China documentaries (Pt. 1): blue jeans and revolutions

The arrival of my big-budget Jackie Chan Chinese propaganda history epic movie debut prompted me to brush up on some Chinese history, so I recently re-watched China: A Century of Revolution, and that’s put me on a Chinese documentary kick. So here are some brief reviews of China: A Century of Revolution, China Blue, and Declassified: Tiananmen. I’ll review Young & Restless in China, Up the Yangtze and Last Train Home in Part 2. We found all of these at our local (Canadian) public library. I’d love to hear your recommendations!

China: A Century of Revolution

China: A Century of Revolution is a 6-hour sweep of China’s 20th century history from 1911 to 1997. That’s a lot of complicated history to cover in not very much time, and perhaps this film’s greatest weakness is that it leaves a lot out. But the details it does include — the interviews — are priceless. From ancient-looking Mao-suited peasants recalling the adventure and tragedy they experienced in pre-Liberation China to former Red Guard and Tiananmen leaders, from true believers in Mao to controversial figures like Li Zhisui, watching people who have experienced the history I’ve read about tell their stories was powerful. And the people interviewed are interesting characters themselves — some funny, some heartbreaking, all memorable. It’s also packed with great archive footage. There is no way it’s not banned in China, but thanks to the largely unregulated black market for rip-off DVDs, I bought a copy at a store in a shopping centre on 紫金山路 in Tianjin for about $3. It was being sold next to the old revolutionary operas from the Cultural Revolution.

For more about China’s modern history, see our Chinese history category, which includes:

China Blue

China Blue portrays life in a denim factory for three village teenage girls who’ve migrated to the coast in search of work to support their family. It’s a surprisingly intimate and exposing look at the conditions and management of a typical (actually better-than-average) Chinese factory. I don’t know how they pulled it off, though they were apparently interrogated by the police on numerous occasions and had film confiscated. Although the film shows rather than tells, it certainly has an axe to grind — Chinese workers are blatantly abused and the fault ultimately lies not with the Chinese factory owners, but with the organizations who benefit most from the labour exploitation: the Western corporations who insist on rock-bottom prices and high-pressure deadlines, whose halfhearted auditing of their suppliers’ working conditions is really just for P.R. and legal coverage back home, not for the workers’ protection. Basically, the film draws a damning direct causal connection between exploited Chinese teenagers in sweatshops and Western corporations and consumers.

They managed to film all kinds of things, funny and dramatic, including:

  • workers wondering about the people who would wear the jeans and how incredibly big they must be;
  • an emotional confrontation between overworked, unpaid workers and the boss, co-led by an experienced 14-year-old;
  • business negotiations between a foreign customer and the factory boss, illustrating where the pressure to abuse workers past their breaking point comes from;
  • a Spring Festival village family reunion, what all migrant labourers look forward to but some can’t afford;
  • both the boss’ and workers’ first-hand opinions of the other.

While the consumer connection to Chinese labour exploitation is the biggest theme, China Blue has other significant and interesting things to show us. The girls talk a bit about (and we see throughout the film) what it means to be a girl when your family wanted a boy, and the pressure on rural migrants that causes them to tolerate the coarse, abusive conditions of the factory. The factory consumes everyone from the top management to the factory floor; even the boss looks and sounds exhausted when the shipping deadline looms on large, rush orders. The film seems to compare the various ways people try to retain their humanity in such an environment: the boss practices calligraphy in his roof-top garden, one teenage worker analogizes her migrant labourer life through kung-fu stories in her journal, another pursues romance. A Spring Festival village family reunion for one girl shows us the good side rural Chinese life, and what the workers look forward to and save for all year long (while the main protagonist can’t afford to return home for Chinese New Year because her first month’s pay was held as a “deposit”). The relationship between worker and consumer is, I think, powerfully highlighted near the end in when two of the girls discuss the risk of slipping something into a shipment of jeans.

