improve was kind-hearted, but the result was that I couldn’t talk about what had happened. My mood was a downer to my friend, and talking about it was discouraged.

I wish I could say that the example of the student’s email were an isolated case, but I think her problems are representative of what’s troubling a lot of Chinese minds.

In America, people are often physically isolated from other people, driving cars by themselves to lonely suburban homes. Yet, in China people are in nearly constant physical proximity to others, while more and more people are feeling psychologically isolated.

And it’s a problem that seems like it’s only going to become more common. Modernization and economic reform is almost as popular as rice in China, but it’s bringing along unintended costs.

This student, sadly, is a sign of problems to come.