What am I doing here?

The first time I met someone from mainland China was in 1994 at a party. We were both catastrophically drunk and partly because of this, and partly because at the time I mixed in a dark red circle, I naively assumed that he was some sort of dissident who’d fled the country. I don’t think he was, and he may even have been a gatecrasher, but I bombarded him with all sorts of stupid questions, the subtext of which was ‘Bu..b..but what is your life like?!?’ The exoticism of the life I imagined for him in China was boundless. I don’t remember a single word he said to me.

Five years later when I started teaching I had Chinese students in all my classes. The boys would turn up halfway through the morning, evidently still fast asleep, and in the meantime we, the Europeans, would bombard the girls with questions. ‘So you’ve really never heard of the Beatles/Elvis/techno music?’ was a common theme. They in turn would timidly ask if it was true that there were really late night discos in Dublin. In the break they would crowd round the tape player and turn up their cassettes of what sounded to me like Fisher Price Disney pop ballads.

They were (I think) rich kids who had failed to get into University and had therefore been sent away until they had learnt English. To me ordinary life in China was full of mystery, and even their most mundane comments fed this impression. One insisted throughout his entire stay that back home he was a taxi driver. Lost for the answer to a question he would grin and burst out ‘I drive taxi – where you wanna go?’ to great hilarity. Discussing the issue of acceptable questions to ask on a first date they came up with ‘Who is your local party chief?’, which they seemed to find just as deliriously incongruous as we did.

Hungover and mischeavous one early summer day, I decided we would talk about special occasions and festive holidays in our different countries. I mentioned that June 4th was a significant day for many people in China. The idealstic young Russian and German students saw the opportunity I’d sensed they were waiting for and launched into a furious attack. The Chinese were nonplussed. When things had calmed down a bit one of the students, a patient and drowsy whisp of a boy from Qingdao, explained exactly what had happened that day.

The student protestors, he said, had tied duck feathers (duck feathers? we asked, understandably confused. Duck feathers, he assured us) to the soles of their feet and had tickled (yes, he knew what tickled meant) the soldiers, and a lot of soldiers had died because of the tickling.

The students I had that summer and the next seemed to be constantly coming up with similarly bizarre, usually hilarious and often disturbing explanations for things. And I think it was that more than any other single thing that gave me the impulse to want to come to China and to find out what it was like to live amongst people who had such an outlandish view of the world.

Now, I’m aware of how quickly what seems exotic from a distance quickly becomes mundane upon closer contact. I still believe there is more to the attraction of the exotic than this, and there are some places which retain their mystery and allure when you live there. But China today would present quite a challenge to anyone’s sense of wonder and mischief. What was the Cultural Revolution if not a war of the mundane against the exotic? Young people in China today revere the most mundane and least interesting aspects of our culture – the NBA, the UEFA Champions’ League, KFC – and dream of becoming secretaries, accountants and CEOs. Anonymous, money-making dreams.

So was I naive? My only defence is that I didn’t come here expecting to find Shangri-La, or even Thailand. I came here in search of that sense of the bizarre I found in Dublin, for more duck feather stories.

It’s something that happens very rarely. The other day in class I was overjoyed when one of my students kept a completely straight face while she told the class that she used to have a patch of grass on the top of her head which could predict the future. People like that really stand out here. They apparently have a word in Chinese, Linglei, which describes young people with a different view of the world and who aspire to a different lifestyle, but here nobody recognises the word, let alone identifies themselves with it. For most their worldview compels them to repeat what they’ve never had cause to question. One of my students primly informed me that ‘the aim of University in England is to cultivate the perfect gentleman’. Another plucked up the courage to ask if I’d had another girlfriend before my present one. I’m 32 years old, by the way.

In just over two months I’ll be another year older and I’ll be gone. While I’ve been here and over the last few years mainland Chinese have been spreading out across the globe, possibly outnumbering the wealthier and worldlier Cantonese speakers. Dublin and Lisbon both have more and more shops, supermarkets and restaurants owned and run by newly arrived Mandarin speakers. Wherever I go in the world in the future I’ll be meeting more and more people from mainland China.

Now I don’t know what happens to Chinese people when they go to live abroad. I suppose that their different experiences may well broaden their outlook and cause them to question what they’ve been brought up to believe in in China. Now I’m not in much of a position to say. What I do think, however, is that the circumstances in which foreigners are allowed to come and live here in China are too inhibiting to permit any more than a superficial understanding of and engagement with what’s really going on around them. It feels like the unspoken question in the inquiring eyes of a Chinese person as they follow me down the street or round the supermarket is ‘why the hell did you choose to come here?’. The answer is that I feel ashamed that I made that choice, and I’ll feel much freer to talk openly to Chinese people – about the duck feathers and the fortune-telling head grass – when I’m no longer an ‘invited guest’of their government, a government which they have a lot more right and reason to hate then I do.

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