One grain of salt worth pointing out: when reading the fine print, you’ll find that the voice-overs are not done by the workers themselves, but are based on their journals and interviews.

For more on Western consumers and Chinese factory worker abuse, see:

Declassified: Tiananmen

I stopped paying attention to History Channel productions a while back, since, to my mind, they put the “taint” in “edutainment” (as in, “taint one nor the other”). Their Tiananmen documentary from 2005 is par for the course. The narration is so hyped and over-dramatized that the blood lust is just palpable. However, I grudgingly suggest you watch it solely for the video footage, much of which you don’t see in Century of Revolution. You can see it for free on YouTube.

For more about Tiananmen, see:

If you were only going to watch one of these, I’d recommend Century of Revolution if you’re into history, and China Blue if you’re into social justice and contemporary global issues.

Power to the Laobaixing! Or at least a chance to vent…

A friend biked by a pr0test in Tianjin the other day and decided to stop and ask what it was all about. He got an earful:

There’s Propaganda. . .and Then There’s Propaganda
“I tried to reassure them that no, things like this certainly do happen in America, much more frequently than they think, but as always when I try to create an ‘it’s us against them’ cross-cultural pax-romana, they just nodded for a few seconds and continued loudly espousing the same viewpoint they’d had before I said anything.

“The guy with the cart piled with boxes said, ‘America’s great! You’ve got Christians, and you can believe what you want!’ (I’m not sure precisely what he was going for, but that’s what he said.)”

Meet Zhu Laoshi — A Blessed Life

The Chinese editor at the magazine keeps complaining about the Regular Zhou‘s I’ve been choosing to profile, which include a bike repairman, a sidewalk barber, a parking attendant, a fried noodle vendor and a student. They don’t like the photos of my apparently-not-dressed-well-enough neighbours either. These aren’t the kind of people the boss/censor/overly-sensitive locals (not sure who, exactly) wants shown between the advertisements in a free monthly expat magazine in Tianjin. I’m supposed to find yuppies (“小资“, formerly called “petty bourgeoisie“), or at least wealthy “success” stories. Instead for May’s issue I found this guy, who, it turns out, had a bunch of sensitive stuff to say that normally wouldn’t get published in this city.

I self-censored a lot out before submitting the final draft, but even still none of the people involved on my end had much hope that the magazine would actually print it. In the past the censors have been extremely strict about anything related to Christianity in China — as if they have orders to publicly pretend it isn’t here. Below is what they eventually printed, except for a couple of things:

  1. Although they left most of the Christian content in, a couple lines were removed. I added them back in in red below. There were some other odd (to me) editing decisions that seemed to characterize parts of his story in unnecessary ways, but I’ve left most of those alone.
  2. I’ve altered the spelling on potentially sensitive words just to avoid triggering any automatic word filters or whatever. I know that’s paranoid, but since censorship enforcement is inconsistent and this is just a personal blog, I’d rather not unduly tempt fate.
  3. I replaced their title with my original title (they substituted “Ask and you shall receive”, which I though was lame).

At the end I’ve also included the text and (bad) translation of the Chinese summary that they added, which contains some interesting vocab. Without further ado, here’s May’s Regular Zhou.

A Blessed Life

…one young Tianjin professional discovers something more powerful than fate and more valuable than success

Maybe you’ve seen the aerial photos of Chinese job fairs, the only events whose sprawling, densely-packed crowds could possibly rival those of a Spring Festival train station. China’s alarmingly over-saturated job market is especially tough on males, who first need to establish financial self-sufficiency for themselves and their parents and buy an apartment in the inflated housing market before they’ll be considered marriageable.

Employers benefit from the claustrophobic rat-race; millions of college graduates struggle to find their feet in spite of it. This is one young Tianjiner’s success story, though it’s not merely about transitioning between college and career in modern day Tianjin. This particular Tianjiner, whose Chinese name could be translated as “cultivate hope”, is passionately convinced of something he’s discovered along the way – there’s much more to life than salaries, promotions and apartments.

