2014年5月22日星期四

Chinese Stereotypes of India

When I tell someone in China that my history / area studies field is India, the reaction is usually negative. Anyone who has been there or who knows a friend who has been there seems to be the know-it-all experts on the situation of India.

1. "India is so dirty."
2. "India disrespects women."
3. (a) "You're gonna get the Delhi belly."
(b) "You're gonna get lifelong parasites and suffer it for your whole life." 

Less Frequent But also Condescending and Stereotyping reactions--
4. "You will have to pay dowry if you marry a Brahmin and then you will have to undergo sati once he dies."
5. "Buddhism is no longer practiced widely there... (implied: why should you go?)"-- publisher

Photo credit: Humans of New DelhiBuddha portrayed in nirvanaKingdom of Dreams, Gurgoan
6. "My Indian classmates call home a lot and their English sounds funny." - Pomona College student
7. "The ascetics and sadhus never take baths and practice all kinds of weird stuff." -- college professor as he shows photographed spectacles of disheveled sadhus


I am usually annoyed by these repetitive exhortations, but I am too polite to tell them to shut up and too passive to debate with them or invoke the maxim that "whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true." (A similar exchange occurs when they find out I am vegetarian.) All of these contain some truths (Urban spaces in North India are often dirtier than China; women do experience different levels of discrimination in India; Delhi belly and parasites do exist.), but also reflect the disregard Chinese people have of other cultures and moreover, their idea of what a youth should pursue in his or her life. India is very complicated and some practices extends beyond the national boundaries into broader (South) Asia as well as the desi diaspora in the West Indies and East Africa.
My post is not just for venting about paternalistic attitudes of Chinese elders, but should also serve as a place for critical examination of perceptions of India. Granted, Chinese people's disdain of other cultures is not unique to their views on India. Adrian Belic once observed in an interview with the China Hipster Podcast that when he asked where people around the world wanted to go most, many people say they want to travel to some place personal and different. When he asked Chinese people, they always seem want to go to the biggest Chinatown. He used to think that only Americans had that kind of "We're the best" mentality, but he has seen it among Chinese people as well. Chinese people display similarly reactions to Chicago, which "safety" is a large concern. 
To quote my friend Alex Hsu's observation of the Chinese people he interacted with in his post sharing The Case for Reparations on Facebook --
When I mention I'm from Chicago, I am often made to comment on Chicago's crime rate and the history and current state of American race-relations. My Mandarin is hardly up to the task; my English might not be either. Coates's is. I will be sharing this with my friends here. Amazing. 
From what I hear about India, now I know that a lot is just the mentality of horrors Chinese people like to circulate about unfamiliar terrain. Another lesson learned: I should not be as susceptible to advice as I was five years ago.

On the other hand, I have met some Chinese people among the younger generation who are more open to other cultures, picking Iran or Israel over Europe when planning overseas trips. Among the older generation, European countries are also fair game for bashing when it comes to thieves. 

I was also pretty scared before coming to Chicago. I also went to Chinatown when I visited Chicago for the first time. It was awesome, but so was Little India.
Chicago Chinatown Entrance

2014年5月16日星期五

Understanding India's Elections

I was an avid supporter for Arvind Kejriwal for his campaign as well as the anti-corruption Aam Admi Party (AAP) these past few months. Among many liberal policies, AAP candidates have called for more lenient policies towards Kashmir and put overturning the anti-gay legislation on the party agenda. I find the leader Kejriwal to be very charismatic, savvy, inspiring, and dedicated. I knew that AAP would not win many seats, since it is still in an inchoate stage with few solid bases. Still, I was shocked by the sweeping magnitude in which the BJP's Narendra Modi won the electionsToday, I woke up to the election results in Madison, WI and posted a Facebook status about the matter.
Found out yesterday that my host here is a small business owner who voted for Scott Walker during the recall... Now the pro-business, anti-Muslim candidate Narendra Modi won in India's PM elections and I was in denial till today. Idealists have to fight on!
Nonetheless, India 2014 has seen a phenomenal exercise of democratic rights of 550 million people and there are many more details to be hashed out. AAP vote share impressed and outpaced many--"more than DMK, Shiv Sena, ADMK, NCP SAD, CPI, RJD, JDS, TRS, TDP, INLD, BJD, JDU, DMDK, LJP," tweeted @Just_Anuja.  The idealistic effect of AAP will definitely last on India's youth beyond these elections and I am sure of a Kejriwal comeback. 

