Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Sociologist's Observations on Teaching in China*

 *A highly edited version of this piece appeared in Change (2013 Jan/Feb edition)

In northwest China, at the very edge of a 30,000 student campus and next to a busy road, the warm dry winds from the mountains to the west are blowing onto the desert plain that is my summer home. This is my seventh trip to China, but first as a visiting professor of sociology at a Chinese university.
What one finds here at the edge of globalization, if they put down their books and turn off their tv’s and “just go out and look” as David Riesman was fond of advising his students, is that the strong cultural and historical forces that rocketed China into the globalized world and brought an influx of Western culture, are countered by equally strong cultural and historical forces that root the Chinese students in a traditional and hesitant stance toward these changes.  And so within the students and within the space they inhabit, the modern, the post-modern and the traditional co-exist. It is a pastiche that makes China as fascinating as it is confusing.
                  In some ways, life at this Chinese University, situated on the western edge of a million plus person city, is a walled-in oasis providing calm amidst the fast-pasted chaos just outside its gates. More than just a calm, however, it seems to be a stronghold of older, more traditional Chinese sentiments anchored by filial piety and respect for elders, even if not of your same family. Classroom monitors, usually the student or students deemed the most promising, attentively watch the professor for any needs that may arise during lecture. The professor writes on the board, the classroom monitor dutifully erases throughout the lecture, sometimes appearing with a wet towel if the board has become too dusty. As the lecture nears its mid-point, and the professor pauses to sip on a cup of hot water, random students attentively appear at the front of the room to replenish the cup with freshly boiled water. Computer monitors, projectors, computers, everything is set-up by the students prior to the professor’s arrival to the room. The job of the professor is to teach. Everything in support of that is dutifully carried out by the students as a show of respect for the learned elder they are studying under. Offices are cleaned, plants are watered, doors are opened, conference travel arrangements for the professor are booked and copies are made and distributed- all by students.
The existential concerns for both my American and Chinese students- as is likely the case for most students at the edge of adulthood- are the same; worries over job prospects upon graduation, the angst that comes from negotiating first loves, and the universal Freudian battle they suffer as they attempt to balance the hopes, desires and dreams of their parents against their own. Though in China, still in a state of what Wei Fui has called “incomplete modernity,” this struggle is more pronounced; another dichotomy with students caught in a psychologically precarious culture that still demands traditional filial piety while simultaneously selling the modern and post-modern sexual and materialistic promises of a narcissistic consumer culture. The students speak with excitement of the homes that are now in reach for their generation, of the cars and all the material abundance that just a generation before was reserved for the ruling elite. But they are also uneasy with these dreams.
This generation has witnessed cataclysmic change transforming at an indescribable speed and scope the social landscape. Of all the negative press China receives, what is not often reported, is that China has managed to create in less than a generation, what is soon to be, if it is not already, the world’s largest middle class, and they started with essentially no middle class.  My students sense this. The majority of students that I have engaged in conversation with come from small rural villages where their parents still work as farmers. The bustling consumerism and city-life outside the campus gates, literally a world away from the isolated, small and indescribably poor rural areas that they come from, is soon to be there’s. But for the time being, like much of China, they are caught between this change, stuck between two worlds.
Without exception, all have expressed wishes to stay in the city, and most have dreams of moving to even bigger, and more famous Chinese cities where jobs and money seem even more plentiful. A handful want to venture outside of China, to the US or Europe. Yet, most also express a contradictory desire and wish to live with their families to help support and show devotion to their parents. As one student told me, “We don’t say ‘I love you’ often to our parents. If you love them, you will return to help them as they get old. It is what you do that matters, not what you say.” The students are living testaments to what Arthur Kleinman, an anthropologist, psychiatrist and one of the most adept observers of the Chinese and their culture, called, a “divided (Chinese) self.” Even in my students’ hopes and dreams it seems, worlds collide.
And so on one level, they appear strikingly similar in their psychological struggles to American students. But on another level, the level of the communal soul still present within these students, the struggle is agonizingly more pronounced. The contradictions, complexities and multitudes of these unbridgeable differences and deep sameness were never made more so apparent than when I connected my Chinese students with my American students “face-to-face” via Skype.