Sink or Swim
Zhū Lǎoshī (朱老师 / ‘Teacher Zhu’), as he’s known to students and coworkers, was born twenty-five years ago near Long Rainbow Park in Nánkāi (南开). He grew up in the Dàgǎng oil fields (大港油田) before studying teaching Chinese as a foreign language at the Tianjin Foreign Languages University. After four relaxed college years, the pressure was on.

“After graduating I found a part-time job teaching Chinese to foreigners at a private language center,” he says. “I worked there for one and half years. It was hard at first. I was a new teacher with no experience and in class I didn’t teach that well. But the students were really patient and encouraging and my coworkers helped me prepare lessons. They gave me lots of help and basically taught me how to teach.

“At the time my parents still lived in Dàgǎng but my job was in Héxī (河西). My part-time income wasn’t enough to rent an apartment, but my bosses provided a free place to stay for two months. Eventually I rented a small two-bedroom with five roommates. Every weekend I’d go home to Dàgǎng and my mom would make enough food for the whole week plus some to share with my friends.

“Working at the language center really gave me a lot of help. I made a lot of friends, I learned how to teach and work, and gained experience. Yet, while I was happy to begin with, during the third semester things got really difficult. With my lack of experience I was still only part-time and wasn’t making much money. I hated the idea of leaving because my students and coworkers were really great. But I couldn’t see my future there; that last semester was pretty painful. It was sad, but I stopped working there in February 2009.”

An Open Door
“I considered starting my own small business, but within one month of leaving the language center, one of my friends who works at a private school in town mentioned they were looking for a Chinese teacher. At first I wasn’t that interested, but when I found out there were Christians working at this school I became really interested. I’d heard the Gospe! for the first time over a year before and I’d continued studying the B!ble. I wasn’t a Christian then, but I’d started to believe. I believed there was a God and I’d had some really moving experiences, so I really hoped I could have some Christian coworkers. I started preparing my application the very next day. I also started thinking a lot about how I’d come to believe in God.

“The interview went really well. On April 12 I moved out of my crowded apartment and moved my parents out of the oil fields into an apartment in Héxī where we live together. Two days later I received the call from the school and started working part-time on the 16th. I was extremely happy.”

Deep Impressions
“When I’d just started at my new job I saw the students’ art work and heard their songs – they were beautiful. They did science experiments and studied happily – they all had happy smiling faces. They were all really obedient, so different from the 90’s kids at my Chinese school. I could see it’s because this school provides a good environment. The school also held fun relationship-building activities for the teachers, students and parents. I really wanted to work there full-time.

“At the end of April I heard that two of my former students were having complications with their pregnancy. I was worried, but they’d returned to Canada to have the baby and I was in Tianjin. I wasn’t married, I couldn’t really understand, so I thought: All I can do is pray.

“I asked my coworkers to pray for them, too. At that time I’d just started working there; none of these coworkers knew who I was yet and they definitely didn’t know who my former students were. But when they heard about the situation, they wrote down their names and the details and promised to pray for them. Other coworkers prayed right away with me right there. I was deeply moved.

“I also discovered that many of my Western coworkers had adopted Chinese children. My coworkers aren’t really rich, so I don’t think it’s the same as rich people adopting kids. Adopting kids gives them lots of stress, but that doesn’t stop them. They do things the way God does; their love comes from God. Those kids were pitiful, no parents, but because they were adopted they have parents and brothers and sisters and an education. Their fate has been changed. I deeply respect these coworkers. They’re like this because they have God’s love.

An Altered Destiny
“My students gave my supervisors positive feedback about my classes, and this really gave me hope that I’d be able to work full-time. The next semester I prayed about it a lot. Friends also prayed with me. Soon became a full-time teacher.

