“Minxin Xiangtong ⺠心相通 and People-to-People Relations Along the New Silk Roads” with Sophia Kidd

Many thanks to so many of you who showed up last Friday night for this live talk.

Sophia Kidd of Sichuan University joined the University of Virginia to discuss the New Silk Road’s (NSR) fifth ‘pillar’ in her talk on Minxin Xiangtong ⺠心相通 and People-to-People connections along the New Silk Roads; giving examples of how P2P connections support and sustain other NSR objectives: policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, and financial integration. This talk, held March 12, 2021, was part of UVA’s “Assessment of China’s BRI” Project.

Morning readings…in medias res… research on ‘culture’ paving the New Silk Roads (1)

Flipping through Xinhua and South China Morning Post this morning, I clicked thru a few headlines about Chinese State-Owned Enterprises calling in non-essential workers from Myanmar, US-China performativity on both sides, and also about the Oxford-trained presence in US President Joe Biden’s cabinet (this last from Peter Frankopan’s re-Tweet).

I’m also going through a book, Structures of the Earth: Metageographies of Early Medieval China by D. Jonathan Felt (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center). If you’re looking for an excellent source for not only quantitative analysis of the literary genre of geographical literature, then this book is the place. If you’re looking for a theoretical framework by which to think about China’s practices of geography as well as historiography, then this is the book.

Main gleanings, interesting edges as thought-blade:

“metageography”–according to Martin Lewis and Karen Wiggen, is “the set of spatial structures through which people order their knowledge of the world.”

D. Jonathan Felt, Structures of the Earth: Metageographies of Early Medieval China, Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2021, p. 3.

“Modern examples of global metageographies include Eurocentrism, the East-West model, the nation-states system, the geographic coordinate system, Wallerstein’s world-systems theory, and the first, second, and third worlds.” –D. JONATHAN FELT, STRUCTURES OF THE EARTH: METAGEOGRAPHIES OF EARLY MEDIEVAL CHINA, CAMBRIDGE: HARVARD UNIVERSITY ASIA CENTER, 2021, P. 3.

“Too often Sinologists construct artificial divisions between Buddhist and “normal” Sinitic literature. But the prominence of Buddhist authors and Buddhist metageographies throughout early medieval geographical literature breaks down these divisions.”

D. JONATHAN FELT, STRUCTURES OF THE EARTH: METAGEOGRAPHIES OF EARLY MEDIEVAL CHINA, CAMBRIDGE: HARVARD UNIVERSITY ASIA CENTER, 2021, P. 53.

Key geographical genre of literature names and texts mentioned in first chapter of Structures of the Earth:

