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.

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I never thought that I would be writing about 9/11 nearly 11 years after it happened and while sitting in Linyi, but here I go.  It all started yesterday when Ms. Jiang, the woman from Linyi University who is responsible for the international programs, picked us up for a farewell dinner.  She took us on a scenic tour of the city along the river and then down some side streets that I had not been down, including one that went past one of the best schools in Linyi.  Like most Chinese cities, there were quite a few plots of land cleared of old buildings and waiting for new ones to take their place.  As we were driving down the street, one of the plots still had debris from the previous building that had been demolished, including a large portion of the front of what looked like a two or three story market.  From the back seat of the car, John (one of the other professors from UNH), remarked to me that I probably had not seen anything like that (meaning the demolished building) since September 11th.  As soon as I heard his comment, I had a visceral reaction.  I tensed up, turned around, and told him that I thought his comment was highly inappropriate and not something that I expected to hear out of his mouth.  What was most remarkable was that he did not apologize or even act as if he realized that his comment had affected me deeply.  He just continued prattling on about how there were so few new buildings in New York and even went so far as to ask me where I was for 9/11.

Yesterday’s incident instantly took me back to that time.  I was living in Hong Kong at the time, working as an investment banker at Salomon/Citigroup, and it was evening in HK when the events transpired back in New York on what was a most perfect late summer day.  Being 7000 miles from home when something unprecedented of that magnitude happens is indescribable, so I am not even going to try.  What I can do is tell you what happened in my office in Hong Kong because of course we were working past 8pm on a Tuesday night as investment bankers.  As word of the attacks spread, most of us were either on the phone trying to connect with loved ones back in the States or watching the events live on big projection screens in one of our conference rooms.  The Hong Kong office of Salomon had quite a few Chinese nationals working there and they were also watching the events unfold back in New York.  When the first tower fell, many of these Chinese bankers began clapping and cheering as if their national soccer team had won the World Cup, like what was happening was some spectator sport.  One of my American colleagues was so angry at the combination of the towers collapsing and the apparent glee of the Chinese bankers that he punched a wall.  I also remember feeling angry and intensely American at that moment, scared of what this moment meant for the future of my country and wholly cut off from my Chinese colleagues.

John’s comment yesterday immediately brought me back to that moment when my Chinese colleagues were clapping and cheering as the first tower fell and I felt alone.  In all my time back in China since that moment, even when U.S. – China relations were at low points, when I would be asked where I was from and I replied “America” or 美国 (Meiguo, meaning beautiful country), the reaction was always largely positive.  I am not one for the sacred or taboo, but to joke about an event like 9/11 feels like crossing some invisible line.  Perhaps I am overreacting, but I just think back to that day many years ago when there was a feeling of glee from my Chinese colleagues that America had received her comeuppance and I wonder if that feeling still persists among Chinese people.  Having lived abroad relatively long periods, I have learned that many people are able to separate their love of Americans and all things American from their distaste for the country’s leaders and policies, something especially apparent during the Bush years.  But how sincere is this separation and what is to prevent distaste for one from seeping into the other.  Whenever I travel and live abroad, I try to be the best ambassador for the States that I can be, taking a balanced view to America’s policies and avoiding any of the typical “Ugly American” behavior.  Yet sometimes I cannot avoid this feeling of intense patriotism and the need to defend my country from unwarranted attacks, which is not something that easily jives with my liberal and largely unpatriotic tendencies.  The fact that John, someone who made the choice to leave China to raise his family in the States with a job in American academia, a comfortable existence in suburban Connecticut, and a son at a top American college would choose to make such an insensitive comment just baffles me.

The comment also raises the larger issue that I touched on before about whether the professed love of America by the average Chinese person is genuine.  It also raises the question about soft power, which I think is one of America’s greatest tools in its foreign policy arsenal.  American brands and culture are everywhere around the world and have pervaded even the most remote corners of the planet.  We all have a story about being in the middle of nowhere and then stumbling upon something that reminds them at home, whether it’s a song, movie, or product.  Secretary of State Clinton has made repeated comments about the strength of American soft power and its importance in the overarching umbrella of American foreign policy, but those more hawkish on American foreign policy tend to pooh-pooh this part of our diplomatic efforts.  Living and visiting China, I think it’s folly to downplay the importance of soft power.  If it was not important, China would not be trying to do the same thing and harness its soft power to extend its influence around the world.  It’s why Xinhua, the Chinese government’s news agency, opened its North American headquarters in New York’s Times Square in 2011 and announced plans to launch a 24-hour global English-language news channel.  When our main rival is seeking to project its own soft power around the world, I think it’s a clear sign that this part of foreign policy should not be ignored.