“I’ve worked there for almost a full year now. I really love this place and this job. It’s a good environment; they really care about people and give you lots of support. Sometimes coworkers ask me, “How are you?” I always tell them “Excellent!” because that’s really how I feel. Now that I have steady work that covers my rent, my family can live together and I don’t need to worry about them.”

It’s no surprise that some of Zhū Lǎoshī’s favourite B!ble verses are in Psalm 23, about how God is like a good shepherd who provides His sheep with everything they need.

“I was bapt!zed on Christmas Eve 2009. I’m so thankful I have new life. Now everyday in the evening I pray together with Chinese a friend. This makes me closer and closer to God, and He refreshes me and gives me peace. I share the Gospe! with my parents and I hope they will believe, and stay in good health. I think God led me to this school. I want to continue working here for a long, long time.”

寻找生命的航标
朱老师来自天津大港,毕业几年间一直作着兼职中文老师的工作。从最初的“蚁族”,到如今能够把父母接到市区一起居住,朱老师经过了不懈的学习和努力。现在他已经shòuxǐ成为一名基督徒,这让他的心变得更加柔软,用更多的爱和关怀对待周围的人。通过一年的努力,朱老师终于转正成为专职老师了。他对自己的新生活心存感激。每天他都会虔诚地qídǎo,感谢上帝把他带到这所学校,并且希望能一直这样工作下去。

Seeking a Life Buoy
Zhu Laoshi comes from Dagang, Tianjin, and in the few years since graduating has held consecutive Chinese teaching jobs. From being part of the “ant tribe” at first, to nowadays being able to bring his parents to live together in the city, Zhu Laoshi has untiringly studied and worked hard. Now he’s been bapt!zed and become a Christian, and this made his heart change to become softer, and uses even more love and care to treat the people around him. After a year of great effort, Zhu Laoshi finally became a full-time teacher. He has gratitude in his heart for his new life. Every day he will devoutly pray, thanking God for bringing him to this school, and also hopes that he can always continue in this kind of job.

[You can read about China’s “ant tribe” (蚁族) here, here, here, here, or here.]

Related stuff:

One Tianjiner’s first impressions in America

One young Tianjiner gets ready to celebrate his first Spring Festival away from home, and talks about the adjustments he’s faced during his first semester in America.

(Guāngyuǎn was profiled last May for the Regular Zhou column in a Tianjin expat magazine. Here he is nine months later, finishing his first semester in Iowa and looking forward to his first Spring Festival on foreign soil.)

Christmas can be one of the toughest times of the year for Tianjin’s foreigners. It’s at Christmas when we often miss our families the most, along with the friends, food, fun, and traditions that make Christmas one of the most meaningful dates on our calendars.

But Tianjin’s wàiguórén (外国人) aren’t the only ones missing out on the major family and cultural event of their year by living in a foreign land. For Tianjiners like Guāngyuǎn (光远), this winter also means passing the most meaningful time of year far away from home. Like us, he’ll be away from his family and closest friends, huddled together with a small group of fellow foreigners, trying to produce a traditional holiday meal without all the proper ingredients in a country that has no clue how to really celebrate the holiday he holds dear.

Spring Festival in the Excited States of America
When I first interviewed Guāngyuǎn early last year, he’d just received acceptance letters from several American university post-graduate engineering programs. He’s since moved to the U.S.A. and is just finishing his first semester at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. That means he’s gone from Big Brother to Uncle Sam; from Tianjin with its 7 or so million to Ames with its almost-51,000; from the Chinese exam-centered education system to America’s emphasis on independent thinking and self-expression. Once he finishes his first semester, it will be time to start preparing for Spring Festival. Here’s how he envisions it:

“In America, I have made a lot of new friends. I think at the first spring festival in USA, I plan to have a good time with my Chinese friends. Maybe to have a party is a great choice for us. Of course, we will invite some American friends and other international students for sure. In the party, I and my friends will cook Chinese foods for us and the customers. Considering that Ames, the location of Iowa State University, is in winter and just like the winter in Tianjin, the hotpot and dumpling, Chinese traditional food, is necessary. At that time, we will enjoy warm food and warm environment.

