Friday, December 21, 2012

A very American Christmas

My friend and former student, Xiao Li, came down for a visit yesterday. Li is like a little brother to me — smart, hardworking, honest and loving. Both he and Ma Lei represent, to me, the best of Chinese culture. Ma Lei loves him as much as I do, and she really appreciated having a Chinese friend to speak with.

We made the evening into a little Christmas. Ma Lei made our Christmas dinner: Chinese-style pork ribs, chicken wings in Coca-Cola sauce, and Chinese noodles. That's not quite the American tradition, but the food was fantastic. It was Li's first home-cooked Chinese meal since last summer, and Ma Lei is a great cook, so he ate like a teenager.

We had a little Christmas gift exchange, which was a first-ever for both our Chinese family members. Ma Lei was as excited as a little girl opening her presents. Li got a lot fewer gifts, but he was very happy to be included in the family.

It was a strange and lovely family, two Americans and two Chinese celebrating American Christmas by eating a Chinese dinner and exchanging gifts made in China. I guess nothing could be more American than that.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dinner at P.F. Chang's

Dinner last night was at P.F. Chang's. Ma Lei kept asking "where are the Chinese people?" There were none: not on the staff, not in the kitchen, and certainly not eating there.

We ordered Mahi Mahi, a broccoli/chicken stir-fry, and an eggplant dish, along with a side of fried green beans and two starters: crunchy lettuce rolls, and something called fiery wontons. It all looked lovely, but none of it got Ma Lei's approval. The eggplant was approximating tolerable, but everything else was at perhaps the McDonald's level in her eyes. I understood her criticism, but to me the food was okay.

My mom had called ahead to tell them that this was Ma Lei's first meal in America, so we got a bit of royal treatment. Two managers came over to welcome her to the restaurant and ask how the food was. She was polite, if not truthful.

The first manager said "Welcome to America! That's 'nin hao,' right?" That's not quite right, but he was close enough to elicit a friendly laugh from Ma Lei. ("Nin hao" is "hello." "Welcome" is "huangying.") After he'd left, Ma Lei laughed about the manager of a Chinese restaurant barely knowing how to say "hello" in Mandarin.

The managers comped us a free dessert of coconut ice cream with fried bananas and other mixed fruit. Ma Lei correctly predicted that this would taste good, since it wasn't Chinese food. She wondered aloud why they didn't comp the whole meal. I suspect if word got out they'd done that, tomorrow evening everybody with a yellow face in Chicago would be lining up with fake Chinese accents to collect their free meal!

Ma Lei has a way of being bluntly honest yet gracious about her disapproval. She kept saying (in Chinese) "this is terrible," then (in English) "Sorry! Sorry!" with a big apologetic smile. As we left the restaurant, though, she suggested that she'd rather stick with American food while she's in America.

First impression of America

After cleaning up from that long flight, we went to the famous Woodfield Mall. On the drive, Ma Lei's face was glued to the window like one of those old Garfield stuffed dolls with suction cups on its feet.

She was amazed at the traffic, at how orderly it was and how few cars there were for such beautiful roads. (Don't worry, she'll see plenty of horrible traffic and horrible roads soon enough.)

She was dazzled by the Christmas lights everywhere, and how much prettier they are than the Christmas decorations we have in China. She kept saying "Santa Claus! Santa Claus!" like an excited little girl.

She was intrigued by the houses in this middle-class area. Little old brick houses, sturdy but in no way impressive, amazed her. China doesn't have many nice little single-family homes like that, with a yard and a garage for everyone. "I thought those were only in fairy tales," she said.

She loved seeing the places that China does have (such as McDonald's) and the many that China doesn't. The giant stores (Dick's Sporting Goods, Von Maur department store) impressed her, but she's just as curious to see what KFC is like in America.

She was even amazed at the car we were in (which would be too expensive for a middle-class person in China), and at the mere fact of being driven around an American city by an American woman. "I've only seen that before in movies," she said, "and now here I am."

