Tuesday, February 15, 2011


When I talk to a Chinese person about China's problems, our conversation often strays or ends with China's population problem. May it be inhumane labor conditions, governmental corruption, or rampant inflation, everything seems traceable to China's massive population. Recently, I've begun to think that the root of the world's problem lies in Americanization. This is not a critique of America itself, but rather the products that America is exporting to the world at large. Americanization is not just characterized by mass culture (Hollywood, Lady Gaga and the like) and democratic ideals, but also high consumerism—which is where the environmental disaster begins.

Whereas colonialists viewed western civilization as a superior form of civilization and sought to better the “dark” uncivilized people by bringing them into the light, America since the dawn of the 20th century has sought to make the world in its image. Without regard to historically entrenched beliefs and cultures, democracy is championed as the only “right” form of government, as if methods of governing could be ranked on a linear scale not much unlike previously concocted distinctions between “uncivilized” and “civilized”.

My daily readings for Chinese class usually addresses some kind of societal condition within China. Today, the article was about the proliferation of internet use among Chinese youth and concerns over internet (which is 95% in English and mostly dominated by US sources) use affecting cultural inheritance. Within the article is a keen fear of Chinese youth growing increasingly indifferent of traditional Chinese culture and customs, which is being displaced by international (read, American) culture. While the article was not extremely convincing in its argument, I do believe that as much as America is about diversity, Americanization has come to mean sameness. The anxiety apparent in my textbook's article reminded me of an article I read for a US history class I took at Yale back in Freshmen year. The article, called “A Monotonization of the World” was written by Stephen Zweig, a slightly elitist German author, who lamented the death of national dances—the waltz in Vienna, the csardos in Hungary, the bolera in Spain---to the “same short winded, impersonal melodies” coming from America”. While Zweig's language erred on the strong side, his message is clear.

In my daily life in Beijing, I am reminded of Americanization every where I go, may it be because I am nearing one of KFC's many ostentatious neon signs or every time I return to my dormitory and hear the security guards blasting Ryan Secrest and the Top 40 Count Down on their walkie talkie radio stations. Yesterday, we were out eating with a Swedish international student and a French international student, when the Swedish student asked us if we liked musicians such as “Lady Gaga”, etc. From the look on his face, we could tell that he disapproved of American mass culture in very much the same way as Zweig, and from our response, it was obvious that all of us realized exactly what kind of un-welcomed connotations “American pop culture” also carried. Under his scrutiny, we fumbled in our answers and before admitting to our musical preferences we skillfully prefaced our answer with “but only in clubs”. One girl even quickly added that it of course “doesn't to speak to her soul or anything”. Our answers were judged acceptable.

Nevertheless, even “high culture” Europe has been invaded and conquered by America. Whether Europeans like it or not, the fact that American goods have conquered a corner of their consumer market suggests that they do. People have a choice between America's “impersonal melodies” and the Spanish boleras, and from the course of things, it seems like they have chosen the impersonal melodies which have found its way into every club around the world. The same story is playing out here in China, where McDonald stores are always unbelievably busy, even if McDonald's is fairly costly and the frequency of visits has (or at least should have) a direct correlation with obesity.

However, along with the loss of cultural diversity, what also worries me are the environmental implications “Americanization” carries. According to the latest estimation, if every person in the world lived as Americans did, we would need about 5 planets. In one of my favorite books “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”, one of the chapters is “Our Carbon Copies or, Too Many Americans”, which points out that much to many environmentalists' dismay, the standards to which people in developing countries are aspiring to is not that of a decent and healthy standard of living, but rather American affluenza as portrayed by mass media. A 1960 American publication called “The Five Stages of Growth” by Rostow outlined the linear progress of societies in a manner similar to Morgan's incredibly racist publication regarding the progress of civilizations. Whereas Morgan's linear progression affirmed the supremacy of the European civilization, Rostow deemed high consumerism, a positively American concept, the apex of a matured society. Looking at the traffic jams (the result of personal car consumption) around the city and the construction of suburbs named “Orange County” and “Long Beach” which are literally replicas of Southern California homes on the outskirts of Beijing, I am dearly hoping that the American way of life is only some aberration from normalcy and not society's end goal. Indeed, if the American standard or some version of it continues to serve as an end goal, it could very well be our end point.

Unlike the French and Swedish students we just met, as students studying abroad from America, we are in a unique position to see all of America's influences in Chinese society today. Consequently, we have a very large responsibility to champion and become a sustainable standard that we can be proud of and in good conscience export to the world. Until then, I can only hope that on some fortuitous day, the whole world will suddenly gain clarity and by some miracle resist Americanization.

Snow day! made possible by the Beijing government's man induced snowfall!

