A Conversation with Peter Hessler

One of my favorite China writers, Peter Hessler, recently sat down with a reporter for Xinhua, China’s official news agency, to talk about his books, as well as the joys and challenges of writing about China.

(if you receive this post by email and cannot view the video, click here.)

Hessler’s books are all worth a read:

Rivertown (2001)

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.)

Oracle Bones (2006)

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

Country Driving (2010)

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip

Strange Stones (2013)

Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West

Related Posts:

A Must-Read Article

Road-Tripping

Who’s Driving You?

Sailing the Mountaintops

 

 

 

 

 

Only One “Why?” Question Per Day, Please!

A month or so ago I was having a lovely outdoor dinner with group of friends, one of whom was a high school kid from Beijing studying at a school here in the Twin Cities and living with an American host family.

14078720937_9db1355a02_z

As we were sitting around the picnic table, frantically grabbing for brats, corn on the cob, and slathering butter on french bread, the Chinese kid piped up. “Here’s a question for you — why do you put butter on bread?”

It stopped us dead in our tracks; I am pretty sure that not a single person at the table (except for the other Chinese person) had ever in their entire lives given a thought to that question.

“Why do you put butter on bread?” he asked again.

“Well, because that’s what we do. And besides, it’s delicious!”

After we sat there with our brains on pause and our jaws agape, I attempted an answer that I thought a Chinese person might understand.

“Because that’s what our European ancestors have been doing for thousands of years. Butter belongs on bread. That’s just the way it is!”

That seemed to work for him.

When I do training/orientation programs for people going to China, I often spend time talking about both the duty and danger of asking the question “why?”

If the “why” question is being asked as a genuine attempt to understand something, then it’s a good question — a necessary question actually.

However, for outsiders trying to live well where we don’t belong, it can quickly become a cover for whining and venting, because the underlying assumption is that since it is not the way it’s done back home, then it’s stupid. In this case, the “why?” question is not helpful and may actually get in the way of understanding.

I always urge my trainees to limit themselves to one why question per day.

Things that insiders NEVER think about may seem confusing to outsiders — even something as ‘mundane’ as putting butter on bread.

So, if you’re living cross-culturally, it’s probably good to limit yourself to one “why?” question per day.

{Photo by Ralf Brotbraken, via Flickr. (Creative Commons)}

 

Insiders and Outsiders are Different

When I first went to China many years ago, one of the things that I and my American colleagues found most annoying about living there was the difference in price between what we paid for things and what our Chinese friends had to pay. For us, a train ticket was 400 yuan; for our Chinese friends it was 200. Why? Because there was a “foreign price” and a “Chinese price.”  End of discussion, thank you very much.

Since there are not many things that upset an American faster than feeling like he/she is being ripped off, this two-tiered pricing structure was a constant irritant.

Mutianyu Great Wall

In the mid-1990’s, while studying Chinese, I stumbled across a Chinese expression that was a ‘key’ to helping me understand what was going on. I was working through a textbook called Speaking of Chinese Culture that taught about key Chinese cultural rules and values. One chapter was on this Chinese concept called nei wai you bie (内外有别), which means “insiders and outsiders are different.”

I asked my tutor how this notion played itself out in every day life, and she said, “Well, it’s why you have to pay more for the entrance ticket to the park than I do.”

“You mean, they’re not doing it merely to cheat me?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “Why should you, as an outsider be treated the same as an insider?”

Lights, bells, and whistles went off in my head, exploding in a cacophony of comprehension. Suddenly, so many other things that I had seen and experienced began to make sense.

A few years later, I was studying with a professor in Beijing who added to my understanding by explaining to me that the clearest example of the concept was The Great Wall. (Hmm…that’s not what the tourist posters say.)

In the Chinese worldview, there are two kinds of people in the world: Chinese and foreigners. Unlike the English usage of the word “foreigner,” which is a relative term, in Chinese it is absolute. Like the terms Jews and Gentiles, they are mutually exclusive. A Chinese cannot be a foreigner and a foreigner cannot be a Chinese.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to teach an orientation session for a group of Chinese high school students visiting Minnesota for 2 weeks. I started off with a little “worldview disruption” activity. I asked them a question, “shenme shi waiguoren?” (“什么是外国人?”) What is a foriegner?

Even though I could tell by the looks on some of their faces that they suspected it was a trick question, 3000+ years of education and cultural conditioning led them to shout with one accord “You are!”

“Wrong,” I said. “For the next two weeks, YOU are!”

They laughed, firm in their belief that I had gone stark-raving mad.

