October 2009

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Three summers

A suitable period of mourning for its being over having passed, I can now safely mention the summer holidays without letting slip too deep a sigh. Here’s what three friends got up to:

  • Marie, home in Yunnan after a tough term – she studied up to 10 hours a day at Beida – spent about the same amount of time, almost everyday day of her much deserved break … helping her little brother prepare for his college entrance exam (the high-pressured gaokao). Did she begrudge her brother for eating her holiday like this? Was this a duty imposed on her by her parents? No and no, she says. She offered to help herself, and for something like this would have happily sacrificed more (this exam will in many respects decide her brother’s future).
  • Matilda wasn’t idle either, and used her summer more creatively: she was working on the novel which she’s been writing for some time now. It’s set in the 1940s, right at the end of the war of Resistance against Japan, mostly on university campus in Kunming – where Beida relocated to during the war. It’s a love story between a professor and his pupil … more she wouldn’t say. Nor would she tell me if this pupil who falls in love with her dashing literature professor is in any way based on herself. She did blush though.
  • William was finishing his final few months of full-time work at an online environmental magazine, before going back to school. He dropped out of university two years ago to widen his horizons, but is now going to finish the final year of his degree (he’s then thinking of aiming high and applying to graduate school at Beida), while still working part time. The cold hard reality he came to appreciate in those horizon-widening years was that to get any attractive job in China you need the record of schooling more than the work experience itself.

Well, summer is over and lately I’ve been feeling the first bite of winter in the Beijing air. Isn’t this still autumn? Not for the first time, and not for the last, I wish humans hibernated.

In California last summer, on the train from Palo Alto to Berkeley, I met a graduate student from Taiwan who was in the US in a summer camp organised by Stanford University, bringing students from Taiwan and Japan over to the states for English and ‘American culture’ lessons.

It was her fourth time in the states, and I was interested in her research project for the camp: the stereotypes of Asians in the US, and how those differed between East Asians and American Asians. Well-worn ground, but I was curious what a young Chinese would make of it.

So I got her email just in time before my stop (if you’re bringing your bike on the Caltrain with you, you can forget where your bike lock key is, or which stop is yours, but not both) and here is the fruit of her labour, which I’ve edited for its English and for length. One interesting bit – besides the two lists of words – is her assumption that there has to be a stereotype (because there is in movies?) and her surprise at the by and large positive words her interviewees used to describe Asians with (to her face, so of course they were positive!).

More out of embarrassment at her essay than anything else I sense, she asks to remain anonymous (again, aargh).


The stereotype of Asians from Americans’ perspectives

Imagine you go to another country whose culture you are not familiar with, how would you feel if the people there have already developed some stereotypes about you? Most international students who come from Asia to the United States for higher education pursue science or engineering degrees. Most of the time, they are stereotyped as “good at solving math problems but probably poor at English”. Although some Americans don’t show this attitude directly, their behaviors still reveal that “East Asians tend to be more obedient”. Also, in American movies or sitcoms, Asians often play characters who know Chinese martial arts. Even in 2008, Batman: The Dark Knight, the director shaped a Chinese, Lau, as a greedy businessman. You can also see these kinds of characters in Jackie Chan’s movies.

My hypothesis is that Americans still have stereotypes about Asians. Therefore, I conducted a survey, asking twenty participants to fill in my questionnaire about their views of East Asians and American Asians. The participants were from downtown Palo Alto and Stanford University. They are mostly under twenty five years old, and have at least a high school degree.

[I’m skipping the first section of her survey results, as it’s all obvious and a bit GCSE. In brief: participants responded they form ideas about East Asians from personal encounters much more than from media, TV or films; they mostly consider Asian American culture as distinct from mainstream American culture; and they are – unsurprisingly – more familiar with Asian American culture than East Asian culture. What’s below is more telling I think.]

Survey question number ten asked Americans to give some words to describe East Asians. Since it is an open-ended question, we got diverse words. I will list all the words here to give you a general picture of how they think about East Asians: hard-working, intelligent, submissive, ground-minded, family-oriented, community-oriented, discipline, thrifty, honest, fast, multi-culture, naïve, traditional, honorable, proud, humble, cultural, friendly, smart, polite, adhere to rules, homogeneous, outgoing, calm, enlightened, serene, enthusiastic, driven, well-manned, stick with their own people, nice, like to study, dedicated, foreign, immigrant, humble, educationally driven, hospitable.

Question number eleven asked Americans to give words to describe Asian Americans. The words they used included: like to study, sometimes socially awkward, ambitious, computer-using, smart, innovative, striving, respectful, educated, sensitive, confused, friendly, intelligent, family is important, assimilated, outgoing, calm, enlightened, serene, willing to help, adaptable, perfectionist, aware, accepting, independent.