With a 12-hour time difference between us, arrangements were made to have my US class meet at 8a East Coast time, while it was 8p Beijing time. The American class of 25 students gathered in their modern, air-conditioned, stadium-style classroom. The projector screen, electronically controlled, with build-in speakers throughout the room, broadcast in life-size images the scene from my side of the world. Gathered in my small Chinese apartment, were eight Chinese students huddled around a small 13-inch laptop. The dimly lit room was crowded and hot, as a dust storm blowing outside forced the windows closed, cutting off the only means of ventilation.
My Chinese students’ English is proficient though difficult to understand until you become accustomed to the strong accent. My Chinese is bu tai hao (not good), and my American students no know Chinese. So arrangements had been made for a translator on the American side if needed. At first, though there was no need. There was only silence. The Chinese students stared at what they later described as amazement at the modern, movie-like theater that was the American classroom. On the American side, some students stared back, but many only stared at their own personal screens broadcasting competing images from some other distant place.
As a culture, being much more direct, the first question from an American student was political: “Does your government’s internet censorship bother you?” The response from the Chinese students was expected- an automatic, ideological and programmed reply: “Some restrictions are necessary in order to maintain a harmonious and peaceful society. But the smart ones who really want to know something, will find a way around.” A series of similar questions from the American side followed, with programmed, script-like, politically-correct responses from the Chinese side. An American student: “What do you think of not having a democracy?” The Chinese reply: “China is a democracy and at the local level we have elections, but it takes time to create a new way of governing, and for harmony and stability, it is best that this is a slow change.”
Once the topics turned to the students’ daily lives, the tone changed. The predictable, robot-like responses ceased. Smiles formed as empathy was broadcast with the realization that in their free time, the students were much the same. Students found common ground in the music they listened too, in the movies they watched and in the misery that comes from the pressures of standardized tests and demanding parents. During the 75 minute session, the students both in America and China danced Salsa-style for each other (though none of them were from Latin-America), demonstrated their singing ability with songs that both groups knew the words too, discussed their favorite alcoholic drinks and discussed their desires for the same Western luxury cars they hoped to buy when they landed their first jobs. Though of my eight Chinese students that were present that night, only three had parents that owned cars.
As the session drew to an end, the Chinese, being both indirect and hesitant to get into political matters for a long array of historical reasons, finally felt comfortable enough to ask what they really wanted to know of Americans: “Why do you love violence?”
While up to this point I had purposely stayed in the background, not wanting to interfere with deep and meaningful exchange that had unexpectedly and spontaneously sprung up between the two groups, I felt a need for my Chinese students to expound and clarify what they meant. The Chinese students clarified with the following evidence: “Most of your movies that we see are about war or violence.” “You feel strongly that your citizens should own guns.” “You have one of the highest murder rates of advanced societies.” And finally, the most damning indictment, “In our lifetime, you have been at war for more years than you have been at peace.”
The American students’ response: “We carry guns because we value freedom.” “We have a high murder rate because of our free and uncensored media and video games that our children watch” “We don’t fight wars because we love violence; we fight for peace and freedom.”
 The American students, like the Chinese before them, when confronted with a tough and challenging truth, responded with an automatic, ideological and programmed reply. The Chinese students were as confused and befuddled by the illogical and programmed responses, as the American students were confused and befuddled before them at the equally illogical and programmed reply from the Chinese.

But in the students’ dancing, the singing, the shared consumeristic dreams, but mostly in the confusion, as a sociologist, I saw a deep and telling sameness.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Freedom with Chinese Characteristics*

Sorry for the long delay between posts. My blog was inaccessible while I was in China. Below is a more-serious-than-normal essay about freedom and Chinese culture, but really, is more a reflection on the state of individual freedom in our own culture. For those who have enjoyed the lighter and more humorous previous posts, my apologies upfront for this one.

