Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Teacher for Life

During the recent trip to Chengdu for Chinese New Year, as usual I met up with my high school friends for a drinking feast. We invited Teacher Chen, the head teacher of our class, to join us as well.

When we started our high school in 1986, Teacher Chen was given the chance for the first time to head a high school class. In today’s standard, Teacher Chen might have been considered a 愤青 (angry youth) then. She was idealistic, passionate, and silently angry at the establishment for giving the young teachers few opportunities to prove their capabilities.

1986 was an awkward yet exciting year for all of us. In Chengdu, jeans were still frowned upon and forbidden in school. Pop songs were being smuggled in from Hong Kong. Ballroom dance was just slowly sneaking back onto university campuses. Jing Yong’s martial arts fantasies, grouped together with other hand-copied fictions as corrupting and addictive, were completely off limit to the “good students”.

The school, eager to send more students to famous universities and improve its reputation, repeated the same old message of studying hard. But time was changing. At the New Year’s Eve party for 1987, a few of us danced disco, a dance considered belonging only to “hooligans”, on the creaky wooden floor in our classroom, under our classmates’ curious stares. No one was penalized afterwards.

Teacher Chen shielded us from much of the school’s criticism. Her mantra was “You have only one life. Live differently!”, which was such an invigorating message to us who had been trained all our lives to study and only study. Once, unsatisfied with our formulaic writing, she tasked us to write whatever we would want, on our lives, on our future, on our frustrations. For any one who wrote about their true thoughts and feelings, she gave a perfect score.

Another time, she let us decide on an unorthodox and highly tacky class slogan – To Live, Not Simply Living (生活,而不是活着). That slogan hanged over the blackboard for an entire semester. It was with her encouragement that we put on plays, staged a break dance performance for the school variety show, and sing pop (oh my) songs at the school singing competition.

We became good friends, highly inappropriate for teacher and students. A few of us close to her would sometimes study in her office, and report to her the latest impressionist poems or Freudian theories we had just picked on. One time we found her old love letters to the ex before her husband. When we confronted her, she blushed all over and told us we had gone too far.

Now looking back, I feel she needed us then as much as we needed her. We were all pushing along to see how far we could go. Alas, how blessed we were.

After high school, she and I continued correspondence, even after I went to America. Sometimes she would express envy at me living “freely”; sometimes she would tell me her frustration at not being able to do more, not able to win against the establishment. But in 1996 when I came out to her in a letter, she stopped writing.

It was only then I knew there’s a limit to everything that seemed too good to be true.

While waiting for her at the restaurant, my friends and I reminisced about the good old rebellious days in high school. When she finally arrived, it caused quite a stir. She had barely changed. After the warm greetings, she sat next to me, once her best student, at the dinner table.

We talked about our respective lives. She was now a special-grade teacher and had garnered many teaching awards. I asked about her students. The time is changing, she said; there were things off limit to them now but they were all doing great. I asked about her daughter who had just started a job in Singapore after graduation. The daughter missed home and wanted to move back, but Teacher Chen didn’t want her to get stuck in Chengdu, the slow-paced city which she had always considered only for those lacking ambition.

She asked what I was doing. I replied filmmaking and writing. She sighed, “If you keep on switching, how can you get far?” Then we moved on to talk about her other successful students who had gotten doctor’s degrees or were making lots of money.

I wanted to ask her then if she still taught her students To Live, Not Just Living. I wanted to tell her then that I’d always been true to our friendship, to her teaching that we should be living honestly and passionately. But my friends were falling off the chair from too much drinking, and Teacher Chen, with the pensive smile on her face, looked more and more distant.

Monday, February 20, 2006

All Quiet on the Chinese Front

I've started working for Global Voices Online (GVO) as their East Asia editor.  Here's a piece I wrote for the site today on the reaction from the Chinese-language blogosphere on the issue of media censorship in China

GVO seeks to amplify, curate and aggregate the global conversation online - with a focus on blogs outside the U.S. and Western Europe.  It's a cool and worthy service.  Check it out.

