Plate of Wander

The Chopstick Manifesto

Currently the world, especially the United States, is in a state of anxiety about China. What is China? They own our debt, manufacture our goods, make up one sixth of the world’s population. Will they surpass us? Own us? Will we wake up one morning to a world ruled by the Chinese Communist party?

You demand the inside scoop, to see the man behind the curtain. You want to hear what the real China is.

Well you came to the wrong place, because there is no ‘real’ China. In a country of over a billion people, there is more reality than words can cover, which a lot of people seem to forget. Instead, in honor of my 100th post on Plate of Wander (what became my personal Fitzcarraldo), I decided to aggregate my ideas and opinions. In order to not break the flow of this manifesto, you will find a photo gallery at the bottom ofthis page. They are pictures I feel portray pieces of life in Huzhou, Zhejiang, China. [Please do click to enlarge. They're large thumbnails, so what you see is not the whole image, and this collection took me a while to put together.]

I based this manifesto on the 15 months of my life I’ve been in China so far (10 of those consecutively). I am not an expert. I don’t really believe that anyone who is not Chinese (in regards to both race and nationality) will ever get the ‘real’ China or experience or become a true ‘expert,’ because the foreigner experience, no matter how well-researched or ‘authentic,’ will always differ from the native experience. ALWAYS. A brief word why:

Of course the foreigner experiences are real, but they aren’t what people mean when they say they want to know the ‘real China.’ I don’t care how well someone speaks Mandarin; how many Chinese history, literature, culture, economics blah blah blah courses he’s taken; how many years or decades she’s spent ‘going local’ in China; I don’t care if you’re ethnically non-Chinese but were born and raised in China. I. Don’t. Care. Because if your face is not Chinese, you will be treated differently, no matter what. You will always be the foreign friend, the foreign teacher, the foreign devil, the foreign [insert noun here].

I frequently assert, to friends, family, and curious acquaintances that life is better in China. And it is, with one caveat: life is better in China if you are a foreigner. Especially if you are Western, and especially if you are white.

Usually I get a “ placate the loony” glance, complete with raised eyebrows questioning my rationality. How could life in a developing country, with population problems, ethnic tensions and violence, weird food, government oppression and corruption, highly limited and heavily regulated civil liberties paired with virtually non-existent human rights, questionable sanitation, widespread poverty, a monstrous standard-of-living gap between rural and urban areas, and terrible pollution be better than the West?

Focusing on the aforementioned problems is a case of missing the trees for the forest. Every country has problems, and there is no denying that China’s problems are not only numerous and pertinent, but also unique. By solving one problem, many others are created, an effect magnified by the incomprehensibly large population. What makes China ‘better’ cannot be quantified, qualified, or regulated by policy; what makes it better comes down to the everyday, the individuals in the masses, the culture and its traditions, or, many of things I document on this blog.

A Western foreigner is almost automatically in a position of privilege. As a foreigner, I get a free pass on lots of things, or I just get things for free. People love to take me out to dinner or buy me drinks at bars. I can afford to partake in Chinese foot massages, get my nails done every week or two, be a member of the ‘nicest’ gym in town, and travel cheaply and frequently. Because I’m a native English speaker, I’m highly employable in a favorable job market (if I want to teach forever), and many other foreign workers in China get snazzy benefits in addition to the favorable exchange rate. As a foreign teacher I get a far lighter teaching load and almost zero responsibilities for twice the pay of the ‘real’ teachers who work weekends, log unending unpaid overtime, and are essentially required to attend a whole slew of nonsense meetings, banquets, ‘parties’ and retreats. Even on the holidays. Usually on the holidays.

Given all this and more, how could I or other foreigners ever have the gall to proclaim that we have seen and known the ‘real’ China? Even if you’re living as a foreigner in rural China, your experience will alter, for better or worse, with your foreign face. This isn’t China, it’s foreigner China. And it’s pretty fabulous. It’s easy for us China lovers to think that, when people invite us to their house or when we ‘go native,’ we are getting a slice of China. But there’s always the mianzi (face) elephant in the room. Our perceptions are under continual manipulation.

But maybe I’m letting you down; this isn’t what you want to read. You want to know what is it actually like to live in China right now, because the newspapers tell you that it’s The Pivotal Period in China. Your question is the one my students still don’t know how to answer: What is it like? Can I feel the change and progress about which the rest of the world is buzzing?

Have you seen that Seinfeld episode with the Bizarro Jerry world? Elaine finds a group of friends that are like the strange, warped mirror images of Jerry’s gang. They remind Elaine of her friends, but at the same time they’re the complete opposite of her original friends.

