Sunday, October 24, 2010

Is it really just foreign curiosity?

This weekend consisted of dinner with the host grandparents for my host brother's birthday (side note: birthdays are not a big deal here. I didn't even know it was his birthday until he came home from a day of studying, and he didn't even stick around very long for dinner despite it being for him - all of this followed by cake minus the song. The end.), a trip with my host mom to a former government official's garden/home (in China, they can almost be synonymous), and a night listening to live Latin jazz music - Spanish mixed with some Caribbean bongos in the middle of China sounded like a good night to me.

But it doesn't quite sound like the weekend before midterms...

Views from the garden

Black swans

Some really large lilly pads

Not to worry. I promise I'm still learning. I'm taking a class on Modern Chinese History that I find really interesting both because my professor is an amusing Chinese man with a fabulous English accent who often comments on where China went wrong. It's great because he'll tell us what the Chinese think about history and then put in his two-sense ("the Chinese really messed up with the Boxer Rebellion, and hell, they still blame the foreigners!")
Looking at the history of the Opium War has given me a lot of insight into why China has had difficulty modernizing. Here's an excerpt from a response paper I wrote for class...

"Ever since China’s initial contact with the West, China has been skeptical toward the West. Western presence threatened what China viewed as their superior culture, one that could gain little from what they viewed as foreign, 'barbaric' nations. Beginning with Lord Macartney’s Amherst mission to expand trading privileges with China, Westerners disrespected Chinese culture (note: Burning of the Summer Palace as one example) and challenged its 'moral superiority.' During the 19th century, foreign success in the treaty ports revealed the weakness of China’s political system, destabilizing Chinese society and causing citizens to reevaluate their nation’s identity. Humiliated by foreign domination, a new nationalism emerged determined to undermine the success of coastal ports by separating them from the 'authentic,' peasant cities of interior China."

When we talked more about this in class a while later, my professor provided a personal story from just a couple of weeks ago. A fellow Chinese guy approached him on the train and their convo went something like this:

Guy: What are you reading? (intrigued that it wasn't in Chinese)

Professor: Chinese History

Guy: But it's in English.

Professor: Yes?

Guy: Written by foreigners.

Professor: Yes.

Guy: How can you read that!? How can you trust what they say?

Professor: He's a distinguished historian. He went to school, got a degree...

Guy: Do you mean to say that someone not from their native country can really write another country's history? Absurd.

Professor (to the class now): Luckily, he had a ticket for a different car and was kicked out just in time or God help me if I was stuck with him for 3 hours...

And later noted: But even after he was gone some people in the car said 'He had reason though, no?' I'm telling you, people really do think this way.

There's still strong animosity toward foreigners, creating this us vs. them phenomenon.

Which is why when people stare at me while I'm walking down the street, I have to wonder if it really is pure curiosity like my host family says, or if it's resentment. To become modern is to Westernize, to so-called "Westernize" is to reject the real Chinese values. Why can't they coexist? Why can't you adopt modern ways and merge them with traditional values?


Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Perfect Europe

One thing that distinguishes Shanghai from any other city in China is that you can walk out of your apartment and venture to Europe for the day.

Shanghai’s position as a former treaty port meant it modernized while the rest of China was still struggling with the feudal system of landowner vs. peasant. Foreigners and Chinese lived side-by-side (despite the exaggeration of some history books that foreign concess
ions were off-limits to the Chinese), introducing Shanghai to a new lifestyle, new mannerisms, and different goods. Today you can walk around the French Concession and see it as either a bitter memory of Shanghai as a foreign stronghold or as a neighborhood that has become a part of Shanghai’s unique culture.

Today it was a blessing.

Ever since returning from vacation over the Golden Week, I realized how much Shanghai has to
offer and how I better start to take advantage of it seeing that time is already flying by. Yana and I have been on a mission to explore all the great cafés, finding it to be a great compromise between exploring the city and still getting work done (studying Chinese takes away the whole studying abroad and not doing any work thing). The location of our school/home in Shanghai is the real deal – that means we experience the crazy traffic, walk around the not-so-clean streets, and battle with the random “Hello girl!” yells we get because we’re foreigners. So taking a break for a couple hours on the weekends to explore an entirely different side of China is quite enjoyable. We’ve made it to five cafés over the past two weekends and are still on a mission to explore them all before the end of December.

But today’s combination was particularly perfect.

My day started by venturing out to the farmer’s market with two friends I met for the first time going out to salsa on Friday. Yes, salsa. Like I said, Shanghai is a bit different than other Chinese cities. Sure the once-a-month farmer’s market was tiny and naturally filled with foreigners, but it was cool to find the comfort of what I love at home in a country that completely contrasts my own.