地理记 dili ji [records of the structures of the earth]
地方志 difang zhi [gazetteer]
杜佑 Du You (735-812 CE), Tang critic of medieval local geographies
中国 ‘Middle-Kingdom,’ aka China
华夏 Huaxia, Sinitic cultural/civilizational realm or ecumene
水经注, Shuijing zhu [Guide to waterways with commentary], by 郦道元 (d. 527 CE), an official of the Northern Wei (386-534)
佛国记 Foguo ji [Record of the Buddhist states], by 法显, cf: 法显传 Faxian zhuan [Memoir of the Eminent Monk]
洛阳伽蓝记 Luoyang qielan ji [Record of the monasteries of Luoyang], by 杨衒之
华阳国志 Huayang guozhi [Record of the kingdoms south of Mount Hua, by 常璩 Chang Qu
禹贡 Yu gong [Tribute of Yu]
史记 Shi ji Records of the Historian, by 表演司马迁 Sima Qian (ca. 145-ca. 86 BCE)
河渠书 Hequ shu [Monograph on rivers and canals]
货殖列传 Huozhi liezhuan [Memoirs of moneymakers]
管子 Guanzi [Writers of Master Guan]
山海经 Shanhai jing [Classic of mountains and seas]
淮南子, Huainanzi [Master of Huainan: ] (地形 Dixing [Terrestrial forms], and 齐俗 Qi su [Monograph on geography] chapters)
邹衍 (ca 250), created an alternative metageograhy based on a model of a Kunlun-centered world in which Sinitic civilization inhabits the southeastern corner of the earth.
地理志 Dili zhi [Monograph on geography), most topically comprehensive geographical text to date, by 班固 Ban Gu (32-92)
吴地记 Wu di zhuan [Tales of the land of Wu]
越地传 Yue di zhuan [Tales of the land of Yue], in the 越绝书 Yue jue shu [Lost histories of Yue]
顾恺之 Gu Kaizhi (ca. 345-406), Eastern Jin painter
江赋 Jiang Fu [River fu], by 郭璞 Guo Pu (276-324)
宋永初山川记 Song Yongchu shanchuan ji [Records of the mountains and rivers of the Yongchu reign period of the Song dynasty]
穆天子传 Mu Tianzi zhuan [Account of Mu, Son of Heaven]
张騫 Zhang Qian (d. ca. 114 BCE), went on a mission to the Xiongnu empire
扶南 Funan, a complex Southeast Asia state that arose in 3rd century, elevating the importance of political and commercial relationships in the Southeast Wu region in Yangzi basin.
三国志 Sanguo zhi, by Chen Shou has accounts of diplomatic missions to South and Southeast Asia
扶南传 Funan zhuan [Account of Funan] & 扶南异物志 Funan yiwu zhi [Record of the peculiar things of Funan)
北史 Bei shi [History of the Northern Dynasties]
南史 Nan shi [History of the Southern Dynasties]
边地 biandi [peripheral land]
道整 Dao Zheng, Faxian’s traveling companion
四海百川水源记 Sihai baichuan shuiyuan ji [Record of the source of the hundred rivers within the four seas], by 道安 Dao An (d. 385)
地理书 Dili shu [Geographical writing], by 陆澄 Lu Cheng (425-94)
地记 Diji [Records of the earth], by 任昉 (459-507)
健康 Jiankang (modern day Nanjing)、长安 (modern day Xi’an)、邺 (capital established by Cao Wei founder, Cao Cao, during the Three Kingdoms period) are the three main geographical centers of the 6th century
禹贡地域图 Yu gong diyu tu [Map of the regions of the tribute of Yu], by 裴秀 Pei Xiu (224-71)
畿服经 Jifu jing [Classic of the imperial domain], by 挚虞
Qualities of geographies: 旁 pang [extensive], 通 tong [thorough], 宣 xuan [comprehensive], 简 jian [scant in detail], 裁cai [reductive], 略 lue [outlines]
史通 Shitong [Comprehensive understanding of history], by 刘知几 Liu Zhiji (661-721)
图经 Tu jing [map-treatise]
职方 Zhifang [Zhou office of manager of regions]
周礼 Zhou li [Rituals of Zhou]
萧何 Xiao He (d. 193 BCE), saved the Qin maps from the fire that destroyed Xianyang so he could know the strategic points of the empire
末学 moxue [superficial studies]
疆理天下 jiang li tianxia [regulating the boundaries of tianxia]
元嘉六年地记 Yuanjia liunian diji [Geographical record of the sixth year of the Song Dynasty Yuanjia reign period]

Palgrave Macmillan, Ou Ning, and Culture Paves the New Silk Roads

Palgrave Macmillan has a new series, Contemporary East Asian Visual Cultures, Societies, and Politics, edited by Paul Gladston.

The series opening book, Utopia in Practice, by Ou Ning documents one of the first pushes in China’s new unofficial ‘internal emigration’ movement, where urbanites retreat to the countryside to rediscover what their land and culture has always had to offer, integral to a sense of well-being.