All About My Mother

About ten days ago I had a big argument with my mother. Huge argument. Tears and swearing got in the way. The issue was some family stuff, as always. The unreasonable requests from her were so obviously morally wrong and I shouldn’t even have to explain my stand. Instead, I kept on calling her back, apologizing for my behavior and comforting her.

What could I have done? She’s my mother.

Which made me think about the current debate on censorship in China. The comments from Chinese readers to my previous post Do I Have to Take A Stand? mainly expressed annoyance and incomprehension at the West’s criticism of China. So did most of the Chinese bloggers I’ve read thus far (here’s one opinion translated by ESWN). I sensed the existence of a defensive argument from my compatriots – This is our family business; leave us alone!

That’s the same argument I used with my ex who’s an American advocating Tibetan rights and preaching all the other liberal media’s criticisms of China. I explained that I could understand his points, but please understand that Chinese are very defensive about these criticisms because in our modern history we’d been repeatedly humiliated by Western colonial powers; in addition, we Chinese believe in “A son doesn’t complain about his mother’s plain looks, and a mother doesn’t pick on a son’s destitution” (子不嫌母丑,母不嫌子贫).

Last Friday I filmed an interview with a guy in his forties who was a key organizer at the family church I’m following. He was imprisoned for 2 years after the 1989 student movement. After his release, the government kept on harassing him until he couldn’t live in Beijing anymore. He moved to Hainan and did interior decoration to make a living, leading a group of migrant labors from the countryside. He came back to Beijing in 1998 and slowly found comfort in Christianity. He would worship with some of his friends from the 1989 era who had been suffering both financially and spiritually since 1989. Every so often the cops would come and disburse the congregation for fear of some political gathering.

Still, he loved China. He sang the song My Chinese Heart in front of my camera. And tears came down his face.

I can’t speak for the young kids nowadays. But for my generation and those before us, we grew up indoctrinated with the notion that China is our dear motherland, and it’s our duty to repay her love and make her, having long suffered, proud. We learned in class stories such as the Chinese students in Japan in the 1910s committing suicide to protest the humiliation they suffered as Chinese overseas. We also learned at the founding of the People’s Republic of China, many of the overseas Chinese returned to help make the motherland strong.

Of course many of them were persecuted under Mao and wasted their lives away, if having not gone crazy or been tortured to death.

My ex sometimes would counter – we Westerners are only criticizing the government; why do you always jump to associate the government with the country?

It was difficult to find a retort to that. Does the government represents “China”? What’s this mysterious “China” that we were trained to love and to sacrifice for?

I’m not a historian or anything. But I think that the Confucian culture had intentionally blurred the line between family structure and dynastic hierarchy; emperors thus became sort of the family head, demanding loyalty in the same way as the family patriarch.

And Confucius’ followers and the communists further exploited our human weakness – they put in the strict patriarchal rules (the government), yet they demanded the same devotion as our unconditional love to our mothers (the motherland).

However, is the government really a surrogate of our great dear ephemeral Motherland whom we should forgive for any wrongdoing and defend from any badmouthing? Should this devotion be as unconditional as that to our own mothers?

I’d been playing with the parallel for a week. Then over the weekend I read an article on ESWN, about the government’s refusal to allow Liu Binyan, a famous writer and political dissident from the 1989 era to return to China for medical treatment. After Liu passed away, the government orchestrated to erase his existence from people’s memory.

Disgusted, I felt compelled to take a stand – This government is not our mother. My mother, despite her great difficulty dealing with me being whom I am, still loves me and always worries about me. I came from her and I once ran away from her smothering love. But that love is real and now I’m back, I can accept the suffocating Confucian teachings just for her.

Not with this government. Not with a government that demands loyalty with no love in return.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Do I Have To Take a Stand?

Recently I found that because I’m Chinese, living in China and speaking decent English, I’ve been increasingly invited by foreign media to comment on China, especially on the red-hot Internet censorship issue since I’m also blogging. (Oh, being a “filmmaker” helps.) A Scottish paper profiled me for their Chinese New Year’s special. Business Week asked for my view on using proxy servers to get around the Great Firewall. BBC News interviewed me on Google’s censored Chinese search engine.

The reporters all requested the interviews at the last minutes for their encroaching deadlines. I always wondered – how the hell do I represent the “Chinese” view on anything in China? But hey, every one enjoys his/her 15 minutes of talk time.