China is a Bizarro world. Every day I see things that remind me of my life in America. There are so many things here, concrete and abstract, that seem just the same and yet, just slightly off. The sense of fashion is whack by my Western standards: both genders cut and foof their hair into the oddest badly-permed, mullet-y entities. Colors and patterns clash, middle-aged women wear matching shapeless tops and pants that look like Thomas Kinkaid napkins. Men frequently forgo the shirt, and people go out in their pajamas all the time.

Things seem deceptively similar: made in China merchandise looks how it should but feels flimsy, be it a poorly sewn t-shirt, tissue-thin garbage bags, or heat pads that catch fire in ten minutes. Of the helmet-wearing motorists, many wear black velvet equestrian helmets. People gather for huge banquets and ceremonies that no one, not even the host, wants to attend. I call these face-ins. Businessmen take their (male) clients to KTV to raunch around with the KTV girls, who can be prostitutes if you’ve got the money or flirting partners if you have less.

And given that the government routinely makes ‘dissenters’ disappear, here’s something you may find interesting: people criticize the government. They just don’t do it noisily or publicly. And actually, they do it with a much more fair and balanced attitude than a lot of Americans do, and they do so with a lot of patriotism. There is undeniable government oppression and censorship, but picture, if you will, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. A tuna salad sandwich, or even a chicken salad sandwich will do. Just picture a sandwich with goopy innards.

So we have this sandwich. And we like our fillings, so we’ve topped it with lots and lots of PB&J or tuna salad or whatever goop we please. At the moment it’s open-faced, and we want to put the second piece of bread on to keep the filling in check, keep it from getting all out of hand and dripping onto the floor we just cleaned and those new pants we’re wearing. So we put the second piece of bread on top. Ta-da, sandwich! But we didn’t press too hard on the bread; what if the top piece falls off? Then we’d have a lot of goop to clean up.

So we press down a little harder on the bread. That’s good, now it’s on tight. But maybe just a little harder, since we’ve had other sandwiches that have fallen apart before, and those didn’t have as much goop and those are unpleasant memories (PB&J PTSD). So let’s just press really hard, okay?

Well now our bread is on really tight, but our goop has started squishing out the sides, and as we eat the sandwich, it gets on our hands and maybe our shirt or the floor. The more pressure you put on a sandwich of one billion people, the more they’ll squeem out the sides. You can block the tuna salad’s Twitter and YouTube and Facebook; you can knock down and Hanify its traditional culture; you can prevent people from protesting and practicing religion and going to Tiananmen Square on a certain day of the year, but you push more tuna salad to the fringes, and guaranteed that tuna salad or PB&J is going to escape through the sides and stain that brand new white shirt.

Living in China is like living in a sandwich, and the bread keeps getting pressed on a little harder and people are squirming out the sides. There may be restrictions on all kinds of things, but there is always a way out.

Let me now shift your attention to MSG, the chemical flavor enhancer. Add enough and it can make a mediocre dish good and a good dish utterly fantastic, but add too much and it’s inedible. From my personal experience and things other foreigners have told me, I have come to deduce that living in China is like lacing your life with MSG. Emotionally, the highs are really high—little victories, like the kindness of strangers and friends, when someone asks you for directions in Chinese and doesn’t even remark that you’re a foreigner (and understands your directions!). Conversely, the lows can seem wholly life-crushing—some days your Chinese has no reception, sometimes you just have a bad day, or you’re lonely or robbed and stabbed or you just really want a real damn taco already.

The amazing things about this MSG trip is how quickly your life can change from bliss to misery, even several times in the course of one day. It takes a lot of energy and emotional wherewithal to live here. Some people crack after a few months, some it takes years, and some never leave, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. (Though I suspect that most expat experiences are proverbial MSG trips.)

To recap: China is like a bizarro MSG PB&J.

Do I think that China will surpass us? In many ways, they already have. Though they’re still playing catch-up, they’re doing it faster than we ever achieved it in the first place, about three times as fast—what we achieved in a hundred years, they did in thirty-three. But where China does surpass us, it will only do so in part of the country, at the top of the heap. It will be a long time before the rest of the population can follow, if they ever can.

Do I think that we will wake up one morning to find that we are living in a world dominated by China? Not really—at least, not in a radically different way than we already do. No matter how much China changes, there will always be incongruities between Western and Chinese thought, and I don’t think they’ll ever fully reconcile. In fact, I hope they never do. I think the world’s power dynamics are going to undergo a massive shift in the coming years, but I don’t think that China will be to the rest of the world what the US was at its height.

But don’t take my word for it—I’m no expert.