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”).

4 thoughts on “No-go zones: what we avoid talking (and writing) about in Tianjin”

  1. Most juicy indeed! “Be careful because she’s right” is quite an interesting statement. Did this Zhou know she was being interviewed for a blog and therefore went off on a kind of soapbox? Why did she tell you so many things that other people considered so volatile?

  2. She knew she was being interviewed for a magazine. I’d given her a couple older issues as examples so she could see the other Regular Zhous. I didn’t get the feeling that she was deliberately trying to get me to publish a bunch of negative opinions – in fact I assume she’s trusting to just write a nice story like the others.

    Why did she share a bunch of negative stuff? One reason maybe has to do with me being a foreigner and ‘out of the loop’ – so in a way I’m a safe person to vent to; no fear of making waves within her personal network. A second reason that I suspect is that her generation is full of people like this. Aside from the one older guy who appeared in the Tianjin Laobaixing Olympic video (who seemed to give a lot of sincere but canned answers), the other people of that generation I talked with were either indifferent or negative toward the Olympics (and this was an Olympic city!). Her opinion isn’t rare, but maybe people have precious few places they can vent.

  3. fascinating! I can’t help contrasting the hesitation (in PRC) to share openly about “shameful” things with the cathartic, proactive voices in Cambodia. 丑事不对外传, because Confucius taught us so.

    I am certain that there are heaps of people enduring their disenfranchised situations, mostly in silence. Joel, I agree with you about the possible reasons for her choice to disclose these things. Perhaps your arriving to chat, without an interpreter, made her feel that you are genuinely trying to hear her side of a story?

  4. Who knows. I have to admit I really have no idea how the people we see everyday perceive us. Their life experience is so vastly different from mine – even from each other, if we compare today’s 20-somethings with today’s 50-somethings.

    I hope to have her writeup done for the Dec. issue. For the blog I think I’ll just post excerpts from the interview so it can be in her own words.

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