Category Archives: Culture

From ashy to classy

I have been back in New York for almost a week now, but my mind has been going over the last two months I have spent in China. It is inevitable; between the Olympics, Mitt Romney’s ridiculous campaign platform and the article on China that I have been working on, I have been forced to reflect on my perspective and seek some sort of reconciliation which is at this point elusive.

I have great faith in China’s potential and I am not afraid to say that I am so profoundly proud of the distance it has traveled. Of course, my background is a de facto bias on that front, but at the same time this faith in China’s future in no way detracts from my love for the great US of A.

I complain a lot about Americans, their wanton arrogance, their shameless stupidity and the endless slew of other defects, but ultimately, it is both a privilege and luxury to be American sometimes. There’s a reason why so many before us has come to this country and there are still reasons for the millions who risk much to touch American soil today.

I have written before about the jarring contrast of poverty in other cities around the world. Nowhere is that more evident than Shanghai, where panhandlers languish as untreated and unidentified illnesses leave their limps rotten, swollen or deformed, laid out in front of immaculate office buildings on the mile long stretch of sidewalk that janitors are to mop each morning. They are left ignored as luxury cars pull in and out of the driveways each morning providing dramatic contrast. This is the world in which I contemplated a future.

In my more ideal and romantic moments, I liken my own growth to that of China. From a naive child limited by circumstance, I have become a person who has managed to chart a course in life beyond boundaries that I could not even have previously conceived. I am proud of myself just as I am proud of China’s progress. Do you know how far China has come? Without going so far as the Revolution, let’s just talk about my childhood. The entire Pudong skyline was constructed within a span of a little less than 10 years; it has damn near emerged from the dark ages to the dynamic society it is today. Say what you want about the censorship and uniformity, there are at least organic perspectives in China rather than the recycled drivel that gets shoved down the throat as the cloak of democracy is falling apart at every seam. What’s worse, really? And maybe that’s why I can be so indignant and defiant of these assertions. It has not been an easy climb to endeavor yet so easily dismissed.

This summer, I found myself somewhere between where I started, amongst locals 老百姓 whose struggles are a distant memory, and where I may hope to reach, amongst the successful [mostly] expats I have met whose lifestyles I can’t help but seek. Both are humbling; both push me to go further.

And this is where I am on China: she has come a long way but there is still so much for her to achieve. I hope that she can overcome the setbacks and reach a height that has yet to be conceived. Thus, it is not surprising that there can be so many conflicting takes on China. China itself is grappling with its still present past and its future.

Ode to America

This morning, I felt, for the very first time, a sentimental pang of longing for US of A. If my naturalization was only ceremonial, then this moment of spirited fierte had truly ushered in a new era of citizenship (OR, perhaps, the moment only proved that as an outsider, only having been far removed from the daily systematic prejudices, disenfranchisement, and other such defects and impurities, am I able to identify with and value other American virtues, such as respect for traffic rules, for ex. But, that’s an aside. Another aside, today, my coworker, in one of those very very real, truth in jest moments, said to me, ah, but your case is quite dramatic, because you are nothing. You are not Chinese and you are not American.)

Anyway, so my point was that I felt so American that I took a detour from my morning Americano run from Costa for a Starbucks Iced Coffee. That is major, because I do protest and detest Starbucks in New York, but I was weak and hoped for half and half. Alas, I was to be disappointed on all counts.

And then, tonight, after trekking across 20 blocks in heels (that is nearly 20 street crossings with no guarantees from traffic lights), I came home to this: “That legislation, the Team USA Made in America Act of 2012, was duly introduced into the Senate and referred to committee on July 16.”

This actually happened? like, real senators sat around contemplating Olympic uniforms? Has the US become so utopian in the 2 months I’ve been gone that uniforms are now pressing matters?

On the one hand, it is moving to see the expediency of a political system when it is so moved and so compassionate about a cause. On the other hand, this is what they chose to dedicate that efficiency to?

I am not sure which is more terrifying: the gun toting Americans or the ever growing idiocy, each new layer of which never ceases to surprise with new  delights. This is just as petty as Obama exploiting the American sentiment of resentment against China by harping on Romney’s off shore investments as if it embodies an enemy of the state. Not because the opacity of Romney’s actual position (flip flopper that he is) on anything should not draw ire and that he should not have to answer for his hypocrisies (on so many issues), but to use that fact as a platform is to perpetuate ignorance. It’s wrong. Especially from Obama? Why play into that game, bro?

Source

Are Asians black?

There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race [cannot]….” – Justice Harlan, 1896, in his famous Plessy v. Ferguson dissent, in which he rejects racial segregation in the Jim Crow south.