Two nights ago, I joined three other “Chinese residents” for a forum discussion on BBC World Service, once again on censorship in China. It was 2am in the morning and I was thinking my 15 minutes were going too far. Of the four participants, one was an expat lawyer in Shanghai who sounded Southeast Asian, the second a British expat living in Shanghai, the third an activist artist/writer from Hong Kong, and me, the token Beijinger. I remember wondering – which of us represents the perspective of the “Chinese”?

Today purely by chance, I bumped into the blog of Yan, the Hong Kong activist artist/writer who was the only one at the forum criticizing the Chinese government throughout. Here’s what she said about me (you can also find a link on her blog to listen to the program):
Tian (my pseudonym) a film-maker who is Chinese and lives in China was very interesting. He had a very strong grasp on the political situation in China and seemed to be really intelligent and thoughtful but when pushed reverted to the usual, "People in China are not ready for free speech," because like everyone in China has been brought up to believe it will cause civil war and chaos instead of a lesser Police State. The thought passed me by to ask Tian if he ever thought it's possible he had bought into Chinese Government Propaganda and just repeating it, but not only would that have been rude but he also may not actually want the authorities on his back afterward. My friend who was listening asked me if he was being paid by the government, but I really don't think so. I think he was passionate in his own way.
Ok, I never said “People in China are not ready for free speech”. I said that for me and a small percentage of the population, free speech is important because that directly impacts what we do (Politics aside, can you imagine the film censors wouldn’t allow any ghost-movie because it’s considered superstitious?); but based on my observation, most Chinese don’t care about freedom of speech that much, with wealth-making being the current king.

I know that wasn’t much of a stand which modern media seem to demand on hot-button issues. But the longer I live in China, the more difficult I find it to take a stand, especially on issues related to China. So let me put my MBA hat back on and play with the complexity of the censorship issue with bullet points:
1. Progress or Backwards? the extent of censorship vs information availability
a. Internet is growing rapidly in China. Chinese are having access to exploding amount of information which they couldn’t have fathomed a decade ago.
b. The information is censored, especially in politics, history and news. Chinese are being goaded by the government to think in certain directions.
c. But smart people can get around the Great Firewall via proxy servers. And if one reads English, there’s no much censorship to speak of unless one considers:
  • that BBC (blocked) offers much superior and often exclusive content compared to CNN and NY Times, or
  • that speeches on Falun Gong, pro-Taiwan-independence and anti-Communist-party (I mean politically anti) are unalienable rights for the average Chinese.
2. Why are the laowais so ga-ga?
a. Why are the foreign media working up so high a frenzy over this? Don’t they know they can’t impose their will on China, if Chinese don’t want to change themselves?
b. Of course the foreigners care, because that’s in the core of their value system. Without them being ga-ga over this, the situation in China would be worse.
c. Worse. Hmm. Really? That’s very conceited. Do they want to repeat Iraq in China?
d. And who says free speech is essential to an acceptable society? Look at Singapore. Look at all the democracies that can’t feed their own people. Press freedom is not the most urgent issue in China.
e. What’s the urgent issue in China then? Without press and political freedom, none of China’s current major problems can be solved satisfactorily.

3. Do Chinese care?
a. The average Chinese I know doesn’t. Of course we can always argue about my sample size, and the predisposition in my observation.
b. But if given the chance (free speech in education and public discourse), would Chinese cherish the freedom then?
c. And why do we care about the “average” Chinese? Every individual deserves the full human rights declared in the UN charter.
d. That’s just a pipe dream! People want to make their lives better first.
e. How long will this “first” last? Any longer we Chinese would truly live like panda bears, growing fat and not thinking. We have to start changing.

4. How to change?
a. Ok, to change, but how? You expect the people who have power will suddenly see the light?
b. If only the communists will lose their power! But wait, what are the alternatives? Go to New York and listen to the squabbling of the dissident groups. Or interview the university students in Beijing and ask for their definition of democracy and see how many of them support voting rights for the peasants. It’s not entirely a political issue. It’s a cultural issue as well.
c. So what are you saying? Paralyzed by the difficulties?
d. No no no. Change has to happen. But the Chinese have to figure it out themselves. The foreign media can continue to go ga-ga over this. Will all the media attention serve much purpose beyond acting as the fad of the day though? I wonder.