THERE is no need to rehash in detail the accusations that have been levied against China- but nearly all, in one form or another, deal with political restrictions or restrictions on information. In my assessment, most accusations are true. Freedoms, at least as we in the West understand these, are severely limited here. As an American professor at a Chinese university, you know what not to speak of, mostly because you are told in indirect ways not to speak of these things.  Known as the “Three T’s”, as a waiguoren (foreigner) it is best to avoid mention of Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan. And when your colleagues and friends feel comfortable enough with you to broach these subjects of politics, religion and power, in non-party, critical ways, it is often done in hushed tones with glances to see who is around and who may be listening.                                                                                 

So too is information restricted on the internet. To google (when the website is not altogether blocked) the “Three Ts” is to immerse yourself in an Orwellian world where Tiananmen Square only exists as the seat of power in Beijing; Taiwan is a Chinese province, and Tibet has been made a peaceful and idealic land wrestled and liberated from the backward ways of barbarism. In this way, information is restricted, and ideology is offered in its place, and this is troublesome to my Western sensibilities.              

But I have come to believe something important from living and working here: In some ways, I feel freer in my day-to-day life in China than I do in America.

Freedom in China                                                                                                   

This may seem absurd to Western sensibilities.  But one must remember, China is more than its government. In fact, my sense is that for many Chinese, the government is much like the weather. You may not like it, and it may make your life hard for the moment, but you tolerate it, because it will eventually change. The 20th Century alone saw the end of the last dynasty, partial rule from both Western powers and Japan, competing claims for power from the Communist and the Kuomintang, the eventual rule and reunification of the country by Mao’s forces, the restructuring of economic and social life under Communist-inspired policies, and the subsiding of this grip with Deng Xiaoping’s Opening and Reform, rolling back the worst of the Mao-era policies and ushering in “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics.”

But beneath this, at the level everyday sociology, the level often ignored in American narratives about China, and against the heaviness of its hard history that undoubtedly weighs down the Chinese psyche, there’s a lightness to their everyday routines. Certainly, government bureaucracy has its realm of iron power, but for the daily life of the Chinese, some of the time, they carve out spaces offering levels of emotional freedom that compared to America, reveals stifling levels of bureaucratic and emotional incarceration in our own character-type and daily routine.                                                     

Some time ago at a restaurant in China, my toddler son was injured while playing. It was a scenario likely to have never happened in America.  Walking behind me through a motor-powered revolving door, he mistimed his exit. Half his body was instantly pinned between the wall and the still spinning glass door. The safety mechanism failed to stop the door when it felt the pressure of his body wedged against the frame. Likewise, the door continued to squeeze tighter and tighter even after I frantically punched the emergency off button- it was not connected. It was only a father’s frightened and desperate strength at seeing his son in dire straits that finally broke the door open and freed him. But no one worried about lawyers and lawsuits, though they did worry for him. It was my own fault, not the fault of the restaurant.  I should have been watching him better. And they were right. When we brought him to the hospital, no one called health insurance for prior approval, nor did they ask about insurance. They only asked what his troubles were. He turned out to be ok, in far better shape than the door that pinned him; just sore and bruised and scared- much as his father was. And to my surprise, I did not have to explain the situation to social workers before I was allowed to leave with him. We simply went to a window, paid an incomprehensibly small amount of money and left. The ordeal was over.      

Minor car accidents in China, which we have been in one, are not followed by furious calls on cell phones from inside the car to the police, the ambulance, the tow-truck company, the insurance company and finally a lawyer, and all followed by car rental companies, body shops and incomprehensible bills, often from outside contracted agencies. Unlike America, where our bureaucratic ethos demands we remain emotionless and channel our rage through a never-ending maze of bureaucratic outlets (often times making us even angrier), here, the drivers exit, inspect the damage and negotiate. A crowd gathers, and often with the help of the bystanders, a ruling is made as to who is at fault, money is exchanged, and all go about their day.    

Likewise, it is common to see high school kids drinking beer at restaurants during their lunch break. No one cares. It is not an issue. Parents do not consult psychologists, the school does not suspend them, the police and courts do not get involved and the students are not required to attend classes on the dangers of alcohol. To ask the Chinese, as I did, at what age is one allowed to drink alcohol, is to have them respond with “At what age do you allow people to drink water?” One does not have to go to specially sanctioned stores, at sanctioned hours on pre-approved days and produce government issued identification to buy alcohol. It is available at all times, everywhere, like water, and is not judged and treated as a special legal or moral category.          