You can hold hands under your glove - a farmer's market find

I stopped home to drop off my splurge-purchases to find my host mom excited as ever to tell me she found what I’ve been looking for with a flyer in hand to prove it: a gym/dance class studio around the corner for 200kuai/month ($30). This might sound like a small gain, but after running around random apartment building parking lots (fail), attempting to walk around the school’s field amidst mini-soccer games conveniently located on the track (fail), and trying to do yoga on a hardwood floor (fail), this was great news. Plus, my host mom has been so responsive and gets soo excited when she comes home with something looking-like I mentioned that this moment just adds to how nice she is…she’s certainly in the running against my host dad for most amusing person in my household. I will continue to recommend staying with a host family for the comfort of having a group of people who genuinely cares.
Little Italy --- Little France
(both surrounded by wine - now you know you're "not" in Shanghai)

After this bonding-moment, it was time for some café therapy. The café we ventured to today was in the historic district of Shanghai, reppin an Indi-hip, kind of Spanish theme. After, we traveled to Italy for pizza that came close to Pizza Paradiso/Paolo’s mixed with Chinese waiters – a long-awaited craving, and stopped in France at a bakery before making it home. Sure we spent way too much time chatting over dinner so that any work we caught up on today while at the café was quickly replaced with all the work we avoided tonight, but hell, it was worth it.

But at the end of the day, you know that you never really left...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Let me tell you about Anji...

Anji was by far the best place we went over the break. I don't know if it was the thrill of riding up the moutain highway, managing around blind turns where the risk of falling off the edge or running into a truck carrying piles of bamboo shoots was pretty high, or if it was the breathtaking view we had of nature from below, or if it was just the fact that I hadn't been around so much green since I got here and man it felt good. Needless to say, this place was fabulous.

My pre-vacation post used internet pics, but now I have my very own proof.

By some luck we finally arrived at this god-knows-where "Mountain Clan House," miles away from the bus station where we were dropped off, to be greated by the woman of the house who took us in and adopted up as her kids for the two days we were there. She grew all her own food and raised her own chickens - meaning I finally got the food I've been longing for and my friends got to play with their chicken in the yard before it ended up on their plates. Talk about fresh.

Miss Zhang. And that's my fish purse.

Since it took us half a day just to get to this place, we only had enough time to explore the bamboo forest a bit before eating dinner, bonding with our temporary family (you can see numerous "family pics" in the album below), and heading to bed. The next day we ventured through the "scenic spot," the main attraction in Anji where you pay to walk the steepest steps of your life, stopping along the way to see the different waterfalls. To be honest, this "scenic spot" was more hyped up than it was worth. The natural scene was tainted by the remnants of tourists -- waterbottles stuck in between rocks, people pestering you to purchase bamboo souveniers, bamboo-hut restauraunts as visible as a Starbucks in NYC...It kind of took away from the nature feeling. We still managed to find a few waterfalls, but they shyed compared to the ones I saw in Ecuador. The reason Anji was my favorite though was because I could relax in the farmhouse surrounded by a sea of bamboo - a much needed end to the on-the-go vacation in Xitang and Hangzhou a few days before.

"Really, China?"
We are hiking up miles of steep, stone stairs, sometimes to be crossed with metal mesh stairs where your heels are bound to get stuck, and now's the time you choose to be fashionable? Like I've mentioned before, Chinese women will find any excuse to wear heels.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

China's take on taking home the Prize

China has been waiting for a Nobel Peace Prize winner (considering it doesn't recognize the Dalia Lama as their first-ever winner), but Liu Xiaobo's win is hardly what they asked for. I've gotten e-mails from friends asking me what it must be like in China with the whole controversy...
Controversy? Over What?

I was in the dark. No one was talking about it, I reached news pages with the article content "missing," and I heard of people whose e-mails containing Nobel Peace Prize news articles were erased before their eyes.

After bypassing Internet controls, I learned about Liu Xiaobo's reward for two decades of non-violent struggle over human rights. My next assumption was that us foreigners with our fancy proxy's were the only people in China who knew what was going on, but the Chinese aren't as in the dark as you would think. Some of my friends have Chinese roommates, so after a little investigating, I discovered that the youth population here have found articles and there's a bit of discussion among friends -- Apparently, they're aware of the government's restrictions and buy proxy's too.

What I found really interesting though is that most students commend the numerous world leaders who are asking China to release Liu Xiaobo from prison, at least those who were aware of the news. The more I'm here, the more my stereotypes about the average Chinese student are challenged. Sure there are some that still cherish Mao's red book "poems," but the youth population is more modern than any generation before them. I wouldn't be surprised if they sparked social reform...but from other things I've learned, don't expect it any time soon.

Another Fail.