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Saturday, June 13, 2015

Show me your I.D.

When you think of China, images of Route 66 and demons on motorcycles come to mind

If I wasn’t aware of the fact already, the last two days have shown me that I’m spending way too much time on Facebook than is healthy. How else to explain why I ended up getting myself into essentially pointless arguments as a result of something someone else posted. 

The first one has been kind of fun. On an article entitled “Thailand Too Dependent on Chinese Tourists – Master Card”, a certain gentleman whom we’ll call “Chris” (as that seems to be his name) appeared to take offense at how Chinese tourists and their behavior while overseas is being perceived by others – even though the linked article makes no reference to any of the much-reported stereotypes of the Ugly Chinese abroad (for that, you can look at some of these Thailand-related news stories). I believe I can understand Chris’ sensitivity on the topic. At the risk of generalizing, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Chris might be of the Chinese persuasion, ethnically speaking, based on his surname. I’m assuming that Chris is getting sick and tired of hearing about the low class behavior exhibited by some Chinese tourists (though most Chinese travelers don’t seem to do these things, from my limited first-hand experience. Well, there was that time we went to the Shanghai Zoo…), and as often is the case when these situations arise, he tried to deflect attention away from people like him and toward members of other groups:

For every Chinese tourist who behaves badly anywhere, I can find THREE European/Brit tourists who start drunken racist fights with locals everywhere else, engage in illegal narcotics trade and run around town naked and high as a kite, so enough of this western media diatribe against Chinese people, its (sic) getting as old and staid as the usual nonsense about Russian people too.

No argument here, but not exactly relevant, especially as the original article made no mention of any Ugly Chinese. When I queried him what he meant by a “western media diatribe” by pointing out that stories of bad behavior by Chinese tourists is reported quite often in the Chinese media and is a frequent topic of discussion on Chinese social media by Chinese web users, Chris started to veer off into the world of conspiracy theories:

The Chinese media are late, and they don't have the kinda self-loathing sinophobic (sic) venom the western media laces such articles with…

OK, I know, at this point I should’ve bailed out of the thread and left Chris looking for simplistic answers as to why the big, wide world has to be so gosh-darned complicated, but this was getting too good to pass up, so I goaded him along and he willingly cooperated:

Western corporate media doesn't hate itself, it hates the usual baddies, i.e. China, Russia, Muslims, etc etc. As for bad behavior, I'm in Asia now, just look around at the drinking holes and red light districts on any given night, and you'll find a whole lot of totally pissed Brits, Euros and Aussies behaving badly anything, no need to be pedantic about it, much as you're trying to defend the indefensible here.

Even now, it’s still not clear to me what sort of indefensible behavior I was supposedly trying to defend. But I loved reading about the self-loathing, anti-China, anti-Russia and anti-Muslim Western corporate media lacing its stories with Sinophobic venom. I also enjoyed learning that Chris appeared to frequent the girlie bars of Southeast Asia along with all those drunken Britons, Europeans and Australians, which he later clarified by saying he had “been there, done that” when he was much younger, suggesting there were few wild oats left to be sown. 

The local pearl market, filled with several floors of vendors hawking clothes, electronics, jewelery and various other items of questionable origin.

In an attempt to bring an end to the thread, I wrote about an extremely minor incident I observed last weekend while my family was staying in a hotel:

So last Sunday I was checking out of (a hotel) in Shanghai. There were three clerks at the front desk. The one on the left was taking care of me; I was being polite. Next to me was an Asian gentleman. As he was speaking in English, I can assume that he was not a citizen of the People’s Republic of China; he was also being very civil in his interaction with the clerk. On the right, the third clerk was seeing to another man. This person was using Mandarin; although he could have been from Hong Kong, Taiwan or any other place in the world, I will assume he was a Chinese citizen. He also was behaving in a courteous manner with the clerk. Suddenly, a fourth man, dressed in a loud-colored shirt, came up to the counter and started yelling in a loud voice that he was in a hurry and needed to be taken care of right away. As all the clerks were busy, he stood there looking very irate. Because he was speaking in Mandarin, and wearing a loud shirt, I have drawn the conclusion that he also was a PRC citizen. Therefore, I can state the following absolute truths based on the scene that unfolded in front of me. Namely, that a.) 100% of all non-Chinese citizens behave in a polite manner when interacting with hotel staff in five-star hotels in China, while b.) only 50% of PRC citizens are civil in the same situations.

My wife, who was born and raised in Taiwan and who still holds a Republic of China passport, having been corrupted by the anti-Chinese, anti-Russian and anti-Muslim Western corporate media, said that the loud Chinese gentleman was “low class”, a telling statement laced with Sinophobic venom.

I meant it to sound ridiculous, just as it's ridiculous to draw conclusions about entire groups of people based on a few Chinese women washing their feet in a bathroom sink while visiting a Thai temple, or on middle-aged German or Russian men trying to pick up bar girls in Pattaya, but it appears the lesson was lost on Mr. C, who began to reveal a darker side to his personality (either that, or he still hasn’t quite grown up):

Loud-colored shirted guy could have been Taiwanese or even French, and there's no ROC left, at best its Chinese Taipei, or just "that ungovernable village" these days. So how come no one said something to that loudmouth? I'd have, just to see if he'd take it outside and make my travel less boring, and no, (the hotel where we stayed) ain't 5-star, 4 at best, kinda tacky place.

