Saturday, August 16, 2008


China can be a rough place for people who like disagreement. I'm not talking about the macro-level that everyone's familiar with. Rather, it's the daily pursuit of harmony on the individual, micro-level that most interests me.

My first experience with this was when I was teaching persuasive essays to my English Composition students at Hangzhou Teacher's College. I had hammered the students on the basics of the essay, stealing catchy mottoes and lesson plans from my days teaching high school kids in Jacksonville: “Say what you're going to say, say it, say what you said.” It seemed simple, I wanted them to introduce a contrary position, support it, and then add a nuanced conclusion.

It wasn't working, my kids' essays were underwhelming, few of the essays even had thesis statements, the very thing I'd stressed the most while teaching them. Worried that I was missing something, I asked one of my best students about it. She mentioned that this was not the way they had learned to write persuasive essays, in English or Chinese.

“We were taught to write in a way that would allow everyone to agree with what we were saying, even if they didn't. Stating a contrary position upfront is going to turn off half of the readers right away. We don't say the theme of our essay until the conclusion, once everyone's had a chance to hear things they can agree with.”

Lesson for me: Know your audience. After that I told the kids that I was their only audience, and I was going to disagree with anything they said, so they might as well tell me their opinions up front. (I also told them that they would fail if they didn't write thesis statements, but I don't think that had any effect.) Either way, I doubt anyone wrote that way after they finished my class.

This habit of always finding peace in interpersonal relationships can be frustrated for the dirt-seeking foreigner. I thought of this while reading Where's the Grief? ( ), David Brooks amazed article on the apparent lack of misery and depression among Sichuan earthquake victims. My first, self-righteous, skeptical reaction was “Yeah, the first person they're going to open up to is going to be a foreign reporter from the New York Times –the darling of the Chinese media." But it was exactly right. In his unsuccessful quest to unearth victim pain and suffering, Brooks wonders aloud in the article if his interviewees were just spouting canned answers, implying that Chinese would be different behind closed doors. I doubt it, perhaps only behind a labyrinth of closed doors.

Brooks made me think about my own natural disaster experience in China. Last summer, through a bizarre series of events, I ended up on a caravan of ten coach sleeper buses (basically an army barracks inside a bus) that was heading east from the “Chinese Appalachians” to the more developed coast. It was a sweaty, shirtless, grueling 20-hour ride, and I wished they had just told me it was full rather than kicking a guy off the bus to let me on. About two hours into the ride, I figured out that the buses had been hired by shoe factories south of Shanghai. They were busing in workers from the countryside, who would normally work their fields during the summer and then head to the coast in fall to work in factories making Reeboks during the winter. But this was July. I asked my bunkmate Hong Guo – a paunchy, squared-headed teenager who was amazed that I spoke three languages (Chinese, English, and American) –why they were heading out so early.

“Oh, there were huge floods all along the Huai river. All of our fields are flooded. So we're just going to Wenling earlier.” Smiling. I searched his face for signs of remorse or sadness. Nothing.

“Oh, I'm really sorry. That's awful. Is there any government aid available for you?”

“Yes. The government is giving out aid to flood victims.”

“That's great. How much do you get?”

“Oh. We haven't gotten any.”

Such a great answer, spoken without a hint of irony. The government is doing what it can. So are we. The same tenor of answer Brooks got when he asked a grieving father for a government appraisal. Does everyone have a natural disaster media response cheat sheet in their back pocket?

But Hong Guo wasn't posturing, nor was his smile faked. The entire bus was raucous the whole trip, more like a high school prom party wagon than a what it was: a bus-load of incredibly poor migrant workers who'd just lost their entire summer's crop, who were leaving behind families in destroyed, dilapidated houses to go make overpriced shoes at under-living wages. The government is doing what it can. So are we. Insofar as I'm right in paraphrasing Hong Guo's responses (and insofar as I can use them to generalize about an entire civilization), I think these are great insights into the Chinese metaphysical survival kit: Confucianism and Daoism, still extant despite undergoing the most effective cultural house-cleaning of all time thirty years ago. Confucius, a precursor of Steve Austin, told you to know your role. Laozi (founder of Daoism) taught you how to deal with it.

It makes sense. In the U.S., we're oversold on our agency (in law, politics, school, social graces (some of us)), and so growing older is one disillusionment after another until only 50% of us vote, most of us can't do simple math, and we all feel deserving of love even though Paul McCartney was quite clear that the love you take is equal to the love you make. Not so China. The Middle Kingdom has built a country that thinks of itself as a big family. Dad does dad things, Mom does mom things, kids do kids things, government does government things. Your dad might be good, he might be bad, but he's still your dad, and you can't change that (he most likely won't abondon that role either, staying around to raise his family even if he has two or three mistresses.) Same with the party. There's little question that this is more efficient than democracy. It's just that we have this annoying obsession with fairness in the West.

Try to explain fairness to a one-hundred year old woman in China. I have. The answer I've inevitably gotten was that no one from that generation could have survived if fairness mattered to them: from emperor, to warlord, to Japanese devils, to Nationalists, to Communists, to State Capitalists; from foot binding, to book burning, to reform and opening. You do what you can. Hong Guo got passionate only once in our conversation, when he talked about his parents and grandparents, “Our parents made themselves like dirt, like dirt, just to survive. With just the slight hope that things would be better for their children. Just so I could be here talking to you today.”

I don't like the word dirt. I like the word kelp. China is the world's largest human kelp forest, with all the beauty and mystery of those shrouded underwater worlds. Everything outside of your role, be it natural or man-made, is treated the same, a tide that can't be beaten but only adapted to. An earthquake is the same as bad government, an annoyance that can't be changed. They don't need the Serenity Prayer here. For balance's sake, though, they might do with some Self-Reliance.


  1. 终于看完了这篇长长的文章,有感触却不知从何说起,有机会面聊吧。祝北京生活愉快。Enid

  2. 谢谢你的评价,老师. 这篇文章就是谈我们上次谈题目: 西方人和中国人对他们自己的能力, 自由概念的区别. 你方便时, 很希望你能多告诉我你的思想.


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