This week’s Photo Challenge at the Daily Post is the word “resilient.” This photo is my interpretation of this word. It was taken at the Summer Palace outside of Beijing, China. As the world’s oldest continuous civilization, China exemplifies “resilience” to me.
They were exhausted. Travelling from their home to Beijing had taken more than 24 hours, and their lack of sleep had made them crabby. In their hotel room, they found a mini-bar, a bottle of mineral water, a tin of mixed nuts, and a collection of sex products.
The woman looked closely at the condom collection while her husband lay sprawled on the bed. “This one tingles!” she said.
Her husband just grunted.
“And look at this one,” she said. “I wonder how the Happy Vibrations Sex Product works.”
He sighed irritably, “Just read the instructions and let me sleep.”
This post was in response to the 100 Word Challenge for Grownups hosted by Julia at her blog.
The theme for today’s Photo 101 challenge is Solitude. I took this picture a few month ago in Beijing. I think I was a little envious of this woman because she was able to be alone to contemplate what she saw. I, on the other hand, was part of an organized tour. The tour guide was rushing to get us back to the tour bus so she could take us to the pearl factory and the jade factory and the silk factory so that we would buy stuff there.* Oh, well, everyone’s got to make a living.
*Full disclosure: I did in fact buy things at the pearl factory, the jade factory, and the silk factory.
In a recent blog post, Damyanti of Daily (W)rite asked her readers to comment on the last city we traveled to and how it made us feel. (Click here to see the post.)
Her question made me think about Beijing, China, which I recently visited. If I had to sum up in one word how it made me feel, I might say “disconcerted.” Even though I did not know what to expect before visiting China’s capital city, Beijing was not what I expected.
What I hoped for, I guess, was a city brimming with history and “Chineseness,” whatever that might mean. I was hoping for a cityscape that could exist nowhere else on the planet besides China.
Instead, I landed in a bustling modern city, with buildings that appeared to be mostly younger than me. If I had been “beamed in” to Beijing in a Star Trek type apparatus without being told where I was going, I do not think I would have known I was in China if not for the signs in Chinese characters (many of them side-by-side with English). To be sure, the major tourist attractions, such as the Forbidden City, were older and distinctly Chinese in character. But the vast majority of buildings were in the multi-story architectural style defined by me as Ordinary Modern Business.
(Click here for a previous blog post in which I discussed China’s lack of interest in preserving old buildings.)
On the positive side, Beijing was more attractive than I had anticipated. Its major roads were broad and tree-lined, creating a cityscape that is more lush and livable than I had expected. On the negative side, I felt the city’s relentless focus on the new resulted in a lack of something ineffable—whether we call it history, character, “Chineseness” or something else.
To be fair, I should point out that I was only there for three nights and two days. Most of the two days was spent on a guided tour, with little room for roaming off the beaten track. I know I missed a lot. I also know that I am most likely indulging in a misplaced desire for exoticism. Old China may have been more picturesque, but I would imagine that life is much easier for the residents of 21st century Beijing.
With this lengthy preface out of the way, here a few memories of Beijing that will stay with me:
People, people, people. People were rushing around everywhere, at seemingly all hours of the day and night.
Dead animals hanging in the windows. The Chinese apparently eat anything and everything. Chicken feet. Sheep’s head. Pig intestines. You name it, they eat it.
Random displays of bear paw(s) on street vendor’s table.
The “thoughtfulness” of our hotel staff in providing unsolicited sex products for us in our room.
Babies without diapers peeing in the open. I saw a baby running around a store room with nothing on his bottom. One colleague told me he saw a Chinese couple holding their baby over a public garbage can so he could do his “thing.”
The misguided fashion trend of men rolling their shirts up above their bellies.
Chinese people showed no hesitation whatsoever in taking pictures of me and my white American companions. Sometimes they asked if they could take a photo, and sometimes they just took one surreptitiously. For a minute there, I started to feel like a celebrity. (This feeling quickly passed when I returned home.)