“Since I was born, I have celebrated every Spring Festival with my parents and relatives. There is no exception for this. I guess, to have Spring Festival is a great experience for me, although I have a little bit homesick. So as what I did (拜年;bài nián; call or visit to wish someone happy New Year) in the last Spring Festival, I will give the call to everyone who cares me and tell them that I am great in America and don’t need to worry about me. Maybe the people in my family will feel different… ‘Where is Guāngyuǎn?’ Haha.”

Living Life Elsewhere
Guāngyuǎn knew that adjusting life in the U.S. wouldn’t be easy, and he shared his feelings about it before he left:

“I worry about the absolutely strange environment, strange people, and strange culture that I will face after I land in the USA, which is full of challenges for me. Therefore I feel excited and nervous.

“I plan to live the community outside the campus, so my roommate and neighbor might be western people. …it is the first step for me to overcome language difficulty and get involve western culture and society. These are related to many living things, like buying the stuff, communicating with native people, and getting used to western living style. …I will face similar problems in the campus. To better understand what the professors talk about, I need not only to ask questions in class but also to communicate with other students after class positively. Other than these, there are great differences with class, homework and exams between American universities and Chinese ones. Above all… culture shock and language are great challenge for me and therefore make me a little bit nervous. But I believe I can do it better as soon as possible. Maybe one day I will feel comfortable to live outside the ‘Chinese culture bubble’ in the future. Every time I think that this day is coming, I am very excited.”

guangyuan06I caught up with Guāngyuǎn for a second time as he was preparing for his semester’s final exams. I asked him about his cross-cultural experience so far, and what sort of impression he’s getting of Americans and life in the States.

Tianjin, China vs. Ames, Iowa
“America’s big cities are noisy and bustling just like China’s, but I’m just at Ames, a small town [population 51,000]. In China this kind of place is considered a small town. It’s really peaceful, so much so that every day you can go out on the street and often not see anyone.”

Daily Life Differences
“When I was in Tianjin and Beijing, I didn’t need to rent house myself. Also students hardly ever needed to cook their own meals. But when I came to the U.S. it wasn’t the same. You have to go yourself and rent an apartment and purchase furniture. Here there are very few Chinese-style vegetable markets, outdoor markets and so on, so every week I have to go once to the supermarket and buy everything. And I still have to learn to cook. Since I’ve arrived here I’m already slowly learning how to cook some things.

“A lot of things are new to me, I’m learning how to go do them. Regular people in China don’t need to use credit cards and checks to make payments, instead they use cash, but in the U.S. it’s just the opposite. In China you very seldom see bills and such, but in one month in the U.S. you will receive every kind of bill (rent, electricity, gas, cell phone, credit card…). Anyway, in the U.S. these are all simple, you can pay everything online. It’s really quick and convenient. Also in the U.S. you have to learn how to find a good deal. Sometimes so many things are so cheap you just stand there amazed. A laptop valued at over 10,000 in China is only 5000 in the U.S. In the U.S., cars are as common as bicycles are in China. If you don’t have a car, you’ll feel it’s really inconvenient. But I’m fortunate to live in Ames where there’s good public transit. But even here driving a car is an essential skill.”

Living with the Yanks
guangyuan07“Americans like things simple and direct, not implicit like Chinese people. Americans first speak their mind and then try to explain themselves. Chinese people are just the opposite. The food American’s like is all simple to make, not like Chinese people who like to prepare meals pan-fried. Thus in the supermarket you can see a lot of half-finished food products (however China domestically now also has this kind of similar trend).