The series’ second book will be mine, Culture Paves the New Silk Roads, and I’m giving a related talk on Friday Mar 12 at 8 pm EST (5 pm PDT) for University of Virginia’s Assessment of Belt and Road Initiative project. I’ll talk about a chapter from my book focusing on the people-to-people pillar of China’s New Silk Roads. Register using the link below. FREE. And please, ask questions. Questions are like gold for the intrepid speaker…

https://virginia.zoom.us/…/WN_5vluiVU-RpCsL5y9XKqXtg…

Utopia in Practice: Bishan Project and Rural Reconstruction (Contemporary East Asian Visual Cultures, Societies and Politics) 1st ed. 2020 Edition

Sophastre on the Silk Road

Identity Labor

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 made personal growth 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 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.

Coffee (or anything) door-delivery is very convenient in China with apps such as Waimai 外卖

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, 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 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, articles about performance art, painting, sculpture, installation, film, television, and arts management all require lexical dexterity, with every new conversation bringing into my life a new word, idea, value, or reference point.

The work which aged me, sickened me, and drained me of most of my life force in moments of self-doubt; has been the work of ‘identity labor.’ 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.”

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; in fact many discover new potentials of who they are by transcending not only cultural norms in China; but cultural norms as well. If you work in skilled contexts in China, 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 a social or professional hierarchy, in a spatial milieu.

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 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.

Culture Paves the New Silk Roads

And if it doesn’t, it should.

When I flew to Bochum, Germany back in April of 2017 to teach a course on the political semiotics of arts criticism in China, I was unaware of how influential this five week long visit would be upon my intellectual and thus professional endeavours.

It was a small group of seven bright German students as well as one Chinese student, and I was able to pay special attention to what the students were most interested in. Early on, then, I grew aware that the students were fascinated by two central concepts, one was a notion in aesthetic theory; and the other was a sociological one.

Chinese aesthetics boils down to a trinity of ‘truth–good–beauty zhen shan Mei真善美.’ For our purposes here, I’ll just explain that the German students were blown away by the idea that, for the Chinese, beauty is not possible in isolation. That is, unless beauty is also good, and also true; it is not beautiful. Which then begs the question, at which point in Western aesthetics did something obviously ugly, even horrific, become beautiful? At which point did the unjust and villainous also grow beautiful, or at least desirous, to look at on television? This I’ll save for another day; but answering these questions requires looking into the history of Western art, especially at Modernism, with its abstraction, and rebellious anti-heroic. In the West, something can be untrue and even evil, yet imbued with an awesomeness that draws our attention to it, whether it is in a museum, on television, or in front of our eyes on the street.

The other notion which caught the attention of both my German students as well as the one student from China; was that of ‘cultural’ discount.’ This notion arises out of a study of cultural economy, which can’t be examined outside of the context of the political economy of culture in China. What we were looking at was the phenomenon of cultural products decreasing in value as soon as they exit Chinese customs, or Chinese cyberspace, or other Chinese cultural contexts. And when I say Chinese cultural contexts, these contexts are themselves contextualized necessarily within Chinese political and economic contexts. This is because Chinese State control over its cultural products is total. Even along its own margins of control, that is, in grassroots (in popular culture) or avant-garde (in the fine arts sector) pushback against official ideological cultural products; even in these voices, acts, and cultural commodities of resistance (such as an artwork by Ai Weiwei), we see an impression of the State cultural edifice. Thus, when these products, be they works of art, movies, comic, or books; even if they are translated, enter into another market; they decrease in value, suffering from a ‘cultural discount (wenhua zhekou 文化折扣).’

What shocked me most of all, having been in China for most of the prior 20 years, was how unfamiliar my German political science and international affairs students were with the connection between culture and politics. They were even more alarmed by the connection between economics and culture. I was moved to redesign my curriculum in situ, so that it focused more on these two notions, one aesthetic and the other sociological. Only when these two notions were thoroughly grasped would we be able to move forward with discussing and examining how Chinese art critics coded their treatment of artworks in ways that helped their articles get published in magazines, journals, online platforms and books within China. Note, by ‘helped their articles get published,’ I do not mean this in the sense that it made their articles more appealing, only that this helped their articles not get flagged as sensitive or otherwise problematic to the State’s cultural officers.

