National ‘Face’ & Local Sensitivity (Part 2): One hour of criticism on the “Regular Zhou” column & Tianjin Olympic interviews video

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.)

7 thoughts on “National ‘Face’ & Local Sensitivity (Part 2): One hour of criticism on the “Regular Zhou” column & Tianjin Olympic interviews video”

  1. ” 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.”

    Or She might have been concerned about you.
    You by virtue of being her student may some how be her responsibility(at least in her mind) and what you do and say in Chinese media might reflect either good or badly on her and the school as a whole(In her mind). Some people at the school may have asked her to talk to you, or they may have been upset at her for not in their, opinion, training you right.
    Or
    They may personal be concerned about you and are worried if don’t like China.

    I think is very clear that you and many others love China and as someone who loves China would like to see it get even better. But, just as you found your teacher’s opinions to be shocking she might find your work to be so as well.

    I am up to late! So please ignore my rambeling

  2. I assume that concern for me was part of it. And I also wondered if she’d been designated by some other teachers to deliver the message, but I don’t want to make this seem like it’s *so* important to them. They’ve been dealing with ignorant and insensitive foreign students for years; I don’t think any of them would lose sleep over something like this. ;)

    Often this kind of criticism (from teachers to students, parents to kids), even though it can be pretty harsh and negative by North American standards (much harsher than what I experienced here), is actually expression of care and concern in China. She wasn’t out of line with me at all; it was her specific reasons that I thought were interesting.

    The high degree of sensitivity to China’s image in foreign eyes isn’t as interesting, but I think it’s also worth noting simply because over the last few months it’s been a significant and unavoidable part of our experience here.

  3. “They’ve been dealing with ignorant and insensitive foreign students for years; I don’t think any of them would lose sleep over something like this.”

    Good point, but then again how many of their students have been prolific writers and in the media as well?

    After, reading your blog I really do believe that China and the place I am living in have so much in common, it is hard to understand why they don’t always get each other. Both China, and this country have an inferority complex, feel that everyone has done them wrong, worry about public relations(saving face), edit text books, and help the media to make right choices.

    Write you later,
    Brian

  4. None of their students are prolific writers. This is a free expat magazine, which is fine, but that means the writing quality is that of whoever they can scrounge up from the local international community (like me). It also means that it’s ghettoized, since it only serves a relatively small niche market. Nothing really wrong with all that, and I’m thankful for the opportunity – I just wouldn’t call it prolific.

    Maybe it’s because these nations are so similar that they don’t get along… I’m thinking Confucian heritage/influence, in which publicly saying “sorry” isn’t very easy. That reminds me, the guys that worked with the international students at my former school once mentioned that the ones from your country often had the hardest time fitting in, apparently due to their relatively stronger group cohesiveness/identity.

  5. To comment on the example of the Great Wall in complaint 2, I’m not sure it’s accurate to attribute it to cultural differences.
    Having worked a bit with a historic downtown organization in the U.S., I’ve learned that tastes as to “authentic” vs “prettified” shift back and forth a lot. In the U.S., the older buildings have gone back and forth between original facades, sheet metal slipcovers, and “restorations” over the decades.
    I’d expect similar changes in tastes to happen in China too.

  6. I’m not so sure that prettifying older American downtown buildings and what the Chinese do to the Great Wall is an appropriate comparison.

    At least to me, a bad restoration job on an older downtown building feels different from, say, the Egyptians dismantling the pyramids so they could use the materials to rebuild less crumbly-looking ones, or Italians cementing a plastic, imitation-marble facade over the surface of the Coliseum so tourists can see ‘how it really looked.’ Yet in China, there’s a city that dismantled the nearby portion of the Great Wall so that they could use the bricks to build an imitation of the Badaling section (the most famous section of Wall near Beijing), which they then present to tourists as a piece of China’s history and cultural heritage. The assumption, apparently, was that tourists would prefer the rebuild over the original.

  7. Interesting, I wasn’t aware that that had been done.

    Is it really so different from the various movements at US national parks and national historic sites to either reconstruct things or preserve them in the state they are currently in? I know of a couple of places in the US SW where old Anasazi ruins were rebuilt by the park service a few decades ago and then either abandoned or destroyed since the 90s. There’s also places like Colonial Williamsburg that were rebuilt to present tourists with an idealized 18th century town compared to Historic Jamestowne which presents tourists with what’s essentially an archeological dig.

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