Flying Japan vs. America

The difference between our China-Tokyo flight and our Tokyo-Chicago one was obvious immediately when we boarded in Tokyo. This plane (an American Airlines mega-jet) was obviously a little long in the tooth, the seats not nearly as modern and comfortable.

The flight attendants, while friendly enough, were far less attentive than the Japan Air Lines women had been. Ma Lei asked why they were so old and unattractive, whereas Asian-based airlines all have young, beautiful flight attendance. "Probably," she said, "the Americans don't pay enough to get pretty girls to apply."

My Chinese isn't really good enough to explain that it's illegal to discriminate against the fat and ugly in an American company, but I think she understood what I was trying to say. It took a couple of tries, though, because that concept is so foreign to a Chinese mind. In this particular instance, I'm with China!

Then the babies started crying, then shouting, then howling, as babies inevitably do on miserably long flights. Ma Lei was first annoyed that someone would bring a small baby onto a plane — Chinese people seldom do that — then wondered why those parents don't smack them for crying — the Chinese often do that. At one point there were three babies wailing a syncopated reggae beat with voices like fighting cats.

There was very little sleep had by poor Ma Lei. She's never before been on an international flight, and was not prepared for the rigors of 11+ hours in one plane. She perked up as soon as we landed, but she's due for a good long sleep now!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Ma Lei's American adventure begins

An image of a yangguizi — foreign devil
Greetings from Tokyo!

I suppose I can add another country to my list of places I've set foot, though a stop at the airport doesn't really constitute much of a visit. It's Ma Lei's first time outside China, though, so setting foot even on the kind of universal no-man's-land which is the International Terminal of any major airport has a little more significance.

Ma Lei has been extremely nervous about every part of this trip, the planning for which began six weeks ago, in early November. Sure, she's excited about it, but she's also frightened, and nervous, and anxious about any of the myriad things that can go wrong when traveling. China has an especially long history of seeing itself as the only place where civilized people exist, where civilized people can be safe, and where anyone can be trusted. The outside world has only in the past 100 years or so (and inconsistently even then) been seen as anything other than tribute payments for China's emperor and tales of giant, hairy, foul-smelling, beak-nosed monsters known as yangguizi — foreign devils.

Of course, Ma Lei doesn't see me, my family, or Americans in general as devils, but we are foreign in the extreme, and thus venturing out into a world surrounded by us, created by us, operating by our rules and in our language, was bound to be anxiety-ridden. I don't think I would understand her feelings nearly as well — since Americans after all are blithely confident that our rules will apply anywhere in the world — except that my adventure in Shanhaiguan two months after I'd arrived in China proved very dramatically that this is not the case.

The fears were varied, and most passed quickly, as the momentary stand-in for a generalized anxiety is wont to do. Her visa would be denied. She would be turned away by the Customs official at the border. She would get sick in America. My family would hate her. She wouldn't be able to communicate with her family. She would starve to death because the food would be terrible. (This last one persisted, spurred by reports from not-too-adventurous Chinese people who swore that all food in America is terrible.) The ticket agent in Dalian as we checked in for our first connecting flight, to Tokyo, added yet another one by asking if Ma Lei had a Japanese visa.

The first anxiety attack I was able to sign on to came toward the end of that first flight, when there was a weather delay that forced us into a circling queue north of a nasty storm in Tokyo. At one point, the pilot told us that in cas
e they couldn't get clearance to land within 20 minutes, they were going to have to put in at Tokyo's other airport, which would have done who-knows-what for our ability to get to Chicago. 

About two minutes later we got our clearance, and as I write this we're sitting at the departure gate. 

As soon as we landed, we had an instant role reversal: for the first time I was Ma Lei's translator and shepherd, rather than the other way around.

It's always such a shock when one gets out of China. The clothes are so much better (and more varied), the hair colors and styles are so different, the girls dress like adult (and sexy) women, not like schoolgirls clinging to childhood. And on the flip side, no one pays any attention to me.

Another thing — public bathrooms with toilets. and PAPER! and SOAP!!! And Western-style toilets, rather than a hole in the floor that you squat over.