I start with this.

In my next entry, I will explain how this course, and the shifts we made mid-stream, changed my intellectual, and thus professional trajectory in the field of Chinese studies. Hint: It has to do with my title here, also the title of my forthcoming book with Palgrave MacMillan: Culture Paves the New Silk Roads.

Then in another future entry, I’ll start laying out some of the field research I gained both this past semester as well as in winter semester, 2019, when I taught ‘Culture Paves the New Silk Roads’ to classes of over 200 Chinese students, in China. Of particular interest will be presentations on the subject given by student focus groups. Also interesting, was how other focus groups presented on Classical Chinese canonical texts, such as the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji 史记), Book of Odes (Shijing 诗经), Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋), and the Classic of the Way and Virtue (Daodejing 道德经). Very interesting, how the ideas, language, and ideologies of these ancient texts resonated with discussion of China’s rebuilding of the ancient Silk Roads in a wholly new geopolitical context.

Triple-Decker China

Characters by Wang Xizhi 王羲之(303–361 CE), Chinese general and calligrapher.

As I listen to an interview this morning on NPR about international leaders’ reactions to recent US elections; China is first. Takeaway: China is noticeably absent from the list of nations such as Canada, UK, and India that have officially extended congratulations to the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris campaign. What’s the reason? Beijing is exercising extreme caution, as is Russia; neither country willing to engage until President Trump has conceded the race.

Let that be the top and bottom bun of my triple-decker China burger. I want to draw your attention to three patties in the middle. Kind of rude, I know, to allude to such a majestic civilisation as something I can put in my mouth and transform inside me. However, ten months trapped on North American rim of the Pacific have emboldened me. I feel confident enough to imagine myself as the agent of an ontological ecology of self; one integral enough to claim organic integrity. Digesting experience is a metaphor.

Experience is complex, levels within. I quickly sketch out three ways in which I’ve known China this past weekend.

One. In my research. Writing a book on how Chinese culture paves the New Silk Roads; this weekend took me to Beijing in China, Islamabad in Pakistan, Kabul in Afghanistan, Ankara and Istanbul in Turkey, Djibouti in Djibouti, Duisburg in Germany, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Damascus in Turkey, Jerusalem in Israel, Astana in Kazakhstan, Moscow in Russia, Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Dubai in the United Arab Eremites, and Singapore of the Republic of Singapore. I looked at how Chinese creative and cultural industries are making inroads into each of these cities, and discussed my findings.

Two. Over WeChat and a couple of email accounts, I interacted with three graduate students I advise; a few other grad students I mentor, the kinds of students who are so bright you just want to give them more light; a translation team I manage; as well as faculty and administration at my university. Aside from this and on the same platforms in addition to Facebook and Instagram; I interacted with Chinese filmmakers, painters, and poets, discussing projects; theirs and my own.

Three. This morning I awaken, open the Sam Harris Waking Up app, and meditate for 20 minutes, then pause to consider what next to do with my consciousness. I’m up early, I have time. What is the best use of it?

Calligraphy it is. My ink, stone, and brushes are ready on my work table, I pull out the roll of rice paper and peel off a sheet, set my computer down on the floor along with the keyboard, mouse, and mousepad. Then in its place, I smooth rice paper on the table, holding the corners down with pieces of polished stone, put another piece of paper underneath, to absorb moisture. My cloth pad is back in China, so paper will do, albeit wasteful. On my iPad, I open up the Wang Xizhi 王羲之(303–361 CE) zitie 字帖, a book of example characters done by the Eastern Jin poet, calligrapher, official, and general. A quick google search on Wang Xizhi, in English, provides no information about his life, only his reception history, five hundred years after he lived, in the Tang, and through today. A quick Baidu (top Chinese search engine) search conveys first of all the man’s name, his style name, other eponyms, his place of birth, the names of his parents, as well as titles and officially held government positions. My mind has transformed, and indeed, this is the information I now consider important. His life’s work drives his art, not the other way around.

