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.

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