Sino-India relations may deteriorate if Modi continues the hawkish foreign policy stances. But if he is true to his pro-business models, perhaps there would be an increase in bilateral trade
Judging from Modi’s governance in Gujarat, the daily said he places emphasis on infrastructure development, attracting investment and the establishment of special economic zones. “Economic development and improving people’s livelihoods are expected to be high on his agenda once he is elected prime minister. There is the possibility that he will expand Sino-India economic and trade cooperation and seek more Chinese investment,” Fu Xiaoqiang, a research fellow with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said.
Per request of a fellow writer, I compiled the news sources I have been following the past few months for the election. A post for nonfiction introductions to modern India will follow soon.

                            

News Outlets

Blogs

Twitter accounts

2014年5月4日星期日

China Road Rage

Walking on Beijing streets, one is easily endangered by an impatiently impending car. They honk and almost never yield to pedestrians when its their turn or even when it's not their turn. At a crossroad in my neighborhood, at night, cars frequently pass the red light since there are no cameras checking at that point. I enjoy walking except for the part of competing with cars for public space. I try to make cars yield anyways, by walking without yielding myself. Sometimes I would walk so fast and aggressively in my direction and almost bump into the the car that's turning right. I tweeted once that I often want to act like Dustin Hoffman's "I'm walking here!!!" scene in Midnight Cowboy when cars edge close to me, the only difference being that the car actually stopped for him when he walked passed... It's very hard to conduct an uninterrupted conversation with someone while walking in a big city. I used to think that Beijing taxis are easier to cross since they don't exactly need to rush or stroke their ego by ruling the roads, but experiences have proven me wrong about that as well: they would just as likely risk running over you and not give you the thrill of "winning." Once a van actually bumped into me while I was walking pass while it started backing out without warning. I was so irritated I slammed my fist on the back window in emulation of Dustin Hoffman, and walked away as quickly as I could. 
I wondered that despite my principles against driving and cars, I also wished that I did not have to be subjected to the daily pestering and fear or anger that one may run over me. Suhail often bikes around, and encouraged me to explore ride a bike as well. Even though his bike got stolen at least six times, he never gave up and just kept downgrading the bike so it would look less marketable for the potential thief. I also realized that I was an outlier among foreign students since I never explored hutongs on a bike. For the total of 6 years I have lived in Beijing, I've only biked for leisure. My increasing awareness of Beijing's air pollution also keeps me dependent on the subway system. For the fearless of both cars and air pollution, Check out this project Bamboo Bicycles Beijing by a Claremont alum if you're interested in alternative ways to commute. (I also found out recently that Beijing's subway system transports the second largest amount of people per day, just behind Tokyo. That's why avoiding rush hours is not even enough to avoid the crowd...)
Car ownership serves as a class symbol in China, but I really wish it wasn't. A Chinese factory almost acquired the Hummer brand gives you an inkling about the irrational China market. The more people fear road rage from aggressive cars, the more they would want a car. I believe that people in general could benefit from being out in the open when commuting and using shielded transportation like cars only when they absolutely need to. Motorbikes and bikes are nice. Others disagree, such as this hater of the Divvy shared bike system in Chicago, but it proves how transportation shapes our moods and identities. Yet when I leave China next week, I might miss those cars that are so eager to flaunt their aggressiveness and stress their priority just a little bit. I have been reading Death and Life of Great American Cities, and it has been a slow start and just started mentioning sidewalks. Much of the introduction argues against Garden City models. I'm not sure which cities in China actively engage in urban planning, so reading this book helps me understand American society and politics rather than solutions for China. I have a love-hate relationship with public spaces in China, probably more hate because a lot of them are commercial and/or tacky, but that would deserves another post.


This post is part of My Goodbye to Beijing Series. Leaving May 11th until I get my Masters Degree (or higher), make it count.