But it is driving on a Chinese street where the difference in freedom is really felt. People here drive like they walk, and they walk the same way water flows. Traffic laws exist. But I have never seen them enforced, and rarely are they followed. Sidewalks serve as passing lanes, one-way streets are any-way streets as cars will travel in both directions and sometimes backwards while performing a u-turn (all things I have seen first-hand or experienced while riding in a taxi). Painted lines demarking lanes serve simply as artwork and speed limits, both minimum and maximum, are arbitrary numbers. Cars compete with bicycles, which compete with animals, who compete with a forklift in reverse carrying a noodle stand in the middle of an expressway (something I saw on my most recent stay), and all compete with the pedestrians who will leapfrog across even highways if it is the most efficient way to get to their destination. Jaywalking as a violation is unheard of, restrictions on the type of vehicle that can be on the road are non-existent, and no one is afraid of police issuing seatbelt tickets. It is your car, how many wheels you have on it (three wheeled, chain driven cars are common), where you park it, what you do in it and what you do while driving it is your own damn business. And so no one seems to get angry at the chaotic freedom that is Chinese driving culture. It contrasts greatly with the American way, where, as noted by the social theorist Jean Baudrillard, we exist in a land of freeways littered with “Must Exit” (1986:53) signs.         

Finally, I remember in America picking up my infant son from the hospital after he was born. I had to speak with a nurse and produce a car seat before they allowed me to take possession of him. In China, when I pick my child-up from his Chinese Pre-K, he becomes angry in our insistence that he be strapped into his car booster seat. He wants to ride with his friends, between the legs of their parents, tied together at the torso with a small rope, as they speed away laughing, weaving in and out of the chaotic and exhilarating traffic on their gas powered scooters.    

The lack of bureaucratic restrictions obviously carries its own problems. Though I suspect that an analysis might show this is not always so. If the unseen apparatus of regulatory systems aren’t looking out for my friends, I wonder if I am more apt to pay them more care myself? In an American culture that is so defined by a bureaucratic ethos, we are often blind to the fact that custom and tradition can provide needed functions for the common good. Not everything must be institutionalized or bureaucratized. But, as my family personally experienced, safety issues abound. As an American writing to an American audience, there is no need to expound on these. They are obvious. One only needs to turn to any number of Chinese or Western publications to read about environmental degradation, food safety issues, exceedingly high rates of traffic fatalities and injuries, and numerous other issues that arise from lax or non-existent regulatory systems in China.                                                       

No culture’s way of life is perfect- their solutions generate new problems. My point is that unlike in America, the stress and anxiety that comes from the never-ending entanglement one has with government and corporate bureaucratic organization, and even more so, from our neighbors and ourselves who have internalized this control, weighs much less heavy on my psyche in my day to day non-political activities while I am here. The fact that America has the highest incarceration rate (both in sheer numbers and proportion of our population) of any industrialized nation, including China, speaks volumes about the amount of laws and regulations that we allow. We are not more deviant than others, only more accepting of external and internalized bureaucratic control in our daily routines it seems.    

Long before Baudrillard or Michel Foucault became fashionable, theorists of American and Western culture were noting the increasing surveillance, control, stress and anxiety mounting in the everyday life of Americans. David Riesman (1950), author of The Lonely Crowd, the best-selling sociology book of all-time, described the American in an age of diminishing autonomy and increasing control from peer groups and bureaucratic apparatuses, as harboring increasing levels of “curdled indignation” in a country that demanded mass conformity- including an expression of “niceness” at all times. Similarly, C. Wright Mills (1959) described Americans as “cheerful robots,” controlled by increasing bureaucratic and peer-group oversight not only in their actions, but also in their emotional responses in the face of this control. The contemporary social theorist Stjepan Mestrovic (1997) writes of Americans as “postemotional,” manipulated and controlled to the point we are now unable to generate spontaneous and authentic emotional responses to cultural and personal events. Erich Fromm ([1941]1965) even foretold of a happy-faced fascism internalized in the emerging Western character-type. While my own internalized control will not allow me to go as far as Fromm in characterizing American culture (my god, what would my colleagues think?), there seems to be some truth to these sentiments that run counter to our ideological beliefs about ourselves.                                                                                            