Whew! Now these bullet points are off my chest, what a relief! Now you see why I wouldn’t want to take a stand – it’s simply too exhausting to weigh the bullet points all at once.

What if I have to take a stand then? What if as in my business-school strategy class, there’s a professor who demands a stand from me, telling me “after you’ve done Porter’s five-force analysis for the company’s proposed entry into a brand new market, after you’ve compared the costs and benefits, you have 60 seconds to make a recommendation to the CEO, what would it be?”

Indeed, what would it be?

I would forget about the bullet points, forget about analysis, forget about my desire to go with the “average” Chinese (because I don’t know the “average” Chinese and my decision has zero influence over the “average” Chinese’s), and stake my stand based only on me, on what I, as an individual, would want in a democratic society, because that’s the only decision making process capable of making any honest sense to me – I don’t want to live in a society that doesn’t allow me to express myself freely!

But wait, would that land me in prison?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Overheard (I)

10:30am. I was riding in a taxi to the aptly-named Fortune Plaza for a meeting. No traffic jam on the narrow Guang Hua Road which is usually jammed like a parking lot during rush hours.

I gratefully noted my observation to the driver. The driver concurred that we should be thankful whenever traffic in downtown Beijing is bearable. Then he pointed to the right hand side of the road where CCTV (China Central Television) is building its huge ultra-modern tower, “Why the hell are they cramming into the CBD (Central Business District) as well? It’d make traffic much worse.”

Can’t the city just broaden Guang Hua Road, like what they’ve been doing elsewhere in Beijing? I asked. As much as I hate the city becoming more and more like LA, I hate getting stuck in traffic more.

“You kidding?” The driver mocked in a humored way. “Here in CBD, every inch of land is worth an inch of gold. None of these private enterprises would be willing to let go of any land to road construction.”

Why is CCTV moving from its current obscure location to CBD, one of the most expensive business districts in Beijing then?

“Greed. What else?” The driver shrugged. “It’s all about finding schemes to convert state-owned property into private wealth. With this huge tower, they can rent space out to other companies. Who knows who get to pocket the money?”

“Last week I went to the Diaoyutai State Guest House and picked up a retired ex-minister.” He continued as the newly built Fortune Plaza came into view. “He was on an evening out for private businesses, so he didn’t take his own chauffeur. In my cab, he was on the phone constantly talking about land deals.”

Aren’t there too many retired ex-ministers in Beijing for them to have much power anymore? I asked.

“Not at all. On the contrary they are all out to grab whatever they can. I remember the ex-minister in my cab yelling to his phone, ‘you’ll die if you lose this land deal for me’. Humph, it’s worse than the Kuomintang (the Nationalist party that ruled China before the communists).”

Humph. I shared my brief moment of indignation with him as the cab pulled to a stop. What is there for one to do anyway beyond venting now and then with cab drivers?

The Problem With Piracy

Last month I wrote a piece for a popular American radio show defending piracy in China. Here's the (relatively) short piece:
Last summer I went to a workshop on digital video production. A professor from the Beijing Film Academy reminded us one day to rush out and buy pirated DVDs of all Hollywood classics. The government would start cracking down on piracy sooner or later, she said, and it would become harder to learn about film making.

In China, I hear all kinds of pro-piracy arguments. Some argue that in a country where the average annual income is around $1000, legal Hollywood DVDs are simply too expensive. Or there’s the “quality-of-life” argument: that without piracy, entertainment options would be reduced to bland Chinese television, anemic domestic movie productions and the 20 blockbuster movies imported from overseas every year.

I’m a documentary film maker, so my argument is different: truth is, I need pirated DVDs to keep up with the latest in the industry. China has no Blockbuster, NetFlix or a meaningful public library system. As a result, without piracy, I’d never see the likes of Inside Deep Throat, Supersize Me, or The Grizzly Man. Ditto for young Chinese musicians who are getting exposure to the international music scene from pirated CDs.
In a country where media is still tightly controlled by the government, piracy seems the only way for un-fettered information access other than the Internet.