Then there's that strange little button on the side of the toilet, with a graphic of a pair of buttocks and a spray of water, which does something too bizarre for words.

This was all a double shock for Ma Lei, who comes from a country in which everything, and everyone, is squeezed by design into the same identical mold. For a less-independent person, I can imagine it would be frightening in the extreme. Ma Lei, though, has the curiosity of someone with utter confidence in herself, her own resourcefulness, and my trustworthiness to take care of her.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Cross-cultural communications

Once in a while I have students in the Support Center who want to talk about the differences between America and China. When dealing with students I try to be circumspect about those areas where I disapprove of Chinese culture, and to emphasize those areas which I love and respect. I don't think it's right for a foreign professor to come to China and dump anti-China propaganda on the students of this country. However, sometimes the cultural conflict becomes unavoidable, even if it's not exactly discussed overtly.

Yesterday, a student named Keren came in to talk about opportunities to study in America for her Ph.D. After we'd discussed the various options, how she needed to prepare, and so on, she wanted to discuss some of the cultural differences she would need to prepare for.

We talked about individualism versus collectivism in the education systems, and the broader range of choice available to American students. She lamented the fact that our university doesn't allow her to take liberal arts classes (though they've got plenty of "Marxist philosophy" thrown at them).

Chinese people, though, are steeped in the art of balancing, and the supposed benefits of collectivism are cemented in their minds, so she went on to say "I think Western individualism has some negative consequences."

Now I should note something about Chinese conversational dynamics. The Chinese are taught never to assert something without qualification. Rather, they raise "both sides" of the issue. Often they lead with what they don't believe, then follow with what they actually do.

Sometimes when dealing with foreigners, Chinese people who don't actually agree with the Party line will nonetheless present as established truths things that are shockingly offensive to the other side, but with that same "I see both sides" mentality. This might be a trap, or it might be an invitation from a student who wants to hear the official dogma debunked. It's often very hard to tell the difference until after you're in the fryer.

It's hard to know what to do in these cases, because I don't want to trash China, and I don't want to trash Chinese culture. Yet I also don't want to be neutral with regard to demonstrably false, propaganda-driven full-frontal assaults on Western culture. So I typically try to use a kind of intellectual judo.

Keren raised the usual arguments, though with a more thoughtful spin because she reads the BBC news. (That's very rare, for a Chinese student.)

First, she talked about violence in America. That's obviously a very real problem, though nowhere near as ubiquitous as the Chinese think it is. I pointed out to her that the US has a free press that loves to talk about every case of violence, whereas the Chinese press cannot do so. I told her that I have personally seen more violence in China than I ever did in America. I pointed out that certain whole categories of violence, such as domestic abuse, are accepted in China but punished in America. (I also mentioned that America is only 30-40 years ahead of China in this regard, since such things used to be tolerated in my country, too.) I told her she'll have to be careful in America, because there are dangerous places, but overall it's not an unsafe place. She nodded intently.

Then she raised the other big one I hear frequently: Americans don't care about their families as much as Chinese people do.

This is a classic case of what Ayn Rand termed a "frozen abstraction" — i.e., a concept or principle that is arbitrarily reduced to only certain of its proper referents, freezing out all other essentially similar instances. The Chinese (most of them) do, indeed, love their families, a love they express through Confucian obedience to their parents well into adulthood. While the extremes of parental rule are in the past, parents still exercise control or at least veto power over such crucial life decisions as a student's major in university, career, and choice of marital partner.

I find this line of discussion especially offensive, because I happen to come from a large and loving family. Of course I don't obey my parents — they wouldn't want me to — but I sure as heck love and respect them, and I consult with them on every important decision.

And if you want to see a family that loves each other, look to my uncle Charles's family, based in the Dallas area. His kids (four of them) and grandkids (six) do everything they can together, they squabble sometimes, and they take care of each other in times of need. Most of all, though, they love each other. At a holiday gathering, it's quite normal for 20-30 people from all reaches of the family to descend upon one house for an all-day party.

