I arrived in class one August Friday morning, my teacher immediately launched into an hour-long criticism session of my Regular Zhou column and the Tianjin Lǎobǎixìng Olympic interviews video. Turns out she’s not a big fan. I won’t try to rewrite the whole conversation, but I’ll try to summarize her complaints because I think they’re culturally revealing.
I’d suspected that the video hadn’t been a big hit with the teachers because none of them had given me any feedback about it at all, even though most of my past and present teachers had seen it. That seemed conspicuous, but I didn’t see this coming. She told me she was telling me as my friend and as my teacher; she wasn’t at all rude by Chinese standards, but it quickly became apparent that our viewpoints are miles apart.
I think her objections are interesting because to her they were obvious, though I was caught completely by surprise. Looking back, I think the real complaint underneath it all is that she didn’t like the view of China that my articles give to foreigners.
Complaint #1: The purpose of writing people’s stories
She started off by asking me questions about how much contact I still had with the people I’d interviewed, and if they were my friends or not (looking back, I suspect she was testing the waters to see how much she could diss them). Then she launched into a mini lecture on the purpose of writing people’s stories in magazines, which she assumed applied to both Chinese and Western media. The obvious purpose of interviewing people and writing their stories, she said, is to give the public a good example to follow; to give the reader a good feeling. I should pick successful people and write success stories of people overcoming obstacles and achieving their dreams, and I should write the articles in a way that makes them look good.
After laying that out, she proceeded to compare my choice of interviewees and the content of their stories to that standard, demonstrating how I was failing to meet the obvious and apparently universal expectations and purposes of writing these kinds of articles. To emphasize this, she dissed my interviewees, saying how they don’t work hard, they complain about their wages, they’re poor, and they aren’t good examples.
All the talk about deliberately making people into an example led into complaint #2.
Complaint #2: Fake is better and expected
When I responded to her first volley, I tried to delicately explain that foreigners see that sort of thing as “fake,” and they aren’t very interested in a nice but fake image (I was gentle using “fake” because I was afraid it would come off sounding derogatory). But instead she literally defended “fake,” which surprised me, saying that this was a big cultural difference. (Obviously North Americans do prefer fake in their media, but in a different way.)
I brought up the example of when I first bought flowers here for Jessica. They came perfumed, and the shop lady put glitter sprinkles all over them right before she handed them to me. To us, it makes no sense to ruin the beauty of the flowers by faking them up like that. But to Mainlanders, that makes the flowers even more beautiful. Wedding decorations go the same way. And the same thing happens with the Great Wall; Mainlanders like the Disney-fied, rebuilt portions, and foreigners prefer the “real” Great Wall – the untouched, crumbling sections. But my teachers already knows all this stuff and just doesn’t agree (she’s been teaching foreigners for a few years now).
Complaint #3: Don’t give troublemakers opportunities to make trouble
I think she tacked this point on to her argument near the end when she saw that I wasn’t being convinced: Didn’t I know that there are lots of people who are looking for things to criticize and make trouble about, and even if I’m not deliberately writing bad things, I’m not being careful and they could easily make it look like I was out to make China look bad? Did I know what they could do to me? (Things were suddenly taking a slight turn for the dramatic.) Since it’s the Olympics it’s a very sensitive time for China (no kidding!), and I should do everything I can to avoid giving bad people an opportunity to make trouble.
In the end, she was upset because I wasn’t deliberately making China look better by ignoring the more common people and selecting only the better-looking exceptions to present as examples. Giving foreigners a more accurate image of China isn’t what my teacher, and a lot of other Mainlanders, seem to be interested in.
(P.S. – Obligatory caveat: While a lot of people here share similar feelings to my teacher, there are also plenty of Mainlanders who would disagree. There’s plenty of variety of opinion in China, and when that variety crosses our paths in any sort of significant way, I’ll blog about that, too.)