Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Chinese Chess

Ma Lei's mother spent the weekend with us. Saturday afternoon, she got a phone call that got her very upset. Later, Ma Lei explained it to me.

The call had been from Ma Lei's aunt, to say that her son had just split from his wife. They've got a five-year-old daughter who doesn't really have a good place to live after the divorce. The purpose of the call was to see if Ma Lei and I might be able to take in the little girl.

Me being me and, well, not too savvy about such things, my immediate thought was "okay, let's think about it." I've wanted to adopt at some point in our future anyway, and wouldn't it be better to adopt from a family member? I'm not exactly ready yet, but I'd hate to leave a little girl homeless...

Ma Lei knows me too well, or maybe my face gave me away, but she cut me off before I could even start to consider the idea. "No way," she told me, it's all a scam. Here's how it works.

If we took in the niece, we wouldn't be able to transfer her hukao (residency paperwork) to our home. The hukao is a holdover from the totalitarian communist days, and it ties you to your residence. It's not like a driver's license you can switch around from address to address; once you're registered someplace, you're welded in place. Since we rent, and who knows where we'll be living in two years, the girl's paperwork would have to be connected to Ma Lei's parents' home in the country.

That home is scheduled to be plowed under in a some two or three years, to be replaced by one of these monstrous marching high-rise suburbs that are bankrupting China. When it happens, the government will recompense the residents for their land with a per-capita cash payoff and a new apartment in town.

As soon as the cash comes, Ma Lei explained to me, the child's grandmother will find some excuse to sweep in and take the child back. And of course, since the money "belongs" to the child, she will also insist that we give her the money.

If we were to fall for the scam, we would invest two years of love, care, and expenses, only to be left with a hole in the heart. Grandmother would end up with the little girl and a big pile of money.

Fortunately, Ma Lei's mother deflected the issue. We're planning to go back to America any day now, she said, and anyway we don't speak the girl's language. (She speaks the dialect from the next province over, Shandong, which is only partially comprehensible to a speaker of the Dalian dialect.)

This sort of thing is the reason Americans get carved up by the Chinese. We look at the surface of things and taken them at face value, never dreaming there's a whole planned-out chess game going on around us. I'm lucky my Chinese family is looking out for me!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Today was Ma Lei's brother's birthday, but he didn't have much of a celebration.

He and his girlfriend had been in process of getting married, with a big wedding planned for June. He and the girlfriend planned to go today and get their wedding certificate. At the last minute, her parents renewed their demand for money — $15K, on top of the $3K they've already been given — and when Little Brother wouldn't budge, they called off the wedding.

I absolutely knew this was going to happen, way back last summer when the parents first backed down on their demand for a dowry. You may recall that they forced the couple to break up, then supposedly caved in when the daughter cried and cried.

I knew they hadn't given up, they were just biding their time until the eve of the wedding. Those crude little peasant-extortionists figured Ma Lei's family would have to cave in once the wedding had been announced and paid for, guests had been invited, and Face was to be lost.

Thankfully the family didn't back down, even though of course Little Brother is now devastated. At age 25, he thinks there's only one woman in the world for him, and now he's destined to die in miserable solitude.

Although I feel bad for Ma Xiao (Little Brother's name), I couldn't have been happier at the news. I never did like that spoiled little twit girlfriend with the big dumb grin plastered on her face. I didn't even think she was pretty, though on that front I am a minority of one. (It's possible my personal dislike for her biased my assessment.)

Anyway, I think that chapter in his life is over. At this point, if she tried to come back for a third time I don't think anyone in the family would accept her — even if Ma Xiao wanted to take her back. If her family can call off the relationship, then presumably his can, too.

Ma Lei has spent all day on the phone, speaking in harsh and angry tones with family members, friends, and the aggrieved little brother. Her Didi, normally extremely reticent, spent 67 minutes on the phone with her, alternately crying and verbally chopping the girl's family to shreds.

It's instructive to compare Ma Lei with Didi's erstwhile girlfriend. Ma Lei has always been a popular woman, but she's quick to "ma ren" — cuss somebody out — when she thinks they deserve it. She's loving and fiercely loyal to her family, yet perfectly willing to tell her own father he's crazy when she thinks he's doing something foolish.

Ma Lei's father told her flatly "you may not have a foreign boyfriend," the first time she told him about me. For most Chinese girls, that would have been the end of our relationship, but Ma Lei knew what she wanted.

She told him, "Okay, I'll break up with the foreigner, but then I'll never have another boyfriend and I'll never get married." She would've gone through with it, too, and they knew it, so they backed down. It's lucky for everyone involved that her judgment was good, her father and I became best friends, and the match was perfect for everyone.

Ma Lei has said multiple times that, if Little Brother's girlfriend had any moxie, she would've bucked her parents as Ma Lei did.

I told her that her standards are unfair: there may not be another woman in all of China who has her level of fierce independence. I went so far as to say "you think you're Chinese, but you're not. Actually, you're American." At first that made her mad, but she seemed eventually to accept it.