I also saw this illustrated vividly in Beijing many years ago when I attended a talk given by Israel Epstein, a then 89-year-old White Russian Jew who had come to China as a 5-year old to escape the pogroms in Russia. He had stayed on in China, becoming a Chinese citizen, and becoming active in the revolution that brought the Communists to power. He even became a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

I went to the talk with some Chinese friends, and afterwards pressed them on this point. “In your eyes,” I asked, “is he a Chinese or a foreigner?” They all agreed that, notwithstanding his 80+ of living in China, and his Chinese citizenship, he was still a foreigner.”

Traditional Chinese culture does not hold that “all men are created equal.” Instead, it is not only acceptable, but also proper, for different kinds of people to be treated differently. This is the way the world is ordered. A two-tierd price structure is not a problem to be solved; rather it is the way it should be.

Interestingly enough, China did away with the official price discrepancies in the late 1990′s in order to meet WTO requirements, but unofficially it still remains in place. A foreigner will often pay more for vegetables in the market than his/her Chinese housekeeper.

Sometimes this concept cuts the foreigner’s way, however, since the strong sense of hospitality in Chinese culture dictates that guests be treated with utmost honor and respect. While we may be foreigners, we are also waibin (foreign guests), and are therefore entitled to certain privileges and opportunities that are not afforded to locals. Sometimes we’ll be escorted to the front of lines; sometimes ushered into the pews at the front of a church or assembly even as Chinese are being moved out. It may go against my western notion of fair play, but in China, it’s what you do for a foreign guest. It’s just being polite.

Living well where you don’t belong means graciously living as an outsider, with all the accompanying frustrations and undeserved privileges.

 

Pittman Hall

Last night I had the privilege of joining my mother and other members of our family at the annual Honoree Dinner at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul (formerly Northwestern College), in Roseville, MN. We were there because the university has recently seen fit to honor my father by naming two residence halls after him: Pittman Hall North and Pittman Hall South.

DSC02807

DSC02810

At the dinner, they presented my mom with a framed copy of the plaque that now hangs in the entry of each of the buildings.

DSC03825

Here’s what it says:

Dr. Samuel “Sam” Pittman served as chair of the Bible and Missions Department from 1973 to 1991 and as professor of cross-cultural ministries until his retirement in 1998. He came to Northwestern after 17 years of missionary service in Pakistan with his wife Grace, and their two daughters, Janet and Joann. Pittman was a godly, humble man who loved Christ supremely, loved his students, and was always available to them. The Pittmans regularly opened their home to students and served as mentors for many students who went on to serve Christ at home and abroad. Pittman was known for his wonderful sense of humor; he was never guilty of taking himself too seriously, but he did take his teaching very seriously. He holds a place in Northwestern’s history books as never missing a class due to illness in his 25-year teaching career. Pittman always challenged his students to think for themselves, and to do things with their lives that would make a difference.

Even though my dad would just roll his eyes and say “that’s silly,” we are grateful to the university (which he loved dearly) for bestowing this honor on him.

Related Posts:

A Tribute to My Father — 2014

Pinch and a Punch

Happy Birthday, Dad

It was Chicken! It was Chicken!

 

 

An Insane Collection

I was recently talking with a Chinese friend in Minnesota who had just returned from a road trip to New York and Washington with her husband. “Tell me something interesting you have observed in your travels around the US this year,” I said to her.

“Every little town has a museum,” she told me. “In China,” she said, “only the government runs museums and they are mostly about ancient history. But here, there’s a museum about everything.”

I thought it was a brilliant observation.

Shortly after that conversation, I ran across this short film at China File about a man in Sichuan who runs a bunch of small museums near Chengdu. These museums house millions of items he has collected over the years, many of which represent events and eras the government would rather people forget about. The title of the film is “Collecting Insanity.” From the introduction:

Every country has a past it likes to celebrate and another it would rather forget. In China, where history still falls under the tight control of government-run museums and officially approved textbooks, the omissions appear especially stark. An unusual museum dedicated largely to what is absent in China’s self-presentation is the subject of Joshua Frank’s short film “Collecting Insanity.” Frank tours the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, of Fan Jianchuan, an ex-official and real estate magnate, in the town of Anren, near Chengdu. The group of exhibits, named after Fan himself, display their owner’s collection of millions of historical artifacts, gathered over a lifetime of obsessive accumulation. Fan’s museum displays objects from various historical events, including the officially memorialized Sino-Japanese War and the far more taboo fallout of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

If you receive this post by email and cannot view the video, please click here.