So there's a big part of me that bristles every time a Chinese person tells me that — just because we don't allow our parents to dictate every major decision of our lives — Americans don't love our families as much as Chinese people do. In fact, one could make a case that American parents love their children more than Chinese do, since they respect us to make our own decisions on crucial life issues.

One could make that case, but I don't, because I think that, too, would be a frozen abstraction. To love is to value, and valuing is conditioned by one's philosophical understanding of what values are. To the Chinese, with a collectivist and philosophically risk-averse view of values, it seems perfectly loving for parents to order their child not to major in philosophy, not to marry a man from a poor family, not to move overseas, etc.

At this point in my conversation with the student, I made a major pedagogical mistake. In making the point that Westerners see respecting their children's choices as a form of demonstrating love for them, I chose a horrible, horrible example.

A Chinese acquaintance of mine, I said, was in love with an English man who treated her very kindly, spoke fluent Mandarin, and planned to spend the rest of his life in China; but her parents insisted that she must not marry a foreigner, so they broke up. While this wasa perfect case in point, and it should be a great example for a young woman who (by definition, in China) is seeking storybook love (and who almost certainly adores Romeo and Juliet, which they've all read in Chinese), it led to a catastrophe ten minutes later in the conversation.

The signs of trouble should have been immediate. Rather than put herself in the young woman's shoes and bemoaning the parents' orders, as I had expected her to do, the student asserted that this girl's parents were right. "Foreigners and Chinese probably should not get married," she said. "They will not understand each other, and will fight too much. Chinese should only marry Chinese."

The student probably doesn't exactly believe this. Almost all ideas are provisional, in the minds of most Chinese students (with the possible exceptions of the hatred of Japan and the love of China and of money). Unlike America's young hotheads, Chinese youth are prone to put forward ideas they don't fully accept or endorse, then back away from them as warranted by experience or expediency.

Whereas American teens are like cable-news firebrands, Chinese youths are like centrist politicians. They have tendencies, they have interests, they have passions, but they don't have convictions. Whereas Western youths are prone to — as Plato said — nip and tear at arguments like puppies, Chinese youths are more likely to play chess with them. If one argument, like one chess piece, gets "taken," they'll modify their stance and continue playing the game.

With that in mind, I did not start a new argument on the subject of dating foreigners. I did not challenge her on the potentially soul-crushing consequences when parents make decisions that are inappropriate for their children. Instead, I made a friendly tactical retreat, granting her that parents often have better judgment than young people do, but "Americans think" that the final decision should belong with the person whose life is at stake.

If American parents hate the guy their daughter is dating, I told her, the last thing they'll do is to tell her so. Telling her not to date that guy would virtually guarantee that she'll run off to Vegas and marry the bastard. I made the shocking suggestion that, in this respect, American parents are more socially subtle than Chinese parents. That got her attention for a moment, and her eyes, which had been avoiding mine ever since the potentially divisive topics had started to come up, suddenly latched on mine for a second.

A few minutes later, I used my wife's family as an example for some point I was making. Then the student asked the fatal question: "Is your wife American?"

In all innocence I told her no, my wife is Chinese. It literally didn't occur to me that this was a problem until after I'd said it.

Suddenly, the student's face went blank. Her eyes got huge and round, and she quickly stammered something off-topic. She thanked me for the help, packed her bag, and fled the support center as quickly as she could.

It's sad, because I think this student felt terribly ashamed, but she had no need to. I wasn't personally offended at her comment, and indeed I agree that most cross-cultural marriages are highly problematic. Now, though, she likely will not return to the Support Center for the help she needs in order to prepare for study abroad. She may end up paying thousands of dollars to some agency that won't give her as good advice as I could give her for free, and she may end up feeling that talking with foreigners is fraught with social danger.

Later that evening, as we dined on wonton soup and lamb kebabs, I told Ma Lei about my encounter with the student. She nodded with a mock-serious face and told me "The student was right. Chinese women shouldn't marry yangguizi (foreign devils)." Then she punched me in the arm, and we caught a taxi to go home and walk the little dogs.