All of the various exchanges that American institutions and companies have established with Chinese counterparts are part of extending the reach of soft power and provide tangible and meaningful interactions for many Chinese people who only know about Americans from what they see in movies and TV shows.  Will more soft power eliminate reactions like those from my Chinese colleagues all those years ago when the Twin Towers collapsed?  Perhaps not completely, but such power will go a long to building links between people and tapping into that universal human feeling of sympathy and understanding.  As for John’s comment, he’s a nice guy and has been very welcoming, so I am not taking it personally, but I must admit that I did look at him a little differently when we met to go to class this morning.  I think my change in how I view him is merely because I am just incredulous that someone could make a comment like that, especially to an American who he knows has strong ties to New York.

I just finished lunch with my student assistant and the three class monitors.  The university has been providing me with lunch in the faculty dining room after class whenever I want it, which is quite tasty.   I thought it would be nice to invite the three monitors and Karen to join me as a thank you for their help during the class.  It was a chance to also spend time with Bob, Singer, and Victor outside the classroom and learn a little more about them since it’s hard to get to know anything about my students when there are 113 of them and I only have two plus weeks to teach the course. 

Before lunch, Karen and I were sitting in my office talking about family and being gay in China.  To be fair, I met up with the Brazilian professor last night and while he has been quite coy about his own sexuality, he told me that he had a conversation with Karen a few months ago about gay people in China and her thoughts on the subject.  She had apparently told him that she thought that there were no gay people in China and that she knows for sure that there are no gay people in her hometown of Jinan.  But her dad, who is a civil servant in the local government, told her that he worked with a lesbian and was surprisingly in the know about the gay bars of Jinan.  Such a revelation forced Karen to revise her view on no gay people in Jinan, let alone China. 

So with this knowledge, we began talking about how chummy some of the boys in my class scene and I asked her why they were so touchy with each other.   She quickly asserted that they were not “gays” and that there were no gay people in Chine.  She then followed up with her opinion that being gay is a “sickness” and “disgusting”.  I just looked on bemused and let her continue speaking.  She reiterated that no gay people live in China because Chinese culture requires people to get married and have children.  I asked her how that was logical, especially if being gay was not a choice, but a part of who you are when you are born.  I also asked her how she could assert that no Chinese people are gay when she does not know all 1.4 billion Chinese people.  It was at that point that she recanted and said that maybe there were Chinese people in he big cities, but none at the university because all the boys talk about finding “beautiful girlfriends”.  We continued speaking about the tension in Chinese culture of pleasing ones parents and being true to oneself and how difficult that is and I told her it’s just as difficult to come out to ones parents in the States because more often than not it feels like a disappointment to them when you tell them that you are gay.  However, above all else, I told her that I believe parents in the States want their children to be happy and if coming out is part of them being happy, then so be it.   From there the conversation morphed into one about pleasing parents and not making them upset.  Karen, as an only child, is very obedient and while she recognizes her own desires, she has a deep-set desire to make her parents happy.  Then it came out in the form of two secrets why she is so willing to sacrifice herself for her parents, beyond the normal Chinese cultural limitations – first when she was ten, she was nearly crippled when she was hit by a car while on her mom’s bicycle and then a year ago, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required a two-week trip to Shanghai for surgery costing RMB3 million (approximately US$450,000) without any sort of insurance.  She has been fortunate enough to survive not one, but two nearly life-threatening incidents and it’s because of the love and support of her parents, which as children of parents, we should all recognize and be grateful for, but it’s created such a hold on her life that she is not willing to upset her parents by voicing any of her desires.  Of course all parent-child relationships are such private affairs that I would never weigh in on anyone else’s relationship with their parents, so it’s hard for me to say much more than “whoa” after hearing that story.

What is interesting to me after that discussion is that Karen showed no interest in why I was asking about gay people in China or what it was like to be gay in the U.S., or the more extreme conclusion that perhaps I was gay.  I didn’t expect her to ask me that, though Chinese students have asked me more invasive questions in the past.  But it was her lack of curiosity combined with such forceful and harsh opinions on the topic.  She said it multiple times that being gay is a sickness that some people have and that she thought it was disgusting and immoral, but with those strong opinions was no desire to engage me on my thoughts on the matter.   Just very curious to me.  It’s also not like I came out to her, which I would have done if prompted, but I am still the professor and she is my student and there are three classes left, so that line must be maintained.

