Monday, 07 September 2015 11:13

Becoming Asian

About twenty years ago, I had become a vegetarian and occasionally went to the potluck gatherings of the Boston Vegetarian Society. It was a small group where I felt reasonably welcome. Only in retrospect did I realize that its members were almost entirely white. The president was personable and always chatted with me every time I was there. When I left Boston for an academic position near Chicago, he gave me the phone number of a friend of his, who happened to be active in Chicago Vegetarian Society.


I met her at the Society's vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner, held in a huge banquet hall in a fancy Chicago hotel. After so many years I have forgotten what we talked about, except for one thing. Knowing that I was new in town, she suggested that I join the Asian American Association. I do not remember what I said in response, but for a long time I was thinking: What for?
That watershed moment marked the beginning of the end of my "pre-racial" self. Of course China was part of Asia, therefore I am Asian, but Asia being huge and diverse, I did not know any more about India than Canada. There have always been many Chinese friends in my social life, which occurred most naturally, as I had spent twenty-five years of my life in China, but it had never occurred to me to feel a special bond with anyone simply because he or she was Asian.


On the contrary, during the short amount of time when I roamed the world more or less unattached, I tended to choose where I went based on what I wanted to do, which sometimes landed me with groups in which almost no one else looked like me. During my last year in Boston while finishing my dissertation, I joined an international folk dance group. It was a friendly group welcoming to new members. I ran into them a sunny summer day when they danced at Copley Square during a summer festival, after which I regularly danced with them on weekend nights.


The group had mostly East-European village dances, easy to follow on the fly. I had never been to East Europe or known any real villages, but the idea of village dances appealed to me, much more than night clubs with loud music where everyone seems so perplexingly excited. I nostalgically imagined a village square where people who danced together belonged to the same community. The group boasted a large repertoire of dances, so I was never bored. I also made friends who invited me to some other folk dance venues. My favorite place was a small historic town hall for square and contra dances. I found square dance dazzlingly beautiful, while contra dance made me feel exhilaratingly happy and free, perhaps because as dancers move from one end of the room to the other, they get to dance with other people's partners.


I never joined the Asian American Society as I did not know what I would do there if all we held in common was the fact that we came from somewhere in Asia, not to say that whatever shared history we may have does not necessarily unite us. I considered "Asian American", with or without a hyphen, a politically constructed identity: it combines vastly different racial and ethnic groups which otherwise would be, even more, statistically overlooked. I did not go back to the Chicago Vegetarian Society either. As I put down roots in America's heartland where I originally knew nobody else, I realized that vegetarianism was just a small piece of my life's puzzle and could not compete with more powerful forces that formed its web.


My pre-racial self was partly shaped by my first few years in the U.S. in a PhD program specialized in the French Enlightenment, "living and breathing in French literature", as one of my fellow students jokingly remarked. I was selected to participate in the exchange program with the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, after being assured by my professors that their choice would be made solely based on academic merit, "regardless of students' nationality or ethnic background." When against all odds, I landed a tenure-track position in French close to Chicago, I gratefully and sincerely believed myself to be an embodiment of American dream.


Leaving the high-minded academics in my PhD program to settle in the larger society has not always been easy, but I had an ample supply of meek resilience. Born in a small city in the remote Sichuan province in China, I completed my first grade in an elementary school in a rural town where my mother was "sent down" to teach. As I gradually moved to better schools and finally entered Peking University, I had learned to tune out subtle or not so subtle messages from those who looked down upon "outsiders from small places." Along with many people in similar situations, I had been used to living in the margins and learned to shrug off the unpleasant to focus on the positive. One of the few times when I felt outraged was when horrible things happened to other people: when I read about Danny Chen's suicide, I was so overwhelmed with grief that I cried, in a crowded airport.


As a mother I tried to raise my daughter in an intercultural environment, with an earnest post-racial mindset. Before she started high school and became too busy to travel with me, we spent roughly the same number of summers in France as in China, immersed in the languages and cultures. In fact, for three summers, she had month-long stays in three different host families in Blois, France, the first time with me, and twice by herself, while I directed my university's study abroad program. In middle school, she opted to study Spanish instead of French, because she wanted to learn one more language. She chose to celebrate two of her birthdays in her favorite Chinese restaurant, which happened to be a Sichuanese restaurant with mostly spicy food. Watching her joyfully interacting with her friends of various races, I felt relieved and grateful thinking that my daughter was, literally and figuratively, comfortable in her skin, and well integrated.


The spring of her junior year, however, she applied for and got a summer internship with Asian American Advancing Justice, a not-for-profit organization that helps disadvantaged Asian Americans, including refuges. How come a "post-racial" mother did not raise a "post-racial" child? Was it because when she was seven, a girl in her dance class asked her how she could be American since she was Chinese? Was it because when she was in second grade, a white girl refused to sit by her in the bus during a school excursion? Was it because she had to deal with derogatory jokes about Asians by some of her schoolmates? Was it because in middle school, her friends were all encouraging her to date a Korean-American boy because they were oh so similar, except she did not think they were? Was it because she ended up making friends with many Asian-American teens and realized that they do share similar challenges?


Those who complained about "hyphenated Americanism" would do well to remember that it is derived as much, if not more sometimes, from other people's perception than from self-identification. It may be the experience of growing up being perceived as others that makes Asian American children acutely realize their hyphenated identity – deleting the hyphen does not make a substantial difference. They became Asian not because of what happened in that immense continent where their parents or ancestors came from, but because of their shared experience in the country they call home. Their moral outrage about racial inequality is also deeply rooted in American egalitarianism. They are not born Asian, but paradoxically, it is by becoming Asian that they become more American.

(Drawing by Bendu)


Friday, 03 April 2015 16:23

Is Confucius in hell? – Why Answers to the Question Matter

Is Confucius in hell? Post Vatican II Catholics may think that we have definitely moved beyond such a question after the promulgation of Lumen Gentium (1964) which no longer excludes from salvation those "who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience" (Article 16). But the case is far from settled and can still lead to passionate debates among Chinese Protestants of different stripes.

Oversea Chinese Protestant churches and Protestant "house churches" in China are generally considered evangelical or fundamentalist. The morphology itself can present myriad challenges. It is not easy to theoretically distinguish those two terms in the Chinese context, as both groups may appear to be fundamentalist in terms of doctrine, and ordinary believers, who simply consider themselves Christians, may not even recognize such labels. One major difference is evangelicals tend to hold increasingly more assertive political and social agendas following the American religious conservative model. However, a strong fundamentalist tendency exists overall among Chinese Protestants, to the point that the word "fundamentalism" has two translations: when referring to Islamic fundamentalism, it is usually translated as yuanjiaozhi zhuyi (原教旨主义), which has a strong negative connotation; when used with Protestants, it is commonly translated as jiyao zhuyi (基要主义), a more neutral or even laudatory term for self-proclaimed fundamentalists who equate it with steadfast adherence to biblical truths. Theologically speaking, Chinese Protestants tend to be more conservative than American evangelicals such as Billy Graham, whom some consider a heretic due to his interfaith initiatives.