I hadn't wanted to post this story on a public forum, and I told Ma Lei as much. I've posted a lot of bad stuff about life in China recently, and I'm not comfortable with dumping so much on a country that I do actually love in spite of itself. So I had planned to discuss this situation only with a handful of private friends, via email. At first Ma Lei pushed for this: "You shouldn't talk about this on Facebook," she said.

But then after a while, she changed her mind. "You should tell the world about it," she said. "I want everyone to know that Chinese women are no good!"

She doesn't mean it, of course, and neither do I. Chinese women by and large are lovely people with great endurance and tragically heroic integrity. Nonetheless, there is this strain of crass, gutter materialism that cuts right across the genuine traditional virtues that someone like Ma Lei represents.

Unfortunately, Cao Dan (Didi's now ex-fiance) represents a sizable plurality of today's Chinese women. Pretty (I suppose), sweet, unfailingly smiling, useless and unproductive, capable of nothing but a big warm smile. In America, we have a word for this: Bimbo.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Just when I'm starting to get truly fed up with China and want to move out, one of my students steals my heart and makes me think I could never leave this place.

Katerina came to the Support Center a few days ago with a practice essay for her IELTS exam studies. The essay was about pandas, and the gist of it was, "pandas are very clever and lovely animals, and I love them very much." Blech!

It turns out the question asked her to describe an experience with a wild animal, but she's never had any experiences with animals. Our conversation quickly left her essay behind, and turned to her frustration with her student's life in China. She's never had the chance to do anything — experience anything — make any choices for herself.

She teared up a little (and so did I) when she told me she really wants to study Chinese history, but she isn't allowed to do it. There are no jobs in that, her father tells her, and he's spent so much money on her education that it's her responsibility to bring "glamor" to him. Or, failing that, at least a lot of money.

("He really want me to marry a rich man and bring him money from another way," she said with obvious revulsion, "but I don't like that way.")

So she's transferring to an American university next year, to study Electrical Engineering — a major she has no interest in, is almost certainly going to hate, and will likely fail out of — because her father doesn't want to "waste" his money on an impractical degree.

I told her there are jobs in America teaching Chinese history. According to an article in the *Chronicle* a couple of years ago, it's one of the few areas in US academia in which job growth is outstripping available applicants.

She has some friends who are studying in America and don't like it very much. One is having trouble with the language. Another has only Chinese friends and is too shy to talk to Americans. Another friend is having a much better time of it, because she has a Korean friend and an American friend.

Then there was this boy from her high school, who studied English so hard his classmates said his English book was his girlfriend. He's now at the University of Illinois, and she said she would like to find a university near him...

I advised her not to study something just because others expect it of her, and her face closed down a little. "Maybe I always have done because other one say to do, so maybe I can't do just for me." I told her that's fine for little girls, but she's an adult now and she should try to find a compromise that will make her father happy AND be interesting to her.

Chinese students aren't used to having counselors to help them with important academic decisions, so I wrote the words "Career Planning Center" and "History Department Advisor" in her notebook. I told her, in my best domineering Chinese voice, that she must go to both of those places as soon as she gets to her American university.

She was afraid to obey. "They won't be able to understand me," she said, but I think she was really afraid to talk to an American she doesn't know. "I understand you," I assured her, "so they can, too." I think I got through to her; but even if I didn't, I'm sure she'll be back in the Support Centre many times to bone up for her IELTS exam.

If Katerina hadn't had someone to talk to before she got to America, she might well have become yet another Chinese/American transfer student casualty. She might have gone there, been too afraid to mingle in American life, learned only enough to come back to China with vague and biased ideas about America — and never taken advantage of the opportunity to do something she has a passion for.

There's no telling what will happen to this young woman. She may end up not having the chops to make it in history, or she may not find a job. She may still end up choosing to study something that bores her. But at least she will have the opportunity to decide for herself, something China would never have given her.

An article I happened to miss, from last month. It details the many ways China's internet censorship, blockages and slowdowns hamper the Chinese economy.

The most significant part, though, is the radical difference in perspectives between the Chinese and the foreigners. It's captured near the very end, with the following quote: "Alex Miller, a China-based entrepreneur who founded a Web-TV startup called Frogo, says he supports the way the Great Firewall has helped keep out Western competitors, allowing Chinese Internet companies to develop. But blocking GitHub, he said, was a step too far."

Westerners never quite appreciate the extent to which the Chinese do not care about the outside world. Yes, they're curious (especially the young), and many envy the wealth of foreign countries, but they don't feel a pressing need for anything other than China. So when the government blocks Facebook, they say "Great! It gives us Chinese a chance to make our own." If the government slows down access to foreign websites, the Chinese will just turn to the domestic equivalents. And if there is no domestic equivalent, who cares? It probably wasn't that interesting in the first place.

We foreigners come to China thinking we have something China needs and wants. We're right about the first part, but wrong about the second.

Will Chinese dismissal of the foreign undermine the Chinese economy in the long run? It's certainly harming it, as this article demonstrates. But the Chinese have an incredible willingness to "work harder, not smarter" — i.e., to shoulder an extra burden, rather than rethink entrenched prejudices.