Lunch itself was very pleasant and it was nice to talk to the guys in my class.  They asked me why I was interested in China and I told them it was something I never grew bored with because it was always changing.  I then asked them if they thought the changes taking place here were happening to quickly or if they were scared of all of the changes.  I received mixed answers.  With a mischievous grin on his face, Singer said it was fun and exciting.  Bob was more thoughtful and said it was scary and that he wished sometimes things would move a little more slowly, which elicited strange looks from his tablemates.  It was at that point that I had to meet the driver to head back to the hotel, but it was the tip of why may have been an interesting conversation and makes me think about what the next generation thinks about the changes taking place and whether they think Chinese culture is immutable.  Of course to a Chinese history student, it’s clear the culture is changing with the massive economic and social changes of the last 30 years, but the strong ties to family have remained in place more than such upheaval could have potentially left them.  Karen made a comment about Chinese culture changing, but it being very slow and she is perhaps more right than others may think.  As always, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the next generation and whether openness and tolerance will become a part of the Chinese cultural fabric as the country continues to open up to outside influences.

September 14, 2010

There’s nothing like some good Sichuan (川菜) food to put one in a better mood.  One of the other professors at the university recommended this place down by the river that took some finding because it’s alongside the river and below street level, so all you can see from the road is the hint of a flat roof.  But it was worth the search.  One of the downsides to being alone in China is that it’s a shame to eat Chinese food by oneself.  I understand “family- style” in a completely different way because there are so many dishes I wanted to order, but I could only eat so much by myself.  As it is, I ordered a green vegetable (空心菜), some ma po tofu (麻婆豆腐), and cold rice noodles in a spicy sauce (凉粉) and downed most of alone, but there were so many other things that I was tempted by.  The restaurant was awesome; some of the best 川菜 I have had since my days in GZ where Celia and I would go to the place by the east gate of campus and where they knew our faces.  This place was called 麻辣专说, which appears to translate to “spicy specifically said” and it was definitely spicy, but I still had to ask for more hot sauce.

The restaurant was situated along the river, across from the ubiquitous neon-lit television tower that seems to be so common in those Chinese cities aspiring for a certain cache.  

The Chinese love their neon and towers all in one

Linyi’s riverfront is actually quite pretty with manicured gardens, large weeping willows, a winding bike/walking path, and plenty of benches to relax on.  However, the river is quite polluted and the air pollution is unlike anything I have experienced.  It’s even worse than GZ, which is known for having some of the worst pollution in the country.  But driving along the main drag that fronts the river was quite relaxing and it was one of the first times in China that I found myself remarking on the natural beauty of an urban setting. 

Today was also my second class, which was rather uneventful.  I gave a three-hour lecture on criminal law and cyber crimes.  My students have a lot of material to digest in a short period of time in a language that is not their own.  I give them a lot of credit, but it’s hard to feel like I am getting through to them when the time is so compressed and the material so dense.  I guess it’s also hard in a lecture of 113 students, which makes it nearly impossible to create an interactive classroom setting.  Quite the opposite of my seminars that I was able to teach at Zhongda last year.  As I may have mentioned in my last post, I have been assigned this assistant who is the head of the youth league for her grade at the business school, so it means she is well liked by the faculty and the party faithful on campus.  It also means that she gets to escort around the foreign visitors, which is kind of ironic because we have the most potential to influence her ideological bent.  She is very sweet, conscientious, and helpful, but also a major kiss ass.  She is also a great source of feedback for how the class is taking to my teaching.  I asked her today what I could do to get students to speak up if they have questions.  She told me that the students do not feel comfortable holding up the class for everyone else, which is why they do not ask questions.  Of course it reverts to the classic individual-society tension that seems to exist in all aspects of Chinese life.  Could you imagine an American student not asking a question because s/he did not want to inconvenience his or her classmates?  No, it’s a dog-eat-dog world in the American classroom because the individual is the only one who gets ahead, but Chinese students are thinking about the good of the entire class, so when I ask if anyone has any questions, I just get a bunch of blank stares. 

