amw (amw) wrote,

it's the holidays - let's talk politics!

In 21st century China, several public holidays have been clumped together into 黄金周 (huáng jīn zhōu) or "golden weeks". What that means is although there may only be two or three official public holidays in the week, many companies are expected to shuffle around their work days to the weekend so that employees can get an uninterrupted 7 day break. The most internationally famous week is around 春节 (chūn jié) - Spring Festival - but there is a second one on 国庆节 (guó qìng jié) - National Day. This year 中秋节 (zhōng qiū jié) - Mid-Autumn Festival - is falling inside the National Day golden week, so it is a double-holiday.

A while ago lots of Chinese flags started going up along all the major roads. It surprised me, because up until now i have found China far less nationalistic than i expected. There are lots of hammer-and-sickle billboards around the place pointing out all the great things the Party is doing for the neighborhood, but there is very little nationalism in the way we understand it in the west. The closest thing are those guys playing soldier who dress in camo and have a flag patch on their shoulder, or perhaps the older folks who occasionally gather in squares to sing patriotic songs. Generally, though, i didn't get the sense many people would care about a patriotic holiday. I was right, they don't.

On Sunday i met up with F for another Buddhist brunch, then we headed up to a mountain for a small hike. She was planning to head over the bridge for the evening to watch the fireworks with the Hong Kong branch of her family. No one i spoke to knew if anything was happening in Shenzhen, and no one cared. National Day is just a good excuse for a day off. I asked one person if she felt much national pride and she said she loves China but doesn't really think she needs to march around with a flag to prove it. She said her father still watches the parades from Beijing and gets teary-eyed. But for her, for most of her friends? It's not a big deal. Maybe on the 70 year anniversary in 2019. That sort of answer is so Chinese, incidentally. "Yeah, the decade celebrations are generally more interesting. Maybe i'll go to the one in a couple years." People have a longer term thinking.

What about Mid-Autumn Festival? This is one of the traditional festivals that the Party discouraged, but in the last decade or so they have restored it as a celebration of Chinese heritage. People in the west probably know it as the mooncake festival. I guess it's closest to Chinese Thanksgiving. Everyone i have spoken to is celebrating it by getting together with family for a meal. And exchanging mooncakes, of course. The running joke is that everyone hates them, but you have to give them because that's the tradition. I tried one and it's not awful. It's somewhat pasty and cloying, like a sweet century egg. I think i prefer the other traditional festival food of pomelo.

But let's be honest. The bestest best Chinese foods are the daily staples. Here is something i discovered recently - 油泼扯面 (yóu pō chě miàn) which literally translated is oil splash pulled noodles. These noodles are - like my perennial fave 凉皮 - a dish from Shaanxi province. They are a bowl of thick, belt-like noodles with some garlic and sesame oil in the bottom, and a few good shakes of chili powder on top. Like 凉皮, every place does it a bit different. The shop close-ish to my hotel puts in bok choy, bean sprouts, peanuts and spring onions. Other places use cilantro. Side note: tons of food in China has cilantro in it. Just in case i hadn't made enough of a point about how different Chinese food in China is to Chinese food overseas. Anyway, oil splash pulled noodles, they are delicious. You need to mix it all up to coat everything in oil, then you can add more condiments if you choose. I usually spoon in some more chili paste and splash on a bit of vinegar. Good stuff.

So, this golden week i have no school because everyone is traveling home to see their families. And last week was a busy one because i jammed in classes on the weekend and started very seriously studying Chinese characters. Up until now my classes just focused on pinyin (romanization), but i spoke to my teachers and we decided it's time to start reading hanzi (characters) directly. This is particularly important if i take HSK3, which is the first level in the official Chinese proficiency test where pinyin is not included. Although i think taking standardized tests is not very helpful when learning a language, the certificate can be useful to show potential employers your commitment. And i am beginning to realize that i am going to need to speak much better Chinese if i want to get any job here that isn't English teacher. Assuming i can afford it, my new goal is to pass HSK3 by the end of the year. I will be taking HSK2 in a week or so just to get familiar with the format, though i expect to ace it since the vocab is very simple and pinyin makes everything much easier.