Those who declare that Confucius is in hell base their belief on biblical passages. Among the most frequently cited are John 14: 6 (Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me"), and Acts Chapter 4: 12 (Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved). The bar for salvation for Confucius is thus set very high, requiring the chronologically impossible explicit belief in Jesus. For those who think that it is not fair to damn righteous people who were prevented from knowing Jesus by chronology, the answer is that humans are all sinners and none of us deserves God's grace anyway, Confucius no more than anybody else, because "there is no one righteous, not even one" (Roman 3:10). The most critical of them think it is a heresy even to claim that one is not sure whether or not Confucius is in hell, because it is so clear that he is, based on the correct reading of the Bible.

Some Chinese Protestants have managed to find other biblical passages that make it possible for Confucius to be saved, especially Peter 4:6 (For this is the reason the Gospel was preached even to those who are now dead), or John 5:25 (I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live). The hopeful interpretation is that since the Gospel can be preached to the dead, Confucius would have had a chance to be saved. Given that he so eagerly sought truth during his lifetime, he would have undoubtedly accepted Jesus' teachings. This view was refuted because Gandhi, a virtuous man who knew about Jesus, did not become a believer. Among people who think that Confucius has been saved, some are pious fundamentalists who adhere to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy like their detractors, but they tend to be older and culturally more attached to Confucianism. Some Protestants, especially some but not all "cultural Christians", agree with the way Matteo Ricci and his fellow Jesuits in late Ming and early Qing dynasties read the Chinese classics: Confucius and ancient Chinese, as descendants of Noah, knew the true God; they were neither idolatrous nor atheist. But the church-going Protestants mostly either do not know or do not care about what Catholic missionaries have written, when they do not view it with suspicion.

More cautious people refrain from judging, leaving it to God's grace and wisdom. They even allow that Confucius might be saved, but the lesson to take home is since the only sure way to salvation is through Jesus, we should preach the Gospel to as many people as possible. Why would such a question even matter? They ask. Well, it is not just about Confucius. The question translates a deep unease among Chinese non-believers or religious seekers, who find it unfair that, righteous people born before Jesus lived or was known in their locality, should be condemned to hell, while faith constitutes the sole requirement for salvation, regardless of any other personal merits. Chinese Protestants agree on the inerrancy of the Bible, but in regard to its specific interpretations, those who accuse others of heresy have not come up with coherent criteria. Some refer to the principles of five "Solas": by Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, and glory to God alone. But how do those principles apply to specific cases, such as whether or not Confucius is saved? Who is to decide?

For the Chinese, whether or not Confucius is in hell is not an obscure theological question. On one hand, many Protestants aim to play a more assertive role in the public sphere. Some of them declare unsatisfactory Taiwan's model of religious freedom because Protestants there have failed to become a formidable political force in its democratic process. They also deem European democratic model too secular, and aspire instead to American political ideal as defined by American religious conservatives who believe that the country was founded on Protestant Christian idea. On the other hand, even though a significant number of Chinese have become indifferent to Confucius as a result of the May 4th Movement and especially the Cultural Revolution, most people still revere him and consider Confucianism an important part of Chinese cultural heritage. In such a context, what people think about Confucius' salvation status rightfully belongs to the public sphere.

Illustration by Bendu


Thursday, 08 January 2015 17:18

A Curious Puzzle: Americans’ Chilly to Lukewarm Perceptions of Buddhists

When Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell discuss how Americans view various religious groups in their critically acclaimed book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010), they reported that the three most "unpopular" groups are Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims. Based on a "feeling thermometer" from 0 (coldest) to 100 (warmest), all three were ranked in the 40s, below the overall mean of 55 degree and the neutral point of 50. One may wonder how Buddhists could have received such a chilly reception in the US in absence of any typical factors that make a religion unpopular to others, such as negative media attention, social behaviors that run counter to laws or ethic codes of the larger society, historical or ongoing conflicts, and proselytizing competition for converts.

The number puzzles me, especially in comparison with the positive way Buddhists are perceived in France. As reported in a Figaro article in 2013, Buddhism is ranked by Tilder et l'Institut Montaigne as the religion most favorably viewed by the French: 87% of them have a good image of Buddhism, followed by 76% for Protestantism, 69% for Catholicism, 64% for Judaism, and 26% for Islam. Even if we take the exact numbers with a grain of salt, the "warm" feeling the French have for Buddhism can be corroborated by numerous other studies, surveys and newspaper or magazine articles.

It is certainly not the first time the French and Americans so sharply disagree, but the contrast makes it obvious that Americans' negative view of Buddhism may not have much to do with its place outside of Judeo-Christian framework. Putnam and Campbell believe that Americans' religious tolerance stems mainly from the fact that most of them "are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths." As a result, since there are so few Buddhists and Muslims, most Americans are not closely acquainted with anyone of them, preventing "religious bridging". The thesis makes a lot of sense in many regards, but it does not explain, for instance, why American Jews gave Buddhists a warm score of 64, the highest of what they gave to any religious groups other than themselves (Catholics received the same score).

If the condition for Buddhists to be viewed warmly in the US is for a large number of other Americans to be "intimately acquainted" with them, we may wait for a very long time. In a well-researched book, My Freshman Year (2005), anthropologist Rebekah Nathan (pseudonym) observes that college students, whom we might expect to be most dynamic and open-minded, tend to socialize in homogenous groups with those who resemble themselves in appearances and backgrounds. Yes, they are usually polite and civil, but display a surprising level of indifference towards unfamiliar cultures, bitterly felt by international students. Perhaps one of the deepest problems in the US is a pervasive lack of curiosity for difference or unfamiliarity, which is reflected in an overwhelming need to feel comfortable, and to find others "relatable" before willing to be associated with them. Living in the same neighborhood does not mean genuine friendship would result from such proximity, because neighbors seldom socialize with each other. Robert Putnam's bestselling Bowling Alone (2000) depicts precisely an America where people became increasingly disconnected from one another.

It is well-noted that divisions tend to run along racial lines, even in places of worship. In a fascinating article in Huffington Post, "Buddhism's Race Problem: Buddhist 'People of Color Sanghas'", Jaweed Kaleem reports on emerging exclusive Buddhist meditation groups where whites are not allowed, because minority practitioners feel judged and unwelcome in established meditation centers where members are almost entirely white. It may seem odd that Buddhism, a religion that teaches detachment from the self and appearances, cannot bridge the believers' racial division, but we need to take into account America's long history of racial segregation. It was only in 1967 that the US Supreme Court outlawed the so-called "anti-miscegenation laws".

