Cultural Jealousy

Li Songjun [name altered] fondles his earring as he speaks, stopping to think every few words. We have been drinking coffee and tea for nearly three hours now, originally meeting for business with our respective jobs, but have now wandered far into a discussion of Chinese culture.

“You know Hanggai?” he refers to a popular Mongolian group. Hanggai is actually from Inner Mongolia, a Chinese province, and has made a career out of their Mongolian minority identity.

“Yes, he’s quite good.”

Mr. Li, forty with a clean-shaven head, one pierced ear, and trim in his skin-tight jeans and T-shirt, nods thoughtfully before gushing, “they developed so fast and so well over these past ten years, and it’s mostly because of their identity. They get up there and play the Mongolian whistle and beat a drum and throat-sing and people love it. It’s because these guys have something to be upset about, something to oppose.”

He was of course referring to the nebulous force of Chinese ethnic policy (i.e. The Party) and popular Chinese attitudes toward ethnic minorities (i.e. Han people).

“But me, I’m Han,” he laughs a little pathetically, like an abashed teenage boy, “I’ve got nothing to oppose.”

And nothing to believe, I think, but instead say, “Maybe what you have to oppose is just more abstract.”

He shrugs. “I could have been a great musician if I had such an identity as that — if I had something to be upset about.”

As he excuses himself for the third cigarette break of our business-meeting-turned-confessional, I start to appreciate the significance of his statement. I have heard Han Chinese people make a lot of remarks about ethnic Chinese minorities, who comprise 8% of China’s population. Popular among the perceptions is the belief that the Han Chinese, under Mao’s guidance, liberated minority cultures from backwardness. Slave societies, teenage marriages, and the oppression of females was all but obliterated by the moralistic sword of communist justice. And the minorities — many of them terribly ungrateful, as shown by acts of protest over the years — even get extra points added to their college entrance exams, just for being non-Han!

These are the standard replies I get from Chinese friends and acquaintances. Most do not have minority friends, especially since China’s minorities are not at all concentrated on the wealthy Eastern seaboard. This was the first time I had ever heard a Han Chinese express jealousy of an ethnic minority’s identity.

There were a lot of factors at work that got him to the point of openly admitting this to another person, as I found out from the post-cigarette continuation of our discussion.

“You know, it’s not part of Chinese culture to criticize things. When I started to make foreign friends, they were always being so critical, and it made me really uncomfortable. Then I realized that we don’t criticize enough in Chinese society. Even with my close friends, it’s always about how good this or that is. I’m trying to learn to take criticism, but it always stings.”

It is somewhat rare for Chinese people to be openly critical about their country in front of a foreigner. I certainly don’t try to push the matter, lest I come off as hateful. But there are also some people who, as Tom wrote once, will be more candid with foreigners, using them as a sort of release valve, or secret diary (oh, the irony). Mr. Li, having been abroad to Europe and having made foreign friends over the years (plus an open-minded predisposition) was a likely candidate for confessing cultural insecurity.

I appreciated his candidness with me, but I did not at all agree that he had nothing to oppose. He in fact had the same thing to oppose as Hanggai does — a litany of unfair government policies and societal-wide streaks of ignorance. For him, though, the challenges are not so easy to pin down, and certainly less easy to commodify into song and dance.  They truly comprise an all-or-nothing struggle, the enormity of which is simply daunting, for which it is easier to use the common Chinese phrase, “there is nothing to be done.” Perhaps the Han majority has something to learn, then, from the throat-singing, drum-beating minority.

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2 Responses to Cultural Jealousy

  1. Casey says:

    I have had several Chinese friends come to me and whisper something about China because there’s something more secure in a language many do not understand- the language not always as quickly blocked on social sites – even if the person you’re speaking to is not trustworthy in many of one’s countrymen’s eyes. However, I doubt I’d hear it in Chinese.

  2. I suspect the attitude to minorities is the same in all majority cultures. Why aren’t ‘those people’ more grateful for what ‘we’ have done to them? It’s also a form of magical thinking, that by drawing attention to injustice, poverty etc ‘they’ are somehow conjuring these problems into existence. Why don’t they keep quiet, do their folk dances when asked, and everything will be fine!

    You can’t really win on this one. Some British right-wingers were very snotty about the Olympic opening ceremony precisely because it celebrated minorities (i.e. people who actually live in the part of London where the stadium stands). The implication was that we should have shown an all-white UK to the world, much of which consists of our former imperial domains anyway. So every nation has its bigots.

    When it comes to criticising the Chinese regime, us foreigners are starting to get the message about this. Two years ago I went to meet a friend in a university department that has a lot of foreign students. I found a nice glossy leaflet intended for British students and staff lying around; it was about welcoming newcomers from China. One point it made, not very subtly, is that talking politics was a wrong, and that criticising the government is a very ‘British’ thing to do that the Chinese simply don’t understand.

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