Equal Opportunity Excoriation Available

It has been pointed out to me by certain people to whom I am married that my criticism of China is getting a little…immoderate. That the way I criticize China makes it seem as if I am ignoring the exact same flaws in other countries and societies. I’ll agree that my criticism sometimes gets out of hand, or is simply petty – I have been overly cranky recently, and taking it out on “China” because it’s easy to do. Sometimes it makes me feel better, but often it just makes me crankier, and makes me more likely to act like an idiot for no reason. (Example: Almost laying down my life in front of an illegally turning city bus while shouting PEDESTRIANS FIRST! just to prove a point doesn’t really change the enforcement of traffic laws in Kunming.)

On the other hand, I criticize China because I’m submersed in China at the moment, and because many aspects of life here are highly deserving of criticism. Does this mean that the US isn’t deserving of criticism? Not at all – but I’m not taking random shots at one to be a facile booster of the other. (Unlike some people, coughTomFriedmanyouidiotcough.) And in fact, there are a great many of exactly the same aspects of Chinese and American society that deserve criticism – tremendous income inequality, environmental degradation, citizens’ xenophobia and narrow-mindedness, racism – I could go on.

That said, my absolutely least favorite excuse of people who defend harmful government policies or action/inaction is that the criticizer has no right to criticize, because other countries are or were just as bad. These conversations are exceedingly tiresome:

American: Wow, I can’t believe the government of Fascistan just killed hundreds of indigenous people in the south!

Fascistanian: The US government killed millions of American Indians in its quest to settle the continent! And the Australians did it too!

American: Are you saying that a genocide in the US is a good excuse for the brutal Fascitanian oppression of indigenous people here?!

Fascistanian: FOREIGNER! You can never understand our ways!

I’m not totally lacking in relativism, but my point is that governments and societies often engage in behavior that I find objectively stupid, corrupt, and harmful – China, the US, wherever. Actually, particularly China and the US.

So when we move back to the States I promise to start up a new blog – BirdAtHome, or whatever – and go to town on American stupidity and the totalitarian tendencies of the US government. But for now, we live here. So China gets it.

Nobody Puts China in a Corner!

As this is my first Christmas in China (last year I went back to NYC), I was all prepared to deal with it by mostly ignoring it. Since people here mostly wouldn’t be celebrating it, I assumed, this wouldn’t be that difficult.


It turns out that, with the building of new shopping malls, comes Christmas – even to places where almost nobody knows what Christmas is. The number of new malls and fancy stores that have opened in my neighborhood in the past year is staggering, and means that instead of one instance of Christmas unicorns, this year every shop had pasted up in its windows snowflake decals and cutouts of Santa’s rosy visage.

Santa at the local drug store

Fake Christmas trees are ubiquitous.

Perturbed by this sudden outpouring of holiday cheer, I took to asking random people what they thought Christmas is. The answer I got was mostly, “I have no idea.”

Do you know who that fat guy with the white beard is?

Do you know who Jesus is?

Do you know why your shop manager is making you wear an ungainly red suit and jaunty little hat this week?

You can probably guess what the answer to these questions was.

It turns out that the fancy malls with international brands had got wind that what you do at this time of year is put up styrofoam snowmen in your stores and offer big discounts, and that this increases your business. Then, of course, all of the smaller shops wanted in on the game – so they did the same thing. And enough people here have seen American movies featuring Christmas that they know it’s some international, or at least Western, thing to do – so of course they want to participate.

In case you should think this is a weird, Christmas-specific phenomenon, think again. Why did every company in China have World Cup-themed ad campaigns over the summer, despite the fact that Chinese people don’t really like soccer and China wasn’t even in the World Cup? Because it was a big deal internationally, and China doesn’t like to be left out. Why was the Olympics the most massive event in post-1980’s Chinese history? Because hosting the Olympics means that your country has been recognized by the international community as being worthy of positive attention. Why is the Chinese government particularly mad about this year’s Nobel peace prize? Because the government freakin’ LOVES the Nobel prizes – international recognition of the highest order! Except when it doesn’t make you look so good.

So of course, with something as internationally massive as Christmas, being left out of the fun simply won’t do – even if none of your citizens have any clue what it’s all about, to the extent that signs saying Merry Christmas 2011! are all over the city, because people assume that it must be some sort of new year’s event.

In fairness, it seems as if a few local traditions have begun springing up around Christmas that I simply wasn’t aware of. For example, apparently in the past couple of years it has become tradition to sell very wet and messy cans of Silly String on the streets of Kunming in the couple days before Christmas. Then, on Christmas Eve, massive crowds gather in the streets and public squares around the center of the city (where I live) wearing Santa hats, and spray each other, and random foreign passersby, with the noxious stuff. I think it’s meant to resemble snow (not that it ever snows here).

Or anyway, this is what I found out after I had barricaded myself inside my apartment last night and looked at the local news. But did I know this when I was walking home after dinner? No. And so when a few jerky valet parking guys at a local karaoke bar started spraying me and RP with Silly String, did I accept it as just a bit of local fun? Uh, no.

Instead, I started beating them physically around the shoulders with my gloves, shouting WHAT! THE! FUCK!

(Not my most glorious moment, I admit. But I’m trying to be honest here.)