Putnam and Campbell's book was based on Faith Matters Surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007. When Pew Research Center conducted a new survey in July 2014, Americans' "feeling temperature" for Buddhism has increased to 53 degree, still lukewarm but a noticeable improvement, warmer than 48 for Mormons and 40 for Muslims. What has changed? The survey offers various clues. Younger Americans give Buddhist significantly higher marks than older ones: 18 to 29 year-olds, a significant proportion of whom were too young to be included in the previous surveys, rate them at 58 degree, while those 65 and older give them a tepid 47. In addition, there seems to be a correlation with politics: Democrats view Buddhists much more favorably than Mormons (57 versus 44), while Republicans rate them slightly lower (49 versus 52). Does knowing someone from a religious group result in a more positive view? It definitely does, but not to the same degree. Buddhists receive the largest boost, from 48 to 70, the highest mark, but only 23% of Americans know anyone of them.

How do we interpret such statistics? How come Buddhists benefit so much more from familiarity than other religions? For what reasons some religious groups view Buddhists much more favorably than others do? Why do Democrats have a significantly more positive view of Buddhists than Republicans? To what extent those diverse perceptions are related to the specific teachings of Buddhism? Numbers do not lie, as the saying goes, but neither do they tell the whole story.

Photo By Aaron Logan (from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php) [CC BY 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Monday, 24 November 2014 00:00

Beautiful Accent: How do We Measure (up)?

I recently chanced upon a comment about a Chicago celebrity: "She was a very sophisticated person and has a beautiful French accent." It then occurred to me that remarks about "beautiful accent" are both banal and intriguing: we hear them so often that we seldom wonder about the underlying assumptions beneath them, and they seem innocuous enough for people not to censor themselves, but that is precisely why they can shed some candid light on the world where we live.

In the case of the accent native speakers have when speaking their own language, it may be politically correct to say that all accents are equally beautiful, but the reality is some accents are more equal than others. Statistically, "beautiful" is more frequently associated with certain accents. This phenomenon might be conveniently explained away by the number of their native speakers, thus if we more often hear about "beautiful American accent" than "beautiful Australian accent", we may think that it is because there are more Americans than Australians, but this wishful thinking does not explain why we are almost as likely to encounter "beautiful American accent" as "beautiful British accent", and there are so much more occurrences of "beautiful British accent" than "beautiful Chinese accent". Perhaps China is too far away from predominantly English speaking countries for such comments to show up in English, but we also seldom hear about "beautiful Mexican accent", or "beautiful Canadian accent". Needless to say, such statements usually overlook variations of accents among people from the same country.

Even trickier is the "beautiful accent" that originates from cross-linguistic influence of multilingual people's previous language(s), or foreign accent, such as Penelope Cruz's "beautiful Spanish accent", or the Chicago celebrity's "beautiful French accent", when they speak English. Those with some other accents do not customarily receive such a compliment. After all, one of the goals of learning another language is to sound as close to native as possible, not the least in order to be more easily understood. You really have to like a particular accent a lot in order to find it beautiful when it appears in another language.

While learning Spanish by auditing classes taught by various colleagues, vocabulary, grammar and reading come easily to me because of my prior mastery of French, but I have a harder time with pronunciation, especially how to roll the [r] in Spanish, or which syllable gets stressed. One colleague patiently corrected me, but another told me not to worry.

"You don't need to change it. Your accent is beautiful. It is French," she insisted. "We like it."

It is well-known to linguists that our second or third language (L2 or L3) can have a stronger influence on subsequent languages we learn than our first, especially when they are much more similar, such as in the case of Spanish and French. Nevertheless, her comment made it obvious that there is a hierarchy in accents, some more beautiful than others.

The prestige of French accent may be connected to that of the French language, which we can trace all the way back to the Century of Louis XIV when French was spoken in all the royal courts in Europe and Dominique Bouhourr S. J. (1628-1702), one of the earliest and most effective advocate of French, declared it the most beautiful language in the world in the Entretiens d'Ariste et d'Eugène (1671). Few people remember Father Bouhours, but thanks to him the ineffable charm of "je ne sais quoi" can be used as aesthetic criteria beyond rational analysis and has been associated, sometimes half-jokingly, with all things French in the US. Generations of Chinese learned that French is the most beautiful language in the world from their middle school textbook, which included a short story by Alphonse Daudet, "La dernière classe" (The Last Lesson), translated into Chinese during the early twentieth century. The Chinese reception of the story happened to be connected to a long history of Japanese invasions of China. Many of us may not know much about the situation in Alsace, but identified with a people who lost their land to invaders, and felt a special affinity with their language.

Accents can convey layers of meanings beyond sound. I grew up in a small city in Sichuan and spoke the regional dialect for many years until I went to college in Beijing at 17. After several decades of speaking only the official Mandarin, French and English, I almost lost the ability to speak the dialect fluently, until I reconnected with my high school friends and made an effort to bring it back. It was highly rewarding: the fact that I can speak our dialect "in its original flavor" has been well appreciated by my hometown friends, which reminds me of a Quebecois colleague. He once gave me a ride from Montreal to a small Quebec town and back for an invited talk. We chatted for many hours and I only noticed a slight Quebecois accent from him. But when we met again at a conference and went out for dinner with several other Quebecois, his accent was so pronounced that I did not understand everything he was saying.

People from relatively marginalized groups know that their accent may not be generally perceived as beautiful, but keeping it constitutes a badge of authenticity and loyalty; on the other hand, finding an accent beautiful can reveal appreciation, admiration and even adulation for the culture in which the said language/dialect is spoken. It is not unrelated to our sometimes unchecked preconception about cultural appeal, prestige and power. How beautiful is your accent? How do we measure that? The answers are surely complicated and not always comfortable.

Illustration by Bendu


Friday, 25 April 2014 00:00

Road to Her Mother

Lan takes the train every month, from Shanghai to the provincial capital where her mother lives, in a nursing home. The high speed train dongche gets to her destination in a few hours, unlike the "fast train" kuaiche that took more than twice as much time. It is sparkling clean and orderly, compared to before when people used to play cards noisily and eat sunflower seeds spitting out the shells in order to kill time. All around her, travelers are listening to their earphones, playing with their cellphones, or reading their magazines. She has slight motion sickness, which prevents her from reading, but has enough on her mind to keep busy. Last time when she called, the nurse told her that mother had been upset because she could not find her mother.

- Your mom - my grandma, died a long time ago, remember? Lan explained patiently over the phone.

- Is that so? Mom answered meekly and sadly.

Lan felt sorry for her. Mom was not always this soft. She had a sharp mind and a sharp tongue. Lan used to be afraid of her. Dad tried to keep peace.

- Your mom's tongue can be as sharp as a knife, but her heart is as soft as tofu.

That is a well-known Chinese expression, almost a cliché. Mother's heart did not need to be quite as soft as tofu, but they would all have been better off if her tongue weren't as sharp as a knife. Mother's condition did not become noticeable to Lan and her big brother until after their father's death three years ago. Poor dad had always acted like a buffer between mom and the children. The doctor diagnosed early onset of Alzheimer's disease, which has progressed rather quickly due to her diabetes.

