Too many Chinese?

From Timothy Yu's blog

From Timothy Yu’s blog

A poem this week in the New Yorker by Calvin Trilling, “Have they run out of provinces yet?” has caused some controversy. The poem begins:

Have they run out of provinces yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Cantonese.
(Long ago, we were easy to please.)
But then food from Szechuan came our way,
Making Cantonese strictly passé.
Szechuanese was the song that we sung,
Though the ma po could burn through your tongue.
Then when Shanghainese got in the loop
We slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.
Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,
Came along with its own style of chow.
So we thought we were finished, and then
A new province arrived: Fukien.

The critique of the poem is that it characterizes China as an endless sea (what, yet another province!) of anonymous people (have they run out). A professor of Asian-American Studies, Timothy Yu. wrote a response he called “Have they run out of white poems yet?”, in which he writes:

When my family arrived from Fujian.
The country they found was now eager
For Chinese food, but not its people.
We’re now just a dish on the menu
For gourmets to sink their teeth into.

Others have defended Trilling, agreeing with his own rebuttal, that he was intending to poke fun at the foodie culture rampant today in US cities, where always finding something new and different is a badge of honor. In fact, Trilling is a big fan of Chinese food; he wrote a fun column about Chinese chef Peter Chang a few years, a master of Szechuan food, which we have the good fortune to have now in Richmond. It is more the tone of the poem (especially in the title) which are unfortunate. In fact, speaking and writing today of issues involving specific cultural groups or immigrant populations can be a minefield, even if writing about something as seemingly innocent as food. NPR published a piece today entitled “Why Hunting Down ‘Authentic Ethnic Food’ Is A Loaded Proposition” which explores some of those issues.

Given the great variety of Chinese culinary traditions, it is wonderful to see that variety finally showing up in the US. It would be ironic indeed for anyone in the US to see this welcome development as Chinese cultural imperialism, given the fact that we have saturated China (and the rest of the world) with our representative cuisine: McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut.

Brother Orange

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Brother Orange and Matt Stopera from Buzzfeed

As a language teacher, I emphasize the importance of language in cross-cultural communication. It’s one of the direct pathways into another culture – it can mean that you’re looking from inside, not outside. However, connecting with someone from another culture without knowing the language is certainly possible – and it happens all the time. I am reminded of that fact by the recent story on NPR about “Brother Orange” and the lost cell phone.

Matt Stopera, from Buzzfeed, had his cell phone stolen last year from a bar in New York City. Then, months later, he noticed pictures showing up on his new phone that he hadn’t taken. They featured selfies by someone who looked Chinese and whom he started referring to as “Brother Orange” because a number of the photos included orange trees. Stopera posted one of the pictures on Buzzfeed, and the story was then spread on the Chinese social messaging service Weibo. Users of Weibo tracked down the man in the photo, who turns out to be a restaurant owner in the Southern Chinese city of Meizhou. In China, the story went viral and both men became minor celebrities. Brother Orange and Stopera started exchanging messages, and Matt decided to travel to Meizhou to meet him. On Buzzfeed Matt has described the experience. It turned out that the two found that they got along very well and despite neither speaking the other’s language, they became close friends. In the NPR interview with Stopera, he talks about the importance of non-verbal communication in their relationship:

We had two translators, but, you know, you’d be surprised about how much nonverbal you can do with each other. You know, how much you slept. Did you sleep well? We also, in the middle of the trip, we developed this, you know, symbol where we tapped our hearts and said happy, happy, happy, happy whenever we, you know, had a moment. And so when I think about that, that’s just big.

On the Buzzfeed page, Stopera also talks about the role of technology, describing the last day of his trip, being together with Brother Orange:

The last morning of our trip. We don’t have a translator for this part. This is it. The journey is over. What even happened?
We sit in the back of the car. We both are holding back tears. When’s the next time we’re going to see each other? What will it be like? When is he coming to New York to visit me? It’s all up in the air.
In that moment, I couldn’t help but think about the boundaries we had broken down. It’s 2015 and cell phones and computers have changed everything. Language boundaries aren’t that real. We had happily chatted with each other using a translation app. There’s an app for everything. Anything is possible. Thank you, Steve Jobs.