Part of the business school where I am teaching

The main library as seen from the business school

I also learned that Linyi Normal University is like many other “normal” universities located around China; these schools tend to prepare students to go into teaching in their respective fields.  So while Linyi has 16 or 17 different schools, including business, foreign languages, and the sciences, the emphasis is on preparing people to become instructors or

Dorms on foreign (left side) and Chinese (right side) students

professors.  Linyi Normal is the only university in Linyi with about 40,000 students and as explained to me, the reason cities like Qingdao have more universities is that they are more desirable places to live and academics are more inclined to come teach there.   With so many students, the campus is massive and has housing for all of the students.  In the picture on the left, the Chinese dorms are the pink buildings with no A/C and clothing hanging from the balconies, while the foreign dorms are beige with A/C and all other modern conveniences.  It’s always interesting to see that dichotomy in housing with the rationale given to me by certain Chinese students for such disparate treatment being that the foreign students pay more in tuition.  I guess it makes sense, but it would also make me somewhat resentful as a Chinese student to live right next-door to those buildings.  The campus is also very new, so the trees have barely taken root and it has lots of open space with many construction sites strewn about.  Though I must say that it does not feel as desolate as the Zhuhai campus did at SYSU, which was basically a bunch of buildings in the middle of nowhere and no thought was given to design or layout.   It will be interesting to see this campus in 20 years when the vegetation has grown in and the buildings are all complete.

Before I sign off, the mystery of the jew’s ear has been cleared up.  It is a type of fungus, so many thanks to my friends who wrote to reassure me that it was a legit fungus drink.

T-2

June 11, 2009

Less than two weeks and I will be back on U.S. soil for good.  It’s hard to believe how quickly a year really passes, especially when you are living in a place as wild and chaotic as Guangzhou, China.  I taught my last classes this week and I am just gearing up for final presentations and grading next week.  

In my last graduate student class, we did a lesson on gay marriage as part of some of a larger unit on cultural controversies in the U.S. including the death penalty and stem cell research.  The class was supposed to be 40 minutes of discussing the arguments for and against gay marriage, as well as providing my students with some context for why this issue is so important in America at the moment.

At the end of the discussion, I asked the class if they had any questions or comments.  My graduate students are not the liveliest bunch, but one of my students, Harrison raised his hand.  He proceeded to ask me what was to stop him from marrying a desk or a goat if we allowed gays and lesbians to get married.  I proceeded to explain the idea of the logical fallacy of a  slippery slope argument, which this particular question fell into.  He then said that is was unfair to draw a line at two men or two women getting married when we are taking the step of altering the original rule of marriage between a man and a woman to have children.  He also said that it would give people too much choice and this sparked a discussion about whether being gay is a choice or biological.  Harrison then referenced a newspaper article he had read that claimed a man who was gay had been cured of his condition and was no longer gay.

Upon hearing this comment, I felt that I was in the middle of a teachable moment and I spoke up.  In a very measured voice, I told him I had to provide my side in this debate and proceeded to tell him and the rest of the class that as a gay man I knew that it was not a choice or something that could be cured.  One may think that they are cured or fixed, but it is only psychological deception.  He proceeded to get angry that I would use personal knowledge to rebut his reference to this article and he stood up and began debating me full-on from across the room.  He said that my personal knowledge was just as good as the article that he read and thus it was not fair that I was trying to use personal information to refute his argument.  The class, which had been silently watching at this point, jumped in and began attacking Harrison and his reference to this article, claiming that he knew nothing about the story and was merely repeating something he had read. In response to his assertion that my personal experience was not relevant, I decided to use this moment as a lesson in effective debating and proceeded to cite studies claiming that being gay is not a disease or mental illness, as well as the fact that it has been taking off the list of mental illnesses by various medical associations around the world.  However, Harrison was getting frustrated, both because of the language handicap and his perception that I had an unfair advantage,

In order to dial back the situation, I put an end to the debate and told Harrison that what he had displayed was exactly what I was looking for in a persuasive speaker.  He had great physical presence, made eye contact with me and the rest of the class, cited evidence, and argued with conviction.   I proceeded to tell the class that I was not here to teach them a particular viewpoint and I did not care if they remembered nothing I had written or said all semester, but what I wanted them to learn was to think for themselves and speak what was on their minds, even if it contradicted or was against what the teacher thought.  I did not want them to think what they thought they should think, but what they want to think.  The class was listening with rapt attention as I cited Harrison’s willingness to challenge me as one of the most gratifying moments I have had a teacher this year.  It was right up there with students coming up to me after a particular class and telling me that what was discussed in class changed the way that they thought about something.  While we agreed to disagree, Harrison’s speech was the first time I had seen a student directly challenge a teacher and to do it in his second language made it all the more special.  At that moment, it became less about the specific ideas being expressed and all about how he expressed those ideas and I felt that I had done my job as a teacher in motivating him to challenge in that manner.