Placing a bit of water in the stone, grinding slowly in a circular motion with the ink stick, doing so until the viscosity and thickness of the ink expresses itself as ready, I then dip my brush into the ink. I have been remiss, forgot to rinse these brushes after my last use, over a week ago. They are hard and rigid, but after rinsing in warm and then cool water, they soften and clear of ink. After selecting the page in Wang Xizhi’s zitie from which I will copy out characters, place brush against rice paper, and begin the first character, xiao 晓 (realisation), my consciousness is still and attenuated.

Three very different experiences, or layers to experience, of China. It’s interesting to listen to NPR about China’s reticence in recognising the results of our election; however, this is just the top and bottom of a triple-decker burger, veggie or not, called ‘understanding China.’ One could experiment with other layers to understanding China…research into its millennia of political, economic, scientific, and cultural exchange with cities throughout Central Asia, East Africa, Central and Eastern Europe; actual Chinese-language interactions with Chinese students, intellectuals, and artists today; and the very immediate and, of the three, most informative experience, early on a Monday morning before work, play with Chinese brush and ink on rice paper.

Black Dot Focus

Black dot focus in Chinese Universities

One of the best moves I ever made in the early ’90’s was studying kenpo kickboxing at a studio in midtown, Ventura. I did it because I had been feeling increasingly nervous on the streets of this sleepy tourist town which, when the LA-sters weren’t up for the weekend during the bonny months of spring or summer; were overrun with meth addicts taking over its beaches and frontage streets. I liked to walk alone, but I didn’t like the feeling of being vulnerable. So I signed up for kenpo.

Barbara, the owner of the studio taught me the concept of white dot/black dot. In this cognitive model, black and white have less to do with the actual color of a dot, and more to do with the mind’s attention or focus. When the mind focuses on a single object or experience, ignoring its context; this is known as ‘white dot focus’; and when the mind, through training, learns to focus on context, on all that borders tangentially upon that single object or experience; then it’s called ‘black dot focus.’

In the case of kenpo, black dot focus trains the mind’s eye to see not only the striking arm of our opponent, but also the torque of our opponent’s neck and torso, the position of her feet, the gleam of victory or fear in her eyes. It also trains us to see not only our opponent, but who or what is behind her; in order to preempt threats entering from peripheral angles of the scene.

In the case of teaching at a Chinese institution of higher learning, the principle is similar. Let me explain.

Having read for my MA and PhD at Sichuan University, after a hiatus of two years, I was invited back to join the faculty. Thus professors I had learned from then became my peers, and many of my peers in the classroom now sat beside me at faculty meetings. Although I knew many of the actors in this play; the learning curve has been so steep I have constantly been falling behind, held back from that sweet spot where one feels confident and good about a job. There have been slews of challenges, the greatest of which is now working remotely, from 6,246 miles away, due to COVID-19.

Last semester I taught online, as everybody did, whether in China, the US, or anywhere in the world. But this semester China has COVID-19 seemingly all worked out, and just last week, undergraduate students at Sichuan University were called back to school. The measures being taken are legion, with all students in quarantine as I write this. Each student has a teacher in charge of their case, and biodata is collected daily on 38,000 individuals. Students coming from sensitive regions of the country are asked to take a COVID text within five days of leaving their home, and when they arrive on campus are placed in a special quarantine buildings, tested, and kept apart from the rest of the student body. Once students arrive on campus, they will not be able to leave campus again until further notice. Classes will resume at the end of next week, in person, with classes also being broadcast online for students in outbreak areas.