 

East and West and Hong Kong

Like many others, my journey to being a Sinophile began in Hong Kong. In the summer of 1979 I spent 3 months in the city on an internship, teaching English and working in the office of the Chinese Church Research Center. When not working, I explored the city, taking random bus lines to the far-flung parts of town. In the course of the summer, I fell in love with the city. I remember seeing a t-shirt in a tourist shop that I thought captured the essence of Hong Kong. It said “There’s east and west; and then there’s Hong Kong.”

eastwesthongkong2

During the years I lived in China, I returned often to Hong Kong — for meetings, conferences, and to visit friends. I have the fun things I like to see and do when I’m in town: a trip across the harbor on the Star Ferry; ride Bus #6 from Central to Stanley Market (it’s better than a roller coaster); eat fried rice or fried noodles in one of the seemingly millions of mom & pop noodle shops; stroll the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Because of my love for Hong Kong (and my love for China), I am watching with great interest and unease the situation unfolding in Hong Kong this week. It’s hard to explain what is going on in three sentences, but let me try. As part of the “One Country, Two Systems” formula agreed upon by China and Britain, the Chinese government promised direct elections in 2017. Recently they announced that the candidates would be chosen by Beijing. This did not sit well with Hong Kong citizens.

Of course, it is much more complicated than that, and there are issues of economics and national identity at play as well. Fortunately there is excellent reporting coming out of Hong Kong that delves into these complexities. If you’re interested in some good reading on what is going on and what it might (or might not) mean for the future, I recommend the following articles to get you started:

Fate of Hong Kong Rests in Xi Jinping’s Hands (September 29, 2014, Toronto Globe and Mail)

What happens in Hong Kong over the coming days will tell us a lot about where China is heading in the era of Xi Jinping. A negotiated solution that appeases some or all of the protesters would suggest China finally has the kind of leader that the Communist Party’s undemocratic “meritocracy” was supposed to produce. The sidelining of Mr. Xi’s enemies – and his own genuine personal popularity among ordinary Chinese – gives him the power to surprise everyone in how he handles the Occupy Central movement.

A crackdown, particularly one that involves use of the People’s Liberation Army, would tell us China is in for another dark decade of stifling repression.

The Day that China Came to Hong Kong (September 29, 2014, China File)

Beijing has no good choices. The resignation of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, one of the protestors’ many demands, is no longer unthinkable; the Special Administrative Region’s first Chief Executive, shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa, stepped down in 2004 after massive protests. But Leung’s resignation would not solve the governance problem that entombs Hong Kong, that of a wealthy, well-educated city without an accountable government. If Beijing acts true to form, and in line with what we have seen to date from Xi Jinping, sustained protests could see Beijing order the Hong Kong government to end the protests, whatever that takes. On Sunday night, the government was forced to put out a statement denying that PLA troops, who are stationed in the city, were moving tanks in for action.

Hong Kong is different now.

Hong Kong People (September 29, 2014, The New York Times)

This past Sunday — when the phalanxes of riot police moved aggressively to clear the streets of peaceful protesters — Hong Kong became just another Chinese city. It was the moment when the “one country, two systems” formula Hong Kong was promised on its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 was finally laid bare as unworkable.” […] But even as the protests continue to swell, Beijing seems to hold all the cards. Yet even if it succeeds in tamping down the anger in Hong Kong — which is unlikely — its gains can be fleeting at best.The moment that Hong Kong citizens have been dreading for 17 years has finally arrived. 

The slogan I saw on that t-shirt 35 years ago seems even more true today.

Related Posts:

Make it Look Like a Parade

Three Decades in China; Four Trends

I Heart Hong Kong

Bound for Hong Kong

 

 

 

 

Stealing Tea and Saving Face

On our 5200-mile road trip last month, I listened to the audio version of the book For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.

 

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History

Here is the Amazon description of the book:

In the dramatic story of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage ever committed, Sarah Rose recounts the fascinating, unlikely circumstances surrounding a turning point in economic history. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British East India Company faced the loss of its monopoly on the fantastically lucrative tea trade with China, forcing it to make the drastic decision of sending Scottish Botanist Robert Fortune to steal the crop from deep within China and bring it back to the British plantations in India. Fortune’s danger-filled odyssey, magnificently recounted here, reads like adventure fiction, revealing a long-forgotten chapter of the past and the wondrous origins of a seemingly ordinary beverage.