I attended this thing hosted by MOCA and AAWW almost three weeks ago, where I basically sat through 20 minutes of Wesley Yang’s very public very pathetic self-flagellation under the pretext of marginalization in America of Asianness, seething with the kind of anger only possible when you’re dealing with, on the one hand, secondary shame on someone else’s behalf, and on the other, a kind of derivative embarrassment caused by another due to the unfortunate association that he’s prescribed by way of his own inferiority complex and existential crisis.

In short, fuck Wesley Yang for being the unfortunate representative that we’ve been assigned, against our will. It is a shame that burns so deep that, after 3 weeks, having remembered not much else about the panel, I managed to encapsulate my rage in the long-winded, poorly constructed run on sentence above.

This is all to say, memory is vague and I can only now recap it in a very general way that doesn’t come anywhere close to the intense recap session post-panel, at Great NY Noodletown.

I grew up in China, and all I knew about America was from movies and sitcoms (Growing Pains dubbed with Chinese represented, as far as I was concerned, a life I was to lead once I cross over that ocean and go to America.). 美国人(American) meant white people with different color eyes and hair than my brown and black. I had the idea that I was going to a place that would vaguely resemble (in reality) a Scandinavian country. When I moved here in 5th grade, I started at an elementary school with all black, Latino, and Asian kids. The Hasidic Jews in the neighborhood startled me (as did the fact that squirrels and pigeons just roamed the streets; as my mother would say, in China, these animals would all be dead, and their existence represents the goodness and humanity of America).  I didn’t see any white people until much later. I also didn’t realize the spectrum of ethnicity that exist in the US until I got here.

When we talk about race or racial identity in the US, non-black “minority” groups are a secondary mention or a non-issue, much like how my conception of the US did not include non-whites. Mainstream rhetoric just doesn’t make room for it, so discussions happen in the fringes. I understand the need to fit our narrative in accepted rhetoric like this, and that “are Asians black” is kind of a provocative thought that might make people go hmm, but ultimately, that hmm is followed by confusion. The answer is emphatically, no. However our stories might have converged (both groups have faced discrimination, there have some exchanges between cultural groups), references to those rare occurrences, even in sum, do not amount to a common story. True, we’re both subjects of a racial hierarchy constructed by a white society, but drawing a comparison based on that sad nugget of commonality reduces both groups to nothing more than victims.

I had a lot more to say, especially about the many, many fallacies of Wesley Yang’s pathetic little monologue constructed based on arbitrary statistics that can be construed many different ways, as statistics often can be made to do, but I don’t have the energy to revisit his spiel.

This is not to say that I did not enjoy the program. I appreciate that we’re trying to have a dialogue, especially not just amongst ourselves as Asians but in a wider demographic, but I just think the focus could have been different and, maybe more narrow. Because a survey panel of such varied perspectives need at least like, a day, to be comprehensive.

On doit exiger que je cherche la vérité, mais non que je la trouve.

“Daisey’s fiction was predicated on the notion that China is essentially unknowable, that reporters never go to factory gates, that highways exit to nowhere.” – Evan Osnos

And that is the state of America’s xenophobia. It goes beyond a mea culpa that cripples any interactions with China. The most dangerous aspect of ignorance is the strength of the conviction. It’s a conviction that drove Daisey to contrive a story to corroborate his assumptions. The most disheartening aspect of the story is that so many of us fell for it. It’s like the moment in French class when I realized that Diderot’s Bougainville doesn’t tell us about any “real” exoticisms of the island people, but that it does tell everything about the distorted prejudices of the very French narrator.

I can’t help but draw a parallel between the Daisey story and Steven of “Seeking Asian Female” (or, Single Asian Females’ worst nightmare). Stereotypes do not waver in the face of actual interactions; however unsubstantiated those stereotypes end up being – it could always be written off as an exception. As if reality can always make concessions to fit a picture painted in broad strokes.

It is particularly disheartening, because this kind of noise and theatrics will almost always drown out sincere attempts at dialogue and truth seeking. The sources for that are out there, but Americans love propaganda more than any socialist do. You’d better believe that shit.

CHICKENHEAD

My reaction to the whole Pete Hoekstra fiasco was more aligned with China than with Asians in America. Simply put, it was like, how low can Americans get? They’re too stupid to even properly insult us. This thing is so ridiculous that the only one insulted should be America for allowing this ludicrous production to be on television and for being a place where the “brain” behind this atrocity could deem himself to be a competent candidate.

This is not to say the Chinese government doesn’t have prejudiced assholes, but I think the fact that officials here get elected rather than through party machinery reflects a truly devastating reality – that the political system has so completely dumbed down the agenda that their campaigns can be deduced to drivel that speaks to 5 year olds. And Americans are, as far as is empirically apparent, ok with it.

To say nothing about that.