And herein lies, perhaps, part of the explanation for what I perceive to be increased everyday freedoms in China. While Chinese society is much older than Western culture, over the last two generations it has been born anew.  While Walt Whitman (1855) enjoined Americans to choose a first-handed life over an inherited one, China has no such choice. It finds itself in a newly emerging social order that precludes any guidance, advice or direction from past generations. They must make it up as they go. As one of my students in China stated to me, “My parent’s ways are too backward. Life is different now. They are too old to understand what is going on. But I don’t understand it either. That’s my problem.”

Despite 5000 years of history, little exists to help them understand the massive shift that has re-crafted the environment they now inhabit.  Unlike Westerners, whom both Foucault and Mills indicate have internalized controls that make outward freedoms illusory, the Chinese exist in a still forming environment. Not only do they yet have no internalized controls to help them navigate the new order, in the newly emerging socio-cultural environment, neither does there yet exist externalized bureaucratic structures to control, direct and inhibit emotional and interactional agency in many phases of daily life.

On one hand, the conservative forces that demanded conformity- filial piety (see Fei 1946 and 1992) and communal ethics housed in the communist work units (see Fong 2011)- have grown exceedingly dim in the post-Mao era. On the other hand, interactional rules have yet to solidify surrounding the new social order that has sprung forth amidst the great wealth produced by capitalism. In many ways, China exists in an anomic state, both a state of normlessnesss in the older Mertonian conception of this term (see Merton 1938), and as an internalized “infinity of desires” as understood within neo-Durkheimian thought (see Mestrovic 1992). It is an extreme state of freedom that is at once both troubling and liberating.

While political restrictions and the behest of ironclad seats of bureaucratic power are still the norm in political interactions, China’s current anomic condition offers personal and everyday freedoms that are palpable. Freed from the demands, surveillance and control rooted in traditional filial piety and the now defunct communist work units, existing in a newly-born consumer and public culture with yet solidified interactional and emotional rules, and with yet established bureaucratic oversight of many of the emerging consumer-created spaces and activities that have become possible within the last generation, Chinese culture is increasingly challenging the dominant Western narratives on freedom in China. 

Yes, restrictions and lack of freedoms do exist here. Problems are numerous. China is not a utopia. But what one finds, if they put down their books and turn off their TV’s and “just go out and look” as David Riesman was fond of advising his students, is a culture and a people immensely more complicated and dynamic than what mainstream Western narratives indicate, and in many ways offers, at least for the moment, a type of emotional and interactional freedom that has long disappeared within Western culture.

*A slightly reworked version of this essay is forthcoming in Societies Without Borders: Human Rights and the Social Sciences.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1988. America. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso Press.

Fei, Xiaotong. 1992. From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society. Translated by Gary G.          Hamilton and Wang Zheng. Berkeley, CA: University of California        Press.

Fei, Xiaotong. 1946. “Peasantry and Gentry: An Interpretation of Chinese Social Structure and   its Changes.” The American Journal of Sociology LII:1.

Fong, Vanessa. 2011. Paradise Redefined: Transnational Chinese Student and the Quest for Flexible Citizenship in the Developed World. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Fromm, Erich. [1941]1965. Escape from Freedom. NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Merton, Robert. 1938. “Social Structure and Anomie,” American Sociological Review 3:672-682.

Mestrovic, Stjepan. 1997. Postemotional Society. London: Sage

Mestrovic, Stjepan. 1992. Durkheim and Postmodern Culture, New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. NY: Oxford University Press.

Riesman, David, Nathan Glazer and Reul Denney. 1950. The Lonely Crowd: A study of  the changing American character. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Whitman, Walt. 1855. Leaves of Grass. London: Trubner and Company.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How Bout Them Apples?

