Wednesday, October 24, 2007

New passport

The photo in my passport is 10 years old. When I showed it to the guard at the U.S. consulate, he commented to his colleague, “So old!” And they laughed. Time for a new one.

After waiting a mere week (!), I went back to pick up my new passport. The format has changed quite a bit since I was 16. First of all, they’ve added Spanish to the English and French. Second of all, they’ve added patriotic illustrations and quotations about how amazing America is. In the background of each page of my old passport are the seals of each state. In the background of each page of my new passport are pictures of cowboys, cacti, buffalo, and American landmarks such as the liberty bell and Mount Rushmore. At the top of each page is a quotation: the words of Lincoln, Kennedy, Johnson, and FDR grace the pages, as well as quite a few non-Presidents. I’m surprised by one or two of them: one is a Mohawk quote about how nice it is to have animals around. I must sign my name over an American flag and an eagle. On the last page is a rather random picture of outer space, with some planets and a satellite: the next frontier.

I’ve always been fascinated by passports. They are the most solid physical embodiment of the international system, an official symbol of our national identity, sanctioned by the state, that you can hold in your hand and that other governments acknowledge. The message inside from the secretary of state, requesting that all foreigners give the bearer all lawful aid and protection, is an affirmation of national belonging. What such a document includes and what it leaves out must surely mean something.

Why the changes? It’s hard to say. Maybe the people in charge these days simply like that kind of thing. Or maybe, while travelers used to be fewer and more cosmopolitan, the greater number of Americans who need passports (you need one for Canada now after all) has also increased the demand for patriotism while traveling, as people do like to remember their own country when they are out of it. Or perhaps, along with the changes in the way Americans feel about their country over the past few years – unease over decreasing world power, the trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks, the failing war in Iraq, the realities of a world now starkly different from a simple Communist/non-Communist demarcation – the passport’s format fits into a larger trend of anxiety over where the country is going. At such times patriotism is always emphasized, in an effort to make up for national uncertainty (a phenomenon that is crystal clear in China), and in American culture you can see the phenomenon everywhere (just look at the popularity of some alarming recent films, such as “300,” which glorifies Western “reason” over the barbarity of the Persians, all in excessive, bloody violence.) At any rate, when I show my new passport, with all its patriotic trimmings, to border agents, I’m not sure if I’ll feel a surge of pride or a tinge of embarrassment.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Recently an American workmate said, half-jokingly, “China is great… except for the Chinese people!” Complaining about Chinese manners is a common pastime for foreigners. Some merely express shock at the spitting, the motorbikes on the sidewalks, and the blatant theft of taxis that clearly stopped for you. Getting on the bus during rush hour resembles a medieval battle. The little old ladies are the worst: they push and jab and shove. Then there are the differences in relationships, the concept of “losing face,” the intricacies of cultivating guanxi, or “connections.” These cultural differences have been written about extensively by Westerners trying to “understand” China; my own understanding of them remains sketchy, partly because, I think, I’m uncomfortable with trying to fit the way people behave under refined labels and explanations.

Most foreigners who have lived here for some time accept Chinese manners with weary resignation, admitting that they’re not here to “change China” but wishing things could be just a little bit different. I have certainly had my moments of incomprehension at people’s rudeness: the staring, the giggling, the constant cigarette smoke, the impossibility of walking even on the sidewalk without fear of being run over, the blunt comments about my weight or a pimple on my face (“Oh, you have a pimple!” “You’re fat.”). Recently we were having trouble with our water pipes in our apartment, so we called a plumber. Not only did he smoke (expected), he also decided to leave his cigarette butt on the floor of our shower (unexpected). “Don’t worry,” my roommate said when I complained about it. “He smokes so much that he’ll die soon.” Somehow, that did not reassure me.

Some take the complaining to a much higher level – take a look at the incredibly cynical blog to see what I mean. People like this have a strange relationship with China. The country is like someone whose every habit, innocuous or not, turns into unrelenting irritation, like spending too much time with a roommate. My question for these kinds of people is: why are you still here?

My workmate’s comment is not new. (I’ve heard it in other contexts – a Turkish friend of my family’s was once told something similar on a plane in reference to Turkey, from another European passenger.) Such a statement could be unpackaged – European manners are the standard; those who don’t live up to the standard are “uncivilized.” What interests me is the degree to which Chinese people agree that they are uncivilized. My workmate made his comment in front of our Chinese colleagues, who, if they were offended, didn’t show it. (Surely they must have been at least somewhat offended.) In Chinese cities there are constant and unrelenting campaigns to make Chinese people more “civilized” (wenming). It is unclear what precisely the word is referring to, but it is woven into society in the form of signage: signs implore people to be civilized in relation to protecting the environment, to standing on the bus, to waiting in a line, to driving on the street, to walking in a park, to sitting in a movie theater. Class is certainly a factor – the higher trying to educate the lower. And, of course, there is also a strong sense of China trying to reclaim its “civilized” past (whatever form that would take), both for itself and for the foreign gaze.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Thailand, China's national day

Here’s a new post after a whopping hiatus. First are some notes about my trip to Thailand, and then a little bit about the National Day holiday on the first of October.

