China and Gross Overgeneralizations

IMG_20140818_193112[1]

It has already been over a month in Beijing. I cannot believe that time has passed so fast. It seems like last week when I first arrived, registered for the Chinese academy that I currently study at and spent a week and a half searching for a place to live. Already autumn is well underway and the cold approaches.

I have wanted to come to China for a very long time. Ever since the Shanghai Expo in the summer of 2010 I have wanted to come but could not. Even in the long four month university summer vacations afterwards I remember trying to find opportunities to come. Taiwan and a short stay in Korea, help from my parents with the Chinese visa and some luck (as applicants are required to go back to their country of citizenship to apply) has led to this stay.

Before coming here, I have heard from many non-Chinese sources about some “special” characteristics of the Chinese. In 2010, my parents used to scare me away from my desire to come to China by telling me a story about a Chinese taxi driver and a Korean couple. Apparently, a certain Korean couple snuck away from their package tour group to explore China on their own on a particular evening, taking a cab to start their adventure. The cab suddenly experienced problems and the driver asked the husband to push the cab from the back in order to provide momentum, leaving the wife in the cab by her lonesome. When the husband got out, the cab driver drove off into the night and the wife’s dead body was discovered the next morning with her organs missing. Apart from this story, I have heard other comments laced with misunderstandings. There were many times where I heard acquaintances that the Chinese were “the most pitiful people on the planet,” and other such unfair statements in different variations.

However, so far I am still healthy and with my organs intact. I have not been robbed or mistreated or beaten up. The most major things have been mild food poisoning after eating some street food in the middle of the night and a fever for a day for sleeping with my windows open. Contrary to what people say, the sun often shines very brightly in Beijing as it did today. Everything that I was told did not happen, except for my inability to use Facebook without a VPN.

I think that people often hear one or two things about the Chinese that creates this image in their heads. It is often not known to them how large a place China actually is. China has an area of 9,596,961km2 , which makes it slightly bigger than or smaller than the United States of America, depending on the source you consult. It is only slightly smaller than all of Europe (not just the European Union), which has an area of 10,180,000 km2. In terms of population, China is bigger than the USA (318,793,000) and all of Europe (742,452,000) combined with a population of 1,350,695,000 people. Certain Chinese cities are more populous than certain European countries. Shanghai is the most populous city in China and has a population of 22,315,426 people, which means that the Shanghainese outnumber all but nine of the fifty European countries. With bad news often being the best news for media companies, the one or two bad things that escape to the North American public are unfairly reflected onto the countless Chinese masses.

Unconsciously, this is unavoidable as our brains are hardwired to think this way. Our cognitive biases project individual characteristics onto the tribe, and are drawn to qualitative individual stories instead of quantitative data and numbers. Because of this, the Chinese are not the only one affected. We might hold certain unjustified feelings towards particular nationalities, subcultures or any distinct groups of people. Without our conscious awareness, the individual fades away and disappears into the crowd. Ultimately, it is us that prevent ourselves from obtaining the truth about people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But there is one accurate bias. All Korean men smoke cigarettes, drink soju and have small eyes if they did not have plastic surgery.

Beijing Creature

IMG_20140913_211312[1]It was Saturday evening and I was walking along the 工人体育场北路. It was a broad road with traffic leading to 三里屯, which is an expat area. I was heading there to meet a friend. On both sides of the road were tall, modern structures which contrasted with simple street peddlers and the occasional dirty beggar. This was already a common sight for me and did not register as anything extraordinary.

In front of a luxury mall, I saw a sight that did catch my attention. It was the first time I saw anything like it. There was an implike creature sitting in front of a small speaker which was its equivalent in size. It seemed to be female with swarthy skin, wearing ragged, overworn clothing. With the size of a three year old, it looked to be less than human, with an appearance resembling a rat with a few loose strands for hair. Its age was indistinguishable. It held a microphone but was not moving its lips while the speaker played an upbeat Chinese pop song with the background music and the vocals. It could have been mistaken to be a badly made doll, as it emanated no force of life. Only its petite feet were moving, going up and down to the beat of the song.

It seemed that I was not the only one surprised by its figure, as other walkers, who were mostly middleclass Chinese young adults that would not even glance at other forms of destitution, involuntarily took a look at the creature, which was sitting on a short stool a few metres in front of stores that sold luxury brands. Then they continued to walk forwards towards shiny lights.

Afterwards I saw the creature again being moved to another location in a small trolley by nameless Chinese men who were indistinguishable with the masses. I had five mojitos that night.

A Not So North American Paradox

IMG_5596

A couple of months ago, while I was still living in a dreamlike state in Taipei, I wanted to write a blog post about a curious phenomenon I experienced while living in multicultural North America. I wanted to call this blog post “the North American Paradox.” This blog post was going to be written about the North American tendency to lack cultural understanding and knowledge of world history despite North America being a center for immigration, as various peoples have come to pursue new lives by crossing one of two vast oceans. Of course, as my experiences were mostly centered in Toronto, Canada, it was going to be representative of only one North American city, and one with a large number of immigrants from various countries, so it could have been more of “the Toronto Paradox.”

