A Pile of Shards

Four Years’ Notes on China
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Photo by Edmund Downie.

The only time I pass for Chinese is when I speak on the phone. This June, I called the Fashionable Orchid Hotel in Ji’an, a city across the border from North Korea, and asked if they took foreigners. She was puzzled. I told her I was a foreigner. She paused, confused. “Do you have a passport or a national identification card?” The latter is standard ID for Chinese citizens. “A passport,” I said.

I had never gotten that pointed a question about my citizenship status in China, because if I speak Chinese with a peculiarly accurate Beijing rasp, my appearance sits on the far, far end of that assumed continuum between China and the West — very tall, very blond, very white. I traveled once to a small town in the southern province of Jiangxi and spent the day wandering alone, and I wished my shoulders could hunch up to the crown of my forehead, so as to block from my vision at least some of the eyes looking my way. Of course they stared, and they deserved no ill will from me for it. I let my eyes go numb with acceptance and boiled fitfully inside.

One little boy followed me that day for 10 minutes, until I stopped in the downtown district and pointed a camera at him. He let out a shriek and ran away.

 

When I visited China in spring 2010, I had the impression that I could somehow surmount the strictures of approaching the country with a foreigner’s consciousness. Surmount to where, exactly, was less clear. The idea was negatively defined. I made it out of clippings from The New York Times, The Atlantic, and various other publications that offer themselves up as vessels for the memes of national political discourse. Their ambitions of generalist greatness require their analysis to be constructed upon a substratum of the familiar. China is big, China is repressive, China maltreats Tibet. These are the elemental components of these publications’ work. Those thoughts can be combined with fresher ideas to create compounds of genuine insight. But it is a rare article that will not be synthesized at least in part from them, and by extension, the orientation towards China they represent,  a cat’s cradle of fear and ecstasy rooted in the concerns of the West’s transnational elite..

I came to China that spring, and I wanted a mode of thinking that could extract those elements from my own head with the precision of a pair of tweezers, until I could stand imperiously above the publications that had exposed me to China and point out why they were wrong. The foundation, I supposed, was language, and on that front, I was a ferociously directed student. But I needed also to read the right things about China, from sources directed at China-immersives, rather than China-dilettantes. I developed a stable of favorites that spring and kept up with them for most of the next two years in college. I cut the Times out of my Google Reader and pored over takedowns of Western media reports on Hidden Harmonies, the English-language project of several Chinese expats, dedicated to savaging Western commentators and their misperceptions of China. Their postings felt like the work of unusually thorough YouTube commenters, and my own attempts to understand them were a high-wire act of self-dissolution, an attempt to liquidate my biases without submitting unreservedly to their ideas.

I remember the post I found most convincing. In the summer of 2011, the Georgetown University basketball team played a professional Chinese team as part of its tour of the country, and a brawl broke out. The Hidden Harmonies blogger “melektaus” said that Western media outlets blamed the melee’s uglier moments on the Chinese side and downplayed the Georgetown players’ roles as instigators. “Even in the US’s long history of yellow(peril) [sic] journalism against China,” s/he wrote, “coverage of this game is a salient example of lack of balance and outright prejudice against China and its people.”

Video of the brawl’s triggering moment seemed to show a Chinese player committing a hard foul on a Georgetown player, followed by the Georgetown player swinging wildly at the Chinese player’s face. I sat at dinner with my parents and told them how wrong Western observers had been.

 

It was this summer, on my fourth visit to China, when I finally realized that, despite three years of language study, an in-country research project, and a self-identity inextricable from long-term exposure to China, I could not warm myself to Chinese food. I am normally an ecumenical eater, but I wandered in and out of restaurants this summer in jumpy frustration until I found a dish I liked or was too tired to find another.

Other habits of my past visits were fading, too. I was no longer blogging, nor was I taking the frenetic notes I used to collate my thoughts when I travel. These two activities had been the supposed vessels of my intellectual liberation, in which I would gather the products of my dedicated study and refine them into evidence that I was surmounting my foreigner’s consciousness. But China felt too familiar now to be analyzed through these media. I was no longer interested enough in my passing impressions to think them worth crystallizing in any printed form.

It was also dawning on me that the moment of severance from my foreigner’s mindset would not come in the manner I had imagined. I would experience no elevating drift of consciousness from the Western to the — Chinese? Non-Western? The two-poled line is not real. Old-guard Maoists are not state-sponsored hacks are not free-market champions are not American business elites are not liberal champions of democracy, and on and on, endlessly refracting in a series of negations. I am left with a pile of shards.

What can I create from them? Experience is a fickle glue. I have walked through ancient Korean tombs in the borderlands of Northeast China. I have seen Communist Party slogans emblazoned on bus seats. I have gone to the house of a man who found his spiritual awakening as an Amway salesman. Chen Xiaoping grew up poor in the rural southwest, studied nuclear engineering, grew apart from it, found his classmates lifeless. There are larger messages about this country to be found in Xiaoping’s story, if you want to find them there. You can find messages everywhere you go, and they can say whatever your experiences convince you they say, and only your own dogged distrust can militate against this sort of conquest.

The price is a helpless fog. I can talk about the economic future of China in any number of ways, but not with a good sense of what I actually believe. On these questions, at least, I don’t need an opinion. But I judge the food without willing to. Men mean to show affection when they grab my forearm while speaking to me, but I shiver at their touch.

I do not regret my approach to studying China. I am glad that I can conduct research in Chinese, and if distancing myself from the Times and its peers was crude, it may have been the sort of extreme step I needed to reconsider the worth of these sources with fresher eyes. But my initial goal of transcending foreignerdom has given way to a sense that my task when I study China is not a linear movement from one perspective to another so much as the exploration of a vast and multidimensional mental space studded with all sorts of viewpoints. Familiar labels like “American elite” give that space a sort of structure, linking ideas together in an accessible way. We should not be content with the ease of these parochialisms, but it also must be said that what we use to replace them are just as much our creations. There is no two-poled line, but, by the same token, there is no structure. Because who, really, is the American elite, and why are they so prominent in the mental space I created when I first started exploring China? Why was I so concerned about being like them?

The answers to this question, and many others, have structured the way I think about China. As I change, I change in reference to them, and in reference to changing reference to them. I construct and navigate that vast and multidimensional mental space through just such a series of transformations, always traceable to my earlier orientation, and inextricable from it. Such are the strictures of the foreigner’s consciousness. Such are the strictures of everyone’s consciousness.

They stared at me in Jiangxi, and the attendant on the phone thought I was Chinese, and I’m located somewhere between those poles and so many others. So many as to no longer be poles, but just an chaotic mess of points and points and points. I give it structure because I have to. It is dichotomies like Chinese-Western, democratic-authoritarian, capitalist-communist that give order to my thoughts, even as that order skews those thoughts in restricting ways. But the chaos bubbles beneath.

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