At first, Lan's brother, who lived in the same city, took her in. But mom became increasingly difficult: she refused to take her medications, accused sister-in-law of stealing her money, and ran away several times. Humiliated, sister-in-law refused to be alone with her, and caregivers they hired would quit after a few days. Although Mom had always found something to complain about during each of her previous visits, Lan proposed to get her to live in Shanghai with her. She had bought a better apartment with a spacious guestroom. She would find a capable caregiver. Mom was thrilled to go back to Shanghai, her hometown. Her happiness lasted less than 12 hours. In the middle of the night, she started to scream and demanded to go home.

- Ma, this is your home, your own daughter's home.

- No, it is a hospital! I want to go home!

After a sleepless night, Mom was energetic and wanted to go see her older sister. Relieved, Lan left her there and went to work. Before lunch break, her cousin called. Mom and auntie had a huge fight and would not talk to each other anymore. They were both crying.

- What for?

- About how their big brother died, and whose fault it was.

Mom's big brother died during the 1937 Japanese bombing of Shanghai. Lan never knew exactly how. When grandma died, Lan saw him on an old picture in a keepsake box. It was a black and white family photo that had turned partly yellow. He looked about ten years old, and wore a dark suit like grandpa. No one was smiling. People did not use to smile on photos. Mother wore a little qipao dress and clang to grandma. Lan had a hard time picturing grandma running away from bombing with three children.

Lan picked up her mother from her auntie's home. Mom insisted on finding the home at Hongkou where grandma used to live. The entire neighborhood was demolished.

- This is not Shanghai! You are deceiving me!

Mom yelled loudly. People walked by, some stared at them frankly as if they were nobody, while others casted them their annoyed side glance. Lan hailed a taxi and took mom to the Old City God Temple and the Yu Garden, in order to prove that they were, in fact, in Shanghai. They had some raw-fried buns with ground meat filling (shengjian bao), and mom was in a spirited mood again.

Three days later, Lan was on the brink of exhaustion and the neighbors were complaining. Brother came to get mom. He had found an upscale nursing home for her.

At the beginning, mom cried and fought with the nurses, and then she gradually calmed down. Lan was not sure if it was due to her medications, or because her deteriorating condition made her humble. Last month, Lan was too busy to make her visit. When mom complained about having not seen her for a long time, Lan just muddled through:

- I was there last week, don't you remember?

- Oh, really?

Lan felt guilty, but somehow she enjoys talking with mom more, now that she is no longer afraid of her. She even plays with her over the phone, as if she were a little girl.

- Who am I?

- You are my daughter.

- What is my name?

- Oh, of course I know your name. Stop testing me.

Sometimes mom would try to show off her memory, or what is left of it.

- I know you have two husbands. Don't worry. I will not tell anybody else.

She laughed mischievously. Lan smiled sheepishly. There is no point reminding her mother that she does not have two husbands at the same time. But mother seems to be obsessed with Lan's husbands. Despite her promise, she keeps telling Lan's brother:

- Poor Lan. She has to cook for two husbands after work.

It feels wonderful that your mother is on your side, complicit, no matter how badly you mess up. It did not use to be that way.

Lan was in fact raised by her grandma, her mother's mother, who lived in Shanghai. Lan's mother followed her dad when he was assigned to work in the provincial capital. When Lan was about five, her parents decided to let her live with grandma, who was then widowed. Since they both "voluntarily" gave up their Shanghai resident cards (hukou) to support an "interior city", a (temporary) policy allowed them to leave one child in Shanghai, provided there was a relative as a guardian. Of course they did not tell her that right away. Instead, grandma came for a visit, and took Lan with her when she went back.

- You want to visit Shanghai with grandma? Asked dad.

Of course she did. Lan always liked grandma. She was the best-looking old lady she had ever seen, always impeccably dressed and put together. Best of all, she never yelled at Lan, unlike her mother. Lan went to the train station with grandma and dad.

- Are you going to miss us? Asked dad.

- No.

She brought her best "friend", a doll with a blue dress and big dark eyes that she always went to sleep with. She did not start to miss her parents and brother until weeks later, when she was told that she was to live in Shanghai for good. She cried for a while, but with a lot of "big white rabbit" candies, a five-year-old got over things. It proved to be a brilliant decision: Lan got a more and more coveted Shanghai hukou, and her older brother, who graduated from high school in 1976, did not have to go to the countryside, as the only child living with his parents. It was meant to be: Lan bore a closer resemblance to grandma than to either of her parents.

When Lan was in college, majoring in English, she watched Sophie's Choice. She cried and cried, and in the most unfair way, identified herself with the daughter that Sophie had to sacrifice for the sake of her son. She knew she was being ridiculous and a little hypocritical, because she would not have wanted to give up all the privileges that come with a Shanghai hukou, She never asked why her parents sent her away instead of her big brother though. It was obvious: a son is a son.

Lan's parents came to Shanghai every year for their Chinese New Year break, until grandma passed away when Lan was in college. After that Lan took the train every year to visit them during her winter break. The rest of the time, dad wrote letters. Only once, right after Lan's divorce, Mom added a few lines at the end of the letter:

"Do not come back for the New Year. Now is not the right time. Divorce is such a shame for us; none of our ancestors has ever done it. Now that you are no longer young, almost thirty, you need to find a suitable husband quickly, before it is too late. You need to be realistic. Older man is better, but no more than ten years older. Divorced man is ok as well, but with no children.
Mother"

That Winter Break, Lan spent her endless free time listening to an Elvis Presley Christmas CD offered by an American visitor. Her favorite song was "I will be home for Christmas". The more Elvis repeated himself, the more she had a hunch that he would not be home on Christmas, not even in his dream, because you do not get to order your dream. There should be some sad songs for Chinese New Year as well. How could a billion people all feel happy on the same day?

Lan did not go visit her parents until three years later, husband in tow and a baby girl in her arms. Her brother had a son, so her parents were ecstatic with a granddaughter. She apparently did better than her mother's commands: her husband was four years older. She never told her that he had a son from a previous marriage, who lived in Singapore with his ex-wife. Life finally smiled to Lan who, strangely enough, started to have a recurring nightmare.

She was with a panic crowd running away from some invading soldiers with guns, holding her baby girl in her arm. When they arrived at one side of the village, another group of soldiers were running towards them. The crowd screamed and ran in all directions...
Sometimes her husband would wake her up. She would be panting heavily and soaked in sweat. The nightmare kept returning, as her baby grew heavier.

-Next time you have your nightmare, make sure I am in it. At least I can carry our baby for you, her husband teased her.

Lan also felt it strange that her husband was never in the dream and stopped telling him about it. Luckily, the nightmare stopped when her baby was about five, quite difficult to be carried.

The train stops at the final destination. Lan steps into the station, the same one where she left for Shanghai when she was five, but completely renovated. Train station. Mom now thinks all the time that she is in a train station and insists on going everywhere with some clothes wrapped in a big scarf. Mirrors had to be removed from her room because she got upset whenever she saw "an old woman" there.

Lan arrives at the "Red Sunset Nursing Home" in late afternoon. People are doing Taiji with an instructor, and a few are taking a stroll. Her mother is standing alone under a banyan tree, a cloth wrap clutched in her hand. She gazes into the distance and does not see Lan until she walks near her.

- Mommy!

