Archive for February, 2008


Invisible Backpack of White Privilege Thrives … in China

One of the major difficulties I’ve had here in China is finding a job with an English teaching school or agency that actually wants to follow the law and get me either a business or work visa. But I’ve soldiered on, and applied with lots of places that advertise either in Beijing’s Craig’s List page, or in a local expat magazine called That’s Beijing. But something that I found rather odd was that in addition to asking for my resume and CV, many of these outfits have wanted to see my photo. Why could that be?

Allison had told me that this was because many of these outfits are looking for a specifically white native English speaker. That’s crazy, I told her. If I was a native speaker, and I was black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, or even Asian, why would anyone care? She explained there is a perception that Chinese parents have that white Americans, British, etc. all speak the best English, better even that native-born blacks and Asians. So parents here consistently have their schools, agencies and so forth look for specifically white teachers. I found this very hard to swallow, but then, I got the following email. I had just emailed these folks my CV and resume, but forgot the photo. So I followed-up with the photo, and causally asked why they needed it. And this is the reply.

Thanks for your prompt reply.

First of all, I should explain why I need a photo. School requests a white teacher from USA,UK,Canada…to teach students. I’m not a racist person, I don’t want to hurt sb. if he/she is a black. That’s why I ask for a photo. Please understand. Thanks.

Jesus!!! “I’m not a racist, but we’re looking for a white teacher” my foot. The thing is, though, this seems to be a very, very common sentiment here. I don’t know that there’s really anything to be done about it, but I think for once, there may actually be something to that whole invisible backpack of privilege. Except, though, that with this email, it’s not so invisible anymore. And it’s not in America, but in China. This is beyond wacky. This is almost as weird as the fact that Christmas decorations are STILL UP EVERYWHERE throughout Beijing.


The Magic That Is China

The “Magic That Is China” (MTIC) is an expression I’ve picked up from one of Allison’s Fulbright colleagues. She uses the expression to designate the way things here always seem to either work exceedingly well and efficient, but at other times very badly, and rarely just an even balance of the two. And while I don’t know if this is supposed to involve any elements of karma or anything, I find that for me, and for most people I’ve met here, it’s about a 50/50 ratio.

Here are some examples. One of the places that Allison and I have been frequenting for meals serves a kind of flavored porridge as the primary specialty, with various meat, vegetable and dumpling type items to go with it. The service at the location we normally frequent is pretty good. But this is a chain, and they have a location not more than a block away from my apartment, so we decided to try them out there. And boom, the service was dreck. There was a Chinese couple at the table across from us, and it took them flagging down the waitstaff on our behalf to get them to even notice we were there. That night, the MTIC was working against us.

There’s a place on campus where Allison gets dumplings and these potato pancake things for dinner for real cheap. On Tuesday, we arrived just before 5pm, and they had about every conceivable combination of ingredients of dumplings. We had no problems ordering as many dumplings as we wanted. But on Wednesday, we arrived at about 5:20 pm, and they were already out of everything. So on Tuesday, the MTIC was with us, and yesterday, it was against us. Again, you’d think that rationally, twenty minutes should not make a major difference in what’s available at the cafeteria counter, but that’s just the Magic That Is China.

One final example. I needed to buy a printer/scanner here, because I left mine back in Madison in storage, and I’m finding that I need to print documents and scan them all the time, as well as fax them. There’s this “PC Mall” building, several stories high, where there are smallish stores specializing in a given company’s products – HP, Lenovo, Apple, you name it. I found the model more or less equivalent to the one I purchased at the UW campus store on sale for $80. The people at that stand did not speak English, but with my guidebook and mini-dictionary, we managed to communicate well enough. (Alas, Allison was not with me that day.) I pointed at the printer/scanner I wanted, and asked, in Chinese, for how much were they selling that model? The answer I received was ¥1,200.

Now, I should explain that in US dollars, that’s about $160, $170. The thing to know about these places is that price negotiation is the name of the game. You should not, ever, ever, ever, pay whatever they offer you as the first price. That said, that was a ridiculously high starting point. I tried to explain to them that I could get the same model in the US for $80, and that I wanted them to see if they could beat that. Suddenly, they decided that it just so happened that this was the precise price they could offer me. So this tells me that if they could’ve gotten away with it, they were going to try to fleece me of $160-$170, had I been an ignorant foreigner, either in terms of not knowing about price negotiation or in what these things really cost. I managed to get away from the people working there, muttering something about returning tomorrow, but naturally having no intention to do so. The MTIC was against me there.