I wish I could have stayed longer so that I could have gotten a better “feel” of the city. I really want to visit the hutongs (the older neighborhoods), but I didn’t get a chance to do so. Next time…
Have you been to Beijing? If so, what were your impressions?
Is it possible to define what makes a culture distinct from other cultures? Or is the question an impossible one to answer?
David Keightley, a renowned sinologist, attempted to answer this question in regards to China. More specifically, he asked, what makes Chinese people distinctively Chinese? How, if at all, are the Chinese different from the ancient Greeks, a civilization that serves as a (partial) foundation for Western culture today? Keightly attempts to answer these questions by studying the ancient past.
I am greatly simplifying his answer for the sake of brevity, but here are a few of his conclusions.
The Chinese have a deeply ingrained hierarchical social order, in which everybody knows his or her proper role and acts accordingly. This hierarchy occurs not just in this life, but in the afterlife as well. If you are at the top of the social ladder in this life, you will remain on the top in the afterlife. Conversely, if you are low in social status in this life, you will remain low in the afterlife.
Whereas the West values the individual above all else, the Chinese focus on the needs of the group (such as the family or the state). Significant to this focus on the group is the emphasis on lineage and ancestor worship.
An ethic of service, obligation, and emulation (as opposed to an ethic of individual achievement and distinction dominant in the West.) This ethic is so strong, Keightley argues, that soldiers and other servants of the king willingly die and are buried with him so that they can continue their service in the afterlife.
Whereas the Greeks had a deep sense of tragedy and irony, Keightley argues that the Chinese do not share this world view. He suggests that this could be at least partly explained by their view that death does not mark a huge change for people: one remains with one’s family and in the same basic circumstances after death as before it.
Overall, Keightley suggests that a combative individualism reigns in the West, whereas a harmonious social humanism predominates in China.
I am taking an online Introduction to China course, and the two professors teaching the course disagree on the validity of Keightley’s argument as a way to explain Chinese culture. One of them believes Keightley made a strong argument for the difference between Chinese and Greek civilization, at least as it manifested itself in ancient times. The other, however, dismissed Keightley’s argument as a vast oversimplification that cannot explain the past few hundred years of China’s history.
What do you think? For those of you who are Chinese or familiar with Chinese culture, do you see any validity to Keightley’s argument? Do you think it is even possible to make generalizations about an entire civilization?
David N. Keightley, “Early Civilization in China: Reflections on How It Became Chinese” in Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization, edited by Paul S. Ropp. (c) 1990 by The Regents of the University of California. Published by University of California Press. pp. 15-54.
“I’ve known girls like you for years. You come over from England and don’t know what to do with yourselves. You could be different. You should take the opportunity to become something else.” (55)
The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y. K. Lee. Viking, 2008
(quotations in this book are from the Barnes and Noble NOOK edition.)
What makes people who they are? Is there one core self that remains immutable over time? Or might there be several potential selves lying dormant, waiting for the opportunity to emerge? What effect does place have on our identities, our conceptions of who we are?
Janice Y. K. Lee’s haunting 2008 novel The Piano Teacher explores these questions, among many others. The novel is set in Hong Kong in two different periods: the early 1940s, during the Japanese occupation, and the early 1950s, after the English are back in control of the colony. The piano teacher of the title is Claire Pendleton, a newly married 28 year old English woman who has come to Hong Kong in the early 1950s with her husband, a man to whom she is not attracted. She takes a job giving piano lessons to the child of Victor and Melody Chen, a wealthy Chinese couple. Eventually, she meets the Chens’ English chauffeur, Will Truesdale, and begins an affair with him.
We learn that ten years earlier, Will Truesdale moved to Hong Kong and fell in love with Trudy Liang, a wealthy, beautiful, and charming Eurasian woman. The novel switches back and forth in time, focusing on all three characters. One of Lee’s major focuses is the effect of World War II and the brutal Japanese occupation on the characters. While some characters show bravery and undying loyalty, many others descend into ugliness, into greed and betrayal.