Lan is startled. Her mom throws her arms around Lan, tears running down her wrinkled cheeks.

- Mommy! What took you so long? I have been waiting and waiting...

 

Drawing by Bendu


Monday, 31 March 2014 00:00

My Eyelid (Is Not) My Identity

I have a nice colleague who once told me that she loved "Chinese eyes". I was as surprised as when I first heard from French tourists that Chinese have les yeux bridés. Whatever does that mean? Among Chinese, we think we either have double or mono eyelids, perceived to be hugely different. I was then shocked to read about the suggestion, from American and French presses, as well as from some English-monolingual writers of Asian origin who do not have much contact with Asian communities, that Asian women go through double eyelid surgery so that they can look more Westernized, or as a form of "internalized racism". That is a serious charge unknown to most Chinese people. It is not much help that the most vocal people to oppose this view tend to be connected to beauty industries. Even though statistically they know more Asian women who have gone through the procedure, their financial interest makes their opinion less credible. Since no one wants to be "spoken for" nowadays, I might as well say something about my eyelid and my identity. I will limit myself to the Chinese case whenever possible because I do not claim to know enough about all the Asian cultures.

Having double eyelids in no way makes a Chinese woman look Westernized. I have natural double eyelids and live in the "West", but no one has ever thought I bear any resemblance to a Westerner; on the other hand, I have met Vietnamese or Japanese who mistook me for one of their own. As far as I know, people have always preferred double eyelids in China, even during the decades of Mao Zedong's reign when no Western movies were allowed. Actresses in leading roles almost invariably have double eyelids, to the point that a few years ago, when a beautiful woman with single eyelids played the leading role in the film Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010), all my Chinese friends noticed the "momentous" change and wondered if mono eyelids were finally becoming fashionable. In fact, people as old as my father remember their parents also thought women with double eyelids were prettier. The pressure mainly comes from Chinese community itself. Double eyelid surgery is one of the most frequently performed procedures in China or Chinese communities elsewhere in the world. Contrary to some gruesome procedures, it is almost non-controversial. All of us know someone who has done it and people increasingly do not keep it a secret as the practice became more common. Since it is not rude among Chinese to give unsolicited advice, when a girl has mono eyelids, it is not unusual for some affectionate aunties (ayi) who are not really her aunts to tell her:

- You would be even more beautiful if you had double eyelids! It is really an easy surgery!

As someone who considers getting ear piercings (holes) too painful and settles for wearing only necklaces, I am the last one to advocate for plastic surgeries. I am glad to live now in a society where many people are or claim to be open-minded to different types of beauty, but we need to realize the challenge others face in their own cultural environment. It is easy to take the moral high ground and judge Chinese women who go through double eyelid surgery, but I can put myself in their place, because they can be my friends, my sisters and my daughters, and I know that my eyelid is not my identity.

Since my mother has double eyelids and my father single eyelids, it was through pure luck that I inherited the culturally more desirable feature. My younger sister, however, was born with monolids. Strangely, when she just woke up her eyelids would look double for a while, or when she rubbed her eyes, which she did more often than our parents liked. Maybe she had a hidden or very shallow crease. Then in her twenties, her eyelids became double even when she was not rubbing them or waking up. I noticed the change during a visit:

- Oh, they just became like this little by little! She said as if it were nothing.

Who would have believed that? But I did, and for many years. Then it dawned on me she might have done what many other women did.

- How...How did your eyelids become double? I tried to sound as casual as possible over the phone.
- I just got a surgery! It was so wonderful! She giggled like a little girl.

She already had a job, and an adoring husband. But so many women she knew were getting them, with stunning results. She chose the simple technique of "stitching threads", which leaves no scar, and with quick recovery time.

- Did it hurt?
- Not at all! And it took less time than a haircut!
- What...what did brother-in-law think?
- He was thrilled. I surprised him. He saw my double eyelids when he was walking upstairs, and liked them right away. Oh, it was the happiest day in my life!

It was the same old happiness, perhaps, as when Cinderella somehow got her party outfit. It did not occur to me to ask her if she internalized Western beauty standard, or if she betrayed our father's heritage. I knew the answer was no, and no.

The first time when I came upon an Asian woman (I could not tell her exact ethnicity) with single eyelids on a magazine cover either in France or in the U.S., I experienced a moment when "one hundred feelings mixed up simultaneously" (baigan jiaoji). Seeing a woman who would have had a hard time in a school dance in China look confident in her attractiveness revealed to me that perhaps in this world beauty might be somewhat relative and culturally constructed. It reminded me that it was beneficial to expand the range of our beauty tastes for the sake of our own and other people's pleasures. The realization made me feel bad for all the Chinese women with single eyelids who did not have the luck of being discovered and appreciated by Western lenses. But I also wondered if it could reflect a subtle form of orientalism: that is how Westerners think Asian women typically look.

Sometimes our poor eyes can only perceive what our heart or mind want them to see. A longtime Chinese diplomat and Francophile, who had spent years in France, wrote a book in Chinese about his wonderful impressions living in the Hexagon (Impressions in France, Falanxi yinxiang): one of his greatest pleasures while traveling there was to ask directions to "slim and graceful blond women with blue eyes". You wonder how long he normally would need to wait. I know that French women don't get fat (that is the title of a popular book in the U.S.), but it is safe to think that his pleasure would have been reduced at least by half if it had depended on talking with blond women with blue eyes (jinfa biyan, the Chinese stereotype of Westerners) in France, because he would have had at least equal chance of running into women with different eye or hair colors. Believing that single eyelids constitute a distinctive feature of Chinese women is not much different from thinking that French women typically have blond hair and blue eyes: what about the other (roughly) half?

Once single eyelids were made the distinctive mark of Chinese women despite the fact that a significant proportion of them naturally have double eyelids, any attempts to modify them through make-up or surgery can be viewed as an identity issue. We can observe an obvious double standard: when a brunette dyes her hair blond, a blond dyes her hair red or black, a curly woman straightens her hair, fair-skinned people sunbath or use tanning beds risking cancer to obtain darker skin, those widespread practices are not perceived to involve their identity even though they alter their natural look. Sometimes well-meaning people interpret too much through racial lenses. Instead of going as far as those who accused them of psychological projection or cultural imperialism, I would rather think they simply overlooked some important facts. My late foot-bound grandmother, who had never seen a single Westerner in her entire life, told me that "whiteness of skin covers a hundred flaws", which happened to be a common saying in China. In case you still think she was somehow influenced by Western standard, an influential poem from the Book of Poetry, written several hundred years B.C., describes a great beauty as having skin as white as "frozen fat". I do not know why my ancestors of the time preferred fair skin, but it was probably not due to internalized racism.