Still, I’m willing to pay a LITTLE extra for the legit stuff. Or at least I was. Last year, when Warner Brothers lowered the price of some DVDs in China to RMB 23, a little less than 3 dollars, I bought a copy of Batman Begins. But there were no DVD extras or even language selection. And Chinese censors had cut short a scene in which a woman’s dress fell off her shoulder.

I didn’t care about the bare shoulder of the beautiful actress, but I’ve decided to stick with piracy for a while. If we only had access to legal media products that have passed the censors, we would only get the likes of Titanic, Backstreet Boys and Batman with no shoulder exposed, products as mind numbing as the communist propaganda.

So maybe, Hollywood should stop being so afraid of piracy in China. Maybe corporate benefits could take a back seat for a while, in the name of the grand ideal of promoting democracy and open societies all over the world. When China has become truly open and the economy has improved for all of its population, not just the lucky few, then Hollywood can easily come in and reap billions more in rewards.
My point seems to have been further validated by what happened to two films in the past month: The Chinese government retracted the approval for Memoirs of A Geisha, citing the possibility of its release fanning anti-Japanese sentiment; it also refused to allow importing Brokeback Mountain due to the movie’s “inappropriate” content, in sharp contrast to our “compatriots” across the strait in Taiwan who are going to the theaters in droves to support director Ang Lee, their native son.

Luckily piracy comes to the rescue. All over China DVDs of both movies can be found from every street corner vendor and every neighborhood DVD shop. No anti-Japanese protest or sexual delinquency has resulted from their wide availability.
But piracy does have its problem – the subtitles for new releases (usually pirated from festival screeners thus have no official subtitles) are often misleading, if not outright mistaken. Sometimes I wonder if a Chinese high school kid is being caged somewhere in a pirated DVD factory and just types whatever English words s/he recognizes from the movie dialogues.

For Brokeback Mountain, there are many confused fans. One sought help after reading a review of Brokeback Mountain online:
[translated] Every one please advise – what has the death of Ennis’ father to do with his relationship with Jack? … Is Ennis’ father gay?
Apparently the fan watched a DVD with a subtitle telling Ennis’ father as one of the gay killing victims in the film, which is completely false.

Another reviewer wrote:
[translated] Jack opens his wardrobe (at the end of the movie) and sees a photo of the Brokeback Mountain and two blood-stained shirts. He murmured in tears: “How could you leave me?” The delicate directing of Ang Lee renders one unable to hold back tears.
Hmm. “How could you leave me?” is too Asian-soap-opera-ish to be anywhere near delicate. When a reader pointed out that the last line of the movie was “Jack, I swear…”, another reader responded defensively:
[translated] “I wear…” includes many possible meanings. As to whether subtitles need to be accurate, the standards for a typical audience and a movie critic are probably different…
It is amazing how the audience can be moved to tears simply by the sound and image; story and dialogue be damned.

Ang Lee should be really proud.

Monday, February 13, 2006

From Turkey to Riceballs

When I first arrived in the US in 1992, the food I had the most difficulty getting used to were cheese and turkey. I overcame the aversion to cheese after some persistent trips to the neighborhood McDonald’s. Back in China, I had never had the luxury of visiting the McD; the few outlets pioneering in China then were grouped in with Michael Jackson and Coca Cola as symbols of America, the top of the Chinese hierarchy of Western civilizations.

I got used to cheese from the cheese burgers which seemed always on sale for a dollar each, a huge bargain for a piece of the American dream. I would go at least every other day, until I got so sick of it and switched to Burger King. Alas, those were the innocent days before Supersize Me came to the big screen.

The turkey, however, took a lot longer to sink in. The first Thanksgiving I had in the US, the hosts, who were fellow Chinese graduate students in the medical school, made sure we had roasted chicken from the local Chinese restaurant besides the huge turkey. Over the meal, we groaned over turkey and reminisced about the tender chicken and duck back home. What were the Americans thinking to stuff in their mouth such dry meat as turkey?