As my in-laws stay in the States begins to wind down and as I prepare for my annual trek to China, I suppose it’s appropriate to turn the tables a bit. Much of what I have written on and about has been the cultural screw-ups and misunderstandings that my in-laws have engaged in as foreigners to my culture. But none of us are immune to such strangeness, least of all myself. In a few weeks, I will pack my bags, will take a 13-hour flight, and will arrive in a land where I will suddenly find myself the strange foreigner in their culture.

Strangeness is not a function of the person. It is a determination; a label that is handed down by the larger social environment that one is placed in. This is the root of culture shock that many have experienced when travelling abroad. Yes, one finds one’s self surrounded by the strangeness and oddities of the people, places and customs of where one has travelled. But this is not the deepest source of the stress and anxiety one experiences while abroad. Cultural shock springs from the realization that it is you that has suddenly become the foreigner, the deviant, the stranger.  Everything you do and say marks you as being different, of being ignorant, of being strange.

I will never forget in America, when a female Chinese acquaintance responded to my question of how her day was going: “Not well. I was just trying to leave the mall and a man fingered me in the parking lot.” It took me several seconds of absolute stunned silence to realize that what she meant to say was “shot me the finger.” When you are a foreigner in a foreign land, even in the most innocuous of situations and conversations, our strangeness marks us.

As I prepare for my annual summer stay in China, I’m mindful that I will soon metamorphosize in Kafkaesqian fashion into my own strange creature. Soon, very soon, it will be I with my pale skin and big nose and round eyes that will be gawked at and laughed at as I stumble and trip over the cultural divide that separates Chinese and American culture. The fact that I arrive to China, a racially monolithic country, with a Chinese wife and a bi-racial child in tow, only seems to add to my perceived strangeness while there. If that were not enough, my actions while in China only make it worse.

While I’ve made yearly trips to China since I was married 8 years ago, last year marked my first extended stay working as an affiliated professor with a Chinese University. It was an amazing experience that shaped me in ways that I have not yet fully come to understand. While I had spent considerable time living and travelling through most parts of the country with my Chinese side of the family, experiencing China in ways impossible for most foreign tourists, last summer marked my first attempts to go it alone. I needed those first 6 or 7 visits to get my footing, to learn the cultural nuances that would have otherwise overwhelmed me.

I had enough experience in country that I instinctually reached for toilet paper before leaving the house, something most Western visitors to China forget to do to their own detriment. Toilet paper is generally not provided in public restrooms there. Likewise, I had come to master the squat toilet, going so far as to prefer the Chinese hole in the ground to the Western style bowls, as the Chinese-way allowed me to do my business without having to come into contact with the surfaces that god knows how many other people had sat on that day. In fact, I had mastered the squat toilets to such a degree, using one while squatting on a moving train no longer sent waives of anxiety through my body.  And I had come to appreciate the art of the scrum that stands in for lines or ques that we in the West form into. Straight and orderly lines do not happen in China, and if you attempt to “politely” wait your turn, you will be waiting in China ‘till hell freezes over. I had learned to artfully push and squirm and wedge myself into the masses to make it to the front of whatever entrance the scrum had formed around.

And so I arrived last summer confident that my hard won knowledge and mastery of the cultural know-how of day to day living would be enough to allow me to blend in, to be accepted, to be a native. I had my own job, my own class of Chinese students, my own colleagues and my own apartment. I was ready to stake out on my own, to cut the safety net of my wife and family whom in the past, I could rely on to act as my guides and chaperones, and more often than not, to be the “fixers” who could apologize to others and explain to them all the rude, mindless cultural messes I created in interactions with the Chinese.  I was taking off my training wheels.

So I intentionally left for China three weeks ahead of my wife. It was an amazing experience. Forced to go it alone, my Chinese language skills grew more in that first three weeks than had done in the previous 2 years of studying the language. I found that I could go to the grocery store, to the markets, to restaurants, and could take cabs around town. It was not easy, things did not always go right, but even in these instances, I found that I could handle the situation and make myself understood. I anxiously awaited the arrival of my wife, not because I missed her (though I did), but because I wanted her to see all that I had accomplished.