“Americans like to have ‘excuse me,’ ‘sorry’ ready on the tip of their tongue, if they feel they caused someone inconvenience the just blurt it out. In the U.S., grass is for people to walk on, sit on, or lay on – this is really different from China. In the U.S., pedestrians are ‘king’; cars all have to make way for you.”

Comparing the Chinese and American Classroom Experience
“American classroom atmosphere is more vigourous than in China. Students in class can ‘at any time’ ‘call out’ their own viewpoints, problems, and ideas. American education pays particular attention to making students learn to think independently but at the same time learn team cooperation. Here the homework and projects arranged by the teacher all make the students be part of a group to accomplish something. They also ask the students to elaborate on their own points of view, so in class student presentations are a common thing.”

guangyuan01Adjusting to a New Cultural Context
“In life, if you try to learn and imitate you’ll quickly be able to adapt. I feel that concerning the foreign students, the hardest thing to adapt to are the cultural and the educational issues. First of all, being able to use the language is a significant concern. Once you’re able to easily use English to communicate with others, then you’re really able to get over your culture and education shock. To make progress with cultural and educational differences, you also need to actively go with American classmates and communicate for a long period of time. Then you’ll naturally adapt.”

I asked Guāngyuǎn he feels he’s changed a little bit since he’s been in the U.S., but he doesn’t seem to think so: “Actually rather than say I’ve changed personally, it’s better to say I’m just gradually started getting used to American life and study.”

What Does a Tianjiner in America Miss the Most?
“Speaking about what I miss the most, it’s has to be Chinese food, especially the food my mom cooks. When I go back to China I’m going to gobble down special food, but at the same time I need to raise the level of my culinary skills.”

Favourite American Food
“My favourite American food is sweet potato, along with Mexican chicken burrito (seems like that’s Spanish food?). American home-baked cookies are also really good.”

Making Do
“I think, every international student has the same feeling and experience. You and your wife live in China now and don’t come back to the motherland to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. But this is the life and it is changing. Therefore, we have to adapt and learn to enjoy it.”

Related Articles:

Meet Mrs. Shǐ – Striving Hard for a Stable Future

Mrs. Shǐ is December’s Regular Zhou. The magazine seems to share similar feelings with one other critic who doesn’t appreciate having China’s blue collar folks telling their stories in foreigners’ magazines. So I guess from now on they’ll be “above-average Joe’s,” or at least for the next few months while we’re in Canada and I have to interview over e-mail.

As usual, the blog version below has better photos and includes the more interesting content. But I still haven’t included any of the horrific Cultural Revolution stories she told, or her complaints about the Olympics.

Striving Hard for a Stable Future

How one Tianjiner works daily to give her son a better life, one plate of chǎo bǐng at a time.

Mrs. Shǐ is my favourite kind of Tianjiner. She’s warm and engaging, ready for conversation, and patient with language students’ pathetic Mandarin. If you’ve got the time and the ear, she’s willing to share all kinds of stories from her experiences growing up in Tianjin during China’s tumultuous last 50 years. Plus, she makes great chǎo bǐng (炒饼) and dàbǐng jīdàn (大饼鸡蛋), able to warm both the stomach and the heart.

Mrs. Shǐ, whose given name evokes images of mountains with colourful clouds, sells breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the occasional midnight snack from her xiǎomàibù (小卖部), the little shop she’s carved out of a first floor apartment that she shares with her 25-year-old son. She used to sell food from an outdoor stall in a bustling street market for eleven years before the market was cleared away in a nationwide sanitation campaign.

I’m often there at lunchtime, when the tables and stools out on the sidewalk are filled with hungry college students, vegetable market shoppers, and workmen. Inside the walls are lined floor to ceiling with shelves that overflow with snack food, cigarettes, alcohol, and seemingly random items like a large bag full of beer bottle caps. In between the newly-acquired fridge and a small low table with plastic stools there’s just enough room to take three steps to the cooking area, where she single-handledly produces dozens of meals every day.

