Mark Kitto wrote a challenging piece in Prospect Magazine recently that highlighted a few realities about life in China today. Not least was the issue bound up in the title of his article: “You’ll Never Be Chinese”.
Now, Mark, as he explains, was never trying to don the cap and gown, or learn to spit in places that really should never be spat in. What he did want to do, however, was build and live a life in China with his family, and live it “normally”. This seemed to mean to him a life where wealth and status, and the “Great China” narrative didn’t infect all forms of social interaction, all business opportunities, and all educational institutions. It also meant a life lived with the laws of the land applying equally to all, no matter their background.
Mark’s discussion does not, though, simply orientate around his own personal experiences but attempts to outline a few worries he has about Chinese society generally. His views are particularly noteworthy given that his love affair with China – nearly 25 years in the making – has, in his own words, now died. You can read his article to get a much clearer and more nuanced sense of his experiences and where he is coming from.
I will briefly note a couple of my own thoughts on Mark’s basic premise: that one will never be Chinese.
First, it seems to me that the sooner one acknowledges to oneself this reality the better. No matter how long we foreigners stay in China, we will always be perceived – by a majority – as coming from outside and treated as a visitor. If we can assimilate this fact it into an “it is what it is” worldview, then we should be able to go on with a “normal” life, quite happily. In this way, we will be more equipped to bear the ubiquitous reminders of the fact that we are “not from around here” without high levels of surprise or frustration, disappointment or anger.
I remember quite early on in my time in Xi’an becoming very conscious of having this feeling: that no matter how long I lived here, how much I did here, or how well I spoke Chinese, I would always be the alien, the “not from around here” guy, even if I felt happily at home. And, that feeling hasn’t changed. It may turn out that one day I have a more subtle appreciation of ancient Chinese philosophy than some, use chopsticks with the dexterity and precision that many can only dream of, and I may even be able to speak Putonghua better than a fair few; but it won’t matter. I will always be to many the “where do you come from, how long have you lived here, wow, you can use kuaizi” guy, who can be easily disparaged with a quick laowai quip.
Second, this is – even if I do basically understand it and even if I do keep in mind the many advantages that non-Chinese do gain from living here – somewhat of a sad reality. And certainly is, in part, an indictment of the view which exists amongst many Chinese, that there is a distinct division between the autochthonous* Chinese-self (an obviously wholly contestable phenomenon) and “the other”: the non-Chinese/ the outsider/ the foreigner. It is also a stark reminder that pluralism – in all its various guises – is still a long way from penetrating Chinese social and political life, with a tendency towards rabid defensiveness and rampant nationalism existing not far from the surface of any dispute with non- ‘Chinese’ people.
This latter theme – of limited pluralism and rife nationalism – I will continue in a subsequent Note, particularly in relation to ‘The China Story’ site, and New Sinology; a term and academic approach espoused by the site’s founder, Professor Geremie Barmé.** We must hope that those, like Barmé, who continuously engage with the Chinese are able to help work on the edges of some of these perceptions, attitudes and behaviors, and the processes through which they are formed. So, we can, in the long-term, engage each other with a greater sense of empathy and respect. In turn, allowing “normality” to come bound with a deeper relationship to pluralism and equality. The ‘China Story’ site, in collaboration with Danwei Media, has been – in part – set up to help this process.
*My apologies to those who are unfamiliar with the word autochthonous [ ô-tkth-ns]. I had originally used indigenous but came across autochthonous on The China Story site and liked it, even though I at first had no idea what it meant.
**Here you can listen to Geremie Barmé’s Inaugural 2011 ‘China In The World Annual Lecture’ for the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) at the Australian National University (ANU). In it he discusses New Sinology. There is also this talk – recorded at Sydney University – where he outlines his aims for the ‘The China Story’ site.