It is not my intention here to discuss the pros and cons of plastic surgeries, or its place in the continuum of things we do to embellish our appearance based on beauty standards du jour. Employment discrimination based on irrelevant and ridiculous criteria such as eyelids should be illegal, but then in a market economy, if enough kings/customers in certain places make their business decisions according to the perceived beauty of the vendors, it will be difficult to enforce such a ban. At the very least, when a Chinese woman decides to get double eyelid surgery, please do not assume that she is having an identity crisis or she is denying her cultural heritage. She most likely just wants to look as beautiful as her own mother or supposedly luckier "sisters" who constitute her reference group. The tapestry of our identity cannot be reduced to the shape of our eyelids, or whatever we do with them.

 

Drawing by Bendu


Monday, 03 March 2014 00:00

Surreal Encounter: Pure Economics and Real People

Many years ago, when I was settling into my first full-time job in the US and before I even knew if my political alignment was with the Left or the Right on this side of the planet, I met the son of a Nobel-Prize winner in economics, a well-known economist himself. Let's just call him SNW for convenience. It was a small gathering. When the hostess introduced me to him and his wife, they were busy solving a math problem (I cannot possibly have made this up)! After briefly greeting me, they continued to be absorbed in this exciting game for a while until they both solved it almost at the same time and smiled to each other. What a match made in heaven...

Like a recovering addict, I was drawn irresistibly to their nerdy game. I used to love math because it represented reason, clarity and certainty. I asked to work on the problem, even though I had not tackled math after high school and forgot nearly all the formulas. Luckily, there was nothing in the problem that could not be solved by basic reasoning, or bon sens with which Descartes assures us that we are pretty much equally endowed. It involved finding out how a perfect equation became absurd in the course of seemingly logical operations. The culprit, of course, was a hidden zero that materialized somewhere along the way. It took me longer than I wanted to solve the problem, in a humbling test of my ego and perseverance. I surely got rusty, but at least can flatter myself to be a worthy interlocutor of SNW.

You may have noticed that some people enjoy being teachers while others being students. It is not hard to figure out who was which as we started to chat about economics. I genuinely wanted to know more about his field and had absolutely no intention of challenging him on his turf. When he praised free market economy as the best possible system, however, I could not help but wondered if in some cases it might be unfair to some people. When he refused to admit it, we both became stubborn. Even though he possessed incomparably more knowledge on economics, my task was easier: I merely had to prove that free market can be unfair sometimes, and he had to defend it in all situations.

I started with the US textbook market, of which I had some direct knowledge. It seemed unfair to me that authors of first-year textbooks make much more money because there are always more students at the beginning level, with the consequence that it is extremely difficult to find good textbooks at advanced levels, while the market is flooded with so many lower-levels textbooks that publishers send unsolicited copies to professors hoping they would adopt them. Generally speaking, first-year textbooks are of better quality as publishers invest more money in the review and editing process knowing they can sell more copies, while upper-level textbooks sometimes contain many errors. SNW said it proved that market was working beautifully, as competition would weed out weaker products and drive down costs; since we let the market determine the value of a product, we should not think that authors of advanced-level textbooks deserve better pay, not if fewer people need their product. I countered that competition surely did not drive down the costs of US textbooks, notoriously expensive. In addition, a shortage of good textbooks at the advanced levels hurt educational outcome, but a free market has no incentive to care about that. Neither can we claim that during the course of competition it is necessarily weaker products that get weeded out. Sometimes an unlucky author chooses a textbook company that becomes bankrupt quickly, and in the chaos of a takeover, good products, well regarded by both professors and students, can be discarded; at the same time, a financially well-run company, having decided to "invest" in a textbook, would spend money to support and improve a poor product for as many years as possible. When I was a Teaching Fellow at Boston College, lured by successful marketing, we once adopted an intermediate French textbook that contained so many errors that the publisher paid us each $100 to help clean up them. It is as if in order to be a successful textbook writer you need to act like a stock picker. It is not obvious: over the years, I have seen respectable companies that produced excellent textbooks went bankrupt, while the ones that dominate the market may not necessarily offer better choices. SNW asserted that free market always works efficiently, unless there are factors that distort it. With arguments like that you can never lose. He did not say, and I later found out from his writings that, "market distortions" include government regulations, taxes, court, police, public education, etc.

SNW remained unfazed by various other situations I mentioned, until I brought up the case of retirees with fixed income in a high inflation environment, with the specific example of my father. Before he retired, my father was a senior engineer and vice president of the most important construction company in my home city (the president was always the Party leader). He was the onsite director of numerous projects in our city: bridges, water supply systems, and the TV Tower, as well as several construction works in Tibet. In order to meet the often arbitrary deadlines (finish this bridge as a gift to the National Day!), he often had to work overtime and sleep in temporary sheds with construction workers. Growing up, I learned not to miss him as he was so often gone for extended periods of time. He retired during the early ninetieth with what was considered a very high pension for a small city. With only modest adjustments, his pension did not keep pace with China's skyrocketing inflation, unlike those of civil "servants".

Perhaps too "nice" to argue with me over my father's story, or perhaps he knew periods of high inflation existed in the US as well, SNW conceded that "inflation can hurt savers, and retirees are savers." He stopped short of admitting that free market can be sometimes unfair; and as naïve as I was I understood the distinction: you can be hurt by something not because something is inherently unfair, but because you are not smart enough to protect yourself. Smart people like SNW would not be hurt by inflation because they know how to hedge against it.

I have not since run into SNW, not belonging to the same world, but my imaginary quarrel with him has continued over the years as I started to pay more attention to the impact of economy on people, and survived a few market downturns aided more by ancient philosophy than modern economics. What bothers me now as then is his dogmatism. When we believe that a system, or any system, is the best, it takes away our motivation to design ways to mitigate its shortcomings and improve its outcomes. We should not have to choose between a pure, hundred percent planned economy and an equally pure, hundred percent market economy. In the name of freedom we have submitted ourselves to the blind force of a global economic system that market fundamentalists like SNW would want to let run on a logically programmed autopilot. I hope against hope that SNW can remember and apply the lesson of the math problem we solved: there can be a zero somewhere that renders your seemingly logical equation nonsensical.

(Image extracted from the movie Rites of Love and Maths)


Friday, 22 November 2013 11:46

Grateful Reminiscences

There are moments in life when we feel backed into a corner and at the end of our rope. It seems only by near-miracle that we somehow managed to find our way. As important as we knew they were, we could not have immediately grasped their full impact. It is only over the years, as we revisit those moments through our grateful reminiscences, that we come to realize they have crystallized into points of no return and gradually transformed how we live the rest of our life.

I spent my last day in China frantically running up and down, round and round. It was early September 1989. I had a scholarship from Boston College to pursue my graduate studies. Already two week late for the semester because passport application had been halted for months due to the June Fourth movement, I had finally received my visa the day before. There was only one last task left to do: I needed to cancel my resident registration (hukou) and my food quota in order to receive the exit permit. The process was supposed to be straightforward for people with all the required documents.

When I went to the neighborhood police substation to cancel my resident registration, a grumpy women behind the front desk told me to cancel my food quota first; when I arrived at the local food station, a bunch of chatty staff asked me all sorts of nosy questions (WHO in their right mind would give up a Beijing hukou? Why would the Americans offer YOU a scholarship?) before announcing that I should cancel my resident registration first. After spending hours running between the two places and getting the same response no matter how pitifully I pleaded, it finally dawned on me that the employees from the food station made more sense: as long as I was a resident, I should be entitled to my food quota, which can only be cancelled when I ceased to be a resident.