At the end of class, the students asked me all sorts of questions about being gay including whether I thought I could ever “go back” to women and how I knew that I was gay in the first place.  Alex asked me if I wanted the class to keep this thing a secret and I told him that I did not want them to because that is not how I live my life, though it had been for a large part of my time in China due to cultural sensitivity and out of respect.  However, as I think about leaving and the next step, I think it’s important for my students to know that their teacher whom they respect and learn from is also a gay man and no different from anyone else.  More importantly, what I saw in class this past week was also proof that I have left my students with something far more valuable, the willingness to speak their minds.

Culture Wars

April 29, 2009

For the past two weeks, I have been discussing an article called, “The End of White America” that was written by Hua Hsu and published in The Atlantic  from January/February 2009.   The gist of the article is about an America where in the next 20 or 30 years there will be no majority group, but rather everyone will be part of a minority and the implications of this phenomenon for the future of American culture.  It’s touches on all of the ideas associated with a post-racial, multicultural, multi-ethnic society.  

We split the article into three parts to make it more manageable for the students to digest and planned three lessons around the article.

In one lesson, I asked the students to think about culture and all of the components that go into culture.  Half the class was spent just listing all of the components on the board and talking about some differences between Chinese and American culture.  Aside from the usual culprits like food, language, clothing, music, religion, and art, the students also threw out some surprises like love, equality, rule of law, and the community vs. the individual.  However, some glaring omissions from this list included politics, race, gender, and sexual orientation.  In an American classroom, these things would be some of the first things to be offered up by the students.  We talked about some of the reasons for not including these items on the list and the general response was that Chinese people do not think about these ideas in the same way that Americans do.  Government and politics are considered very far away from the day-to-day life of most Chinese, so they do not discuss these issues.  Definitely makes it easier for a repressive regime to survive when the people feel it does not concern their daily lives.  As for race, gender, and  sexual orientation, these concepts also do not concern ordinary Chinese.  Gender does not manifest itself the same way as it does in America because there is a belief that the sexes are equal, whether it’s actually true or not, and thus does not define the culture the way it does in the U.S.  My long-standing hypothesis on sexual orientation just not entering people’s minds when looking at other people was confirmed in this discussion when one of my students said that Chinese people do not think about people being “homosexual”.  As for race, my students deny it even exists in China and they view it as a uniquely American problem.   Instead of categorizing people on the basis of their skin color, people make geographic distinctions in China, such as where you were born or where you live.

We spent the rest of the lessons talking about what makes some cultures stronger than others, how Chinese and American societies define their cultures, and America’s unique situation of being a country that will soon cease to have a dominant ethnic group.  Like the article does, I used hip-hop to demonstrate the idea of how something goes from being a part of a particular segment of society and enters the mainstream to ultimately become a global phenomenon.  We talked about Chinese hip-hop, which my students knew little about because most of it is underground like 隐藏, as discussed in this New York Times article from January 2009.  However, my students did know about Jay Chou (周杰伦) who is really a really popular Taiwanese pop singer who occasionally adds some rap to the end of his songs.  We talked a lot about the mainstream and my students informed me that the word “mainstream” is a negative word in China because it is associated with things that are boring or come from the government, so people prefer to be ‘anti-mainstream”.  Yet as they are telling me this fact, none of them can name any sort of underground bands that they have listened to recently.  

In Celia’s class, one of her students told her that Chinese people did not think about culture because it has been handed down to them by the government and there is no need to think about it.  This response was full and knowing capitulation, but was echoed by my students in their comments about how Chinese culture is not all that different and most people think and believe the same things. Imagine a classroom of American students all saying that they think the same way about American culture?

