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 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.

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, 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.

China’s role in Myanmar?

People-to-people and other 5 pillar development in Myanmar

By Sophia Kidd

Protests in Myanmar erupted after Feb 1, 2021 military coup

What do we know about China’s role in Myanmar right now? I’m still trying to find that out. This morning I got a lot more pieces to the puzzle by attending a Zoom panel, ‘The Political Crisis in Myanmar: Nuanced Perspectives on the Nation’s Past, Present, & Future,” organized by the University of Colorado Center for Asian Studies & Aruna Global South.*

It was during the Q&A, after four panelists, Than Toe Aung, Ashley Aye Aye Dun, Jangai Jap, and Htet Thiha Zaw had spoken, that questions from the audience and moderates probed into China. One speaker pointed out that while little is known about China’s role in Myanmar’s political crisis right now; we do know two things. We know that while nearly all international air travel is banned in Myanmar, five planes per night arrive via Kunming, China. According to the speaker, nobody knows who or what are on these planes, or their business in Myanmar. And we also know, she pointed out, that the controversial Myitsone dam project at the source of the Irrawaddy river in the north of Myanmar was going ahead after long fallow. No sources were given for these statements. 

What does Myanmar’s new predicament mean to China’s New Silk Roads (NSR)?** It has everything to do with possibly the first (policy coordination), and certainly second (facilities connectivity), third (unimpeded trade), and fifth (people-to-people connections) pillars of the New Silk Roads. The fourth pillar (financial integration) is also implicated with fin-tech Digital Silk Road development. Policy coordination is needed to preserve the continuity of interests in Myanmar, so a military coup poses great risk by destabilising policy narratives. 5G and Beidou (China’s counterpart to GPS) networks manage smart cities in the region, so underground cable, overland grid, and satellite systems must maintain digital connectivity (second pillar) to succeed. Trade in energy is important, too, with  oil and gas pipelines stretching 2,380km (1,479 miles) from Burma’s Arakan coast to China’s Yunnan Province.

So what place does NSR’s fifth pillar, people-to-people connections have in all this? There are clues in cross-analysis of language and rhetoric used on China’s One Belt One Road English-language online portal. Nation profiles vary in structure and focus, although very few of them have been updated in the past year. Some nation profiles, such as that of Yemen, (last updated Apr 6, 2017) launch immediately into political and economic diplomacy. 

In 2013, friendly relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Yemen enjoyed new development. The two countries maintained high-level exchanges. In March, President Abdu-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi sent a message of congratulation to President Xi Jinping on his election as president. In November, President Hadi paid a state visit to China, during which President Xi Jinping had talks with him and Premier Li Keqiang and CPPCC Chairman Yu Zhengsheng met with him respectively. During the visit, the two sides signed the Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation Between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of the Republic of Yemen and the Agreement on Enhancing Educational Cooperation Between Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China and Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Ministry of Technical Education and Vocational Training of the Republic of Yemen. In January, Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun visited Yemen. In March, Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming attended and spoke at the fifth Friends of Yemen Ministerial Meeting in London on behalf of the Chinese government. In September, Foreign Minister Wang Yi attended the sixth Friends of Yemen Ministerial Meeting held on the sidelines of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York and delivered an address. Also in September, Yemeni Minister of Industry and Trade Saadaldeen Ali Salim Talib visited China and attended the China-Arab States Expo 2013 in Ningxia. Minister of Defense Muhammed Nasser Ahmed also visited China.

Myanamar’s (last updated Apr 7, 2017) Belt and Road country profile reads like a tourism brochure, indicating either an evasion of more crucial political economic profiling in favor of a more cultural approach, or possibly a more advanced and penetrating phase of conflict resolution requiring area studies and social science methods.

The Union of Myanmar is made up of 135 national races, of which the main national races are Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Bamar, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. Population of the country is estimated at 52.4 million (July, 2003) and the population growth rate is 1.84 percent. Traditionally, Myanmar tourism is based on culture. Myanmar with its long history, culture and religion has many pagodas, temples and monuments all over the country. In addition, Myanmar is also blessed by nature with natural attractions. There are snow-capped mountains, deep forests, cool and scenic places, long rivers, beautiful lakes, and manu unspoiled beaches and archipelagoes. The different national races and their way of life, traditional arts and crafts offer exotic vistas of the nation while the warm hospitality of Myanmar people world-renowned.