In the end, the stolen cell phone seemed to Stopera to align with an aspect of Chinese culture he had learned about:

I find out that part of the reason why my story resonated so well with the Chinese is that people learned about it during Chinese New Year. Bro Orange’s nephew actually heard about my story spreading on the first night of the lunar moon. This is not an accident. It’s a sign.
I start to believe more and more in the Chinese theory of destiny. It’s big in Chinese culture and another reason why this story was so big there. This is more than just a series of crazy, random coincidences that changed our lives — it’s fate.

The experience leads Matt not only to insights into Chinese culture, but through the natural tendency to compare cultures to think about U.S. cultural practices:

He let me into super-personal parts of his life. I went to his childhood climbing trees, a local temple, and his parents’ house. We even paid tribute to his ancestors. I have a moment when he asks me how I pay tribute to my ancestors. I don’t have an answer. Americans don’t really do that. It’s fucked up and makes me feel bad. Cultural differences, man!

The sense one gets from reading Stopera’s account of his visit to Brother Orange is that despite the language barrier, there was a deep connection made between the two men. That happened in large part because of the welcoming nature of the Chinese people, and of Brother Orange and his family in particular. But it was also made possible by the openness Stopera demonstrated in experiencing a variety of Chinese cultural experiences very different from his normal way of life and his willingness to share those together with his new Chinese friend.

mudbathThere’s a nice segment, for example, about his experience in the mud baths. From the many pictures included in his travel account, it is clear that for many of those experiences, no verbal exchange was necessary.

Fortune Cookies in Shanghai

Co-owners David Rossi and Fung Lam of the Fortune Cookie

Co-owners David Rossi and Fung Lam of the Fortune Cookie

A few years ago I went with two visiting colleagues from our Chinese partner university, Fudan University in Shanghai, to eat at what was considered the best Chinese restaurant in Richmond. They had a hard time with the menu, despite the fact that dish names were given in both English and Chinese.  What really baffled them, however, were the fortunes cookies, which they not only had never eaten, but had never heard of. Anyone who has visited China has experienced how different authentic Chinese restaurant food is from what is sold as “Chinese” in the U.S. This is not unique to the U.S. or to Chinese food.  Consider “Indian” or “Mexican” food in the U.S., but the same applies to Chinese food in India or Russia. In India, for example, adding cheese to a “Chinese” dish is common. Jennifer 8. Lee in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles discusses the various origins of American Chinese food.  She also has done a nice TED talk on the same topic, the hunt for General Tso.

These thoughts were brought on by a story on NPR on a recently opened restaurant in Shanghai, called Fortune Cookie.  It features, of all things, American Chinese food, including General Tso’s chicken, and has turned out to be popular, especially for ex-pats from the U.S. who are nostalgic for the particular variants of Chinese food they grew up on.  The comments from Chinese diners, however, were not universally positive, with the majority finding the dishes too sweet or too salty. Intriguing to the Chinese customers, however, are the white cardboard takeout boxes, something else unknown in China.

Feng Shui to the rescue

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In Hunan Province, a boulder was placed outside a government building to create better feng shui for superstitious civil servants. (Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times)

Article in today’s NY Times about the use of feng shui by local Chinese government officials as a line of defense against trouble. Feng shui (风水,literally wind-water) refers to the ancient Chinese techniques of orienting physical space for maximizing good spirit energy (气,qi), resulting in improved health, prosperity, and luck. It is important for many Chinese to make sure any new building is built with good feng shui, which often means orienting the building in particular ways depending on local landmarks such as bodies of water or mountains. Using feng shui, however, is officially discouraged by the Chinese Communist Party and in fact was outlawed under Mao, as the practice was considered to be feudalistic and superstitious. As more cracks appear in the Communist Party in today’s China, feng shui is making a comeback.