This still doesn’t change the fact that this phenomena does exist in Toronto. Despite having an immigrant population that amounts to 50% of the total city population, and people from literally all around the globe, I have found Torontonians to be largely clueless about what happens outside Canada, if they followed news from outside Toronto at all. Aside from current world events, I have found only shallow forms of cultural exchange happening in this great global city called Toronto. When we (Torontonians) think about other cultures and people, I think the only thing we know about them is their cuisine, and this being the adapted North Americanized version. Even the friends we make are those that are culturally similar to us. I guess this last part cannot be helped so much, as language and cultural barriers can stifle the creation of tight bonds. But this barrier creates further divisions between groups of people of different cultures. The result is a city where possibilities for cultural exchange seem to be limitless but end up being quite few.

I found it ironic that Torontonians proudly refer to global Toronto as being a melting pot of the world. I do not dispute this, although I see it being a “melting pot” in another sense as well. My friend, whose ancestors moved from somewhere in Germany to Canada four or five or six generations ago, put it very nicely when he said, “after a few generations, you just end up being white.” Being apart from the ancestral home and its cultural density, Torontonians start losing the drastic spices and flavours of their home country and find in its place sanitary but insipid flavours. Different flavours come in but melting pot of Toronto tastes bland, much like its cheese. But of course, I should note that I cannot help but being biased, as I lived most of my life here. I guess foreigners coming to Toronto would find it exciting in some way.

I think the experience that contrasted the most with my Toronto experience was the time I spent as an exchange student in Milan. There I met many Europeans and found them to be incredibly knowledgeable and worldly. They seemed to know all about what was happening in the world – the world at that moment for me being Europe – and much about its past too. Languages were another matter that impressed me, as all Europeans seemed to speak at least three fluently. My German roommate might have given me a particularly one-sided perspective in this matter, as he was interested in history and claimed to have known at one point all the countries in the world and their capital cities as well as a lot of their basic history. He also spoke German, English and Spanish fluently. With this environment and these kinds of people around me, it is no wonder why I thought so favourably about Europeans and disappointed from the contrast at bumbling, monolingual North Americans. (Torontonians)

A year went by and the time came for another plane flight, this time to Asia. Here again I met many Europeans. However, in contrast to the sophisticated and noble Europeans I met while in Europe, this new batch of Europeans seemed to shine less. They were just as clueless as I was about what was happening in this side of the world and this time, I had an advantage on them in language proficiency. Of course, when they discussed the various perspectives of World War II during a party I found it novel and interesting, but Europe was a world away.

The conclusion I got from thinking about this “paradox” was that it is actually not a paradox at all. North Americans learn in school about the history of colonial powers in North America – with a brief sidenote mentioning the Native Americans – because this is what happened on the continent. Europeans learn about Europe, because tension have historically been present there and with two large scale wars destroying the continent and taking too many European lives, it is important to learn about the history of the Europe. With the European Union, and the proximity of different cultures, I guess learning languages has also been pragmatically emphasized in their education system. If my family never moved out of South Korea I would be learning about the history of the Korean peninsula. I asked a Taiwanese friend and he told me the Taiwanese learn about the history of China and Taiwan. I am in Beijing right now and I am guessing that the students here are not learning about the history of Ireland. As for Torontonians lacking deep cultural exchanges, I do not think that I should be pointing any fingers. When I was living in Taiwan, I always found myself hanging out with the exchange students more than my Taiwanese classmates. And when I did hang out with the occasional Taiwanese friend, we would use English most of the time. I think it takes serious conscious effort to reach out to people using an unfamiliar language and most people, including me, lack patience.

I still think that cultural understanding – and by extension, language – is a worthwhile goal and one that I would like to pursue. Learning about different cultures and peoples destroys ignorance and brings humility. It brings to light the truth that human essence is the same. There are times I see ignorance at an extreme level, particularly on online channels where one group of people are put down as being less than human due to misinterpretation of their actions. I believe that proper respect and understanding of one another are missing in these cases. I think that beneath the surface (I’m not sure if this layer is thick or thin) there is a part within that is relatable. Maybe I am being too idealistic. History is another discipline that is worth pursuing. Learning about the stories that have taken place on this planet earth before this moment in time gives us a proper perspective on life. The world does not revolve around us, despite how much we would like to give ourselves the role of the main character in our personal stories. The world just revolves and will keep on revolving way after our death. It will revolve and revolve and then it will stop revolving sometime in a distant and unseeable future. Then there will be imperceptible darkness. But as accidental and fortunate receivers of the blessing of life, it is important to play our role and play it with conscientiousness and humility and without an overinflation of our ego.

 

Picture above is somewhere in Taroko Gorge in Taiwan