Tuesday, March 20, 2007

English corner

On Sunday I went to the “English Corner,” an area of People’s Square Park in central Shanghai where people meet every Sunday to practice their English. A few foreigners stood scattered around the area, each surrounded by a mass of Chinese people shooting them questions. I spoke for more than three hours about (in no particular order) real estate prices in America and China, costs of going to college, loans and interest rates, costs of living, car insurance, what children do with their elderly parents, what “alpha dog” means, what “up and coming” means, what “stereotype” means, whether black people are violent and lazy, whether Jews are good at making money, whether Chinese living in America are hard workers, that Xinjiang is beautiful (from a Uyghur man whose accent sounded Turkish, not Chinese); the 1996 American election, the 2000 American election, the 2004 American election, and who will win the next American election; in addition, why there’s so much violence on American TV, whether Americans are really as promiscuous as they are on “Sex and the City” and “Friends,” whether it’s easy for American poor people to advance economically, what annoys me about China, what parts of Chinese lifestyles are most different from American ones, whether Shanghai is similar to New York, why the US attacked Iraq, differences between American girls and Chinese girls; also, what I think about Chinese culture, Chinese food, Chinese philosophy, Chinese literature, Chinese history, and Confucius. I was offered drinks, e-mails, phone numbers, and a job. It was really impossible to escape. People came and left my group, but always I had to stay.

In general, I sensed a great desire to travel, but travel to where? Traditionally, we think of Chinese as imagining the world in a China-Western (plus Japan) framework—that is how histories of modern China are usually written. Recently, it’s become clear that that is not the whole picture: awareness of other “developing” countries, for example, has played a huge role in imaginings of the world in the past 120 years or so. Still, finding ways in which Chinese conceptualize the world in ways that include the non-West usually remains limited to intellectual history. Common Chinese people now, I believe, very much privilege certain cultural hubs: American and Japanese for the most part (though recently Korean TV shows and movies have been hugely popular). I was struck at the English Corner by how focused people were on America, and not just because they were talking to an American. For many Chinese, to some extent at least, the world seems to be limited to a few certain spatial categories, “America” (a word that itself carries much baggage) paramount among them.

No comments: