This post is almost entirely analysis. There are no fun stories. I’m sorry. There is just insight into the things I have been thinking about since I’ve been here. Its the National Day holiday this week, so I have had time to gather my thoughts a bit and share them with you.
My first month here has already come and gone. I have been very surprised by my experience here thus far. Other than three hours of panic on my first day here everything has been perfectly fine. The transition was not hard at all. I’m completely comfortable here, and I’m disappointed by that. Everything has been too easy, too familiar. I feel like greater culture shock would have yielded greater rewards. In a situation where I would have undergone intense culture shock, I would at least know that I would be experiencing a culture radically different from my own. Sure there are little things that are different, but life here is shockingly similar to home. Marc presented me with a thought experiment while we were at Wudalian Chi. He told me to pretend everyone in Harbin was speaking English and think about what would be different. I couldn’t think of anything at the time. He said Harbin would just be a shitty industrial town in northern England. Other than everyone staring at me, maybe that is a good analogy.
When I went to Spain, life there was distinctly Spanish. I’m disappointed with the picture I’m getting of what Chinese life looks like because it doesn’t strike me as very Chinese. Here, the moments that I have been struck that I am actually in China have been few and far between. Almost all of those moments have come from older people around the river and in other public places playing music or traditional games. I think the rest have come from being confronted with poverty. Everyone else seems to be working all week for the opportunity to go shopping or out to eat on the weekend. I judge that to be pretty similar to home.
I think almost all the English teachers here have two reason why they are here, and I am no exception to these reasons. Of course this is an over generalization; my experiences are too limited to make valid statements about everyone who comes to teach here even if that were possible. The first reason I think one comes to teach here is that one has failed to achieve by some standards. Most teachers here I don’t think are smart enough or disciplined enough to cut it in the average nine to five grind at home (not that the average worker is particularly smart or disciplined; I just think that most teachers here are a cut below that). Here they can work very little and receive relatively large amounts of money without any particular skill other than speaking English. They are at least smart enough and brave enough to leave the system that they know to find ways to gratify themselves. I don’t think I’m exempt from this analysis. I think if I had done better on my LSAT the first time around or got accepted to Teach for America, I wouldn’t be here. I was more excited about this opinion than the other two, but I think that if I would have succeeded with either of those, I would have taken those opportunities. And what better way is there to spend your time reeling from unexpected failures than to go abroad?
Despite my two failures of my senior year, I think I will be a productive member of society. I’m solidly back on the law school track after taking the LSAT again in June. I think my optimism for my future in light of my perspective on the futures of some of the other teachers has lead me to attempt to identify myself with the students. The students are learning Chinese because they are still looking ahead to accomplish more, and that is how I would like to think of myself.
The second reason that someone comes to teach in China from a Western country is a dissatisfaction with their home country in some respect. Some of it is political. I bet some of it is resentment against a system where they could not cut it and be happy. Some of it is cultural. I think I lack the bitterness for the first two reasons. Granted, I’m generally critical of our political system, but I don’t think I would ever leave the country from frustration with it. Not yet at least. Also, I believe that I have the skills to make in Western society. I was in no way unhappy before I left. The time I spent at school was certainly the most enjoyable years of my life. That leaves the cultural option.
I think I am here as a cultural discontent. Woodstock, Georgia is a wonderfully safe, secure, and privileged place to grow up, but it is about as culturally sterile as a place can be. I feel no strong connection with the place, and it think that that is because there is no connection to be had between the place and where it is. I think that if I’m placed in the suburbs of any major city, I get a very similar safe, secure, and privileged experience growing up. I feel like it should matter where you grow up, and it should make a difference in who you are. I’ve been raised with this broad national identity of suburban life. Peers in my community that have embraced Southern culture have done so arbitrarily and inauthentically considering that they just moved to Georgia from cities across the country several years earlier and their home lives more closely reflect the culture of their parents than the South. In some ways, I am also attracted to the idea of the South (like ideas of Southern hospitality, friendliness, and close community), but I could never embrace the better parts of the South in a Southern way because I never lived there.