But my Chinese friends and I kept on having Thanksgiving dinners. Except for one year when we gave up and only had Chinese chicken, we ordered turkey every year at the local supermarkets like the happy Americans we saw in TV commercials. In the late 90s, I started having Thanksgiving dinners with my American friends. They helped me discover all sorts of fancy cranberry sauces, which made turkey bearable.

So last night, invited to a dinner at an expat-friend’s penthouse apartment, I decided to bring rice balls. It was the night before the Lantern Festival, the end of the lunar new year celebration and the day to eat rice balls. I wanted to introduce the tradition to the expats at the party.

I cooked the rice balls in boiling water (no I didn’t make them despite my prior proclamation of missing the old days making rice balls with my dad; I bought them plastic wrapped) and put three (the number symbolizing plenty) in each bowl.

All the expats who had studied many years in China and knew how to speak Chinese finished the rice balls. Among the three who didn’t speak Chinese, only one took a small bite.

On our way home, my boyfriend asked me why I was quiet. I told him that I was thinking – why had I looked down on my Chinese friends who didn’t bother to try to like cheese and turkey in America as culturally unadventurous? Why did I laugh at my mother because she insisted on us bringing camping stove so she could have instant noodle with Sichuan hot sauce in Las Vegas? (Ok, she was a little extreme for she disliked any restaurant that was not genuinely Sichuanese.) Our expat friends had just ignored our Chinese tradition in China without even a bat of their eyelids.

My Chinese friends and I had tried hard to learn the American way in America. In a village follow the local customs (入乡随俗). The anti-immigrant population in the US and Europe seemed to be demanding the same. But many of the expats I know in Beijing, especially the new batch coming here for the “opportunities”, are not doing that. They dined in Italian or Persian restaurant, danced in dive bars with only pretty Chinese girls in sight, and read books written by fellow expats about their kindred insight on China.

Instead of brushing aside my reminiscence as bourgeois nonsense, my boyfriend nodded his head, like a good Taiwanese. “Indeed,” he said, “those expats come here and want to make a buck. But they don’t know or even care for local customs. I doubt if they’d go far.”

The cab drove by an upscale apartment complex in front of which fireworks were exploding. Indeed, I nodded my head in reply – capitalism speaks much louder than cultural nuisances. If the US wasn’t the land of Bill-Gates-style billionaire dreams, you think many of my Chinese friends would pretend to enjoy cheese and turkey?

Likewise, without a taste for rice balls, even if affected, how could one capture a slice of the saliva-inducing economic miracle of China?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Different Kind of Spam

Last night around 7pm the land-line phone rang in my Beijing apartment, as I was getting ready for a dinner party. The caller ID indicated a number from overseas. I picked up the phone and found a pre-recorded Chinese program coming through the line. I was about to hang up on the spam call before I heard the name “Gao Zhisheng” mentioned in the program.

Gao was the dissident human rights lawyer I had interviewed before. So I listened to the whole 5-minute program over the phone. It was a broadcast from Radio Hope. The first part was about the government’s persecution of Falun Gong believers, and quoted extensively an interview with Gao who had represented some persecuted believers in court. The second part of the program told how a banned article in China, Examine CCP Nine Times, was causing massive numbers of communist party members to drop their party memberships. At the end of the program, I was prompted to press different buttons on my phone to withdraw my membership in the party or the Communist Youth League.

Regardless of how one feels about Falun Gong, we have to give them credits for their use of modern technology to penetrate China’s huge censorship barrier and spam their messages over phone lines. Yet somehow I felt apprehensive at the call, imagining all the photons and electrons moving over cross-Pacific cables and finagling their way into our apartment, as if I was besieged by an impending sense of gloom.

Oh well, I must have spent too much time reading Mao: The Untold Stories.

Cultural Misunderstanding

I was waiting for the bus with my dad a few days ago on a cold Chengdu evening when Terry called from Beijing. After exchanging some greetings, she said I have a cultural question for you. I cringed in silence – please not another question about how to exchange business cards in China.

Terry is a friend of a friend from the US. She had just finished her MBA degree and decided to brave the new Wild Wild East – China. Starry-eyed but knowing little about the Chinese language and culture, she’s having some great difficulty adjusting to life in Beijing. So I fully expected a quick Chinese Culture 101 with her over the phone.