My last cancelled scheduled flight to China was in March. A faculty administrator in charge of foreign faculty had found out about my impending arrival and forbid me to get on that plane. That was when numbers in the US were ballooning, only the beginning of the mass debacle our country still presents to the world, half a year later. Two weeks ago I put in a request for the infamous PU letter, a letter given by the Chinese Foreign Ministry which provides the only means for an American to cross the Chinese border. The letter costs USD $1,500, and is only the beginning of a costly and complicated application process, which requires getting a whole new visa; as all visas given prior to March, 2020 have been cancelled. So the 3 year multiple entry residence permit in my passport is useless to me now.

Yesterday I received two pieces of news. One–my request for a PU letter has been denied, for the time being. Sichuan University is unable to provide these letters for Americans. Two–classes can be taught online and in person; but cannot be taught online exclusively. However, my class has not been cancelled. The college hopes that I will find another teacher in our Chinese Classics department to teach the class for me.

Enter: White dot focus

My mind shifted into extremely goal-oriented white dot focus mode. I had to find a teacher to replace me in the classroom. Now this is pretty big ask, and I don’t know anybody well enough to ask it. So I reached out to the director of our department and told him my situation. Let me explain the hierarchy. There is the University’s Education Department, which answers to the Central and Provincial government. Then a secretariat heads our entire College of Humanities as a representative of the CPC.  Then there are four deans of our College, and administrator of foreign faculty, and then the Director of our department. I received my notice through the administrator of foreign faculty, who received the notice from all the levels above him. This is all a lot to manoeuvre, and both needing guidance and not wanting to overstep, I could only think to reach out to the Director of my department, who set up my class in the first place, thinking, with white-dot focus, that he would be the person who could handle this situation. However, he was the only person who couldn’t help me. Precisely because he’s in charge of all the teachers in our department; he wasn’t in a place to command or even suggest any given teacher to take on the work of replacing me in the classroom. His job was to color within the lines, and anything outside the lines has to be handled through informal channels of interpersonal relationships.

All these communications are being conducted in Chinese, which stresses me out. Nothing stresses me out more than bureaucracy in a foreign language. I am the first non-Asian to graduate from our department; and I’m the first non-Chinese faculty member in our department. So none of what I do I is precedented, even before COVID hit the fan. I mention this because I want you, my dear Reader, to understand how much I was hoping my white dot focus would achieve results.

Enter: Black dot focus

When my director declined to help me, and refused to communicate officially on my behalf with any of the departments, administrators or secretariat above us in the hierarchy; I panicked, and dizziness began to cloud my vision, as rage and frustration gripped my trachea. Focused on a single white dot of expectation, upon a logical node of hierarchy, I had failed.

Then it dawned on me. I would reach out to the one professor in our department who had acted just the slightest bit warmer towards me, since I entered her course on the Chinese canon as a first year masters student, back in 2009. She is in retirement transition now, knows the ins and outs of things, and surely she could provide some insight. She did. She explained to me why the Director had been unable to help me. She offered to go to the Dean of the College and ask for clarification. She offered to fill in for a few weeks, until we could figure out how to move forward.

Which is when the knot of frustration loosened in my throat; and my focus began to expand outwards from the original site of expectation. I began to see peripheral elements at play here. How the community of my faculty is a rich resource, and that we all face these unexpected challenges together. My mistake has been trying to handle everything by myself, or through my direct superior. My professor, who I’ll call Prof. Li, was able to help me precisely because it was not her job to do so. I was entering the world of Chinese affairs known as guanxi 关系 [systems of connections], of backdoors and human connections. I am becoming indebted to her, and this is only the beginning. As my awareness of the situation grows and my black dot focus expands to include the periphery of my own predicament; I began to think of ways in which I can help my colleagues, so that when the time came to muster courage and make my ask (again, in Chinese); I will have a valuable contribution to offer in return.