The book is a treasure trove of historical information about China in the mid-1800s, as well as all things related to tea. Occasionally, there are cultural gems to be mined. In chapter 5 Rose describes an incident that took place in Hangzhou between Fortune and his servant, Want. Having failed to follow Fortune’s instructions, they find themselves in the city of Hangzhou, where if it is discovered that Fortune is a foreigner and not a Chinese official (he was disguised as one), he could be killed. So he gives the servant a public scolding. In the course of describing this incident, Rose (perhaps inadvertently) gives one of the best descriptions of the Chinese notion of “face” that I have found anywhere!

But Fortune’s recriminations had little effect, for a master’s scolding his servants publicly only served to build their self-esteem, or “face,” as even a reproach was a tacit declaration that the servant was important enough to merit the notice of a wealthy mandarin. In China “face,” or mianxi [sic] was a concept that a Westerner like Fortune did not instinctively understand, describing as it does the prestige and reputation one gains from every human interaction. Relationships in China were defined by the reciprocal obligations between people, whether of the same or a different status, and every individual existed within a network of influence, a matrix of duties and social connections, or guanxi.

The family came first, then the extended social neighborhood. “Face” expressed a person’s position within his or her network and was the mechanism by which the Chinese assessed their obligations: which orders to obey, which favors to grant, and which supplications and apologies to make. A son might perform humble acts for his father, or an employee might bow before his master or a student before his teacher, but in turn the father would have a set of defined responsibilities to the child, the master to the slave, and the teacher to the student.

However subtly they were expressed, mianzi and guanxi were inescapable facts of life in China; then as now they forged the social fabric of the nation. Social connections determined the measure of justice received and discrimination suffered. While no Chinese person was free from these relationships, many peasants had very little face and therefore little access to justice, wealth, or freedom. When social obligations were met, someone gained face and an increase in status; when a person failed those to whom he was socially connected and thereby obligated, he suffered loss of face (diumian) and a downturn in his social standing. When Wang was shouted at by Fortune for failing to follow orders, it demonstrated to the world that he had responsibilities to an important man. Wang lost face with Fortune, while simultaneously gaining it in the wider neighborhood of Hangzhou.

Face was a very Confucian concept. The great philosopher, whose ideas gained influence during the Han Dynasty, 206 BC-AD 220, described a world where familial connections and obligations to ancestors were the highest good and the greatest aim of an individual. A single person was nothing if he did not bring honor to the world from which he came.

A foreigner in China had no network of relationships of prescribed duties and no social capital, and therefore lacked any obvious signifiers of face. Many foreigners handled their outsider status adroitly. They engaged in relationships with the Chinese immediately, offering gifts and favors to officials and higher-ups; they recognized that a servant did not just serve but was owed things other than monetary reward, such as honor and respect. Fortune, however, seems to have paid little attention to the finer points of Chinese social interaction. He treated the Chinese as he would any employee: demanding excellence, refusing to hear excuses, and chastising failure. Wang and Fortune would travel together on and off for years, and the servant valiantly tried to negotiate the workings of guanxi on his master’s behalf. Wang effectively created Fortune’s identity as a mandarin by forging a fictitious network of prestigious connections for him, elevating his master’s face (and, not incidentally, elevating his own status by association). He also bribed and negotiated on Fortune’s behalf, not just for favors, but for face. (p.69-71)

“Note to self,” I thought, as I listened to this passage while driving across the deserts of eastern Oregon, “find a print version of this book and post the passage on my blog.”

Done!

Finding Samuel Lowe

On September 2, the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report blog posted an article about a Jamaican-Chinese woman’s search for her roots.

ca0d6da997c7f811cdca8d4563c6a22c_XL

Growing up in New York’s Harlem, Paula Williams Madison knew she had a Chinese grandfather, even though she had never met him.

When people found out, she says, most of them would make comments such as “Really? You don’t look Chinese.” Others would laugh. Even so, she always intended to track down her mother’s father and learn the full story of her multi-ethnic Jamaican-Chinese family.

By the time she found them, her tiny American family had expanded to about 400 living members and a family tree that goes back 3,000 years. A new documentary tells the story of that journey and the discovery of a family that today extends from Shenzhen, China, to Kingston, Jamaica, and Los Angeles, California.

Ms. Madison, 62, spent much of her career at NBC, and retired a few years ago as an executive at NBC Universal, one of the first black women to achieve that rank. She says she waited until retiring to pursue her dream of reconnecting with her Chinese family.

Before, “I did know a handful of my cousins,” she says. “Now there are about 40.”

The story is told in a film titled “Finding Samuel Lowe.” Below is the trailer for the film. (Click here if you receive this post by email and cannot view the video clip.)

What a fantastic story!

To learn more about the film and it’s upcoming premiere, visit www.findingsamuellowe.com.