“The situation is like this,” she started in her cheerful yet restrained New York accent. “I’ve been in touch with this Chinese guy who owns a trading firm. He was introduced to me by an old colleague of mine. I was hoping to someday get a job from him, which would be ideal.”

Ok, I said. The pay probably would suck big time though, I contemplated to myself.

“So we’ve been hanging out. He invited me to dinner a couple of times. I didn’t worry at all because he’s married with two kids. Last night he invited me to go to a massage parlor with him, which I thought a little weird. But he said that in China people talked about business all the time at massage places. Is that true?”

That’s true, I told her. All my male business friends do that. Is this the cultural question she’s asking?

“No no,” she replied. “There’s more. The massage place was actually cool. Upscale. There’s buffet dinner. People walked around in their bathrobes. There were even mah-jong and cigar rooms. He got a nice room with two beds for us. We both got massages.”

All sounded fine then.

“Here’s the problem,” she said. “After we were done, the masseurs left discreetly. Then he came over to my bed and tried to kiss me! I pushed him away. I felt so awful. He has a wife at home with two teenage girls. My question is – is it culturally ok for a single woman to hang out with a married man in China? Did I mislead him in agreeing on having dinner with him?”

I started laughing. People at the bus stop stared at me. I explained to her that as far as I knew, contrary to the stereotype of Chinese loving and respecting their families, successful married Chinese men loved massage parlors and mistresses. You didn’t mislead him; he misled himself, I assured her.

I laughed at the irony of Chinese still believing that Americans have loose morals and are always ready for casual sex, like in Sex And The City and Desperate Housewives.

“But I felt awful. Think about the wife and two kids!” She didn’t buy into my casual rationalizing. I laughed even harder. This is not America, Terry, where affairs are guilt-ridden and hush-hush. This is the China you came for, the Wild Wild East. I suggested that she talk to the guy, if only to relieve her own guilt.

“I did,” Terry responded immediately. “But he refused to talk about it. I told him that I hoped this ‘incident’ wouldn’t impair our friendship and possible future professional relationship. He just kept silent. In the end, he mumbled that it’s all a ‘cultural misunderstanding’. Am I missing something cultural here?”

How would I know Terry? This is a country I only half understand, I said. What is merely in flux and what’s essentially Chinese? And when does a cultural difference become a moral difference, and vice versa?

These are all interesting, if trivial, questions Terry. I said to her while still laughing, under the cold stare of the others still waiting at the bus stop.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Pay Per Fortune

A good friend called from Taipei on the 2nd day of the Chinese New Year to wish me a happy new year. I should go to a temple, he said; the 2nd day of the new year was the day to seek gods’ help in suppressing the evil spirits (压太岁), otherwise the spirits would harass me for the entire year.

I hung up the phone and realized that I had forgotten to ask whether I should go pray to Buddhist or Taoist gods. I searched online and couldn’t find the tradition of 压太岁 on the 2nd day of the new year. But my friend being from the tradition-minded Taiwan, he must’ve known better.

So I dragged my parents to the Green Ram Monastery.

The Green Ram Monastery is reputedly the largest Taoist Monastery in the entire Sichuan province. The legend holds that Lao-Tse (604-531 BCE), the founder of Taoism, once passed by Chengdu pulling a green ram. On the site where he delivered some teaching was later built a Taoist monastery. The monastery was already famous in the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). One Tang emperor even sought refuge there in a peasant uprising. The current complex was built in the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644-1911); so was its namesake, two bronze rams with features from all of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals.

(Of course I didn’t know any of that when I went with my parents; I just googled it as I began writing. Growing up in Chengdu, we only knew there were two bronze rams whose noses we would rub for good fortune.)

We passed by a long line of people in ragged Mao-era clothes before we reached the gate of the monastery. Half of them were begging. The other half sat on low stools and laid out simple letter-size advertising in front, offering Taoist fortune-telling services. Neither group had any customers. The weather was warm though so most just sat back and squinted their eyes at the passers-by.