The job search in general is not going so great, but since this week is a holiday anyways, i am going to spend the time figuring out my budget and strategy for the rest of the year. I really would like to find a way to stay. There is way too much of China i haven't understood yet.

A few days ago i met a guy in a noodle shop who struck up a conversation with me. He was unhappy with the state of the world. He kept saying he couldn't leave China because he would miss being able to communicate precisely (tell me about it!), but he also expressed a lot of disappointment with his fellow citizens. He had grown up in a small town with a sizable gang presence. He said in school he was a nerd and the cool kids were the ones who had done time. He was grateful to escape to Shenzhen, where he became a software developer, but now he hates the materialism and wealth-obsessed culture. Eventually he switched to a job that paid less because the boss doesn't expect him to do overtime. Recently he was forced to move because he couldn't keep up with the rent hikes in his old apartment. He looked at Hong Kong as an example of a place where the government nobly provided its citizens with public housing. Never mind the fact that Hong Kong has some of the most unaffordable housing in the world. He blamed the PRC government for artificially limiting construction of public housing because they are relying on the private property boom to keep the GDP up. There is a strange group of mainland Chinese who romanticize Hong Kong when in reality it is a hideous example of capitalism run amok. I explained that unaffordable housing is a problem faced in almost every major city in the world right now.

He said he enjoyed reading about Japanese philosophy because inside was a hint of Chinese culture how it used to be. I think it was an oblique reference to how the Party tries to regulate religion and discourage superstition. I know how violently certain new religious movements have been crushed here, and it's no secret that modern China is a surveillance state, so i felt a little worried about broaching the topic in a busy restaurant, but he didn't seem the slightest bit concerned. He wasn't happy that there is no true freedom of religion on the mainland. He told me he regularly sends letters criticizing the government and although they have responded to a few he is mostly ignored. I guess you only get disappeared if you amass enough followers that your words or actions become threatening to the Party. His philosophy was that the best he could do was try to build a good life for himself and grow spiritually. I guess that's basically what we all do.

It's funny, though, contrasting those who have bought into Taiwanese and Hongkonger propaganda with those who have bought into mainland Party propaganda. Neither group is ignorant - pretty much all educated Chinese have found workarounds for the Great Firewall and poked their noses into "forbidden" materials and formed their own conclusions. I recently spoke to another young person who was also critical of house prices, but she was a registered Party member and truly believes in "socialism with Chinese characteristics".

For those of you who haven't read up on this, "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is part of the pivot that started in the late 1970s with Deng Xiaoping. The first step was to establish some free market cities (like Shenzhen) and open up to the capitalist world. Now it means everyone is free to hustle their way to wealth, as long as they bring their comrades along for the ride. The Party maintains that the current market economy is a phase that is required to help the Chinese people out of poverty. The theory goes that once China has rebuilt itself into a strong and healthy nation (which will take up to 100 years), the government will put on the brakes and establish a socialist utopia.

Anyway, one interesting thing was hearing this person speak of socialism with Chinese characteristics as comparing favorably to other so-called communist states like Cuba, Laos, Vietnam and North Korea. And the collapsed Iron Curtain states, for that matter. The argument goes that China has better adapted communism to the modern world, and its pragmatic approach has reaped rewards. Cynics would say that present-day China is basically just a heavily-regulated form of capitalism coupled with a big ol' authoritarian government, but really that's just semantics since the Party doesn't pretend otherwise. The message is that the utopia is coming, but right now we are taking necessarily market-driven steps to get there. The evidence of the past 30 years - hundreds of millions out of poverty - is certainly convincing.

I asked this Party member what she thought of Trump. She said China loves him. Although in reality some of Trump's nonsense probably annoys the Party diplomats because he's so unreliable, that's greatly outweighed by his contribution to making the rest of the world think America is run by a fucking idiot. Trump is a tremendous gift to this aspiring superpower. His greatest ability on the international stage is to make literally anyone he stands next to seem like the adult in the room. Even Kim Jong-un is coming out looking like a boss next to the dotard in the White House. China is more than happy to take over as a champion of globalization, sustainability, scientific research, poverty alleviation and so on. They still have plenty of human rights issues, but in some other areas leadership has already been ceded. America faltered during the W regime, but Trump - while not sowing hatred by killing as many people around the world as W did - comes across as far weaker. Yes, China loves Trump, for all the reasons America hates him.