So, no, actually, Pete Hoekstra has proven himself completely inadequate in trying to humiliate through this so-called caricature. However, I am more than a little indignant and embarrassed that he even found an Asian American willing to even make this commercial. I thought, shit, she must be dumb.

And, today, ladies and gentlemen, it was confirmed that in fact, she IS dumb and she thinks we are all dumb enough to play along with her:

“From what I understand, she feels terrible (and fearful of the fallout) over her participation in this ad. [She] has partnered with a community organization to release a statement with her version of the story.”

Oh, if only everything could be resolved with a press release.

On the flip side of the pillow

Which is predictably, and perhaps fortunately, cooler, there is this:

China to cancel majors that yield less than lucrative careers.

There seems to be a perennial conflict between training productive human beings that may contribute to society in a meaningful (meaning, of course, being measured by cash money) way and training well rounded INDIVIDUALS which takes a holistic view of the multiple facets that comprise a persona.

Why must they be mutually exclusive? There is no continuum, apparently. Or, it’s broken.

Incidentally, these two events seem to reflect the disconnect between the societal values of China and the United States.

J’ai tant reve de toi

J’ai tant rêvé de toi
que tu perds ta réalité.
Est-il encore temps d’atteindre ce corps vivant et de baiser
sur cette bouche la naissance de la voix qui m’est chère?

J’ai tant rêvé de toi
que mes bras habitués en étreignant ton ombre
à se croiser sur ma poitrine
ne se plieraient pas au contour de ton corps, peut-être.
Et que, devant l’apparence réelle de ce qui me hante et
me gouverne depuis des jours et des années,
je deviendrais une ombre sans doute.
O balances sentimentales.

J’ai tant rêvé de toi
qu’il n’est plus temps sans doute que je m’éveille.
Je dors debout, le corps exposé à toutes les apparences de la vie
et de l’amour et toi, la seule qui compte aujourd’hui pour moi,
je pourrais moins toucher ton front et tes lèvres
que les premières lèvres et le premier front venu.

J’ai tant rêvé de toi,
tant marché, parlé, couché avec ton fantôme
qu’il ne me reste plus peut-être, et pourtant,
qu’à être fantôme parmi les fantômes et
plus ombre cent fois que l’ombre qui se promène et
se promènera allégrement sur le cadran solaire de ta vie.

I’m reading a book named after this famous Robert Desnos poem. It’s kind of a historical fiction, kinda Marguerite Duras-esque. Totally a little cheesy but kind of geeked out over it, I just spent all morning on wiki.

plein de souffrance.

love language


An aspect of 2046 that’s always confounded and fascinated me is how Tony Leung spoke Cantonese while Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi spoke Mandarin. Or really just scenes where two parties in a conversation are speaking to each other in essentially different languages. I have always always wondered why or what the point of it is, because I’m sure it’s not just that that’s what the actors’ native dialects are (I am almost certain Tony Leung can manage the few lines of Mandarin his role would’ve required, however feeble the attempt might have been).

I never looked this up, of course, because, actually it never occurred to me that I could do that until just now when I thought about writing this post.

So, but, anyway, yesterday was a friend’s birthday and a guy from our section posted on her wall in Hebrew (birthday girl is Chinese, I assume he said something like happy birthday), and she replied thank you in Chinese. This made me think of this schema of communication which sounds so disjointed. Then it occurs to me that this may not even come up for a non-Chinese speaker, though, the dialects truly are so distinct that I think it should be fairly apparent to anyone watching Wong Kar Wai (assuming you’re not just a fetishist).

But so what if it’s not an issue for anyone else? What if people could really communicate like that? There is no language barriers, everyone just understands every nuance of every other language.

Although, the neutralizing effect of removing language barriers would probably also just remove these nuances. There would also be no native language, which I can’t even imagine. Man, is that how monolingual Americans feel? Native language and only language; ride or die.

So then, why 2046?

Empress CIXI Couture F/W 2011

Well, this is a reinterpretation of Chinese fashun I ain’t neva seen ‘fo. It is not quite literal, but the mix and matched prints are straight from the archives (a real modest archive due to a little tiff called the Cultural Revolution where China basically desecrated its history, culture and any other remnants of goodness it had left) of the Forbidden City. Alternately, it is reinterpretation of costumes from a TVB series about Emperor Qian long and his many many biddieful concubines, mistresses and baby mommas. I love Chinese history and I’m spreading its true salacious character one post at a time. Can Wong Kar Wai direct a 2046 style science fiction period film and use these dresses?

Note: they’re not all straight from the Qing dynasty, but anyone who’s ever watched a Chinese period drama would feel a slight tingle at these images. I sure did.

It’s actually Mary Katrantzou.

toska

Edit: apparently, there’s a similar term for this in Czech, per Kundera. Anglo emotions must not be that nuanced, because humina humina, anglo barbarians.

Vladmir Nabokov: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”