While love and betrayal are perhaps the main themes of this novel, Lee simultaneously explores another issue: that of the unstable self. What happens to a person if they are unmoored from their home environment and everyone they know? Claire Pendleton muses on this question throughout the novel and finds herself changing in ways she had never imagined possible. She thinks at one point, “This is Hong Kong. I am a woman, displaced. A woman a world away from who I am supposed to be” (63).
When Claire first moves to Hong Kong, she is still unformed, having lived a sheltered life. She does not like the person she has been up until this point. She “wanted to be someone else. The old Claire seemed provincial, ignorant” (37). She senses that there is another Claire inside her, clamoring to come out, but this person was not able to emerge in the constraints of her English life.
“There had been times when Claire felt that she could become a different person. She sensed it in herself, when someone made a comment at dinner, and she thought of the perfect, acerbic reply, or something even racy, and she felt her mouth opening, her lungs taking in air so that she could then push out the words, but they never came out. She swallowed her thought, and the person she could have become sank down again, weighted by the Claire that was already too evident in the world. She sensed it when she held a glass at a cocktail party and suddenly felt the urge to crush it in her hand. She never did. That hidden person had ballooned up and deflated so often, the elasticity of her possibility diminished over time.”
Transplanted to Hong Kong, though, her submerged self starts to grow, like a formerly stunted plant that thrives in the heat and humidity.
“But this was the thing: she, herself, had changed in Hong Kong. Something about the tropical clime had ripened her appearance, brought everything into harmony. Where the other Englishwomen looked as if they were about to wilt in the heat, she thrived, like a hothouse flower.”
The change goes much deeper than her looks. Unmoored from her familiar surroundings, she does things she never dreamed she would, such as having an extramarital affair with Will. It was as if “her old English self, with its defenses and prejudices, was dissolving in the humid, fetid environment around her.” She is strongly attracted to Will, and perhaps in love with him. However, she knows at some level that the real love affair she is having is with her newly emerging self.
“He didn’t have an idea of what she should be like. She was a new person—one who could have an affair, one who could be ribald, or sarcastic, or clever, and he was never surprised. She was out of context with him. She was a new person. Sometimes she felt that she was more in love with that new person she could be, that this affair was an affair with a new Claire, and that Will was just the enabler.” (65)
The combined influence of Hong Kong and her affair with Will transform Claire profoundly by the end of the novel. To be sure, she is more sophisticated and sure of herself. More interesting, though, is the way the ridiculous prejudices and narrow view of the world she brought with her to Hong Kong have begun to disappear. Her intellectual horizons and her view of world broaden immeasurably and she sees herself a thread in the larger web of humanity.
The Piano Teacher is about more than Claire’s transformation, of course. For starters, Claire’s emerging self was brought about at least in part by Will, who had previously been transformed by his relationship with Trudy. Trudy, in turn, depended on Will to define herself in a way that was not self-destructive. I know that I am not doing justice to the complexity of this novel in this brief discussion. The main point I want to make here is that it seems to me that Janice Lee is emphasizing in this novel not only the malleability of our selves, of who we are, but also the way our identities are created through our relationships with others and with our environments.
In case it wasn’t clear, I loved this book and would highly recommend it. The portrayal of the English people in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion was fascinating to me. So, too, were the complicated characters and their relationships with each other. Trudy Liang is a particularly interesting character. If you decide to read the book, don’t give up if you find the beginning less than compelling. The characters and themes at first seemed shallow to me, but the war reveals all of the complexity beneath the surface.
What do you think about the issue of the self? Do you think you would be essentially the same person no matter what circumstances you find yourself in? Or do we, as Janice Lee suggests, have a number of competing selves inside us, waiting for the right opportunity to emerge?