You can look at the photos of the trip at this website for pictures of Bangkok, beaches, and Ayuthaya, the former capital—they will probably do the best job of giving a summation of the trip. I’ll list the places where we went, in case anyone is interesting in looking them up (“Koh” means “island”): Bangkok, Koh Tao, Krabi, Phuket, Koh Phi-Phi, and Ayuthaya. Koh Tao, the first island we went to, had some great snorkeling. (I saw a shark swimming under me! It was big!) Bangkok is suitably nutty, though not so nutty as the buildup had led me to expect. Unfortunately it rained a bit on the beaches, but not too much. Thai food is simply amazing—you can find the same stuff as in Thai restaurants abroad, but I also discovered several things that I never knew existed, including some of the best sweets I’ve ever had. Thai street food is the most exciting, as it’s varied, delicious, cheap, and abundant.

Thailand is a fascinating and thoroughly unique country. The people’s respect for the royal family, especially the King, is incredible. Compared to China’s extremely insecure nationalism, Thai nationalism was somewhat refreshing—no constant reminders of the vast length of Thai history, just a quiet self-assurance of its solidity.

Check out this gem from my Lonely Planet guidebook: “As the only Southeast Asian country that’s never been colonized by a foreign power, the Thais have a strong sense of their own identity. Religion, royalty and tradition all play a vital role in creating the national sense of ‘Thai-ness’. In fact, this national self-confidence may have played a major role in keeping the European colonial powers from Thailand’s door.” So which was it? Did Thailand’s success in staying independent create its nationalism, or did its nationalism prevent foreign encroachment? Thailand is indeed extremely self-confident in its nationalism. But this kind of historical reading demonstrates a profound confusion about the very period in which modern concepts of the nation were formed.

The standard narrative of modern Thai history is that the 19th century kings were successful in staving off colonialism by learning to modernize, with the help of Europeans like Anna Leonowens (of “The King and I”), the Belgian Gustave Rolin-Jaequemyns (who helped solidify modern international law and who thought international law should aid small, weak countries), and many, many others. Those kings are greatly revered, and the current one is seen as continuing the trend. According to the narrative, the Thai government learned the “language” of Western international law and the importance of Western-style modernization very quickly, and was therefore successful in “modernizing” Thailand while still retaining its fundamental character as a Buddhist nation.

The Muslim population in the south, of course, is one foil to the narrative. Here’s another prizewinner from LP: “In the far south and in rural corners, Islamic culture dominates but it has been mellowed by Southeast Asia’s gentleness.” The statement is referring to the freedom of women relative to their Arabic counterparts. While there is no doubt that Muslim women enjoy greater freedom in Thailand than in many Middle Eastern countries, the causes of that freedom are not clear, and reducing them to “Southeast Asia’s gentleness” is an alarming simplification. Many factors have served to radicalize Islam in the Middle East, not least among them colonialism—it is not simply due to some local, intrinsic quality. And it should be obvious that calling Southeast Asia “gentle” is an incredible act of forgetfulness. The region has been the site of some of the most horrific violence of the 20th century, not to mention just as many wars throughout the ages as anywhere else. Perhaps the sentence is referring to the supposed gentleness of Buddhism? Whether Buddhism is more “gentle” than Islam would be a rather silly argument, one that would necessitate extremely one-dimensional and simplistic understandings of the two religions.

Back in China, the National Day holiday on October first at the Bund was crowded, crowded, crowded. On Chinese holidays at popular tourist sites, you can come a bit closer to getting a sense of the unbelievable number of people squeezed into this country. The city closed off numerous streets, including East Zhongshan Rd., in front of the Bund, transforming them into pedestrian streets. It’s interesting that the automatic site for the National Day celebrations—and the most famous site in Shanghai—is the Bund, a grand monument to colonialism in East Asia. Embrace the buildings but reject the context in which they were built seems to be the popular attitude.

I’m not sure what most people’s opinion of the national day holidays is. In most countries, flags are abundant on national days, but in Shanghai they can only be found on taxis and buses, where they were no doubt ordered to appear by the government. Do Chinese people simply not have the same flag-waving habits as elsewhere? Or is there some other reason for the scarcity of flags? People are of course ecstatic about having days off (those who do are anyway), but apart from that, I don’t sense much excitement about the holiday itself.

Most guidebooks mention that the clock on top of the Customs House on the Bund, built in 1927 by the same firm that designed Big Ben, played “The East is Red” during the Cultural Revolution, and to my delight, it chimed a few bars of it last night! The song was supposedly invented by a farmer in Shaanxi Province who was inspired when he saw the sun rise one morning. Wikipedia says, “Because of its associations with the Cultural Revolution, the song was rarely heard after the rise of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. Today in China the song is considered a somewhat unseemly reminder of the cult of personality associated with Mao.” I would mention, however, that my friend Angel is very familiar with the song, and learned it in school in the 1990s.

Here is an English translation of the lyrics, which, whatever they may sound like to foreigners, are still rich in meaning and significance for millions of people:

The east is red, the sun is rising.
China has brought forth a Mao Zedong.
He amasses fortune for the people,
Hurrah, he is the people's great savior.
Chairman Mao loves the people,
He is our guide,
To build a new China,
Hurrah, he leads us forward!
The Communist Party is like the sun,
Wherever it shines, it is bright.
Wherever there is a Communist Party,
Hurrah, there the people are liberated!