Thursday, June 17, 2010

Han Han, Reddit - the Chinese and the Americans

 Han Han (韩寒) is the Chinese blogger on Time's most influential list. I caught him on CNN's Talk Asia and was very impressed.

I have to confess that my general impression of the Chinese is not good. My impression of the Chinese people is that they love money and are not too bothered with ethics. The milk scandal is a prime example of how I think Chinese people 杀人不眨眼 ("kill people without batting an eyelid") in the pursuit of money. In business, my impression of the Chinese is captured in their saying: "There are no good or bad businessmen; there is only the one that makes money and the one that doesn't."

Watching Han Han on TV that day was a real eye-opener. In that half-hour, I literally saw a paradigm shift in my mind and saw the Chinese in a different light. Han Han reminded me that people everywhere are the same. He's just an ordinary citizen fighting the same political forces we all battle with, in our respective countries, so as to achieve greater liberty and justice. (One of my favourite quotes is from the movie V for Vendetta: "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.")

Later, I realised what was going on. Although ethnic Chinese, I have never felt much in common with the Chinese people, because culturally Singaporean Chinese are very different from the mainland Chinese (indeed with the Chinese elsewhere, such as those in the US or Indonesia or Thailand or Hong Kong - I do however enjoy Taiwanese chat shows and get the humour in a way I do not for mainland Chinese shows).

Very simply, we developed in different ways because of our different histories. I always find it strange when a mainland Chinese person says to me "You should know what I mean, being Chinese." In fact, I very often don't know he or she means. I may look Chinese but I had a very Westernised education specialising in Western philosophy (I have an M.A. in this). I also ended up with a Western partner whom I have been with for more than a decade now.

I am sure my education was key in causing me to rebel against many aspects of Chinese culture that simply did not make sense to me, above all, the cultural and religious practices that revolve around gaining prosperity (i.e., money - see what I mean?). I favour rationalism, appealing to reason and empiricism, than on hand-me-down customs and traditions. My parents and I rarely see eye-to-eye.

But of course culture is a hard thing to fight, so I retain some of it, such as a sense of filial piety that seems strange to my partner. I sometimes feel guilty for choosing this life, for giving my money to complete strangers, rather than to my parents and family - which is what Asian culture dictates. A very good friend from school whom I have known since we were 13 sometimes calls me "不孝女", literally, "unfilial daughter" - don't worry, despite this, we're still best friends and Khim has even given me money for Bloom which I am using to pay for Sina's university fees. :) Khim is the complete opposite. Unlike me who has chosen to live in another country away from my family, she returned early from a posting to Beijing just to be with her parents in Singapore.

Another reason why I do not considered the Chinese to be just like me is that I do not have close friends from China and have never had the opportunity to discuss their hopes and dreams and fears with them. (I do have a few on Facebook and really liked Daisy, a former freelance editor from Hainan I had worked with in Singapore. She was just the sweetest person.)

And even though I do read and write Chinese, I find it much, much harder than English, so would never spend the time to read Chinese blogs (unlike Khim whose Chinese is as powerful as her English, I might add). As a result, I never really understood how Chinese people think. What I know of the Chinese is what I see and read in the news.

I have the same impression of the US. Most of what I read about the US makes me dislike the country, its conspicuous consumerism, its foreign policies, its arrogance, its stupidity and self-righteousness. (To be perfectly honest, when the sub-prime crisis first happened in the US, I found it hard to sympathise with Americans, thinking, "Well, you were the people who voted for George W Bush - twice.")

However, the difference with Americans is I share their language and as a result have come to know many Americans which has helped promote my understanding of the people.

In fact, my favourite website, is populated mostly by Americans. I always feel at home when I visit reddit, more so than when I visit a Singapore site. I recently shared this with my Facebook friends explaining why I love reddit and declared redditors to be "my people".

Language to me is a big barrier in understanding a culture and its people - this is why I find the many French and Koreans I meet in Cambodia strange. For this reason, I am interested in learning the French and Korean languages. This is also why I don't understand expats who live in Cambodia and don't make an effort to learn the language. How can you understand the people otherwise? (Not that learning the language will make you understand the Khmers, I can attest to that. It's is just a necessary, not a sufficient, condition.)

Anyway, on to Han Han.

Asia! magazine is published in Singapore by my friend Han Shih out of Singapore and has some great articles. Like this one - Chinese student offers to pay for job. Because the job market in China is so competitive, young people have to resort to taking a negative salary just to get one.

Asia! translated and published Han Han's blog post on the Foxconn suicides. (Some background for those not aware of the FoxConn scandal. "From Between Jan 2010 to May 2010, twelve Foxconn employees attempted suicide, with ten deaths... Compared to China's overall suicide rate, the suicide rate at Foxconn is not statistically aberrant but the rapid rate of the suicides is unusual...While offering an option to the [assaulted Reuters] reporter to file a police report, the police officer informed him that he is free to choose whichever option but he must note that Foxconn receives special status locally." - From Wikipedia on FoxConn).

Writes Han Han:
"If you increase the salary of Foxconn workers by tenfold, would that mean no one will kill himself? Well, only if inflation doesn’t increase tenfold. But of course the Big Boss won’t agree to it; even if he does, the government will issue orders to stop him.
"That our politicians have been able to flex their muscles in the international political arena, and play games, it’s all thanks to you – every one of you, cheap labour – for you are China’s bargaining chip, our GDP. Whether this is a consequence of China’s unique socialism or capitalism, it remains to be fathomed. What is clear is that such tragedies, much as they should be raging in our hearts, they remain splattered, smeared on the ground."
Click on here to read Han Han's entire post.

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