Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Boys in the Back of the Room, Space Claiming and Thoughts on Chairman Mao


a. The Boys in the Back of the Room Phenomenon.

I was told by the high school teachers that the BITBOTR were much worse as they got older. Surly, rude, no desire to learn, no expectation to learn (Their No Child Left Behind Policy is still under construction, I'm guessing). Of course there were many boys not in the back of the room who were extremely involved learners, but something is up and I don't get it. I have heard that the Japanese students are the respectful ones who stand when their teachers enter; has this Japanese reality transferred into Chinese myth?

b. Diet.

Ladles of grease + heaping bowls of rice = Not much body fat. What is our low carbohydrate, low fat diet accomplishing? I think we just need to walk more.

Bones. Chinese people separate the bones from chicken and fish flesh and miraculously spit the bones back out onto the table, not unlike our sunflower seed separation process. It's all about flavor to them, and the bones are the flavor. They would not understand our boneless skinless chicken breasts or the boneless tilapia I just had for dinner. How far are we removed from our very sanitized food sources?

c. Space issues.

Here is my epiphany: in America, we are cultivated in open spaces. There aren't many of us, and we obey collectively understood space rules. In China, when someone would cut in front of me in line at the grocery check out or push a hand full of money in front of mine, it was because I left an opening, allowing that to occur. When I learned to position myself strategically, blocking the line out with my elbow, I was leaving no spatial opportunity for the 1.3 billion people competing for it.

Same with the traffic. All of the close calls that should have ended in death or dismemberment or at least a bent fender DID NOT. I saw nothing resembling an accident. Crosswalks are suggestions; traffic lights are stronger suggestions. Police did not ticket for violation of them because you are responsible for seeing the open spaces and inhabiting them with confidence. That's it. And they excel at inhabiting spaces.

d. What's with Mao (whose preserved body, by the way, is displayed in a shrine in Tiananmen Square, with extremely long lines of people waiting to see him) (No, sadly, our tour did not include it)?

Remember my shock at the open adoration - the very loud plastic hands clapping - given to him by the crowd at the variety show? I was aware that his portrait kept watch over Tiananmen Square and that the government kept a strong line regarding him as a national hero; because of my reading I was expecting his image to be on t-shirts (eating a McDonald's cheeseburger, claiming "Poweer lomes from the gun (sic),") watches and lighters and other junky trickets- an image not unlike that of Colonel Sanders' - kind of kitchy and "Santa Clausy" (according to Julie Carey). But I assumed that there would be a very strong undercurrent of contempt for him and whispering about him; after all, the generation who endured his fatal policies still exists (how many of those old wrinkled faces did I want to draw stories from?)

I expected this from our twenty-something college girl TA's, being of the educated population they would certainly have opinions different than the party, right? On one of our "dinner with the girls" nights, feeling OK about bringing up politics away from school and expecting to receive secret political viewpoints, I asked intelligent Annie about the Mao rejoicing that went on in the theater. She looked at me blankly, like "why wouldn't they clap?" then Amy whispered to me "I found out more about how they feel about Mao...I'll tell you later...") They love him. They hate Japan and Mao is their savior from Japan.

Where was their secret hatred? After all, I have read numerous books about the Cultural Revolution (written by a small minority of writers who have come out of that society to gain Western perspective on Eastern events). I saw the exhibit at SAM last year: China: 25 Years of Photography, (chronicling the feelings of repression of artists). I have been viewing it with liberal American eyesight. However, viewing it with my Five Weeks in China Eyesight, I must consider that in the last century alone, China has witnessed the end of dynastic rule, endured brutal foreign invasion and occupation, civil war and cultural revolution and is now trying to maintain the fastest growing economy in the world, plus the biggest migration in human history from its rural interior to its coastal cities. We Americans have one civil war, a depression and 911 to give us perspective, while the Chinese...well, when someone falls on the roof above them and dies- covering them in blood that is dripping through the ceiling- they just move to another table.

Chairman Mao advanced China's social and economic development ("his policies were 70% good, 30% bad" Deng Xioaping once said). The communist (but oh so capitalistic) government overlooks the torture and death of that period and mentions it a blip on the life-screen of a highly successful military leader. The Chinese people are mostly accepting this for now - the information being difficult to come by, anyway - and are moving on without calling the police and freaking out and laying crime scene tape all over the place; they just want to claim a new space and finish eating their dinner.

e. How I feel about China now

Each morning since my return, I have restless waking dreams about China. In them I am playing frogger across four lanes of traffic, organizing flash cards, sweating streams down my back and worrying about the bags of cute, breathing frogs waiting to be stir fried on the streets. The dreams are not at all peaceful- they are confusing (Confucianing). It has not been a restful summer (especially today at Wild Waves).

But the nostalgia I'm experiencing so quickly is surprising me....all of the above - the energy, the chaos, the steadfastness of the Chinese people - I have been processing the events from this trip more than any trip I have ever taken. Maybe it's just too hard to love China at first sight, especially if that first sight occurs during the breath-sucking heat of July or August.

I'm pretty sure that, eventually, I will not only say that I love and miss the massages, Stir Fry Street and the Sunnies of China, but that I will be able to say that I love and miss China.

And that I will go back (some cool October).


jp 吉平 said...

brilliant post.

Brian Bowker said...

This is a very insightful post, Marjie! I found your correlation between how China as a nation is trying to occupy a new place in the world and your friend's experience at the restaurant very poignant.

As a side, could you post a phonetic pronunciation guide for the cities you visited?

Anonymous said...

Keqiao- Ka-Chow
Shaoxing- Shaow-Shing
Hangzhou- Hong-jho

Anonymous said...

... when your students rise to influence, cross the ocean to assume power, lovingly appoint you as Education Minister, do you think this Korean will be able to pass as Mandarin?

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