Daily Routine
She gets up at 5:30 every morning, arranges the displays, tables, and chairs on the sidewalk, and prepares to start serving breakfast at 6am. After breakfast she makes some purchases, cuts up cabbage and cucumber, and gets ready for the lunch rush. After lunch she’ll rest her head in her arms over the freezer and take a nap. She finally closes shop at 11pm, but that doesn’t always stop customers.

At 12:30am they knock on my door and I have to sell: “Ayi! Ayi! I want dàbǐng jīdàn!” I haven’t counted how much I sleep at night. I close shop, eat dinner, shower, drink some water, watch a little TV, then go to sleep at I don’t know what time, maybe 1am or 2am. For twelve years I’ve managed like this.

Growing Up
Her living situation today is better than it was in past decades, when she remembers food rationing and being unable to buy things, even if you had the money. Still, some of her favourite memories are of her childhood in Tianjin’s “South City No-Man’s-Land” (南市三不管儿 / nánshì sānbùguǎnr), which until recently was one of Tianjin’s most well-known historical neighbourhoods, famous for its noisy, packed street markets containing all manner of food and entertainment. Nanshi Food Street (南市食品街 / nánshì shípǐn jiē) now sits near where she grew up as the middle child of seven.

When I was little I was pretty mischievious, even though I was a girl. I was a tomboy. Growing up in Nanshi was good. I could talk about Nanshi from morning ‘til night. It was really rènao (热闹 / loud, bustling, lively), especially in the evenings. There were wrestlers, storytellers, hot rice vendors, soup vendors, all crying out, it was fun to hear. You could buy big snails, five or six for two máo ($0.03). When we were small we couldn’t cook; we’d just go to the food vendors.

I had my son in Nanshi. When he was one-and-a-half, in 1983 on May 26, I moved to our current place. That was when they built Food Street and assigned us housing according to the number of people in our family. Now I have my own house to live in. In the old place I didn’t have my own room, but I like the old place. It was rènao and convenient. Now it’s already gone; it’s all Food Street now. It’s been more than twenty years, but I still cherish the memories of Nanshi.

Future Hopes
The turbulance of the past still impacts her life today, as it does for millions of Mainlanders from her generation. When the Cultural Revolution broke out she was just starting middle school. That means she essentially never had a chance for a real, normal education, but still has to make do in today’s market economy. “Long live Chairman Mao” is the only thing she can say in English. She’s come through hard times, and those life experiences shape her hopes for the future:

I wish my son was able to go abroad, like the way you came to our country. But I can’t be too idealistic. I don’t have desire or hope anything for myself. I just hope my son’s future is able to be good. I don’t hope that in the future he becomes a boss or whatever. Just so long as he doesn’t have to have the kind of difficulties I’ve had it’s fine.

My most important desire is to hurry and make money so my son can buy his own place and get a wife, and have a stable life – a little bit better life. Right now I feel tired, but I can’t stop because life pressures are too great. My son is going to university and working, earning his own tuition.

Foreigners
I can’t resist asking Mrs. Shǐ what she thinks of foreigners:

I’ve had contact with Japanese, Americans – I’m in contact with a lot of foreigners. We get along really good. Aside from nationality, we’re all friends, and also all neighbours, right? It’s just our skin colour is different. I wish foreigners and us would talk and communicate more.

No-go zones: what we avoid talking (and writing) about in Tianjin

Several months ago I interviewed a former street-food vendor for the Regular Zhou column. My Chinese isn’t that good, so I have to get help transcribing the recordings into Chinese. But this time there was a problem. After hearing what this woman in her 50’s had to say, people are refusing to help me transcribe it.

If the interviewee talks into a conversation area that I have no vocabulary for, talks too fast, too unclear, uses bad grammar or uses too much Tianjin dialect, they can lose me pretty quick. Usually I transcribe as much of the interview as I can myself, and then get help filling in the gaps. Then I translate it into English, get help with the difficult bits, and from the English write the column. It’s monstrously tedious, and not at all worth it merely for the column itself, but it’s language practice and the people are interesting.