Public protest to the building of the Myitsone dam in northern Myanmar would indicate that China’s cultural power in the region is weak, with publics forcing policy makers to recalibrate away from Beijing’s efforts to coordinate Silk Road Economic Belt development overland through Mynamar into the Andaman Sea of the Bay of Bengal, joining up there with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Training programs in healthcare, education, and culture are good examples of public goods that China can provide to residents of Myanmar as a gesture of good will, serving as a praxis for Xi Jingping’s theoretical “Community of Common Destiny (gongtong mingyun 共同命运), which is a guiding principle of New Silk Road Xi thought. 

People-to-people pillar development includes creative and cultural sectors engagement between Myanmar and China. Contemporary art maps how avant-garde artists position themselves vis a vis political, economic, and cultural institutions in Myanmar. Myanmar performance artist, Aye Ko, appeared in 2017 at the annual Up-On Chengdu International Performance Art Festival in Southwest China, performing an artwork with a strong anti-war message. As mentioned earlier  medical diplomacy forms healthy people-to-people connections, including COVID-19 aid diplomacy as well as training programs in Western and Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) theory, practice, and technology.

A three-month Sino-Myanmar traditional medicine training program backed by Southwest China’s Yunnan Province opened on Monday, in response to the Belt and Road initiative and to increase cooperation between the two countries. The training session has 17 personnel from Myanmar taking part, focusing on traditional medical treatments, including acupuncture and tuina (push-pinch) massage, at the Yunnan Traditional Chinese Medicine University, reported on Tuesday. 

China’s New Silk Road development in Myanmar is significant, with all five pillars acting in coordination to secure best possible New Silk Road futures. It will be interesting to see how well over a hundred ethnic groups in Myanmar, some with their own militia, contend in the political crisis precipitated by the military coup begun on Feb 1 of this year. It is expected that the extraordinary ability of certain groups to organize despite app and internet closures will contribute to a more diverse expression of Myanmar voices.

*‘The Political Crisis in Myanmar: 
Nuanced Perspectives on the Nation’s Past, Present, & Future”

Organized by Center for Asian Studies & Aruna Global South


Than Toe Aung is currently finishing his Masters in Critical Gender Studies at Central European University in Vienna, Austria. His thesis looks at the racist, sexist, and neo-colonial nature behinds sex tourism in the Global South. Interested in the intersection between activism, poetry, and writing, he started a poetry slam movement called “Slam Express” in his hometown Yangon in 2016. When he is not calling out white academics and INGO workers in Burma on their privileges, colonial attitudes and practices, he writes about the marginalization and oppression of Muslim minorities in Buddhist Burma. His interests also lie in identity, belonging, borders, migration, race, ethnicity, decolonization, (trans)gender, non-binary, and queer politics.

Ashley Aye Aye Dun is a writer and PhD candidate in English at Brown University. She specializes in Asian American studies and literature and gender and sexuality studies. In the past, she has been involved in diasporic activism concerning the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities in Burma/Myanmar. She is currently writing a dissertation on political turmoil and the notion of excess in Southeast Asian American literature. In general, women of color feminisms serve as a guiding ethos for her work.

Jangai Jap is a Ph.D. Candidate in the George Washington University’s Political Science Department. Her research interest includes ethnic politics, minority representation, public opinion, and Burma/Myanmar politics. Her dissertation aims to explain factors that shape ethnic minorities’ attachment to the state. Her research is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship and Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and Judaic Studies from Yale University. She is originally from Kachin State and attended Burmese public school until 5th grade. 

Htet Thiha Zaw is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. His research interests lie in historical political economy, education, and formal theory. Substantively, He is interested in understanding the development of education policy in colonial-era Southeast Asia and its relationship with anti-colonial resistance, focusing on British Burma. Another line of his research explores topics in international education policy, such as education efficiency and early-childhood education. 

**New Silk Roads are commonly referred to as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and One Belt One Road (OBOR). The latter is a literal translation of the Chinese moniker Yi Dai Yi Lu 一带一路.

Dr. Sophia Kidd is Associate Research Fellow at Sichuan University, where she researches classical Chinese aesthetic theory and literature; as well as the implications of this aesthetic theory on China’s contemporary political economy of culture. She read for her B.A. in Philosophy at University of California: Santa Cruz where she studied History of Consciousness with Prof. David C. Hoy and Philosophy of Religion with Prof. Robert Goff. Her M.A. in Classical Chinese Literature at Sichuan University was studied under Pre-Qin specialist Prof. Liu Liming, and her Ph.D. was read under Prof. Zhou Yukai, specialist in Song Dynasty literature and  Chan poetry. She publishes mainly on regional aesthetics, focusing on Southwest China. Her upcoming book on how culture paves the New Silk Roads, also known as the One Belt One Road  or Belt and Road Initiative; discusses political economies of culture and arts infrastructure in some of the sixty-plus nations and territories along the New Silk Roads.

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.




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.