This blog is becoming a bit of a hybrid of what’s going on in Asia and how Trump and his cronies are working to destroy the U.S. as we know it.  The latter part of that last sentence may be a bit of hyperbole, though after some of the speeches at the CPAC conference, including Bannon’s, I wonder how much of that sentiment is really hyperbole. Yet that is a thought for another time or perhaps it will just continue to unfold in the messy way it has since Trump won the election.

Yesterday, Trump rolled back Obama era protections for transgender students that allowed them to use the bathroom of their choice.  Putting aside the legality of such a move given that the original decision was supported by Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, Trumps move raises two interesting points.  One, it’s a policy decision that re-opens the culture wars that the Republican Party and many voters were hoping to move beyond.  Two, it’s a relatively low-stakes policy move on the part of the Trump administration consistent with his seeming “do-little” approach to governing since taking office a month ago.

During the last presidential election, cultural issues related to gender and sexuality seemed to take a backseat to economic and national security issues.  The 2016 election was certainly a far cry from 2004 when it seemed that cultural issues were guiding both the left and right.  Think about what Trump campaigned on – jobs and national security, with which I am including immigration.  While I am sure there are many conservatives who are applauding this move, it’s interesting how muted the support has been from members of Congress who seem to want to avoid the controversy that engulfed North Carolina on a national level.  While polls show the American public pretty evenly split on bathroom access, if Americans were asked where they prioritize this issue relative to jobs, health care, the economy, national security, or even Russia, I am sure that this issue would be a rather low priority in terms of on what Americans want their politicians to focus.  Congratulations President Trump on firing another shot in the culture wars and taking the heat off of your ability to actually get things done that voters care about.

So the second point is that we now have one of Trump’s first major policy dictating who should be using which bathrooms in our nation’s schools.  The move does not seem like it’s going to do much to bring jobs back to the Rust Belt or Coal Country or help protect our borders, yet this is one of the matters on which he is expending his political capital.  It’s actually quite Trumpian in its simple logic.  He knows full well that repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act or bringing back manufacturing and mining jobs are herculean, if not impossible tasks.  He also has the attention span of a gnat and such policy prescriptions would never fit on a single page, so he turns to something that is both easy to understand and execute on, while satisfying conservatives that he remains true to their principals.  I don’t know what’s worse in a Trump administration, barely governing or barreling full steam ahead and running into all sorts of potential roadblocks.  I’d argue the latter because at least then there is a chance of failure, which would hopefully set us up for something better than what we are currently getting.  This barely governing approach that involves throwing some red meat policy moves to his supporters could turn into a war of attrition where the opposition in all its forms simply grows tired and gives up before turning back the tide on what could be the end of America as we know it.

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My apologies for being offline the the past three weeks, but I was back in the States for Chinese New Year to see family and friends, as well as take care of some work over there and just returned to Asia this past Monday where I’ve been busy working and setting up my new home in Hong Kong.  So it’s fitting that I am sitting at my beloved Starbucks in the Garden City Mall in Shenzhen about an hour or so before I am due to move out of my room here and bring all of my worldly possessions to Hong Kong, meaning all four suitcases-worth.

Heading home for any extended period of time and then returning to China means that I have some room to process all that’s happened during the time I’ve been here, as well as answer questions from family and friends about what they might have seen or heard about China in the news.  The two topics dominating any conversations I had about China were either the stock market and economy or the continued crackdown on political and civil liberties, including the ongoing case of the missing Hong Kong booksellers.

Having some space from China, I still feel that this is a country heading in the wrong direction at the moment.  It’s not that it can’t or won’t turn itself around, but almost daily there is another news headline that makes me shake my head and wonder what’s really going on here.  The latest was President Xi’s visit to the country’s major news and media organizations in China explicitly telling them to act as a mouthpiece for the party.  This new policy is another attempt to exert greater control over another aspect of Chinese society that has the potential to create social instability.  However, like many previous moves, this one smacks of insecurity and coming at a time when there are questions around China’s ability to manage its economy, it’s clear this is another attempt to mask potential problems that may exist in the system.  If these problems somehow were brought to light, there is a real fear that people would not be happy and social unrest could erupt.  Definitely not a move of a leader in control of his country.