This got me thinking about one of the biggest differences between the Chinese system and representative democracy, and that is the (theoretically) meritocratic structure of the Party. The way it works is that you might join the Party as a young person. Applications are limited and approved based on level of education or industry experience. You can then choose to get into leadership or just remain a voting member. If you get into leadership, your first gig will probably be in some ass-end village. Over the years you work your way up through various rural and small town gigs until you get to work in a big city or provincial capital. The idea is that only the smartest, most successful and least corrupt politicians make their way to national office. In reality there is plenty of nepotism and corruption to go round, and the vast majority of leadership positions are filled by men, but the theory is sound. China will never have a celebrity or anyone without significant education and political experience heading up their nation. Locals who buy the Party propaganda are proud of this system and honestly consider it better than what we have in the west.

Then again, behind the scenes it is some kind of House of Cards shit. A friend told me about Bo Xilai, a charismatic and popular left-leaning leader in Chongqing who seemed to be in line for promotion to the top. He got wiped out by allegations of corruption. Cynics think it was because he was a threat to right-leaning Xi Jinping. This was a few years ago, but my friend was still a bit sad over it. She didn't seem as upset about Sun Zhengcai - also a rising star whose sympathies leaned toward rural Chinese - getting flushed a few days ago. For now she believes the Party line: anyone who got expelled for corruption was corrupt, and anyone who didn't (including Xi) is clean. I didn't ask her what she thinks will happen in the upcoming National Congress. Even the top Sinologists don't really know. Deals will be made, backs will be scratched, some new leadership group will appear, and depending on the makeup of that group it may give an indication as to who Xi will groom as his successor or whether he will even retire at all in 5 years, as tradition dictates. It's all pretty fascinating.

Meanwhile, when i talk to working class folks, they don't have the slightest idea of what is going on in the Party. Why should they care? The political machine has little to no impact on their lives. Like most people in Shenzhen, their parents still live in a village, but they weren't lucky enough to have had older siblings or an extended family member who sent home the cash to put them through higher education. Or maybe they just didn't want to go because they weren't big on academic achievement. These are the ones who think that the stereotype of Chinese being great at mathematics is a hilarious joke. They also tend to be the most hungry to improve their English because speaking English will lead them to better job opportunities.

A dream shared by almost everyone i talk to is to is overseas travel. Obviously i am speaking to a self-selected group of Chinese willing to speak to a foreigner, but still. Just like in the west, traveling represents freedom from the predestined life path of marriage, house, kids and so on. If only for a short while. The less affluent know they may never be able to venture further afield than Thailand. "The only reason people from the west think all Chinese are rich and smart is because western governments only let rich and smart Chinese in. But we let everyone in. We even give them jobs."

Of course they are referring to English teachers. When i confronted a friend about how i am not oblivious to the fact that there is a bit of resentment toward unskilled laowai coming in and scoring extremely well-paid teaching positions, i got the nervous laugh. Although it's a job that native Chinese speakers cannot do, and it's a job that lots of rich Chinese are willing to fork out big bucks for, it still seems unfair to the locals who are working twice as many hours for half the salary. Just a reminder that even though the country is no longer the toxic wastedump of the west, there is still some exploitation going on. Capitalism, fuck yeah!

And that's why i am resisting becoming an English teacher. I would rather help people improve their English by speaking to them for free at coffee shops and in bars and when we are hiking the mountain trails. If i work here, i want it to be for a job i am skilled in and not one i can get by accident of being born white and brought up in a country that granted me a desireable accent. And when either the Party skeptics or Party faithfuls hear me say that, they all respond the same: "But teaching is a most honorable profession! Teachers are in a unique position to exchange ideas and inspire their students. You would love it!" That's when i realize i have come across some common thread of Chinese culture.

Tags: china, food, politics

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