Three weeks after starting my job there, she finally arrived. As is traditionally done in China, the University threw a formal banquet for us. They had waited until her arrival so both of us could be in attendance. Being the dumb-ass Texan I wrote about in a previous post, I try to avoid such events like the bird flu. I always say or do the wrong thing. I’m not good with small-talk, I never know which piece of silver wear to use or in what order, and the more anxious I get about all these things, the more I drink, which only makes things worse.

So I should have known to watch myself when we arrived to a huge banquet table and was led past the department chairs and deans in attendance, and were placed in the seat of honor, directly next to the University Provost.

The banquet began as all Chinese banquets do- with tea and cigarettes. I don’t smoke- unless I’m in China. And so not to be the stranger, the odd one, I took the first cigarette that was offered to me and set back to listen to the song-like tonal sounds of Mandarin that drifted across the expansive formal table.

You need to know, I don’t speak Chinese. I know some words, some sentence structures, and sometimes, I can pick up conversation themes, but it’s a lot of guesswork for me. But when it comes to food and drink talk around the dinner table, I’m damn near an expert.

This is mainly because eating and drinking is the center of Chinese culture, and so it is the component of the language I have had the most exposure too. In fact, a common Chinese greeting is “吃了吗?”- Literally, “Have you eaten?” So important is food and drink to Chinese culture and daily life, more formal meals can sometimes last 2-3 hours. Because of this, I have become the most proficient in aspects of the language that deal with food and drink.

So when the Provost turned to me and asked in Chinese “你要喝白酒?”- “Do you want to drink some Chinese bijou?” - I swelled with pride in not needing to turn to my wife to have the question translated. Which only worked to stoke my ego and confidence.

Chinese baijiu is a dangerous substance. An alcoholic spirit made of rice, potatoes and various other ingredients, it is best described as Moonshine with a kick. I hate the stuff. The problem is, it is so strong that every time I drink it, I end up forgetting everything, including the fact that I hated it. And so at every banquet I find myself consuming copious amounts of this evil drink. Including this banquet that found me seated next to the Provost.

There are certain truisms one learns in drinking alcohol. For instance, it is true that the more others drink, the better I look. Likewise, it is true that the more I drink, the better my Chinese gets. This was confirmed to me when the Provost held his baijiu glass up, thus quieting the table as he prepared to toast me, and then asked me in Chinese how I had managed to feed myself when I was living alone without my wife?

Giddy from too much baijiu, proud from three weeks of surviving in a foreign country absolutely on my own, and now seated next to my wife, with an inflated ego as she was witnessing firsthand how much of an old China hand I had become in her absence, I egoistically (and drunkenly) announced to the table- in perfect Chinese:

“我买了很多苹果” (I bought lots of apples- pinguo).

Except, what actually came out of my mouth was:

我买了很多屁股 (I bought lots of pigua…ass).

Seated next to the University provost, surrounded by every major dean and department chair at the University, and with my wife next to my side, I announced to the attending dignitaries, that I had purchased prostitutes in her absence.

They are still laughing some 12 months later. Though I’m not at all certain if they are laughing at my butchering of the language, or the look on my wife’s face as she stared me down upon my proclamation.

But they have invited me back to work again as an affiliated professor this summer. And while I would like to imagine that they have done so because of my research record, or my expertise in Western social theory, or even because of the job I did in teaching theory to their graduate students, I can’t help but suspect that they have asked that I come again this summer because if nothing else, I, as the stranger, the deviant, the foreigner, are assured to provide them with an object of humor as I make a daily ass of myself.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

On Becoming a Smart-Ass Texan: Like 爸爸 (Father), Like 儿子 (Son)

The question of racial identity plagues my son of late. At 4 years old, he is already asking me if he is Chinese or American. In his toddler way, it is through the lens of nationality that he approaches race. I side step the question because I think it is a question that is important for him to eventually answer on his own. He must learn to define himself. I cannot do that for him.

While as a sociologist, I know that his eventual racial identity will in large part be a function of how his society comes to define him, his self-identity, race included, is also something that I want him to feel empowered to shape himself.