But I tried another HP retailer at the PC Mall across the street, and met a sales clerk who knew even less English than the people at the other store. Which is to say, none at all. But he understood completely what I meant. He started out with an offer for ¥650, the same price that a local Wal-Mart-type store called Carrefour was offering that very model. I explained, as best as I could, about Carrefour’s price, and that I could get the same model in the US for ¥580. So that got him to lower the price to ¥560. I was thinking he was just going to match my price, but he came through and beat it. These same machines often sell for $100 (~ ¥715) or more at Best Buy. Now, I might’ve been able to get him even lower, in retrospect, but for someone who speaks virtually no Chinese, I didn’t think this was bad. In short, in the course of only an hour, the MTIC was now fully back on my side.

Now, you may find these examples a wee bit trivial. But hopefully, they at least explain what the MTIC is all about, so when I refer to it in the future, as I undoubtedly will, you’ll know what I’m talking about.


The East End Horror

I’ve been a bit busy, so I haven’t been able to post much. I’ll be doing that soon, hopefully, with stuff about my visit to the Tibetan Lama Temple here in Beijing, the ongoing Chinese New Year celebrations, and about how the Chinese are embracing Valentine’s Day big time. In the meantime, I just wanted to post this news item from Xinhua (the official Chinese government owned news service). It seems that I’m carrying more contraband into this country than I thought. Certainly, I realized that my libertarian literature might be problematic, or my having a DVD of Red Corner, but it seems I’ve got even more forbidden stuff than that.

China has ordered a ban on the sale of audio and video products containing elements of mystery and horror. The move is the latest initiative to “protect the country’s children and teenagers’ psychological development”, according to a newly-issued government circular. According to the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) circular, such audio and video products usually “involve alien-looking characters and fictional story telling, both specifically plotted for the sole purpose of terror”. It said the horror, violence and cruelty involved in these audio and videos were unfit for children, and extremely harmful for their psychological development.

The circular instructed all existing publications involving elements of mystery and horror to be off the market, and ordered audios and videos in production to delete any hint of mystery and horror. China began its crackdown on so-called “terrifying publications” in April 2006, specifically targeting a Japanese comic story “Death Note”. It involved a notebook that can kill people if their names are written in it. The comic depicted various scary ways of dying, according to GAPP.

China also started a cleansing campaign against “vulgar” content in video and audio products starting this year. It ordered audio and video producers to stop the production and sale of vulgar products and recall those already on the market.

So, I happened to have brought with me a Japanese horror movie called Premonition, George Romero’s Land of the Dead, all three seasons of the Chris Carter series Millennium, and, the namesake of this blog, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. Here I thought that stuff would be pretty innocent. As it is, I hid the Red Corner DVD by mislabeling it Children of the Corn.

As amusing as this whole story is, I have to add that this emphasis on children, down to the mention of comic books, reminds me of something we went through in the United States back in the 1950’s. At that time, there was a panic sparked by horror comic books like Tales from the Crypt, that supposedly kids were reading these things and having their brains screwed up. There was even a Congressional investigation, centered around “scientific” research presented in a now-discredited book called The Seduction of the Innocent, which held that comic books cause crime. Congress essentially pressured the comic book industry into adopting a self-policing panel called the Comics Code Authority, which still nominally exists to this day, with more popular kids titles featuring the Comics Code symbol on the cover.

Naturally, the First Amendment meant that Congress might’ve at least faced speedbumps in trying to ban comic books outright, and regulating them would’ve been a messy proposition. So the Comics Code served the interests of both mainstream comic book publishers, who didn’t want to have to face government oversight, and Congress itself. (It did, though, have the side-effect of dumbing down comic books for decades to come, and killing outright horror and mystery comic books like Tales from the Crypt.) But here in China, while Freedom of Speech is in the Chinese Constitution, we can all agree that it has no real authority under the law. So if the government wants to just ban these comic books, and now movies, outright, there’s really nothing other than financial and manpower limitations stopping it. And fortunately, going back to the whole “Paradox of the Police State” that I mentioned earlier, the government may lack any kind of meaningful enforcement mechanisms, and paradoxically, undermine respect for the rule of law by passing laws that are virtually impossible to enforce.


The Best Kinds of Executions

This actually seems to be from the Beijing Fire Department, and Allison says it has something to do with execution in the sense of executing a task. Still, awfully creepy to see this posted on every floor of her dormitory.


The Paradox of the Police State

I doubt I’m the first person to make this observation, and to that end, I’m quite interested in seeing what others have written about it. But it has to do with what I’ve increasingly noticed here in China, that is, that despite it being a brutal police state that tolerates no dissent, there seems to be a flagrant, almost cavalier attitude that people here exhibit about the law in certain contexts, in ways that would be unthinkable in the United States.