2014年5月3日星期六

Changing the Status Quo, One Friend at a Time

I did not have many friends who were interested in South Asian history politics as I am. I went to one talk on South Asian literature in Beijing but the people I met there were either diplomats or very new to South Asia as a topic. I did not lose heart and continued to attend talks. During Prof. Duara's talk on India and China's future roles in the Anthropocene, I tried to pictures of his Powerpoint slides but a person's head stood out in the front row, blocking some of the text. That person turned out to be Suhail, my future devil's advocate and yet another South Asia connection. 
Many of the thought-provoking questions after Duara's talk were asked by students all around the world. I decided to stick around during the tea break in hopes of making new friends. I started talking with a Pakistani, a student of the host China Agricultural University (CAU). Then a group of other foreign students joined, Suhail included. I asked him if he was Indian, he said that he was from Kashmir. I laughed and made a point about meeting Taiwanese abroad who never identified as Chinese. He is in his final year of the Development PhD at CAU and wrote about land grabs in China and Kashmir. Our conversation went smoothly, but he was eager to meet Prof. Duara. He said that Duara promised to chat with him after the talk. Suhail later explained that they both went to the radical Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and strongly recommended me to exchange there in the future. Suhail led me to the coffee room where the chat took place. Prof. Duara and Suhail immediately started intelligent conversations on Indian elections, Arvind Kejriwal, and female Dalit politician Mayawati. I was intimidated, but Suhail was very considerate and brought me into the conversation. As Woody Allen once said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." I succeeded in making new friends through showing up at the university talk and the coffee table.
Prof Prasenjit Duara, me and Suhail
After the chat, Suhail and I quickly started bonding over many topics. We went to several more talks by Duara in Beijing. We shared the skepticism of vague policy rhetoric such as "development," we both liked Gramsci, and we both questioned Weberian religious theories. He once volunteered at an AIDS organization, as I am doing now. We both found Chinese politics to be rather depressing. I confessed to him that I struggled between choosing an academic career over a journalist one. He said that I would make a fine journalist, while my temperament suits an academic one as well. He said that the world needs conscientious people like us to change the status quo. I found that very motivating. Like me, Suhail would often escape the security check before entering subways in Beijing, claiming to be a rebel in any country. Unlike me, he is more bold when doing it. He would also leverage his foreigner appearances and get away with many more tedious restrictions such as pushing a motorbike through PKU's campus or getting his way when it came to an expedited doctor's appointment.
"Suhail" is an Arabic term meaning easy-going, which is very true to his actual personality. He also received a new name in high school, ghulam nabi (servants of the Holy Prophet), from a religious elder when he was very sick and the doctors could not help. He claims to be not a very good Muslim, because he does not pray five times a day and used to drink, but he insists on fasting. It builds his character and strengthens his willpower in trying times. I also admired those who fasted across all faiths and found his story inspiring. 
Suhail sometimes would joke that he is an agent sent to China to train the military and help liberate Kashmir. I knew about the bloody Kashmir conflicts, but I had little in-depth knowledge. He recommended that I read Curfewed Night, by his friend and journalist Basharat Peer. I have been absorbed by the literary nonfiction since and offered to translate it to Chinese. While I wept and sighed through chapters, I found it intriguing that the press still moves relatively freely in Kashmir, compared to Xinjiang where drastic measures include cutting the internet.
The paragraph about trauma really spoke to me, because I had just finished watching True Detective, which was filled with traumatic events:
I spent my afternoons reading and tried to write in the evenings. But I had no distance from the experiences I was trying to process and shape in words. I sulked, turned irritable, and had pointless arguments with friends. I called Shahid, we met in our favorite cafe near the city centre. "This is common among people who come into contact with trauma victims," Shahid said and suggested I should try not to write for a few weeks. "That won't hep. I have to finally get back to writing it down." (153)
Peer's experience reminded me of the author Iris Chang who committed suicide after writing The Rape of Nanking, a book on the Nanjing Massacre. It also reminded me of therapists who had to see their own therapists after listening to patients' disturbing thoughts or worries. I wondered in the subway, how many people would bear to hear about these events. Most would probably rather talk about business and the weather.
After being exposed to traumatic events even just through text, I became irritable as well. I almost got into a fight with Suhail today over giving directions for the right cafe over the phone. I am terrible with directions but I never admit that when I am giving them. Fortunately, he was true to his easygoing name and we hugged to greet each other. Without the support of friends, intellectuals will not be strong enough to face history or fight the status quo. I am very grateful that I had the guts to stick around after the talk and met a true friend.