China is a destiny, a growing, and a torture all at once. The expectations of ‘identity labor‘ required of living in skilled contexts in a foreign country, well…it adds character.
This isn’t going to be a long entry, just a milestone, a rock placed in just such a way by the side of the road so as to mark one’s progress.
I met a new friend online. During these days, weeks, and months of COVID-19, I imagine many of us have met a new friend online. It’s a special way to enter into the existence of another. Seemingly random, easy to dispose of should it no longer serve our own daily narrative, and yet; more often than I could ever imagine; incredibly rewarding at times.
My new friend was asking me why I had bound my own life so inextricably with the rise of China, why I had spent twenty years working in its education sector, getting my graduate degrees there, and even now working a job remotely, from my desk here in Bellingham, WA, at a Chinese university.
I got the sense when my new friend asked me about my China-pull, that what she really wanted to know is when it would all end. When would I come to my senses, and just get back to my own culture and society once and for all. So I answered her in a way that expressed the pros and cons of China for me.
China is my destiny. I have known for some time now, through signs, clear thought, intuition, and feelings I have observed; that I have a role to play in helping people understand the re-emergence of China in world history. The more people I meet along the way, people who are equally, if not more, invested in China’s myriad aspects; the more I believe I have found my tribe.
China is a growing. I mean, personal growth was inevitable. Just the passage of time, itself, offers ample opportunity for growth. There is the growth one goes through in a developing nation, dealing with aggravation and inconvenience of systems that arise from wholly other logical imaginings of the world. With no privacy, faulty utilities, lack of consumer goods, and no-one who understands or accepts you for who you are; living in a foreign country can take its toll. Hence the growth. It takes vitality and will towards personal transformation to live gracefully in a foreign society. So the torture…that’s the growth factor. I am not complaining. After all, I signed up for every minute of this.
Life in China has changed a great deal in the course of the two decades. Water, electricity, gas, or internet are still prone to outages, because the infrastructure is being renewed constantly. However; there’s usually notice, so one can cook one’s meal early, or wash the dishes before the water is turned off. Maybe the notices were always there, but now my Chinese is good enough to read them. The consumer goods are all there now, too; as the world’s supply chains lead inevitably, either in manufacture or consumption, to Beijing; or Hong Kong, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Xi’an, Chongqing, or Chengdu. I used to ride around on my Flying Pigeon bike for an hour and a half looking for a cup of coffee; at last falling into a hot cup of rich aroma from the McDonalds on the priciest commercial street in the city. Now, I can take out my phone, open the Waimai app (similar to Doordash or Yelp), and have any number or flavor of coffee sent to my door within 17 minutes.
Another thing that has changed, and this is key, is my role in China. Twenty years ago I was a common English teacher with a B.A. in philosophy. In other words, I had no skills whatsoever to make a living with in my own culture; so I used the cultural capital I had at the time, and used one of the most basic skills I acquired early in life–that of speaking my mother tongue–and hawked it for the monthly salary of 2300 RMB. Back in 1999, that was about three hundred US dollars. After about ten years of that, during which I taught myself a number of disciplines, including how to speak, read, and write in Chinese; I tested into graduate school. Shortly after beginning my MA in Chinese classical literature, I began moonlighting in the fine arts sector as curator of Chinese performance art. Thus, for the past ten years, I’ve been moving through and living in skilled contexts. At school, my conversations with colleagues and teachers are about high-level knowledge at the breaking edge of Chinese philosophical, metaphysical, aesthetic and literary achievement. In the community, my conversations with, interviews of, and articles about performance art, painting, sculpture, installation, film, television, and arts management require lexical dexterity, with every new conversation bringing into my life a new word, idea, value, or reference point.
The real work, however; the work which has aged me, sickened me, and drained me of most of my life force in moments of self-doubt; has been the ‘identity labor.’ I’ve already admitted that the notion is a new one to me. Doing a quick search online, either in google or in an academic data base; the notion is unsurprisingly bound up with discourses on ‘performativity.’ Without going any more deeply into defining or explaining what the term tends to mean, I will express how identity labor feels to me. It is exhausting.
“Well, why can’t you just be yourself?”
“If they don’t accept you then to hell with them.”
Our social media feeds are full of messages about accepting oneself, being oneself, believing in oneself. But what if there is a self which is not eternal, and not a given; a self which is not a priori. Perhaps there is no final resting point of return, no space of self-reference which provides the ultimate refuge from the world. If you can begin to imagine this possibility; then you are beginning to understand the Chinese notion of self.
In China, you are never yourself. You can never say the words that arise naturally within you. You can never sit in the seat that feels right, or wear the clothes that express who you are. Of course, you can do all of this, and more; and many foreigners discover new potentials of who they are by transcending not only the cultural norms of China; but also any cultural norms they have ever felt burdened by. However, if you work in skilled contexts in China; then you must attenuate your sense of self as a contextual entity. You are who you are in relationship to others. What you say does not mean what you said. It means what it means in relationship to the last thing you said, and just importantly to the next thing you will say. You may not sit in the seat with the best view, next to the person you want to get to know, or with the best airflow. You must sit around the table in the order of social status; that is, in a spatial arrangement which simulates the social milieu in which you all co-exist.
So the ‘identity labor’ is the hardest labor. Holding on to ‘who I am’ as an American, to how I was raised, to what I believe in; whist adopting the world view of those around me, in order to understand their needs is a razor’s edge. Self-confidence will not sustain you, but the Dao 道 will. More on Dao later on, but for now it suffices to posit the Dao as a central value in Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism; Three Teachings which inform most Chinese thought today.
I said earlier that this wasn’t going to be a long entry, and it won’t be. I just want to explain why I do it. What is this destiny for which I will grow and grow until I am strong enough to bear it?
While mainstream media and China pundits are busy condemning or condoning ‘China’ as some monolithic thing which we can or can’t accept; Chinese people are awakening within highly skilled contexts, and ideas are arising out of rigorous practise and thoughtful contemplation. Knowledge workers and symbol creators are coming of age in a feedback loop between grassroots social, political, economic, and cultural development; and a highly centralised central government which tempers diversity of social, political, economic, and cultural messaging. Its this foil, between the top-down and the bottom-up, that I attend to.
I think it’s important we support the artists and scholars of a (re) emerging cultural power.