The monastery was having a swell business on that day. Many Chinese families were busy kowtowing from one temple to another, holding thick bundles of incense. Instead of offering 3 sticks of incense each time, as the tradition suggested, most lit up a thick bundle like a torch when they prayed for good fortune. The more the merrier, which seemed to be the guiding mantra for everything in China.

My parents didn’t believe in any religion; neither did I. But I still encouraged them to leave some cash in the donation boxes and pray to the myriad of Taoist gods. They prayed for their own health and of course, for me making a lot of money in 2006. We also lined up for a chance to walk to a huge wall of grey bricks, with our eyes shut tight, and touch the three big Chinese characters carved on it – Fortune (福), Prosperity (禄), Longevity (寿).

Traditions like these are probably dumb, yet still too beautiful to leave behind.
We visited the main hall, the Temple of The Three Pure Ones, at the end of a long stretch of temples. It was particularly crowded with worshipers since it was the only temple offering divination sticks.

As my mom’s insistence, I kowtowed three times and then picked up the bamboo box of divination sticks. I shook it with my eyes closed. The sticks rattled. Finally a stick jumped out. It’s 66, a lucky number in China.

A girl in jump suit directed me to a corner of the temple. I paid 10 yuan to a Taoist priest who handed me a sheet of ink paper associated with 66. My fortune was supposedly printed on it in Taoist jargons.

The girl in jump suit then directed me to one of the four diviners in the temple. The Taoist priests in the monastery all wear long robes and kept their long hair tied up in knots on top of their skull. This one, however, was in a traditional cotton coat and his hair was short.

He examined my fortune sheet and asked, “what do you want to know?”

“His career,” my mom jumped in. My dad concurred, “yes, his career.”

The diviner pondered for a moment, silently counting with the fingers of his left hand. He looked in his late 20s or early 30s, yet his calm demeanors exuded a wisdom beyond his age. Taoism is reputed to have a sophisticated system to predict the future. Many in China swore belief in the accuracy of its foretelling, if not in its gods.

Then the diviner started slowly, “This year will be a transition for your career.” That’s accurate, I thought; I had been transitioning close to 2 years, but this year had to be the year.

As if sensing my earnestness, he continued, “It won’t be that great, this year. You won’t make much money. (My parents tensed up, looking disappointed.) But this year will lay great foundation for the coming years. In 2007, your career will take off. (My parents relaxed into grateful smiles.) But,”

He paused and counted some more with his left fingers,

“I see you run into bad people in the months of April and July. You need to be careful.” He looked up at me with his eyes full of quiet concerns, and continued, “The nunnery next door had some jade charms blessed on new year’s eve. You should go check them out. Maybe buy one. It will help you through the difficult months. We have volunteers working here who can show you way to the nunnery.” He looked up and gestured towards the girl who lead us to him in the first place.

The girl came over and he added, “you don’t have to buy. Just go and take a look.”

I politely declined and led my parents out of the temple. Then I laughed out loud and hard – I knew in this modern China, such a popular tourist destination couldn’t resist the temptation to sell. Yes, fortunes had always been for sale in temples; but why this insidious cloaking?

I spotted a genuinely-looking Taoist priest sitting at a far corner of the temple. I stepped back in the temple and walked to him. The desk in front of him had a tiny Taoist ten-thousand-year calendar on it. The young priest looked positively ennuied.

I asked whether all fortune-tellers in the temple were priests from the monastery. He rolled his eyes at me, “can’t you tell who are real and who are not?”

Then why the monastery allowed fakes in the temple peddling bogus foretelling and jade charms? I persisted.

“Aiyaya, they are tourist guides. How do we dare pushing them out of the gate?” He shifted in his stool.

“You mean if you anger them, they’d no longer bring tourists to the monastery?”

He stole a look at the hustle-bustle around the fortune tellers on the other side of the temple, and avoided answering my question directly, “Karma is always at work. They will get what they deserve in the future.”

Impressed by his Buddhist wisdom, I took out my fortune sheet and asked for his real Taoist advice on my career.

He read for a brief moment in silence.

“You need to be careful about time.” He said.

“What about time? Be more efficient?” I asked.

“Time.” He pushed away my fortune sheet in utter boredom. “It’s all about time.”

And then he looked away.