Return to China

Caught so soon in a confluence of cultural forces.

I managed to fly back to Chengdu, China in late April of this year. It took four weeks from door to door. One week to travel from Bellingham, Washington to Los Angeles, where I took my COVID tests, got the green code from the LA Chinese Consulate, and got on my flight. Then there were two gruelling weeks of quarantine in Guangzhou, followed by an even more gruelling week on campus here in Chengdu, where conditions felt as if existence, itself, were an afterthought.

Since arriving in my apartment, which had to be cleaned from top to bottom after my cat had permeated my home with the smells and feel of multiple nervous breakdowns, I have had her spayed, and gotten myself physically recovered, as well, from the adventures of the past 18 months. I was just returned home for a winter holiday in the US when COVID struck, and everyone knows the story moving forward from that point…

Here are just a few photos from the past few weeks, of exhibitions and screenings I’ve attended, of classes I’ve been teaching, of the medicine I’ve been taking, and the streets I’ve been reconnecting with. I’m still struggling with keeping on schedule with the book I’m writing, Culture Paves the New Silk Roads, so I daren’t overextend my time here in this blog entry. Let these pictures speak their thousand words each. I shall return with more focus and generous explanation. Soon

“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.

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.

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.