Beyond that, I have been thinking more about Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and other cities that see themselves as other in the context of Greater China.  Hong Kong is probably the most salient example of this trend in light of protests over the years against certain actions taken or policies put forth by the mainland.  The largest of recent memory being the Umbrella Revolution in the fall of 2014 triggered by Beijing shifting the goalposts on universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.  The alleged kidnapping of the booksellers has only added accelerated this feeling of “other-ness” that seems to run deep among Hong Kongers.  However, more interesting and something that only really hit me this morning as I was being driven around Shenzhen in an area known as the Hi-Tech Park where some of Chinas biggest tech companies have their offices including Tencent, ZTE, and DJI. I saw all these twenty-something tech workers running to work and the scene could have just as easily been one from Silicon Valley.  Shenzhen is a city trying to build its future on technology and finance as it firmly sheds its industrial past.  More interesting is the fact that very few people in Shenzhen are actually from Shenzhen, so the city does not have to hew closely to a long-established culture.  Many people (mainly foreigners visiting or living here, including myself at times) bemoan the lack of a deep-rooted culture.  But my riding partner that morning who has lived here for quite some time even though she is not from here framed this lack of a deep-rooted culture in a positive way that I had not considered before.  She claimed that this lack of culture meant that the city was building something new from the ground up, which made Shenzhen much more open than any other Chinese city that is hemmed in by its past.  You can see it in all the new skyscrapers, shiny shopping malls, and tech companies pushing the Chinese innovation storyline.  But I had not thought about it in terms of what it means for a city and its outlook, as well as its place in the national narrative.  The conversation was sparked by my question about whether Shenzhen was different than other parts of China and upon receiving an emphatic “yes”, I followed up and was presented with this theory.  If Shenzhen can perhaps be added to the “other” category because of its short history, lack of a strong local culture, and welcoming people from all over China with easy access to Hong Kong, I wonder what this means for the future of the city and more importantly, China as perhaps other cities begin to see themselves as different than the rest of the country, which would be a rather backhanded way of unravelling the social cohesion that President Xi working so hard to maintain.  Something to be explored further in another post, but wanted to get it out there because it’s something I feel like I am going to be thinking about for quite some time.  But now I must finish packing and make my way back to Hong Kong.

It’s New Year’s Eve here in China with the Year of the Monkey slated to begin at midnight and Shenzhen has the feeling of a bit of a ghost town with the streets largely empty of traffic, stores all closing early so that people can spend time with their families, and those that are out moving at a rather languid pace as the week-long holiday gets underway.  I feel a bit like a Jew on Christmas Eve in that my family is 8000 miles away in Jersey, but I can’t even enjoy Chinese food for dinner because all of those restaurants will be closed this evening.  So instead I went down to Sea World, the expat haven of restaurants, and took out some hummus and a Cobb salad from Element Fresh so that I would not go starving this evening.  It’s probably also a good thing that things are relatively quiet today because I need to pack for my trip tomorrow back to the States, which is really a full day endeavor because I cannot stand packing.

It’s been a few days since I last wrote and the past week really felt like everyone going into vacation mode knowing that school would be closed for the week.  I was in double vacation mode because I knew that I was also heading back to the States.  But even though it felt like an odd week, it does not mean that China was taking a break from its usual assault on the senses.

Last night was perhaps one of the odder encounters I’ve had since being here this time around.  I had just taken the ferry back to Shekou after a day in Hong Kong furniture shopping, setting things up for my new apartment, and catching a few drinks with friends.  Trying to be economical, I took the bus from the ferry terminal back to my apartment.  It’s actually quite easy because the ferry terminal is only a ten-minute ride from Apartment One and all the buses that run by there also stop at the ferry terminal, so it would have been irresponsible not to take the bus.  Anyway, I’m sitting on the bus talking to one of my best friends back in New York when I notice an older white man in a leopard-print fleece and his Chinese lady friend get on the bus one stop later and sit directly across from me.  I don’t pay them much attention beyond noting the fleece and continue on with my conversation. Two stops later, they get up to get off the bus and the old man stops right in front of me, puts his hand on my knee and with his boozy breath on my face hisses with a British accent ,”Go back to where you came from you f*#king Moos-lim.”  I was startled and in that split second decided not to engage with this man. It also took me a second for what he said to register because it was so absurd.  He then exited the bus and the few people still on, along with the driver just looked at me.  They knew something had happened, but were not quite sure exactly what.  There were so many things wrong with that moment from his inherent hatred of Muslims to mistakenly identifying me as one to getting in my space and touching me.  I guess my coloring is a bit darker than most people and I am sporting a bit of a winter beard in preparation for winter back in the States, but I had been yammering away in English to my friend and for the life of me cannot figure out what prompted this man to lash out at me in that way. It’s alarming on a deeper level because even if I was Muslim, such treatment is inexcusable an constitutes harassment for something for which one should not be harassed.  A day later I am still baffled by this man’s behavior and while I can easily chalk it up to his inebriated state, there’s always truth in the drink and I believe that this interaction is no exception.

As I watch the presidential race play out and the implicit (and sometimes explicit) distrust and even outright hatred for Muslims on display, including in yesterday’s latest GOP presidential debate when President Obama received flack for visiting a mosque to show solidarity with American Muslims, I experienced some of that here in Shenzhen, China from an old white man in a leopard-print fleece at 9:45pm on a Saturday night.  I wasn’t going to explain what had happened to the bus driver or the other passengers because China has its own complicated issues with Muslims, often using the rationale of terrorism to harass and imprison the Uighurs in Xinjiang who often rail against the Chinese government for more freedom and autonomy.  Even though I am not Muslim, I am alarmed that such hatred exists and that this man would shower his hatred upon a total stranger who was doing nothing by minding his own business having a conversation on his phone.  As for a larger takeaway, I am not sure I have just one, but there a lot of hatred out there and if it’s not Muslims, it can just as easily be another group of people, most of whom have done nothing to deserve such blanket hatred.