So when he asks me if he is Chinese or American, I simply tell him that I am an American and his mother is Chinese. I leave it at that.

Even at his young age, though, he is learning to fluidly move between these two possibilities, and learning to use this to his advantage.

A couple of weeks ago at his American pre-school, the administration decided to introduce the students to Chinese culture by having several days of Chinese New Year celebrations. Lanterns were made, stories were read, little red envelopes (小红包) with fake money were distributed, and the kids were taught to use chopsticks to eat ramen noodles.

This was my kid’s chance to shine. He was in his element. As I indicated in an earlier post, he has a real lantern hanging in his living room, he had just had a real Chinese New Year celebration at his home, he had already received the traditional little red envelopes full of real money, noodles are his favorite food, and eating with chopsticks at home each night, he handles them better than I do.

So when his teacher was having trouble picking up the slippery noodles with her two sticks of wood, she asked my son, the Chinese expert who at that exact moment was shoveling noodles into his mouth with his chopsticks, for help.

My son: “I don’t know how to do it.”

His teacher: “But you’re Chinese.”

My son: “No I’m not.”

His teacher: “Oh, are you an American?”

My son: “No!”

His teacher: “Well what are you?”

My son: “I’m Korean!”

As the teacher tells it, he then proceeded to drop the chopsticks he had been flawlessly using and began dancing and singing WapdamGangnam style. (His favorite part is where he loudly sings “Hey! Sexy Ladies!” while he swings one hand in the air as if riding an invisible horse. Rodeo style.)

While his beauty and brains comes from his Chinese genes, he gets the smart-ass side from his Texas father.

In many ways, this fluid movement within and between identities is not something unique to him or any bi-racial individual. For all of us, our notion of self is a fluid set of possibilities that we learn to play with. The Latin root of the word “person” (and “personality”) is persona. Translated literally, persona means mask, indicating that who we are is a function of the many masks that we have at our disposal.

In this regard, my son is no different than anyone else. While I can wear a Texas mask, or an American mask, or a Cajun mask (these representing all the ethnicities at my disposal), and thereby present myself to others as a slightly different person, so too can my son  choose between his own, unique set of masks.

And his smart-ass mask seems to be his favorite. Let me digress.

As any parent of a toddler knows, “Why?” is the most frequent sound that comes out of their mouth and “Put on your shoes!” is the most frequent sound that comes out of the parent’s mouth.

Which turns the process of leaving the house into some twisted version of Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” bit.

Typical morning:

“Put on your shoes.”


“Because we’re leaving. Put on your shoes!”


“Because it’s time to go. Put on your shoes!!”


“Because we’re late. Now put on your shoes!!!”


“Because I said so! I’m not saying it again! Put on your shoes!!!!”


“Stop asking why! Just put on your shoes!!!!”

And on it goes for the next 10 minutes. “Put on your shoes” is such a frequent phrase in my house, my in-laws can now utter this in English.

On this day, I reached my wit’s end with the morning shoe ritual. I finally placed him in time out. Visibly frustrated, angry and running very late, I began sternly lecturing him.

My son, unmoved at my admonishments directed toward him, simply sat there staring at me with a whimsical and quizzical look on his face. When I finally paused to take a breath, he spoke up…

…in fluent Chinese…

“爸爸,我是中国人。我不懂你!” (Baba, woshi Zhongguo ren. Wo budong ni!)

Translation: “Daddy, I’m Chinese. I can’t understand you!”

Like I said, he’s a smart-ass, just like his Texas father.

A wise philosopher once made the claim that it is only through pets and children that we can truly learn something new in life. In my son’s smart-ass comment to me, I found the wisdom in this, for my son has taught me something valuable.

Even at the age of 4, as he explores the possibilities of his self-identity, he is sometimes Chinese, sometimes American, and here of late, he is even sometimes Korean.

But in my eyes, despite the mask he chooses to wear at any given moment, he is always and simply just my little boy…

…who likes to wear a smart-ass Texan mask, just like his proud, Texas 爸爸 (BaBa).