Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Essentially Chinese

Everywhere I look, in China, I see Americana – as Edith Wharton puts it. Americana is anything that pertains to American culture, for those of you who are not fans of Edith Wharton. Food, music, clothing, dancing, sports, pastimes, books, mannerisms, movies – these are all Americana.

McDonald’s, KFC, Papa John’s and more prominently, Pizza Hut flourish in China. Dairy Queen and Starbucks… all of these American brand restaurants are well patronized by Chinese people wearing jeans, sneakers or other sports shoes. Matter of fact, except for the patrons being Chinese, if you just looked at the clothing and the menu, you would swear that you were in fact in an American establishment. With a few minor differences, that is. For example: Pizza Hut offers a full range of menu selections including salads, entrees and desserts, not just pizza and wings and bread sticks. Nevertheless, a personal pan pizza is still a personal pan pizza: same taste, texture and toppings.

All over campus you can see kids, mostly boys, sporting NBA gear and bouncing basketballs in anticipation of getting a heated game up. When you walk The Street, rap music blares from the speakers mounted above the hair salon doorways in the hopes of attracting the young, hip crowd. Males and females walk out of the salons with their hair dyed anything from mahogany to blond. Everyone wears Western style clothing: jeans and sneakers, tee-shirts with slogans in English emblazoned on them, hoodies, and other Western dress.

The girls wear a type of cosmetic tape on their eyelids to make their eyes look more wide open and Western. Or, they opt for a type of colored contact lens that makes their eyes appear rounder and lighter, a la Betty Boop. These contact lenses have been deemed dangerous because of rampant eye infections – they are not prescribed by an eye doctor but bought at a vendor stall in the mall, and thus are not made to fit each individual eye as a normal contact lens does. Nevertheless, these girls are so crazy to appear Western they will do anything to that end, even endanger their eyesight.

My students all tell me how cool America is. It is their dream to go there, maybe to study and live, but at least to visit. They want to see everything they’ve seen in the movies: the houses, the cars, the iconic scenery like the Golden Gate Bridge and the streets of New York. They want to see the diverse population and the wide-open land, the desert and the lakes and rivers and mountains. They are enraptured with what they know about America; most think it must be heaven on Earth. I hope they do not think that cars actually transform into fighting robots and that comic book heroes stroll down the street, as per the latest crop of Hollywood fare. None have expressed that idea, so I’ve not yet had to dissuade them of that.

So you’d think, with all of these Chinese people enraptured with America, that they would automatically and enthusiastically embrace genuine American experiences, right?


The few students I’ve invited over for an all-American meal did not really like the food. It wasn’t prepared badly and it didn’t taste bad, it was just that they are not used to the taste and texture of it. Nobody left hungry, but most only sampled what I had cooked and then reverted to the more Chinese type fare that I had prepared as a cautionary backup.

When Ken came to Wuhan for his dance contest, I made it a point to take him to Aloha’s so he can sample American fare in a classic diner setting. He managed about 1/3 of his plate of nachos and said it just wasn’t sitting so well in his Chinese stomach. I am rather sympathetic, remembering all too well the party Montezuma had in my stomach upon my arrival in China. However Ken is one of the more staunch Americana touters: speaking the language, wearing the clothes, dancing the dances, drinking the liquor, seeking out foreigner friends, and yearning to walk the streets of America. His enthusiasm for Americana knows no bounds. I thought he would take it better than that. He did like steak, mashed potatoes and steamed green beans though.

Speaking of mashed potatoes. That is one of the only foods that seems to go over well all across the board. I think Chinese of all ages love mashed potatoes. You just can’t find them in any Chinese restaurant. I think that, given time, mashed potatoes will be something you will find on every Chinese menu.

As for the movies that I brought with me, that is another strikeout. China only allows about twenty foreign movies to be shown in their theaters each year, and they are carefully selected based on certain criteria. I don’t know what that criteria is. It seems the Chinese like Transformers and other shoot-‘em up type movies, but when offered something along the lines of ‘Million Dollar Baby’, it just doesn’t go over so well.

Last night I had some students stop by, looking for something to do. As it happens I was bored and wanting some action myself, so I broke out the Uno cards I had recently bought at a shop in Optics Valley. The kids’ first reaction was “I don’t know how to play” to which I countered “I will show you”. They did muster some enthusiasm for the game, and it even got fun for a while, but then Stephanie muttered longingly about mahjongg. Ah, now everyone is on the bandwagon about how fun mahjongg is and how we should be playing mahjongg.

I’m a little bit confused. These kids seem to want to walk the walk, talk the talk (that is why I have a job here), wear the clothes, dance to the music, partake of fast food restaurants, and savor the experiences, but when confronted with something quintessentially American, such as food cooked by an American or a game of Uno, they promptly revert back to being Chinese. What am I missing?

I thought that, for as much as these kids embrace all things American, when confronted with a genuine American experience or activity, they would embrace it wholeheartedly, ascribe to it and make it their own. It would spread through the dorms like wildfire and, much like denim being worn all over campus, soon everyone would be shouting ‘Uno!’ all over campus. It appears that that will not happen. I have to admit: I am a bit deflated. I had envisioned paving their way to understanding and gripping American culture, but it seems all they want is the trappings of the culture. The appearance of it. In all other things, they wish to remain essentially Chinese.

Who’d of thunk it?

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