I paced and paced desperately in front of the police station, where an inexplicably hostile woman seemed to hold the key to my future. Going anywhere else would be as pointless as getting inside once more to face her. My flight was to depart the next day, I needed to return the key to my apartment early in the morning, and I had even sold my bed. Even worse, as a required step, I had quitted my job, because unlike those who were officially sponsored by the government with state scholarships, I applied to study abroad with "private" funding... I looked at the sun in the sky, bright and scarlet, wishing it would never set. Tomorrow would be a terrible day.

A solid-built man walked towards the police station and asked me what was wrong.
- You look distressed, he said.

I explained why and he told me to follow him inside where he asked the woman to process my paperwork, right away, before walking into his office. I only knew his last name was Wang; he was the head of the station.

You need to know how things work, or don't, in China, in order to appreciate how unbelievably lucky I was on that day, and how much hardship would await me otherwise. The event changed my life in the most obvious way as I left for Boston the next day, but slowly and imperceptibly, it also altered my outlook on life. In my naïvely rationalist mind, I used to believe we reap what we sow and I worked hard to deserve things I wanted, but I could not have possibly "deserved" Mr. Wang's timely intervention, a pure gift. Deus ex machina: I would not have written a play this way, but that was how it happened. Looking back on that day and recognizing we do not necessarily deserve what happens to us remind me to be more grateful, more forgiving and more compassionate.

Years later, my daughter was born when I was a beginning assistant professor in a small Midwestern town. My husband, who still worked in Boston, took a leave to care for us and was driving back to Boston on the day Lydia turned one month old. She would have to go to a baby-sitter we barely knew during weekdays.

- Don't go downstairs to see me off. You would have to climb back upstairs with the baby, he said.

I stood in the middle of my second floor apartment, now so big, so empty, with Lydia in my arm, terrified by the realization that if I ever messed up my life, it would hurt her as well. I felt twice as vulnerable, yet at the same time, filled up by a tremendous love for this little life I brought into the world and for whom I would be irrevocably responsible.

Then, with amazement, I saw Lydia smiling, a smile of quiet contentment and calm assurance. As she smiled for what appeared to me a long time, I became less scared and more determined. I vowed that I would do my best not to hurt anyone or let anyone hurt me. Together we would prepare the background colors for the canvas of her life, so that whatever landscape she would decide to paint, the time she would have spent with me leave no stain of bitterness. Through complex situations and imperfect decisions, I have steered my heart to remain true to the silent promise I made to her on that day. I used to associate parental love with toil and sacrifice, but alone, literally a thousand miles from the nearest family support, during the nine months that I took care of her by myself while juggling a demanding career, I experienced it as a pure joy, and its intensity took me by surprise.

What is the chance that a baby would smile when her mother feels panic and helpless? Lydia was a sensitive baby who cried no less than most others. Some people think little children can sense how their mothers feel, perhaps that is not always true, or somehow, through an unfathomable connection, she was the one to anchor me.

What if Mr. Wang had not appeared at the moment when I was hopelessly stranded in front of the Police station? What if, instead of smiling, Lydia had cried, as babies often do? I probably would have coped, but I am grateful things happened as they did, without rhyme or reason, when I did not even know what to hope for and likely did nothing to deserve them. Those moments of grace are not something we can expect, or even wish for, but only to receive with utmost surprise and gratitude. They make mere happiness dull and uninspiring, as we ponder on the incredible mystery which is life.

Drawing by Bendu


Wednesday, 23 October 2013 10:36

Lonely Venus

She is beautiful and resides comfortably in a magnificent palace, but feels terribly lonely and constantly slighted. Each and every day, visitors from all corners of the world keep pouring in. The room where she stays is always packed with people who quickly pass by her as if she were invisible, because they are there to see her sister, Venus de Milo. When they can gaze at the most famous and the most beautiful of all Venuses, why would they waste their precious little time on anything less than that?

The contrast can be ego-shattering. Venus de Milo attracts so many admirers that she cannot help but looking somewhat fed up. She also suspects that some of them are there not due to their discerning appreciation but because of her widespread reputation. They push and squeeze to get near her even though there is not a remote chance anyone would ever get a moment alone with her. It is even difficult to move around to view her from various angles. Some raise their camera way up high so that they can take a picture of her from afar, while others manage to get close enough to take a picture with her amid the crowd, with a proud smile on their face, as if they were saying to the world: "Look at me! I am with her!"

I decide to spend some quiet time with Venus Cesi (do not kick yourself if you do not know her name; she is really not that famous), allured by her slightly downcast melancholic look and her modest silhouette, as if I wanted to assuage her self-consciousness and vulnerability. As I linger in the empty space in front of her, a few people become mildly curious and granted her a passing glimpse.

- She is just as beautiful, and she has all her limbs! A man said to his companion while hurrying away.

Venus Cesi would much prefer a moment of his silent attentiveness to his witty and indifferent compliment. She does not aspire to be as beautiful as her famous sister, but feels beautiful in a different way, shaped and molded lovingly by her creator. She has noticed the shifting standards of beauty over time and senses that her proportions may not appear as desirable now as they once did.

A few chitchatting women were thrilled to discover a quiet spot to take their own picture. They stood by Venus Cesi and put on their perfect fake smile facing the camera, as if they were telling the world: "I am in the Louvre! Look how pretty I am!"

Venus Cesi cringed. She is in no way trying to compete with Venus de Milo for the number of admirers, but she resents that people who are already in the same room do not at least take a good look at her to determine for themselves if she appeals more or less to their taste. If they only look at one Venus, how can they feel that she is the most beautiful one? Venus Cesi does not know that busy and important people only have time for the best. She is tired of being displayed in the world's best art museum, where her marginalized existence is almost always mortifyingly ignored in the company of her more famous siblings. She would rather live in the ruins of a port town with flowering wild grasses, where warm sunlight and sea breezes would caress her cold shoulder, and leisurely passersby would accord her a moment of their genuine attention. Some young men might even have a fancy for her, or some maidens would confide to her their joys and sorrows.

Not far away stands Athena, divinely serein with a pinch of irony. Because of the silly tale about her being born from her father's head, people seldom notice she is no less beautiful than Venus. Like Venus Cesi, she does not command a crowd around her either. Not that she cares anymore. The only mistake she has ever made in her entire immortal life was to have entered that ridiculous beauty contest which led to the Trojan War. How could she have subjected herself to the judgment of an impulsive young man with a questionable motive? She has since observed the vanity and peril of human obsession with superlatives, the never-ending race to become number one in each and every category: the most beautiful woman, the tallest building, the richest person, the most expensive wine, the most powerful country, the most devastating weapon, the fastest pie eater... If the lonely Venus can grow out of her silent suffering, she might even become friend with Athena, who is no longer her rival.