This morning we talked about how white people in America feel culturally bankrupt because they are lost in a country that is embracing multiculturalism.  At the end of the class, one of my students asked me how I would define my culture.  Without thinking, I started talking about being Jewish, educated, from the Northeast, American, and a gay man, thus my culture was created from many different communities that I considered myself a part of.  Right then and there I came out to my students, something I have wanted to do since day one, but refrained from doing because I thought it would undermine my authority in my classroom.  Boy was I wrong.  One student looked at me and asked what I meant by that last statement and I told her that I was “homosexual, not heterosexual” and the conversation moved on from there without any pause.  I wonder if they really understood what I said or if it was really no big deal to all of them.  I guess we shall see in the coming class sessions.  Regardless, it felt good to get it out there since that has been something I have wrestled with living here.  It’s hard spending time in a culture where people do not even guess that it’s a possibility and if you try telling them that you are gay, many times they have no idea what you are really talking about.  This situation in class may turn out to be the latter because they really do not get it and thus how could their American teacher actually be “a gay”.  Hopefully one of them understood it and it will go viral so they will all eventually know.

After spending a week and a half talking about American culture with my students, it all became worthwhile when after one of my students came up to me after class to ask me the definition of “white trash” and the website Stuff White People Like (stuffwhitepeoplelike.com) as both were used in the article.  She then told me that after reading this article she realized that American culture was really complex, more so than anything she has seen on television or in the movies. Not only did I learn a lot from my students, but knowing that I was able to get at least one student to think more deeply about something they had not thought about before means that this week I was a good teacher.

This past week, I miraculously became a mini-expert in both anti-monopoly law and Jewish culture in America.

One of my graduate students, Maggie, asked two weeks ago if I would speak at the university’s business English salon  this past Thursday evening about a topic of my choosing.  The salon is open to the public and a lot of the attendees actually live and work in GZ.  

I figured that I would use my legal background and interest in antitrust law to give a talk about the recent attempted acquisition by Coca-Cola of Huiyuan (汇源), a successful Chinese juice company.  The government rejected Coke’s bid under the country’s new anti-monopoly law and it was the first cross-border merger to be rejected under this law, which has only been in effect since August 2008.  Since the Chinese government only provided a vague explanation for the rejection, many are speculating that the decision was politically motivated because Huiyuan is a profitable private company and the government did not want it to fall into foreign hands.  Since that decision last month, Australia has made taken some negative actions against Chinese companies looking to acquire Australian companies.  The first point of my speech was the importance of implementing laws in a fair and transparent manner, whether it’s in China, the US, EU, or any other country.   The second point was that the world should be working to fight the impulse to let political or nationalistic concerns rule over sound economic policies.  I was careful not to blame any one country because most of the world is to blame in this era of rising protectionism.  

The speech was well attended with at least 50 or so people in the audience, even though my Powerpoint presentation did not work.   Initially the questions were relevant to my topic.  However, as soon as someone asked me my opinion about the Chinese currency and how China is buying all of the US government’s debt, the Q&A session turned into one of “ask Peter his opinion about anything and everything pertaining to America”.  Thus, I began fielding questions about whether it was a good time to buy stocks, the NBA, why only rich people could go to Ivy League schools, what city one guy should live in when he moves his family t to America, real estate prices, troop withdrawals from Iraq, whether Obama was printing too much money, and whether I was scared about China’s rise.  All of the questions were prefaced with, “In your opinion . . . ” and then the topic of their choosing.  I was done speaking and answering formal questions around 9pm, but ended up staying until nearly 10:30pm answering all of these random questions and becoming the mouthpiece of America.  By the end I was so tired and the questions so far removed from what I came to talk about that I just did not have an opinion about whether there was anything wrong with partially lifting the embargo on Cuba. 

However, I could not turn the tables and ask in their opinion how they felt about Tibet, Taiwan, Mao, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen or any other number of topics off limits when talking informally with most Chinese people.  Even if I did ask about these things, I would receive some received wisdom echoing the party line and it would be almost impossible to find any difference in opinion.  Whereas when I answered these questions, I made sure to make it clear that these were my opinions and did not represent those of all Americans.

Then Friday morning my friend Michael invited me into his culture class that he is taking as part of his master’s program to talk about Jewish culture, which was interesting because I am not at all religious, but consider myself very culturally Jewish.  So I was brought into the class to debunk some myths about Jews in America including the ones that they are all rich and all clever.  It was another interesting talk, but ended more quickly than the other one because it was limited to a class period.  Of course I gave the students the requisite lesson on grammar.  You cannot say he is a “Jewish”, but rather that he is a “Jewish person”.

I am still recovering from the week of mini-lectures and think I may need a Golden Girls mini-marathon to regain my composure.