In China I loved the dingy family owned diners with forgettable names in unremarkable street corners stuck between other unremarkable stores. In entering the store there would be no special recognition from the proprietress, only a “what do you want” barked at your way while she looked elsewhere and attended to one of the many small things that needed to be done. Sometimes you would be able to see the chef in his tiny, sweaty kitchen, cigarette in mouth, wok in hand, cooking in well-practised movements. After eating a bowl of noodles and exiting onto the streets, waiting outside would be the bike taxis where drivers leaning on their vehicles would call out to persuade you to hire them for a ride.
While these behaviours were often described as being uncouth by many foreigners I met, I felt that they were incredibly refreshing, like drinking from a clear mountain spring after being used to murky waters. Entering these diners, interacting with the “uncivilized” Chinese was not entering a stage filled with actors, where I played the role of the “customer,” a figure outwardly cherished while inwardly given no special thought. This game between the “customer” and the “serviceperson” was ultimately a meaningless ritual performed in order to create the semblance of sociality in the process of equivalent exchange between two robots. For the Chinese ouvrier, money and the transactional nature of the relationship did not tarnish the purity of authentic expressions, and both parties resisted self-commodification and self-objectification, remaining connected with their inner being.
Occupying the same streets as the bike taxi driver a Mercedes would vroom and rush past at speeds faster than the bike taxi driver could ever aspire to. Zooming in a fresh red blur past the dusty greyness and general gloom of Beijing’s streets, the motorized carriage of the rich would rush into a gated apartment community, an inaccessible palace with a perfumed and meticulously furnished interior incongruent with the constant stench of corruption emitted by its owner.
Compared to the Stoic Chinese worker, the rich were the vulgar, the many-faced and the shallow who changed and blew away with the faintest breeze. They lacked the deep-rooted wisdom of the Chinese worker whose life expressed an essential and unending truth, whose each and every small action contained a meaning that drew from the bottomless well of authentic self. Meanwhile the desire frenzied, purposeless and paper-thin rich could only express movements that amounted to performances in a vapid puppet theatre. Lacking an essential core and left with a gaping dark void, all the rich could do was decorate themselves with a gaudy, sparkling exterior, which was suffocating and distasteful in its overload of culture.
Returning from China I was deeply influenced by the insouciant anti-commodification of the Chinese ouvrier, whose resistance against the gradual encroachment of capitalist logics manifested as an expression of authenticity, arising out of a deeper inner self unaffected by the exigencies of the commodified world. In Canada I found myself dumped in a society already in a state of advanced commodification, clean and modern but decadent, in contrast to the purity and honesty of the Chinese. I felt myself a stranger in my Canadian home, unable to play according to the script and superficial friendliness that dominated North American commercial behaviour. Why pretend to care about the present well-being of the Starbucks employee when all you want is a cup of coffee? These interactions seemed to be dishonest; a pretty, well-polished veneer that hid a commodified reality and unequal power relations under the false guise of care and friendliness. Commodification entailed a selling out of the authentic self, the constant transformation of external behaviours and skin deep values for the pursuit of external material decorations while the inside rotted away, while the Chinese communicated an authenticity that erupted upto the surface from the profundities of an inner truth…
Note: I am providing overly thin portrayals of both groups for a reason, to be continued.