Monday, June 13, 2011

Another couple of observations about my experience in China, Or: Notes on change

The minute I spent in Yibin, China hardly counts as sufficient ground upon which to make any of the following observations. Such shan't prevent me from making them anyways, but I intend them merely as modest notes on what seems to me a slow revolution's worth of social and political change.

First, I could not but be smitten by the generosity and graciousness of my hosts. I get it that I was there as a guest, and not a tourist, but even at that the provision of an assistant/translator all my own was, well, Wow! What I came to realize too, however, was that this graciousness served a purpose well beyond guest satisfaction. It offered a strategy for shaping the narrative, for controlling the story told by the guest. Indeed, THAT I am telling a story shaped by the experience I had of that university, that city, its people, and THAT that story is itself shaped by the narrative infrastructure crafted for my experience by my hosts IS the story--in three acts: (1) my experience, (2) my reflections on HOW that experience came to be, came to have the particular content it does have, contained by the borders imposed on it, and (3) my recognition that my own experience--my comport at Yibin--itself forms part of the narrative my hosts wish to project about themselves, their university, their city, and their people.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that there's anything nefarious or "dark" about the ways in which my possible experiences were contained--even manipulated. What I am suggesting is that this effort--campaign even--to produce such a positive narrative (to plant such a meme) reflects a perhaps slow-developing, but profound, change in the ways in which one people, in this case the Chinese, see themselves in the globalized world. No longer insular, sealed off, the Other, such excellent public relations suggests a reaching out. The guest heads home with stories about the wonderful time they had. And I did--I had a wonderful time. I want to return to Yibin. And I want to return KNOWING that to some extent my very experience is permeated with precisely what they want me to see and hear, taste and feel. Why? Because as I know and my excellent hosts know as well, I'm manipulable--but not robotic. I'll experience, but I'll then think and reflect. I'll chew it all over, and then I'll tell THIS story.

There's great irony here too: In the very effort to appear more global, more cosmopolitan, more Western--indeed, in order to accomplish this very objective--the experience of the Western guest must be contained, directed, and thereby limited to a specific trajectory that tells the story, and only the story, this particular configuration of Chinese academics wants told. But of course, far more than this story is told; for example, the one I am telling right now. Are such "containment" objectives nefarious? No, certainly not. Orchestrated to a specific advertising? Sure. And perhaps not really different from what "we" do. Or rather: There's much more to be said about how impressions/experiences/attitudes are shaped and imbued for the foreign guest, but whatever more this is, it's not just about being or not being in a "free" country. No, it's about a lot more.

Second, "containing" might be one way to describe the function of my assistant/translator. I didn't go out without him, and was subtly discouraged from doing so. But "containment" isn't at all adequate; it deflates the very human quality of my young friend Shu's comport towards me. In short, he liked me, and I liked him too. I found him charming, helpful--and a kid. That is, a young man--a kid--like any young men I've known over my many years as a teacher. A young man with aspirations, worries, fears, and desires for a meaningful future. And this observation, methinks, is as important to the future of China as could be any. This too isn't just about being or not being in a "free" country; it's not just about what it means to live or not live in a democracy. There is a "more" here as ineluctable and murky as is the United States relationship with China. What I do know is that there IS such a relationship, that it IS changing, that our old stereotypes about, as the inimitable Rush Limbaugh puts it, the "Chi-Coms" are more absurd now than ever; we remain stuck in this stereotype at our own political peril.

The moral of this story: Stepping off a plane radically changes your world.

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