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Concerns Concerns
by Vieno Vehko
2012-10-20 11:15:31
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I have been coming to China since 2000. From 2005-2008 I lived and worked in north China; two years in XX, my current residence, and one year in Beijing. Since I came back to China in late August, I have seen and experienced many things that have indicated how much the country has changed. My expectations have been lowered to a great extent. Yet I do not blame the Chinese people at large. Rather, I feel that two things have negatively affected what I perceived as traditional and hospitable Chinese life: the first concerns demographics; the second concerns economics.

Although the one child policy has been in effect for many years, China appears to be more and more crowded to me. I am an outsider; I come from a rural area in my home country, where highways are empty most of the time and supermarkets are rarely bustling with activity. I've lived in XX and experienced large Chinese cities; Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Tian Jin, Dalian, Wuhan. But XX these days, since I returned in late August, seems like it is stuffed to the gills. The main reason for this is the cars. Smaller two tier cities do not yet have the regulations that monitor who can drive on which days, according to license plate numbers. So the entire city is jam packed with cars. Most of the drivers appear to be totally unfamiliar with driving rules, although I'm told the driving qualification is long and expensive. Those that can drive often steer with impunity, going up on sidewalks, scattering pedestrians like fleeing chickens, driving on the wrong side of the street, driving on the bicycle pathways, and even ploughing up onto the tiled sidewalks when things come to an impasse on the main road. If you are on foot or on bike when the periodic, daily madness ensues (about 3 times a day for 2 hours each time), be warned: Your life is at stake.

My Chinese tutor tells me that it is especially dangerous to be outside after 8PM, when drinking and driving merge into a new form of population control. Or during the long national holidays; ditto on your securing your life. Last week I witnessed an accident: A taxi hit an 18 year old student. The driver got out and inspected his car; he paid no attention to the student. The student got up - he had been knocked off his bike onto the pavement - and he simply brushed off his pants, then rode away. The driver yelled: "Stupid!" after him. I witnessed that accident. It was the driver who swerved into the bike, onto the bike path! The scary thing was the the student did not seem upset or angry at the taxi driver.

So cars make the city seem more crowded. Are there more people? It's like a fat lady who wears three layers to protect herself against the winter cold. How fat, actually, is she? In China, statistics are not what could be termed as reliable. The government puts its best foot forward, regardless of reality. But regarding the issue of crowding, I have been fortunate enough this year and in past years to visit schools of all levels - from kindergarten to university, and my first, and lasting impression, is that these schools are like sardine cans. They are packed to the gills with little Chinese bodies.

Take, for example, the middle school here I often visit. This school, a showcase institution, has 60 to 65 students in each class. The children rotate their desks once a week or so, to ensure that at least once a year they can see the front of the room. (It is commonly known that teachers place students according to whose mother has given them a red envelope with a small - or large - cash gift). These teachers lecture at the group, rarely singling out a child, and the children, when eager and excited, try to get the teacher's attention, by frantically raising their arms, waving their hands like flapping wings, and/or screaming out: 'Teacher, teacher, choose me!' It is heartbreaking to watch, as so few ever get a moment of glory, the chance to stand and recite.

As an educator, I also see that this style of teaching cannot accommodate everyone. There is no talk of Gardner's 7 or 8 styles of learning; there is no kinetic activity, other than the children's frantic waving. Good teachers, however, may use their hands, modulate their voices, and even smile, with a few deigning to say "hen hao" (good job) to a child's response. But in general I perceive the teaching style as what I term the military barnyard.

Military in the sense that everything is organized in units - group of students, with tight, soldierly discipline. Children wear uniforms, they salute, they chant, they sing - in unison. They stand and greet their superiors, sit when told to sit, receive punishment in stoic silence, and study as one, flowing, ambivalent mass of human life. They act as a group, because there are simply too many to allow a few to become individuals. No wonder western educators lament the creativity, the spontaneity, of the Chinese immigrant child! She has never experienced this.

Moreover, with the masses of students comes a massive sense of competition. It is real, cruel, and drives students and their parents, from the early years of schooling throughout high school, to push the child to her limits. Gone are the afternoons in the park, cooing at birds; gone is sitting on granny's lap and getting one's hair plaited. Instead, books and tutors are shoved into preschooler's tiny hands, and those in middle school carry book bags that would cause me permanent back injury. You either do better than the others, and oh, are there so many others, or you fall behind. "Do you want your child to sell fruit?" asked one mother to me, justifying her child's incredible study schedule. 