The best examples I’ve encountered thus far are in my job search. The thing is, I’m currently here in China on a tourist visa. This means that legally speaking, I may not work in the People’s Republic of China, and until I can get my visa upgraded to a work visa, I could be subject to fines, detainment, imprisonment, and deportation if I do work.

Yet I’ve had a very difficult time finding an employer who takes this work visa issue seriously. The fellow in charge of one agency I interviewed with just came right out and said, “Well, you could work here illegally…” My jaw dropped. Is he mad? Not so much, I’m finding out. Most of the English teachers he employs do not have work visas, and the interviewer at the second agency I met with looked positively annoyed that I even brought it up. It’s been a week since I visited his office, and I don’t expect him to call back, even though he promised to “look into it.” The guy at the first agency told me that if I really wanted one, he had certain connections with firms that could get me a work visa, but it could run me as much as 3000 RMB (about $420). What gives?

My theory is this. Maintaining a fully totalitarian state, that is, one that not only has laws covering all aspects of life but also the means and will to enforce all of them, is nearly impossible in the long term. Oh sure, for short periods of time, especially during wars, a state may be able to brutally enforce its will in all components of life. But eventually, the state has to start choosing priorities. The Chinese state is plagued with corruption, so naturally that’s where one of its major focuses is now, though there again, it’s so rampant that it would be virtually impossible to stop it all, even if Chinese law now allows the death penalty for corruption (which it does).

To a degree that would be shocking to all but the most libertarian among us, most laws are enforced … by the citizens themselves. And not so much by vigilantism, Stasi-type survalence, or the like, but rather because the laws themselves are sensible, people find themselves capable of obeying them even where they might have a good chance of getting away with breaking them.

So while the Chinese state obsesses with illegitimate and unjust laws, that prove very difficult to enforce, such as bans on dissent, religious suppression, anti-Tibetan and anti-Uyghur ethnic cleansing measures, laws in more trivial aspects of life find themselves not being taken seriously. Meanwhile, since these kinds of laws don’t generally exist in the United States (well, I suppose, except for the War on Drugs), people typically don’t have a problem obeying the more legitimate laws that do exist, and the government has an easier time enforcing them. And naturally, you have less corruption, because people generally believe that the legal process is a transparent and trustworthy one, so fewer people would even try to engage in such activities.

I need to think more about this, but for now, I just wanted to record my puzzlement about this aspect of life in China – a brutal police state where, in many places, no one takes the law seriously, not even the police. Curiouser and curiouser.


Allison Update

Oh, and I just wanted to mention – Allison is way better. She’s pretty much almost recovered, so much so that we were able to go out to eat tonight for Uyghur food (think – spicy, heavy, etc.).


I Came As A Rat

I’ve never really understood the significance of the different years of the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. The new year being celebrated here is the Year of the Rat, and we’ve just completed the Year of the Pig. But I just stumbled upon an article here about what this being the Year of the Rat portends. Mind you, I doubt many Chinese actually believe this stuff – unlikely to be a much higher percentage of the population than that of Americans who believe in astrology. (The two are about the same, anyway). But it’s fun to read about nonetheless.

Speaking of the Chinese New Year, I’ve learned from Allison that the government here has taken it upon itself to promote the greater unity of the nation by insisting that all Chinese citizens celebrate the same holidays. This would be obnoxious enough in its own right, but the Chinese government includes, in this directive, ethnic minorities that share little culturally with the majority Han, in particular, the Tibetans and the Uyghurs. As the above article suggests, the Chinese zodiac and animal-year system derives from very old Chinese traditions and folk beliefs. The Tibetans and Uyghurs especially find these beliefs almost as alien as the typical American.

To get an idea of what an insult this is, imagine that President Bush were to one day insist that all ethnic and religious minorities in the US celebrate the same holidays as the Christian majority. So Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and so forth should all stop celebrating their own holidays (if they have any, since Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t), or at least tone them done, and get full square into the spirit of Christmas and Easter, and thus further promote the unity of the nation. I’m thinking that if anything, this would actually generate resentment and offense, and there by engender disunity. With guns pointed in their faces, I imagine that Uyghurs and Tibetans may smile and go through the motions, but this is just the kind of thing that would make them and other oppressed minorities bitter, and reinforce just how unalike they are to the Han. Call it yet another example of the perversity of unintended consequences. This doesn’t mean that those groups or others will revolt tomorrow, but certainly it’ll make revolting all that much more attractive.