Not only am I baffled, but I am shaken that this stranger got up in my video like that motivated purely by his own hatred.  As a Jewish gay American, I have plenty of other identities that easily arouse irrational hatred in people, so while I had this experience based upon something I’m not, I’m acutely aware of the dangers that exist out there in people who harbor prejudices and are not afraid to act upon them.  It was definitely a wake-up call and just drives home the idea that irrational hatred and prejudice is the same for all of us, no matter the specific target, and it’s something those of us who are still rational should do everything in our power to fight and eradicate.

新年快乐 (Xin Nian Kuai Le) Happy New Year!

 

Home Sweet Hong Kong

November 21, 2015

I’ve been back in Asia over a week at this point and made my first trip to Hong Kong yesterday for meetings.  I’m staying the weekend because my brother and his wife are swinging through at the tail-end of the honeymoon in SE Asia and I am really excited to show them around this city that was my first home after college.

Coming back to Hong Kong is always filled with a mix of nostalgia and awe at both how quickly the city changes and also how so many random points in the city remind me of when I lived here over 13 years ago.  I took the ferry to Hong Kong for the first time from Shenzhen and aside from having to arrive nearly an hour before the ferry and queue up for immigration in Hong Kong, it was a rather easy trip.  It’s just good to be back here.  From the moment I stepped out of immigration at the ferry terminal into, what else, a massive shopping mall, I felt instantly more present.  Now I love China and spending time there is intellectually and (usually) professionally fulfilling, but the personal angle is so much harder to actualize there.  When I was living in Guangzhou for the year, I was very obviously a foreigner and nothing else about my identity mattered to people there.  Now we have an international school in Shenzhen filled with American teachers, which is a pretty cool thing to experience, but it feels like an island of recognition in the midst of the otherness that one usually feels in China.  As a result of feeling this otherness, isolation tends to be the norm in China because no matter how good your Mandarin is or as much as you want to blend in, you can’t.  So coming to Hong Kong, it’s refreshing to just walk the streets and ride the subway and feel a part of something that is more multicultural.

I taught a unit on multiculturalism to my students at Sun Yat-sen University (中大) and when I asked them to list concepts that would be a part of a multicultural society, they were stumped.  It wasn’t until I began writing things on the board that they understood where I was going with the exercise.  I think the difficulty stemmed from this idea that most of China is made up of Han Chinese and anyone else is seen as an other.  That only accounts for the ethnic dimension of multiculturalism, though.  Things like sexual orientation, gender, sex, religion, and a whole host of other things that make up a more multicultural society don’t exist in China.  Now I am being facetious, but while all of these things exist in Chinese society, people don’t tend to see their society as such.  I feel like there is a more simplistic view of society which makes it harder for difference to flourish.

Then you come to a place like Hong Kong, which while not perfect, compared to the mainland is a more open society.  What’s most jarring is that when I am sitting in Shenzhen, I am 15-20 miles from the central business district in Hong Kong, but it might as well be a world apart.  I struggle with how to explain the difference between the two societies, but a few things stand out including Hong Kong’s history as both a British colony and treaty port.  The British legacy lives on, but it’s been joined with other cultures brought by waves of expats who come and go over the years.  At the moment, I have noticed a significant number of French expats milling around, which could have something to do with France’s lackluster economy.  However, it’s not just the expats, but a local population that has always looked outward for its livelihood.  It’s this orientation that makes the city quicker to embrace global trends and more comfortable for people to fit in and go about their business.  There are definitely parts of Hong Kong way out in the New Territories where villages exist much as they did 50 years ago, but even those pockets are changing.

So I am here for the weekend and soon will be moving down here, but it’s the contrast between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, two cities that are so close, that I am wrestling with.  The Shekou district of Shenzhen, where I am staying feels like Hong Kong lite with its shopping malls and new apartment towers.  They even have a part of town on the water called Sea World that is filled with Western restaurants and the most expats I’ve seen so far in Shenzhen.IMG_9392

The picture above is the part of Sea World along the water, but it’s best to think of it like a large town square with restaurants and cafes off to the sides and more restaurants scattered off the main square.  I feel like Sea World could be anywhere, but it’s in China, a country in which I still can’t access Facebook and any apps that rely on it like Words With Friends or the New York Times without a VPN.  Shenzhen is so close to Hong Kong, but brings back none of the multiculturalism that exists there.  Hong Kong seems to only serve as a giant shopping mall for mainlanders crossing the border to visit with little interest in anything else going on there.  Even the metro, which is very similar to the MTR is almost, but not quite right.

IMG_9393

So close . . .

I’ll be in Hong Kong for the next few days, so expect a few more posts from here and then it’s back to Shenzhen for Thanksgiving.