Anyway. You can probably tell that I’m pretty peeved about Christmas in Kunming. I hate the ignorant and superficial appropriation of other cultural groups’ traditions, and that is unfortunately what mainstream Han Chinese culture seems to specialize in. The only thing that’s saved me from intractable Scrooge-iness is having stayed up until 2:30am last night watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” – it really does make everything better.

So Merry Christmas from me to you! And China wishes you a Merry Christmas too, even if it’s not sure why.

Who Cares About the “Real” China?

And then in December, RP and I went on what we’re calling our “Overseas Chinese Tour”: We met my Dad in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and basically ate our way through the city (including the seafood of Lamma Island), dousing ourselves in champagne. Dad, you can come back to Asia any time!..

Lamma Island

Seafood on Lamma Island

About to board the Star Ferry

From there we flew to Penang, took a train to Kuala Lumpur, a bus to Melaka (or Malacca, if you prefer), and then a bus over the border to Singapore, my hometown!

Khoo Kongsi Temple in Penang

The old train station in Kuala Lumpur

Melaka from Bukit China (China Hill)

Last night of a tiring, happy trip: Singapore's Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre

Click here to see all photos from the trip.

I realized a stupidly obvious thing on the Overseas Chinese Tour: my impression of Chinese culture growing up was, like most people living outside the mainland, based on experiences with Chinese immigrants. Most of these immigrants came from a very small number of places in southern China (like Fujian and Guangzhou); they were mostly speakers of Cantonese or Hakka, they served food particular to those regions in restaurants, built neighborhoods using regional architectural styles, took feng shui really seriously and practiced regional versions of Buddhism and Daoism.

Fastforward to my college years: I become interested in studying “Chinese” and “Chinese culture” – and, because this is 2001, what I study is Mandarin. The geographic focus of my classes is mainland China. Being taught by professors who, given their ages, were often studying at a time when foreigners were not allowed into the mainland, forcing them instead to study in Taiwan, I am given the impression that the mainland is where “real” Chinese culture is happening, where the “real” Chinese language is being spoken. No one told me that this might not be the Chinese culture I was interested in – no one told me that there was the option to study anything else.

Now, I get why it’s important to study the culture and history of mainland China, and why Mandarin is a critically important language in the modern world. But it honestly never occurred to me, during my college years and after, that my real cultural interest might lie with the Chinese diaspora. That Cantonese is a more fun and fiery language than Mandarin. That the food from the regions where immigrants tend to originate is, to me, tastier. That the religions practiced are wild and lively and full of ritual and superstition. That what’s going on, culturally, on the mainland might just be a paler version of what’s going on in the diaspora – not the other way around.

RP compared this aptly to Jews in the world (by the way, I swear we talk about stuff other than Jewishness): if you wanted to learn what Jews are about, you could go to Israel. You could learn Hebrew, could become wrapped up in Arab-Israeli conflict, could…I don’t know. Eat hummus. Or you could go to Brooklyn, learn Yiddish, and eat pastrami. In both cases you would be learning about Jews, but the cultural experiences couldn’t be more different. (And for the record, I love me some hummus. And some Brooklyn.)

I need some healing with China. I’m in a frustrated period. I should maybe stop traveling to southeast Asian countries and start traveling within the mainland, to remind myself that there’s a big Chinese world out there – but I should maybe also remember that China itself doesn’t have to be the Chinese world that I inhabit or relate to. I could learn some Cantonese, I could get involved with public health in Chinese-American communities in the US and elsewhere.

I’m convinced that the ability of diaspora cultures to thrive and be vibrant isn’t just related to their often being representative of a small group of determined, gutsy people from a “home country” – it’s also because those cultures can be allowed to develop without the constraints of things like domestic government manipulation, coercive majority languages and destructive calls for nationalism. As long as a cultural group can keep from total assimilation in their new adopted country, it makes sense to me that they could thrive to an even greater extent than possible in their home country.

Why didn’t anybody teach me that in college?

Alright, I Admit It

If you guessed that I’ve been hiding from my blog, you would be right.


Because I’ve got issues: I’ve got work issues, I’ve got visa issues, I’ve got bigtime issues with being sick of living in China. I’ve got direction-of-my-life issues and existential crisis issues. Plus it’s now below freezing here at night and we have no heat, which is a BIG issue for my fingers and toes. And I just haven’t felt like talking about any of it.

But I have done some beautiful traveling recently, and I haven’t posted anything about it. RP and I were in Vietnam (Hanoi, Haiphong, Cat Ba Island) in October, which was alternately hectic, chill and dazzling. We got to be there during the supposed 1,000th anniversary of the city, which was an opportunity for witnessing huge crowds of people wearing Vietnamese flags as bandanas, and for watching absolutely the most bureaucratic and boring celebratory anniversary TV broadcast I have ever seen! (And I live in China, so that’s saying something.)

Everything you’ve read about Hanoi is true: run-for-your-life street crossings, tasty noodles, great architecture in the historic district of the city¬† – although embattled, what with all the traffic. People trying to rip you off to make a buck. We made a brief stop in the small city of Haiphong, a couple hours to the east by train from Hanoi, which is a sleepy and less worthwhile version of that city, and then hopped over to Cat Ba Island to see the famed Halong Bay and lie on the beach.

Plus, someone actually agreed to rent me a motorcycle on Cat Ba Island, and I only crashed it spectacularly once! Victory.

Happy 1000th Birthday to Hanoi

Streets of Haiphong

Halong Bay, from Cat Ba Island

Halong Bay

Click here to see all photos from the trip.