During the survey, Americans tended to refuse to use negative words to describe Asian Americans, maybe they are afraid that they will stereotype Asian Americans, and some actually only wrote none or “They are Americans”. It’s interesting to see that they tend to use positive words in the open-ended question. All the more negative adjectives are original suggestions from my questionnaire. Maybe Americans find it hard to put their thoughts into words, and they just feel that Asian Americans are the same as them. We still need more data to find out.

I also interviewed four Asian Americans (all Stanford University students) about their personal experiences of being stereotyped. Over all, most of them talked about being stereotyped as good at maths and science. Two of them majored in were social sciences, so they actually said that they were not that talented at maths. Since the school’s peers and teachers expected them to be good at maths and science, it added more pressure to choose those subjects. Luckily, now they are studying what they really like now.

Happy Mooncake day all … how fast these festivals come and go. The PRC’s 60th birthday was only two days ago and already the nation has moved onto the excessive gifting of odd-tasting pastry. There’s probably a relevant Chinese saying which I could quote here – but I won’t.

On national day, I took a morning bus  (on gloriously empty streets) to Peking University or ‘Beida’ to watch the televised celebrations with students. If you’re after the parade itself, have a look at this wonderful 4 minute time-lapse and slow-mo version by Dan Chung of the Guardian.

As a Brit I have a inborn loathing of jingoism, which was rife in the parade itself. Patriotism is OK, however, and it was this that the Beida students were displaying – more than I had ever seen them show, including in the aftermath of a successful Olympics (the ping pong was all in Beida’s gym).

Below I’ll split up what I witnessed into a few liberally captioned photos. First, I asked each of the six characters I follow on this blog what they were doing and how they felt on this big day (as we know, any number like ‘6’ or 60′ is auspicious in China, so this national day was particulary special).

Tony … was watching the parade with me. He’d been one of the school kids in the 1999 fifty year anniversary parade, and seemed a little cynical of the eerily similar pomp and circumstance this time around. As ever he took pleasure in pointing out the politically significant bits, like how outside the limelight Xi Jinping was in the whole affair – a potential sign of his guessed-at leadership of China from 2012 being postponed, possibly forever.

Leonidas … got into Beida’s auditorium for the showing there (more below). When I then met up with him for noodles, he was clutching a Chinese flag and said he was almost moved to tears by the parade. This from a guy who’s head, in my experience, generally tends to be off in the clouds of classical Chinese literature more than it is on the ground of contemporary China.

Marie … was watching the internet stream in her dorm with her flatmates – one of whom was still sleeping from all the homework she was up late last night doing, even in this week-long national holiday. Earlier, I’d read a corny line in a Chinese paper: “today is your birthday too”. I’d sent Marie a text jokingly asking if this was true. I felt bad at my whimsy when she seriously replied “yes, today is also like my birthday”.

Matilda … was at a friend’s wedding, who’d evidently chosen this day as a lucky one to start a marriage on (modern China: unified until death do us part?). She texted me: “China is five thousand years old, new China is sixty years old. Let’s together wish new China prosperity!”

William … reinforced the message: “today is new China’s birthday”. New China (xin zhongguo) is a term much bandied about, claimed by the May Fourth movement as well as Sun Yatsen or the CCP (potentially by the reform and opening up era too). Normally, I’m never quite sure ‘new China’ is whose. Today, for young Chinese, new China was all Hu’s.

[groan] And finally,

Ben … was sleeping in, but with the TV on in the background.

Now for the day itself:

This guy far-right had sold forty or so flags by 9am. Behind them, Beida students line up for the screening of the parade on the big cinema screen in campus. They’d got their free tickets three days ago by queuing for (hear-say alert!) nearly 2km. Leonidas told me all of the students at this screening  stood up to give Hu Jintao an ovation.

Tony and I most certainly did not queue for 2km, and so we watched the event in a neighbouring canteen – on a decidedly inferior screen with a fuzzy top-left panel which made Jiang Zemin look like a gremlin. There was a big laugh when Hu smiled upon seeing the troupe of female soldiers in high red skirts goose-step by. I got the impression here that most students were enjoying the fun of a big parade more than being overwhelmed with love of their country. And when the canteen started serving food – an hour before the parade was over – everyone was suddenly much more interested in lunch.

Zhongguo jiayou! Go China! If this were England, by the way, this picture could only mean one thing: these students had been watching a football or rugby game, not a military parade.

A contingent of Beida students took part in the parade, wafting symbolic pink wind fans (you can see them at 3:10 in the video I link to near the top of this post). Here they are, having been shipped back to their campus by giant buses, still pumped – despite having got out of bed at 2:30am to head down to Tiananmen square, and after a summer of compulsory training sessions two or three times a week.

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