Five of us middle-aged academics were leaning back in our comfy chairs with our tired feet on stools, wiggling our well-worn toes in anticipation of some gentle rubbing. We were in Zhuhai, China. The room we were in looked more like an office of a low-level Communist official than a spa, but that didn’t matter. I assumed our Chinese foot massage would be a little like an American pedicure, except with a little more foot rubbing. Ha!
A team of young, tiny Chinese women marched into the room single-file, in unison. They were all wearing the same blue, short-sleeved polo shirts and clingy black capris. They were also all wearing high platform heels, leading to a “clump, clump clump” sound when they walked. I was not sure if they were our masseuses or a conga dance team hired for our entertainment. Everything they need was in unison, especially when they walked in and out of the office. They were quite chatty, but only among themselves—in Chinese, of course.
First they placed our feet in buckets of warm, herb-infused water to soak. It felt soothing, and I started to relax. Not for too long, though, because they soon barked out orders in Chinese to us to sit on the stools with our backs towards them. Of course, I did not understand the orders so I looked around the room dumbly until I figured out what they meant.
I duly turned my back to my masseuse and she started massaging my shoulders and upper-back, which is a routine part of a Chinese foot massage. (Apparently, everything is connected.) Fortunately, clothes are not removed in Chinese massage, even the full-body type. Otherwise, it would have been a little awkward in our mixed-gender group. I’ve had massages in the U.S. before. Usually they feel mostly good, with perhaps a little bit of light pain when the masseuse does deep-tissue massage.
This was different! Since my back was towards my masseuse, I could not believe how much pain this 80-pound woman was able to inflict on my back in the 10 or 15 minutes she spent on it. At one point, I knew she was leaning heavily on my back, probably throwing all of her weight on it—along with the weight of her extended family. (Or at least that’s what it felt like.) Our Chinese companion/translator told us we should let them know if it hurt too much. It definitely hurt too much, but I was determined not to say anything, for fear of being seen as a wimp. The man sitting next to me was moaning and groaning in ways that sounded a little too intimate for my comfort zone. My other companions were mostly taking it stoically, but one person did squeak a little bit, asking for mercy.
Eventually, my masseuse removed the weight of her entire extended family from my back. We were told to sit back on the chair and put our feet up on the stool. It was time for the foot massage. Whew! Now the gentle and soothing part could begin.
Or not! The masseuses spent maybe 30 minutes or so kneading, pounding, twisting, turning, pummeling, hitting and otherwise attempting to mutilate our feet. After that, they spent several minutes massaging our lower legs and calves as well. According to an online source I found, “the massage is often painful, particularly for first timers because it is believed that each part of the foot is connected to a part of the body. If soreness is felt in a particular part of the foot, it is believed the corresponding part of the body has a problem.” Holy cow. If that is true, I must have a whole body full of some serious problems. Click here Nonetheless, I soldiered on, determined not to complain—or call the American embassy to complain that I was being tortured by Chinese commies.
While we were leaning back “enjoying” our massage, the masseuses chatted amongst themselves. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, of course. I got the impression, though, that they were talking about us in a way that was not entirely complimentary. I asked our translator what they were saying, and she said, “Oh, nothing. They’re just chatting.” I was skeptical, so later I asked a member of our group who speaks Chinese what they were saying. She said they had indeed been discussing us part of the time.
They were complaining about our “thick American feet.” I guess American feet cause them to work a lot harder than do the delicate Asian feet they are used to. At least thy didn’t use the word for “fat”!
I did survive the ordeal. I’m still not entirely convinced this wasn’t just an excuse for the masseuses to torture us, in retaliation for the U.S. being an overbearing superpower. However, I did find that my feet and especially my legs felt much better afterwards. I would definitely do it again and am looking to find a similar experience here in the U.S. I believe the American version is called “reflexology.” I don’t know if the Americans are as hard-core as the Chinese are.
Have any of you tried American reflexology? What was your experience like?