Athena

Photos by Jin Lu


Monday, 26 August 2013 14:38

Impromptu on Chopsticks and Cuisine

While directing an immersion program in Blois, France for American students from a Midwestern university, I have become friends with some of the French host families, who invite me to their home for dinner from time to time.  During one of those evenings, the hosts and I were sitting in the veranda surrounded by a small and lush garden, while the evening breeze was filled with the familiar scent of climbing honeysuckle.  They told me how pleased they were of the student I placed with them that year.

- Compared to Korean students we had before, Americans are so much easier.

I became intrigued, and asked why.

- The Koreans seemed so uncomfortable, poor things.  Imagine, since they did not have their chopsticks, they often dropped their forks and knives, and that makes them so embarrassed.  With the Americans, their culture is much more similar to ours, and they get more easily used to what we eat.

It had never occurred to me that switching from chopsticks to forks and knives could be such a dramatic challenge.  Growing up using chopsticks, I do not even remember the first time when I ate with a fork and a knife.  So direct and intuitive, it is one of those things that I fancy we do not need to “learn”.  My embarrassing secret is that I actually do not hold chopsticks quite so “correctly”, although I use them “fluently”.  It is barely noticeable, so my parents did not become aware until I was in third grade. They went into a panic mode attempting to correct it, but by then it was too late to change my habit.  My father signed in frustration:

- If you cannot even learn this, what else can you learn?

Decades later, I told my father what he had said to me. He had completely forgotten it and by then could not care less about how I held my chopsticks.  We both laughed.  He did not know how lucky he was though, because I remained a Chinese daughter, or else I could have blamed him for scarring me for the rest of my life with his negative comment about my learning ability. I have stopped telling my American friends as jokes certain things that my parents said to me, because instead of finding them funny, they were invariably horrified.

When my daughter Lydia was three, we took a family vacation in China. At Pudong airport in Shanghai, my sister-in-law came to pick us up and we all got into an airport shuttle bus.  We had barely sat down when Lydia said something in delight that astonished me:

- We all have black eyes and black hair!

I had never thought she would notice such details, but then I realized that appearances did matter.  In a primitive way, it may be the first thing that determines how comfortable we are with others.  Children are just more candid in verbalizing what we feel deeply inside and may go into great length to mask.  Rebekah Nathan, an American anthropology professor, spent her sabbatical year as a freshman living in a college dormitory (Cornell University Press, 2005).  She observed that students typically socialize along racial or ethnic lines, and while most of them reported having at least one close friend of a different race, very few of them actually do.  Perhaps Lydia’s generation will improve, because she regularly gets together with friends from nearly all the ethnicities in her high school. 

During that trip, Lydia and I spent several weeks in my hometown in Sichuan.  While eating in a crowded restaurant with my sister and brother-in-law, Lydia suddenly pointed to the chopsticks people were using:

-  I want that too!

Up to then she had been using only spoon and fork.  Worried that she would make a mess in public, I suggested we first start at home, but she insisted on right there and then.  She had always seen her dad and me eating with chopsticks at home, but did not show any interest until she was in China, with a roomful of people who were using them.  For me, this incident shows the powerful human desire to conform to the social environment surrounding us.

The poor Korean students in the French host family were in an unfamiliar environment for which they may not have been fully prepared.  Their discomfort was likely greater than that of my American students, because of greater differences between home and host environments, such as lack of chopsticks, or left unspoken, different physical appearances.  American students do not have as many visible differences with their French hosts, which makes them easier to fit in, at least at the beginning.

When I was a student majoring in French at Peking University in the early eightieth, our language instructors spoke beautiful French but had never been exposed to French cuisine, having received their degree during the Cultural Revolution.  Once they told us a story about how they had been invited by the French embassy for a banquet and came back still hungry.

- Only five dishes! We thought there must be more to come, so we ate very little when we were served a dish. Then they took each one away! By the time we realized there would be no more, we were still hungry. The food looked beautiful, but did not taste as good as Chinese food.

In a Chinese banquet, people usually take very little when a dish is served, because you can expect a table full of dishes.  It is always a good idea to save room for more and you can go back later because all the dishes stay on the table. 

My instructors’ misadventure stemmed from the fact that they did not know how a French meal was structured.  They did not complain about forks and knives, which must have been the easy part for which they were prepared.

However, as tempting as it is to believe that cuisines that use forks and knives (such as American and French) are more similar with each other than with those using chopsticks,  allow me to be contrarian here and explain why I think, beyond all appearances, it is easier for Chinese than for Americans to adapt to French cuisine.

Except for people who refrain from pork for religious reasons, where would you find more people who agree with the French that “tout est bon dans le cochon” (everything is good in a pig)? Generally speaking, like the French, Chinese from most regions eat tripe, offal, and giblets, and do not need any adjustment faced with andouillette, boudin, tripes, cœur, rognon, langue, gisier, which I do not even want to translate into English. Foie is more acceptable, at least in certain circles, because of the prestige of foie gras, although it would be wise not to translate it as “goose liver paste”, the way it is rendered candidly in Chinese without shocking anyone. There are even many Chinese recipes for cervelle – most Americans would be “totally grossed out”. There is certainly a much higher percentage of Chinese people willing to taste the tête de veau.  Like the French, Chinese tend to have their meat from a greater variety of sources than Americans. In Sichuan, frogs and rabbit are common sources of meat.  How about eating a whole fish? That is commonplace for most Chinese but a monumental task for most Americans.  Chinese and French share the same taste in pastries, and most of them would find American pastries much too sweet.  When I follow a French recipe for dessert, I put exactly the same amount of sugar, but use less than half with an American recipe.

Mayonnaise can serve as a fitting metaphor for the relationship between American and French cultures.  American and French mayonnaises have the same name, but taste so different that when you like one, it does not mean you would like the other.  The same goes for mustard.  If you enjoy French salad, do not ever, ever choose “French dressing” when you eat in an American McDonald…Between the two cultures, so similar on the surface, there are undercurrent of differences which anthropologist Raymonde Carroll devotes an entire book to analyze (Evidences Invisibles).  Just as outward differences may prevent people from recognizing the profound resonance that unites them, apparent similarities can also lead to bitter misunderstandings, because they make people least prepared to deal with their real differences.  

In fact, regardless of our background, we can always learn to enjoy a new cuisine, especially if we understand its language and culinary culture.  In terms of French cuisine, there is a great variety of dishes from different regions, which makes it possible to find what we like and gradually expand our food repertory. When I first learned to make French dishes, I started by watching my friends and helping them in their kitchen, and realized that our ways of cooking were based on very similar principles.  Our own taste can evolve as we explore different foods, embracing new ones or giving up others harmful to our health.  For me, yogurt and cheese are acquired tastes.  While I continue to enjoy spicy food, unlike my friends who stay in Sichuan, I do not need to put chili peppers in nearly all the dishes because I have learned to appreciate other types of flavors.  Being true to ourselves does not mean to remain unchanged.  Let our heart be free, and then we can choose the ingredients of our life and create our own recipes.   

Drawing by Bendu


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