John Hug in China Using Chopsticks and Doing Other Things He Shouldn't

Essay-Photo Contest Submission Entry

I came to China to fulfill a desire to see what people did in the real world and adamantly neither as a tourist with a fanny pack, nor as a conquistador, nor as Indiana Jones. To know the difference between 你好 and a bumbling; 你好吗. A freshly minted bachelor of the arts, I planned to weather the storm the TOEFL forecasted with a bookish reliance on dusty theory that told me it didn’t have to be Western to be good. I would be able to rise above, better yet, to color in my skeleton sketch of what humanity was with flesh and blood from another hemisphere, and to do so without leaving an imprint; to be a fly-on-the-wall. This became my morality; to fail to understand the upcoming differences as good or reasonable in some context, or at least to continue to view these differences as evidence of inferior-non-sense, was to fail the next year long step in my education, and to become no more than a tourist or a conquistador traveling to subjugate.

Whether a cherished exemplar of inferiority, or a merely a nuisance, I’ll never forget that Chinese drivers don’t drive on the streets. And while personal experiences may cause you to think I mean that they drive on the sidewalks, and I do mean that, I also mean that they scramble on the streets. The word scramble is good because it evokes self-interested desperation, like what you do when you get on one of those courageous buses. 不好意思啊.

These roads have claimed hours of my life, and perhaps a more morbid reading of that will be in my future. After a stint of classes, which for me can occur anywhere in Nanjing, the arduous journey oscillating between a balancing act standing in the aisle to a knee-locking, sweat-dripping, arm-cramping, eyelid-drooping standstill, Chinese road manners, and the problems they spawn, caused me to question more than just my sanity, but a culture’s sanity entirely.

My morality ran home to its maker, searching in this case for some social theory, something once the bread and butter of a now-dead white guy. Collectivist, I thought, recalling a class in that hotel. For obvious reasons, collectivism doesn’t seem to explain this beautiful confirmation of a stereotype. I didn’t snap that picture of the traffic in the moment; I went out and shot it, a game that was like hunting dodo bird. But I was determined to pick myself out of this funk, a factor I argue is more important in this energizing and immersing process than is licking and pasting theoretical onto practical. Besides, we all knew I had nothing better to do besides deeply inhaling another’s smoke and watching a baby pee into a trashcan (still on the moving bus). ‘Well, what if everyone was competent, they looked after himself or herself, and if they each did that the best, the collective would be best off…?’ Kinda like ants, except with gasoline and metal, and honking. It was a start, and it is where I’m at now. I admit, it is not much of theory, it surely wouldn’t survive a dissertation review; more worthy of BS than my BA. But it’s as plausible as believing that Chinese drivers are terrible; test out that theory on the streets, and see how long you last.

Then there is the staring. Often perpetrated by giggling gaggles of college-age girls but occasionally the wrinkled eyes of an adorable 5’3’’ old lady ready to 你好 endlessly if you catch her. I’ve heard the horror stories, especially of those who’ve opted to don dreadlocks. I have, however, undergone a strange but common conversation…”Where are you from?” my principal asked. “America,” said I, something she already knew. “But, you don’t look American.” Now, I’d heard of this before, but not to someone like me. I could tan with whitening cream. We concluded that my ancestry was probably Polish, hell if I know. Obviously then, I proceeded to overlay various forms of progressive racism thinking upon her in my mind, extrapolating how insulting this conversation could be if I was another color, and this was America.

A Pakistani man from Karachi helped change that fatigued approach. He met us as we were doing paperwork at the police station: we being I the ‘American’, my ‘Indian’ friend, my ‘Ugandan’ friend, and my ‘Chinese’ friend (born and raised Lakers fan). Despite our arguments that we were all Americans, he responded; “but that's where you are from.” During my colleague’s negative reactions, wheels turned under my uneasy laughter. I learned an obvious fact, that in many other places around the world, race and collective community are more closely correlated, especially in a place like this, when more than 99% of the people are Han-Chinese. Homogeneity is the word, and I believe that I am privileged to be able to disambiguate race and community so easily. At least, I consider this staring; this preoccupation with blood and appearance, as less heinous than it would be back home. Perhaps even, we can learn something about ourselves. Perhaps we are foolish, wrapped in our fantasy of a rainbow collective, to pretend that this conflation of race and community is barbaric.

That leaves us to 筷子, chopsticks. They are obviously inferior to our forks. Who would honestly take two, long spears instead of four short, dexterous ones. Oh wait, is uncouth to spear? I might as well eat with my elbows. And half the stuff is round or slippery. that brings us to the picture of the round table. The spinny table, piled with alien plants and recently slain animals and overhanging plates that inevitably tip over somebody’s wine or, god forbid, the 白酒.

But this is that aforementioned collectivism at its finest, and possibly far superior to our individualist way of eating. The wheel facilitates sharing, and the chopsticks are delicate forefingers and thumbs, picking out what you desire instead of stabbing and scooping. Something about the latter exudes imperialism as you fork your flag in the fish-eye, while the former is merely claiming your ration. Not to mention it bogs Darwinist gluttons like me, whose family has otherwise learned to sample the options before passing to me.

None of this is to fish for a confidence to embark on a graduate career; I don’t mean to say that China can be explained through harder, more thoughtful application of collectivism, or any single theory. My academics told me to never reduce 1.6 billion to that. Its no more insightful than any of your dealings with culture fatigue; just because my descent from the isolation of my 30th story bed and memories of Chipotle involves a fanciful ascent of an ivory tower, does not include that it is superior, recommended, or effective. But its my tale of how I deal with the fatigue, how I get out of being stuck between the un-insulated walls spitefully eating McDonalds as my sense melted away and failure crept in. How, even if I’m not participating, still so to speak a ‘fly-on-the-wall,’ as in I’m not fully immersed with a personalized pair of chopsticks and a Mao hat, I’m nonetheless breaking down my walls and preconceptions. In that sense, I’m not a fly, and someday, I’ll eat the fish eye.

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