Monday, July 30, 2012

Visible Status

One of the first things that struck me as soon as I touched foot on American soil is that people in America visibly proclaim their status.

Most notable was a family of what appeared to be of the fundamental religious sort. The women wore home made dresses topped by pinafores, with bonnets on their head. The family’s girls wore similar garb but did not wear the head coverings. None of the women wore any type of adornment: makeup, jewelry… not so much as a wedding ring. Their shoes were plain, the type that is commonly referred to as ‘old lady shoes’. 

The men were more conventionally attired: shirts and slacks, and a variety of footwear ranging from athletic to loafers. Also, it seems they were allowed more flamboyance: they wore wedding rings and watches, and they sported different lengths of hair although none wore theirs excessively long.

This group grabbed my attention but was by no means the only group visibly displaying their status. Women who are Muslim wore their burqa, women who are Indian were wrapped in their sari. In these cases too their men were more conventionally dressed – conventional to western culture, that is. Slacks, button down shirts and loafers or sneakers, with a modicum of jewelry. 

Looking further: businessmen proclaim their status by wearing suits and pulling expensive travel cases. Prior military, or even current military usually wear or carry something camouflage: a duffel bag, combat boots or, if active duty, wear a complete uniform. People from the South wear tee-shirts with Dixie oriented slogans and blue jeans. Some wore cowboy hats.

And so on. I conclude that, in America, people of special interest groups display their interest visibly, almost as a challenge. Consider people who are homosexual (rainbow banners/stickers on their car), people affiliated with the Marine Corps (USMC or Semper Fi stickers on their car), people who are Mexican, people’s political affiliation (bumper sticker for their current candidate, this being an election year), people who enjoy and support gun ownership with their NRA shirts, stickers or pins, people who ‘heart’ dogs or cats or books or…      

All of this proclamation is very strange to someone who has lived in China for the past 11 months.

The Chinese do their best to not stand out in any way. They even have a word for that phenomenon: he (pronounced ‘hre’). In its purest sense, ‘he’ means ‘with’ or ‘and’, as in ‘you and me’ – ‘ni he wo’.

Since the dawning of Chinese society several thousand years ago people were encouraged to hold their head down, work for the collective good and not proclaim any kind of status lest they be ‘made an example of’. This held true during the feudal times as well as during the early years of the Communist party. It is such an ingrained part of being Chinese that it still goes on today.

One obvious exemption: nuns and monks. They have the… right? Obligation? to display their status by wearing robes representing their status and religion. However, it bears noting that, from circa 1950 until the 1980’s, when Deng Xiaoping realized the cultural significance of the country’s founding philosophies, being a monk or a nun was a dangerous occupation.

The only other exception to the ‘keep your head down’ rule was fingernails and skin, and that, to an extent, was beyond a person’s ability to control. Only the emperor and his concubines, people who did no manual labor whatsoever, and even went so far as to have eunuchs to dress and groom and feed them wore their fingernails long. The longer the nails, the longer that person’s hands have been unused, indicating that person has been a part of imperial court.

Dark skinned people were obviously those who toiled outdoors while fair skinned people could afford the luxury of shade of some sort. Maybe they were officials or bureaucrats who spent the days indoors. To this day fair skinned Chinese, especially women are more desirable than dark skinned Chinese. 

Nowadays in China you might recognize a businessman because he is carrying a murse (a man’s bag), and by the type of cigarette he smokes. The way he holds his cigarette is also indicative of his status. Although he might sport jewelry of some kind, it is unobtrusive. He does not wear a suit or bear any other distinctive ‘marking’. He is just as likely to ride a bus as he is to rent a car or own one outright. In general, whether male or female you cannot tell a bureaucrat from a salesclerk, a student from an office worker or a waiter from a shop keeper.

Service uniforms – police, military, railroad or bus and even street sweepers are in no way distinctive from male to female, other than females have the option of wearing skirts. The shirts and slacks are not tailored to accommodate gender.

You could say the Chinese are masters of assimilation.

That is changing nowadays, though. With conspicuous consumerism becoming the norm, flaunting your status and wealth has changed the ‘keep your head down and your thoughts close’ mentality. Clothing, accessories such as shoes, bags and jewelry, hygiene and grooming all quietly but emphatically advertise status. Electronics proclaim your wealth. Obviously if you own an I-Phone you are ‘better’ than someone who owns a run of the mill Samsung. Where you live and how your apartment is outfitted, what you serve for dinner and what you do for entertainment all underscore your place within this rapidly evolving, class craving society. 

People are judged by what type of car they own (if they own one). When word got out that Victor bought a car last year he was the envy of all the teachers till they found out he bought a small Chevy Aero. Had he bought any type of Toyota but especially a Camry he would have proclaimed status.  As it is, with his practical but by no means luxurious conveyance he is actually a laughingstock on campus. Poor Victor! And here he thought he had stepped up on the esteem ladder!

The Chinese have a long way to go to meet or beat the American passion of proclamation. I daresay that, in some ways they will never go beyond the level of status declaration they currently display. A lot of that has to do with the lack of religious and political freedom they have, as well as the suspicion the government has regarding fringe groups.  

Besides, it is very hard to throw off thousands of years of cultural tradition.

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