The article gives a number of examples of officials enlisting the help of feng shui to deal with troublesome issues such as peasant complaints, personal problems, or corruption investigations. In Zoumajie, for example, a stone wall was built by the local land resources office in order to block the bad qi emanating from a pair of stone lions in front of a different government building. Other examples:

In 2009, county officials in the western province of Gansu spent $732,000 transporting a 369-ton boulder six miles to the county seat, a move feng shui masters said would ward off bad luck. As part of the consecration ceremony, the county magistrate walked 325 feet toward the “spirit rock,” kowtowing every three steps.

In February 2010, People’s Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece, reported that Cui Xinyuan, the party chief of Gaoyi County in Hebei Province, had installed a decommissioned fighter jet in the middle of a boulevard opposite the government headquarters so he could soar to the empyrean of Chinese power. The jet was intended to block the flow of bad luck, according to local residents, but it ultimately just blocked traffic.

In the latter case, the official’s use of a jet to counteract bad qi didn’t prevent the official from being sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery.  It turns out that hard work and honesty may actually be a better way for officials to prosper, but work is no fun and bribes can be awfully temping.

“Yellow Fever”: Seeking Asians

asianToday the fifth and the last episode of the great Web series, “They’re all so beautiful“, was launched.  The Web site features a forum on race and dating, dealing principally with the obsession some American men have with finding an Asian bride.  The episode today (see below) deals in general with interracial marriages and features snippets of interviews with partners from different races. The first episode explores the general topic of “yellow fever”.  The Web series is leading up to the showing of the wonderful documentary, “Seeking Asian Female” from Debbie Lum (who is also responsible for the Web site), on PBS on May 6.  The film does a good job in portraying the culture shock of the young Chinese bride who is suddenly thrust into married life in the U.S. While Lum’s videos give a good sense of the degree of obsession with Asian women for some men, the Web site “Creepy White Guys” gives the sometimes disturbing (and disturbed) side.

One of the things many of the white males interviewed mention that they like about Asian women is their eyes, exotic and mysterious. In fact, appearance plays a major role in the fetish, with likely the perceived submissiveness of Asian women playing a role as well. Ironically, Asian women sometimes wish they had Western-style eyes. There has been a big increase in plastic surgery by Chinese women to get “double eyelid” surgery.  This is a sign of the increasing wealth of the Chinese middle class, as well as its internationalization.  Some Chinese women also get treatments to whiten their skin. When I spent the summer in Beijing a few years ago, I was in constant danger in walking down the street of having an eye poked out by women holding umbrellas, so as not to allow the summer sun to darken their complexions.

Cheap lunch

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US Treasury Secretary Lew at a Beijing dumpling restaurant

New US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, on an official visit to China, was spotted eating at a dumpling restaurant in Beijing.  One wouldn’t think that would be newsworthy, but it is created a stir in China.  Why?  Because government ministers in China would not consider eating at such a modest establishment.  Total cost for Lew and two colleagues for lunch:  less than $20 (109 yuan).  While such actions as this, and similar behavior by US government officials, such as new US China ambassador Gary Locke buying a coffee with a coupon while carrying his own bag, have brought praise on Sina Weibo (the Chinese Twitter) from ordinary citizens, some Chinese officials are complaining that US officials are trying to embarrass them by their conspicuous non-consumption.  This is all the more stinging for Chinese officials who, under new national leadership, are fighting against perceptions of corruption, cronyism and opulent living on the part of party officials.

Of course, American politicians tend to make a show of being one of the people, in line with American egalitarianism and populism.  In China, despite an official communist “government of the people”, different behavior and treatment based on social status is a long-standing aspect of Chinese culture.  However, with the rise of social media, which has spread fast and widely stories of abuse of power by party officials (and sometimes their offspring), the traditional respect for higher-ups is waning, while the admiration for the modest behavior of US officials is on the rise.

Love Hunters

PeoplesSquareMarriageMarketArticle today in the NY Times about marriage brokers in China, a time honored tradition there, but one that has changed significantly in recent times. The article tells the story of two different spouse searches, one in which a parent plays the role of matchmaker, as is often the case these days in China, and the other – new to me – of agencies being paid exorbitant amounts of money to find the ideal mate. In the latter case, the resources that go into finding a spouse are extraordinary.  In the instance described in the article, there were multiple teams of love hunters (up to 8 in each team) scouring multiple cities for the exact match to the demanding  requirements.