During the semester finding transcription help is easy because there are local university students at our school who have to log hours practicing teaching foreigners Chinese. This means free extra class/practice for us Mandarin students; we voluntarily sign up for as many hours a day as we want! All the previous Regular Zhou articles had their help. But during the summer semester our “language slaves” (we mean that affectionately) were gone and I had to ask others for a favour.

First I took an hour of regular class time and asked one of my real teachers to help me. After listening for a bit he started saying, “天哪!” (tiān nǎ / “Heavens!”) and laughing in the way Mainlanders do when they’re embarrassed and/or uncomfortable. He started dragging his feet and making it quite clear that he didn’t want to do it, so I gave up (I didn’t want to waste class time on this anyway). Next I tried a local friend, who was a Regular Zhou himself. When he came to certain sections, he’d just tell me, “This part is useless. It’s not interesting. You don’t need it. Let’s skip it.” He made the whole process so burdensome that I was happy to have him stop helping. For my third attempt I took a long shot and asked the editor if anyone on staff could transcribe it for me. He said sure, and had me email the audio files to one of the magazine’s local staff. She flat out refused after listening to it, saying it was way too sensitive. So this interview has been on hold until last week, when the local university sent over a fresh batch of language slaves.

Most school days this semester I do two or three hours of real class, two hours of free practice with the local students, and now one extra hour on this transcript (it will only take a few hours total to finish). For most of these practice sessions I’ve had the same student. We’ve gotten on really well, and he’s willing to help me finish it. We’re about 3/4 of the way done. When he came to the sensitive sections, I had to reassure him that I wasn’t going to publish the embarrassing stuff and even if I wanted to I couldn’t because they’d censor it out anyway. He said he was worried that it would make it into Western media. I told him don’t worry, I’m not a real writer and no Western magazines or newspapers want my stuff. He was still afraid someone might steal it from me and publish it in Western media. I told him they already have lots of material like this, plus now there’s a bit of backlash against ‘China bashing’ in some English-language media.

So what was the terrible, forbidden material? I already knew that the woman had talked about her family’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution. At least one of her siblings was sent “up the mountain and down to the countryside” (上山下乡 / shàng shān xià xiāng). Someone was killed, and someone committed suicide by jumping off a building, but I couldn’t catch all the details on my own. The magazine staff and my real teacher had reacted to this section, I think. But that’s not the offending section beside which this student wrote “careful” and marked off with brackets.

It turn out this former streetfood vendor who now sells hot lunches out of a 1st floor doorway had some complaints about how the Olympics are irrelevant to her life except for the negative impact on her livelihood. The citywide pre-Olympic facelift made it harder for her to make a living, and she thinks they were wrong they way they treated people like her. That’s the taboo content that people didn’t want me to see and don’t want me to write about.

The student who’s helping me trusts, or at least hopes, that I won’t take this material and use it to intentionally make China look bad. He’s right, plus I appreciate him taking the chance and helping me out. But I suspect that he and I may have very different ideas about what counts as fair, appropriate, non-malicious, well-intentioned writing. (I realize that foreigners are only one of their main audiences, but I wish people here could see that overly-sensitive censorship itself makes a much worse impression in the eyes of Westerners than whatever the particular content is that they’re censoring.)

After we’d transcribed this section and had our little talk about being careful with it, he looked at what she’d said and remarked, “She’s right.” Not that it really matters, because by the time her profile makes it into the local expat magazine, it will be safely saccharin-ized.

I’ll post a slightly more interesting version on the blog when the time comes. After all, she’s quite a character, grew up in Tianjin’s “no man’s land” hutongs (南市三不管 / nán shì sān bù guǎn) and has lived through a lot (same generation as “Old Lu”).

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.)