In relation to Woodstock, Athens was a bohemian paradise. I had such greater exposure to new ideas and music; it afforded me many learning opportunities. However, the majority of Athens is simply imports from the same sterile suburbs from which I come. Those same suburbanites seemed equally arbitrary and contrived in embracing the bohemian as those embracing the Southern. I don’t think anything was particularly hip about our upbringing in the suburbs, and it seems like many students at UGA are latching on to those cultural values to compensate for the lack of any culture in Metropolitan Atlanta. I’m not sure how one authentically becomes a hipster, but it didn’t seem quite right to me. Maybe its a second generation thing; your parents have to be artists, academics, or musicians before you can be genuinely hip.
I think this feeling of dissatisfaction with Harbin is very revealing in light of the second reason why I came here. I think most of us look at the West as modern and materialistic and at the East as mystical, spiritual, and connected with the traditions of its past. None of my conceptions of the East have found resonance in Harbin. I wanted to find a distinctive, local culture, and I’ve found this global culture of consumerism and capitalism. Local, authentic culture strikes me as meaningful and valuable whereas this broad, one-size-fits-all culture of consumerism strips places of local culture.
After I signed my contract, Kaylyn bought me a book about Harbin. It was a thoughtful gesture; it was a way of conceding that I was leaving. It was a South Atlantic Quarterly special edition issue solely about Harbin and Manchuria. Frustrated with Chinese one night this past week, I abandoned studying and picked up the book. After reading the introduction, I reached the first article, “Local Worlds: The Poetics and Politics of the Native Place in Modern China” by a Duke professor by the name of Prasenjit Duara. The beginning of the first paragraph reads:
The modern preoccupation with the hometown or native place is a significant component of the modern representation of the local or the regional. During the first half of the twentieth century the local – embodied particularly in the native place – was pervasively, though not only, represented as a site of authentic values of a larger formation, such as the nation or civilization. This representation of the local as authentic was frequently dramatized by the threat of ascendant capitalist, modern, and urban values.
The article was about the same things I’m struggling with in my experience here, only about one hundred years ago. It examined the debate from the time period about which values were authentic and beneficial.
This article indirectly provided me with two counterpoints to the rant I have to this point been espousing. The first is that what is authentic is always relative. I’m probably looking for Harbin in a state that some of the people one hundred years ago would have argued that such a state would be too modern and devoid of local and authentic values. Maybe one day in my future, I will long for the good ole’ days of my suburban youth when I’m living an urban life and have to listen to my neighbors scream and pound their headboard against the wall. I’m sure if America moves away from the suburban lifestyle, there will be people who look upon that time period with the same sort of nostalgia that I have for other cultures and lifestyles.
The second counterpoint is the way it has always been is not always better. One of the authors cited in the article argued from modernization as a way to escape the backward values and lifestyles of the past. I can see room for positive change in almost all cultures, and I think that maybe I had been ignoring that.
I’m going to make an ad hominem circumstantial argument against myself. It is really easy to condemn the materialism of another culture while you type on your laptop next to your iPod wearing your name brand shoes. I think I need to keep in mind that having things is nice, and most of these people haven’t had things. Because I have so much, I can take things for granted. I should be happy that they can now start to have the things that I enjoy. I just wish there was a greater filter on the things that they so readily accept from Western culture. Why not have nice things as defined by Eastern standards instead of a Mickey Mouse watch?
With that said, I think its time to note the things about Harbin that I have enjoyed. In the most tension with what have said throughout this post, I have appreciated Harbin as an international city. I have dined with people from all over the world, and that is quite the nice luxury. The weather has been absolutely spectacular so far. I been running around in jeans and a tee shirt most days. The only other addition on the other days has been a light jacket. I’m trying to take advantage of the this weather before the city freezes over. The people I have met have been exceedingly nice. My job is very rewarding and quite easy, so I have no complaints there. I’m learning Chinese very quickly; I’m eager to see where I will be in the end if I keep learning at this rate. Other than a couple of days of cravings, I have hit Chinese food hard and with much delight. Most importantly, the Songhua River is a beautiful place, and the parks alongside its banks are teeming with people doing interesting things. I wish I wasn’t so far away or I would go there on a daily basis.
This has been a week long holiday, so I have had time to do interesting things. Expect a post sometime this weekend or early next week with good stories. Until then, please stay in touch.