The other extreme are the parents who spend much of their free time in city parks at marriage markets trying against the odds to find a partner for their son or daughter.  Despite changes in Chinese society, it’s still expected that people in their 20’s get married.  Women in particular need to find a mate before they turn 30 or risk being labeled “leftover women“(剩女 shèngnǚ). It’s as awful a way to sum up someone’s life as is the label “illegals” to describe undocumented immigrants.

Crazy English

Li Yang, the infamous Chinese English teacher

Li Yang teaching “Crazy English”

Story on NPR today about Li Yang (李阳), the originator of the unusual language learning method called Crazy English.  It’s a method that’s enjoyed considerable popularity in China and involves shouting out English, either alone or, preferably in a group (the normal Chinese way to do things).  His main motto is “To shout out loud, you learn”.  Another of his sayings is “I enjoy losing face” – pointing to the need for Chinese English leaners to overcome their shyness and fear of making mistakes.  It’s not a method that differs very much from the traditional learning techniques in China, namely repetition and memorization.  According to Wikipedia, there are some 20 million practitioners of Crazy English. The New Yorker had an interesting article about the method just before the 2008 Olympics, as it was being widely used in China in preparation for the Games. There’s also a 1999 documentary entitled Crazy English by Zhang Yuan (张元).

However, he was not in the news today because of Crazy English, but because his (American-born) wife has successfully obtained a restraining order, a first in China.  It seems that Li Yang not only shouts, but hits as well.  In fact, his wife was beaten so badly that in desperation she posted a picture of her face on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) under the heading, “I love losing face = I love hitting my wife’s face?”.  This kind of public acknowledgement of what happens within a family is highly unusual in China, and the message went viral and has led to more pubic discussion of domestic violence.

The wife, Kim Lee, is using her own story to try to raise awareness.  According to the NPR story, “Now, she wants to use her high profile to help others. She is particularly concerned about one woman, Li Yan, who is facing the death penalty after murdering her husband. She suffered years of abuse, during which her husband even hacked off one of her fingers. She went to the police, but they didn’t intervene….Beyond that case, there’s still much to do: China still doesn’t have a specific law forbidding domestic violence.”

You can watch the entire documentary from Youku, it’s in Chinese, but with English subtitles => Crazy English

Exercise & Politics

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Student during a yoga class at elementary school in Encinitas, Calif (NY Times)

A recent article in the NY Times discusses the protests by some parents in a California school district where first graders are having 30-minute yoga classes.  This would seem to be a beneficial program for small children, doing something positive in the area of physical education, just as art and music classes do, as well as foreign language classes. In the age of strictly controlled and standardized curricula, it’s refreshing to see something creative happening, even if on a small scale. According to the article, the yoga sessions have a noticeably calming effect on the 6- and 7-year olds.  So what’s the reason for the protests?  Religious indoctrination, specifically the protesters “were concerned that the exercises might nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs”.  This need to protect children from knowledge has had the unfortunate result in American schools of discouraging teaching about world religions, with a by-product being a wide-spread lack of knowledge about Islam (as well as of other non-Christian religions). In the absence of knowledge, stereotypes replace reality.

The intersection of religion, physical exercise, and politics has had some interesting case histories.  Recently, the Falun Gong spiritual movement in China, combining slow-moving exercises with meditation and a basic moral philosophy, after gaining widespread popularity in the 1990’s, was suppressed by the Chinese government, fearful that such a large movement could threaten state control.  In 19th-century Germany, Friedrich “Turnvater” Jahn (Father of Gymnastics Jahn), who had studied theology, wanted to encourage greater physical fitness among the Prussian youth, after seeing the humiliation of Germany’s defeat by Napoleon.  What started out as gymnastics (he invented the parallel bars, the balance beam, horizontal bar, and the vaulting horse) turned nationalistic and was seen as a threat by the authorities, leading to his arrest.