Which brings me to the economic situation here in China. I want to discuss two things: how it affects me as an outsider, and how it affects the Chinese. As a foreigner, I early on strove to understand something about the Chinese concept of 'guan xi' - the relationships that are so important here, that are needed to get things done and to have a better life. Western people see guan xi as corruption, but it is much more complicated than that. In fact, the positive aspects of this concept have to do with building relationships of trust and mutual aid among people in various strata of society. I thought, too, that I could cultivate some guan xi, and by doing this I would have more security, both physical and mental.

Was I ever wrong! First, as a foreigner, especially one who comes and goes (but I do visit regularly, I argued to myself), I will never have guan xi. People see me as a transient. Why invest in a transient? Instead, the Chinese mind says: Just try to take advantage of this person, because, as a fleeting person in your life, this person has little merit and does not deserve your respect, nor can she hurt you, because she is not here long. This was the lesson I learned by going to the tailor.

Little did I know that I had no guan xi; in fact, I believed the opposite. I had been taking my things to this neighborhood tailor, a man with a heavy Shanxi accent, since 2005. He had hemmed my jeans, repaired a few wear and tears, and even helped me alter a lovely gown. I'd visited his shop for 2 years, then brought things for him to repair on my annual trips top China. But this year, coming back again for 2 years, I had brought him 5 items to repair. Minor stuff; some hemming, two skirts to take in, and an alteration.

At first, it puzzled me that he would not state a price. Then it bothered me when he said, after 3 weeks, that my items were not yet ready. After the National Holiday I came to his shop and asked again. "Come tomorrow, we had holiday," he said, smirking. So I arrived the next day. He had 'just' finished my skirt. When I tried it on, it was far too tight for those hips of mine. I complained. He retorted that it was 'just right.' I held my ground and he finally agreed to fix it, but refused to allow me to try it on a second time. Then he presented the bill: 150RMB.

Now I felt very uncomfortable. This man knew me; I knew him and trusted him, but even a retarded monkey knew the bill was 100% too high. We had never bargained before. I told him 'you are killing me' and finally got him down to 100RMB. But when I got home, I found the two skirts both too tight, and the dress altered in such a shoddy way that it is not fit to wear. My feelings more than my pocketbook were hurt.

I do not know for sure, but I attribute the tailor's mentality to the economics of today. Prices started rising everywhere in China in 2008; the salaries have not risen in parallel. Instead of treating me as an old, regular client, this man treated me as someone to fleece. If my theory is correct, this means that many Chinese, from rinky dink tailors, to hot shot budding multimillionaires, are doing the same to foreigners everywhere. Why else would Bo Xiao Lai's wife have the guts to kill off that Englishman, her so-called business partner? He was just a foreigner, after all, just a transient.

Of course, this does not mean that the Chinese only mistreat foreigners. Or that all Chinese mistreat foreigners. It just seems to be a signal of the tighter economic times. You deny the outsiders, you cheat the barbarians, and think nothing of it. LIfe is tough, they are not part of your guan xi network; they come from a different economy, a better lifestyle, supposedly. And they are here, eating and infecting and exploiting your good Chinese life. So cheat them, wash your hands, and forget about it. That's what my tailor did. And me? What can I do? I can write this story and tell you about a tailor in a provincial city, an everyman Chinese, who reflects his city, his culture, his economy.

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Emanuel Paparella2012-10-20 19:35:10
I may be wrong here, but what is being described in the anecdote of the Chinese taylor is not so much traditional Chinese culture but Western Savage Capitalism otherwise known as "social darwinism" or the Ayn Rand philosophy of "the virtue of selfishness." That was exported to China via cultural imperialism, be it the old colonizing kind or the new capitalistic kind. Communism too is an export from the West. Perhaps Confucius and other Chinese sages ought to be dusted off and read and appreciated once again?

Leah Sellers2012-10-21 07:28:11
Dear Sister Vieno and Brother Emanuel,
Both of you have just clobbered the practices of Malevolent Capitalism right on top of it's ugly, lumpy Head. Ouch !
The Tinker, the Tailor, the Candle Stick Maker...etc., are all aboard the same sinking Economic Titanic these days.
Time for a Change, me Thinks, and Stories like these told around the Globe can and will lead to the Awakening needed for that Change.
Capitalism can be a very Benevolent Entity. It just takes a lot more Internal (as well as External) Work from Humanity in the areas of Ethics and Morals.
For example, the Humans of the World could begin every Interaction and Transaction with this Thought and Intention in Mind, Heart and Soul: "Do unto Others as You would have Them Do unto You."

Eva2012-10-21 10:02:08
Really interesting reading.

ken2012-10-22 21:58:54
Fascinating. I wonder, will you go back to the tailor (i would not)? China is going to have lots of problems - they probably imagine the US is going to pay its debt. Good luck with that!

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