My only failing now is to not already, much sooner and before I needed it, having expanding my focus beyond the white dot. My job as a faculty member in a Chinese university is not just to fulfil my contract obligations and be there for my students. In my role of faculty member at a Chinese university, there is an ecology to nurture. We are all in this together. When something outside the ordinary happens, we have to color outside the lines for each other, because the institutions are not flexible, and the hierarchies are inscrutible. Fortunately I have nurtured some relationships through the years; but I should have done this morning, noon, and night; from the very first day I began. In China, in a university as everywhere else, it’s about community, about relationships, about give and take, and networks of mutual indebtedness. By the time I get teachers lined up for the next few months, to hold my class in place until I get there (oh, Lord, please open those borders); I am going to have significant additional workload, as I work to hold my place in the guanxi equation. In the meantime, I am understanding what I can do to help my colleagues, how I can help them in ways that no-one else can. That is, I am finally prioritizing my contribution over my personal achievements. All this time I’ve been feeling ragged, just fielding curve balls and figuring things out on my own. Now I understand that we’re all in this together. I just hope it’s not too late.

 

 

moss

I wish I sat down that first day back, as there was definitely some crimp in my thought, some misshapen forming thing in my mind, a lens through which I espied China. But I was busy arriving. Busy being tired, just stacking moments on top of one another in the haze of coming to this foreign home of mine since 1999.

I arrived on Monday, September 1st, and I took pictures that first day. This spoke to me, phenomenally, of if its eminent unimportance. In other words, it struck me as important.

Chengdu weather usually enjoys extremely levels of moisture and humidity.

Chengdu weather usually enjoys extremely high levels of moisture and humidity.

This is moss on concrete by a drainage pipe. The drainage pipe you see in the upper left hand corner descends seven floors from the rooftop of building number thirteen. Building number thirteen is one building of nearly fifty much-the-same buildings in our xiaoqu 小区. In English you’d call it a huge gated housing community. Built in 1980’s China, this xiaoqu is an example of brutalist architecture. Cement blocks placed on top of each other, to form seven stories, cement phorms comprising floors, walls, everything except doors and windows which are supplied a la basic.

This protruding sections of the building are enclosed balconies. Often kitchens are located within, allowing for appropriate ventilation during the cooking process.

Protruding sections of the building are enclosed balconies. Often kitchens are located within, allowing for appropriate ventilation while cooking .

An example of Brutalist architecture, the prevalent mode of building in China.

An example of Brutalist architecture, the prevalent mode of building in China.

Windows are often of blue tinted glass to keep the sun out and they either slide or can be pushed outwards to open. Their frames are single two inch board with an awning made of either plastic or canvas arching over them. In some cases the awnings are just steel frame remains of what was whole years ago. My bedroom awning window is in tatters, which doesn’t make any difference, except to my morale.

bedroom awning

As the drainage pipe pictured in my moss picture descends from such a tall height, water tends to collect in this corner between the first and second units of our building thirteen. Rain water, of which there is plenty in our city, collects at its worst along this whole front side of the building making it slick slick slick. Myself and a couple of my friends have wiped out on our bikes trying to ride along the pavement there. You can see how damp it is. The asphalt is darkened with moisture and the moss is a fluorescent healthy green. This moisture, hitting above eighty percent humidity most days throughout the year, forms lichen along the walls of many buildings throughout the city. I wonder if the Bauhaus architects who came up with the international style and those who modified it into the Brutalist school of architecture took time and weather into account. Perhaps they thought… “No, don’t paint or adorn the buildings in any way. Rather let the elements and configurations of time and space be pictured on the buildings themselves in the most apparent manner!”

Majiang parlor.  Usually spelled Majhong, this game is loved by local people in the city of Chengu as well in the surrounding countryside.

Majiang parlor. Usually spelled Majhong, this game is loved by local people in the city of Chengu as well in the surrounding countryside.