Today, I woke up to...SNOW! Not surprisingly, I decided to ditch work to go explore. Unfortunately, all my neighbors/friends were still sleeping off a long night of partying. I too stayed up till 3:00 watching Inception with some peeps, but I woke up at 8:30 regardless.
The opportunity to see Beijing beautified by snow was too good to pass up, so I ventured out by myself. Along the way, I made friends with a few new people, including a security guard at Gulou (one of the fortresses), some dudes playing in the snow, and some people building an awesome snowbunny! I too built a snowbunny for my mom whose zodiac is a rabbit. Happy Year of the Rabbit mom! :)


1 bicycle + a line of cars = Beijing's current traffic problem. Private cars suck. I hope I never get one!

Bell tower

Opposite of the Bell tower was the Drum tower.

View of hutongs from the top

My snowbunny!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fifth Year at ACC

I think my life at ACC is a lot different than many other students here. First of all, I am the only fifth year language student, which means that I have 2 teachers working full time to teach me Chinese, and second of all, I am the only native speaking Chinese American at the program. These two unique situations have probably shaped my ACC experience in very different ways than if I were your more stereotypical white American student who started studying Chinese in college.

Being the only fifth year: I can't slack off. Ever. Because with two teachers teaching just me, it is very obvious if I don't prepare for lessons. I've forgotten my 古汉 homework twice now, and both times, class was extremely painful and embarrassing.

That aside, some students also ask me if I get lonely being the only fifth year. To be honest, I feel a little bit left out when all the classes bond with each other (after all, spending every day with the same people do that to you), however, I don't feel lonely at all. This is mostly because during my classes, my teachers and I have a lot of stimulating conversations, and I'm not missing any additional human presence. We talk about anything from American and Chinese labor situations to popular reality TV shows. However, at the same time, if I don't purposefully reach out to the other students, I can isolate myself pretty fast. During the first day of classes, I felt really swamped with work and didn't try extra hard to find other people. Without trying, I ended up having 5 meals by myself at random restaurants around the area before I realized that I can't keep on continuing with ACC by just talking to my teachers and doing homework.

Fifth year lesson material is also a lot more intellectually stimulating than fourth year. Whereas fourth year gets a lot of watered down material (I take Thursday classes with them occasionally), there's more real literature with fifth year. However, today, when I was eating lunch with my cousin and uncle, I was once again rudely awakened to how limited my Chinese is. While ACC teachers are taught to speak a certain way, the rest of China does not and there is more slang than any text book can ever teach. There's 成语, there's 俗语, there's slang, there's reference to obscure shows, and there's random wildfire phrases that originated from some post on the internet. I really hate those moments when I feel like I'll never be as good as I want to be in Chinese.

My goal in Chinese is ultimately to be able to conduct myself in Chinese without feeling like I am going to be exposed as a fake at any moment. This kind of goes back to my other unique situation, which is being Chinese, but American, but Chinese all at the same time in China.

In comparison to other students, I feel like there is extra pressure on me for my Chinese to be good. Whereas if I were obviously foreign, I can say pretty much anything and people would be impressed with my ability to speak Chinese. But right now, based on my appearances, people expect my Chinese to be fluent, so when I am confused about an item on the menu, confused about a reference, or just don't know how to react to a situation, people often think I'm stupid or really really ditsy. The Light Fellowship's pre-orientation warned me about this, my teachers at ACC also brought it up, and I never thought I would let it get to me. But in the end, it has become a huge hindrance to my learning when every time I ask a question, the response I get is a judgement and a "duh, what rock have you been hiding under" look. I really shouldn't let it get to me, but lately, I've gotten into a habit of pretending I know what's going on when I really don't just so I can avoid that feeling of shame. I want to shout, no I don't know what this means! and I don't care if you think I should know it!

The funny as this is, the easiest solution for me at this point isn't to make my Chinese better, but actually for my Chinese to seem worse. Right now, because my Chinese pronunciation is too good and 标准(and I don't mean for this to be boastful), everyone I meet expects me to be as capable in Chinese as the next guy. If I show that I understand even just a little bit, they start going off really fast (like the guy at the herbal medicine store and all the waitresses I've encountered so far). Sometimes to act completely foreign and befuddled is the only way I can get people to start their explanations from the beginning and start from the basic assumption that I am as ignorant as the 8 year old on the other side of the store, which isn't necessarily good for my self esteem. Unfortunately, people are a lot more helpful and nice when they think you're foreign than if they think you're just kind of stupid and ridiculous.

While the above to observations aren't necessarily positive, I do recognize that I am in a unique position to gain a ton from the ACC program. At the end of the day, I am thankful that I have good command of my tones, which is one of the largest obstacles non-native Chinese speakers struggle with. ACC fifth year is tailored strictly to your abilities so no matter your level of expertise, fifth year is still intensive and still helpful.