He later elaborated that by taking such a person “outside”, he would “win points with my own crowd, including my friends and family in Texas too!” I don’t think my Dad would award me anything for deliberating provoking a confrontation with someone. Chris had by now revealed himself to be a paranoid testosterone-fueled misogynist, but I still egged him on, at which point he then referred to me as: a.) an "Obama koolaider" (whatever that is supposed to mean); and b.) a member of "Obamanation blam(ing) everyone else for BO's incompetence!"

By way of attempting to extricate myself from the thread, I tried to summarize all that had transpired so far:

Kool-Aid Man (guess where that came from) is finding it difficult to follow the direction the thread is heading. It started with a knee-jerk reaction to divert attention away from the bad behavior of some Chinese tourists in Thailand by bringing up irrelevant comparisons to bad behavior by other nationalities (thereby accepting the premise that some Chinese tourists do, in fact, behave badly while overseas), and blaming it on a vast conspiracy coming out of the West (though the original story was from a Thai news source). It then led to public declarations of how provoking violence is the best way to handle unpleasant social situations. And, finally, it has now become Obama's fault.  

So if Kool-Aid Man is following the "logic" correctly, if news stories on bad behavior by some Chinese tourists overseas is due to "Sinophobic venom", does criticizing Obama indicate prejudice towards African-Americans?

To which, Chris responded by posting this:

Always staying classy. I sincerely hope Mr. C was just trying to take the piss out of me, much as I’d been trying to do the same to him. Otherwise, I may have to start making broad generalizations about certain Texans…

The other debate on Facebook has been much more civil, but in some respects more disturbing. It started with this article on Miss Universe Japan, Ariana Miyamoto 宮本エリアナ, from the BBC that I had posted on my feed, and which has been shared by others. Miyamoto is a Japanese citizen whose father was African-American, and as anyone familiar with the experiences of bi-cultural, mixed-race children living in Japan can tell you, she hasn’t had an easy time of things living in a society that for the most part doesn’t consider her to be 100% "pure". In the article, she expresses her acceptance of the term hāfu ハーフ, meaning “half”, which is how the Japanese refer to bi-cultural children. I’ve always found the term offensive, but Miyamoto appears to embrace it as the best way for her to fit in with her fellow citizens, who might otherwise have trouble looking upon her as being “Japanese” (despite the fact she is a citizen and has spent most of her life in the country). What annoyed me in this case was a remark left by someone on a friend’s feed, who had shared the same article. “J.W.” wrote:

Half-Asians: the latest in tribalist mentality.

When I responded to his seemingly flippant and dismissive remark, he replied by linking to a video (which you can see here) of a half-Asian (to use her description of herself in the video) living in North America and complaining about what’s it like to be in her situation. When I asked:

How does what she (meaning the North American girl) is going on about in the video relate to the experiences of Miyamoto Ariana growing up as a ハーフ in Japan?

J.W. answered by writing:

So she gains her identity as a person based on external features. If she said that she identified with being Japanese or American or Danish or Samoan, this would be a little more understandable. Why? Because those designations are not merely based on externals but on a true inner value system derived from cultural experiences, beliefs and upbringing. The journalist does the same thing at the beginning of the article (and throughout) when he says, "...the first thing that pops in to my head when I meet the newly crowned Miss Universe Japan is that she doesn't look very Japanese." There is no malice in this statement. It's relatively innocent. But it does go to show the same shallow superficial thinking that is displayed in the words of Ariana as well as the teenager in the video (italics mine).

It was at this point that I lost my temper, and perhaps it was best for all concerned that this exchange was taking place online, and not face-to-face:

Ariana doesn't choose to identify herself as a ハーフ; the identification is imposed upon her by other Japanese as her appearance and background don't conform to how most Japanese see themselves. She accepts the term as the best way for her to try and fit in with the society to which she should belong (she is a Japanese citizen, born and raised in Japan). She cannot simply call herself "Japanese" as she has no doubt been constantly reminded throughout her life that she is not quite the same as everyone else.

To describe her remarks as "superficial" and to compare her with the North American kid is just ignorant. The "problems" of the girl in the video cannot even begin to approach the experiences Miyamoto has had growing up in Japanese society. Having lived in Japan for a cumulative total of a dozen years, and with a long association with the country going back more than a quarter-century, I've heard, read and witnessed numerous accounts of the hardships growing up as a ハーフ in Japan. If you like…I can pass along your "insights" on this topic to my many Western friends and acquaintances who have married Japanese nationals and are currently raising families in Japan. I'm sure they would have some interesting comments to share with you on this topic.

At this point, I think J.W. realized he had crossed a line, and to his credit replied:

If you think my comments are misplaced, I can live with that. We don't know each other, so we probably (shouldn't) make this too personal.

As a matter of fact, I think his comments were misplaced in that they inadvertently trivialized what is it like for people like Miyamoto to grow up in societies such as Japan's. That she "values" a term like hafu suggests she does so because it gives her that acceptance she so desperately desires. Had I fathered a son or daughter in Japan, this yearning to fit in would doubtless have been a big concern for both my child and myself. 

As it is, I am the father of a bi-cultural child. Amber spent the first six years of her life growing up in Taiwan, and while kids her age generally accepted her for who she was, adults were a different matter, as virtually every time she and I went outside, someone would remind her that was not the same as everyone else (even her Taiwanese grandmother has referred to her as being “foreign”, though not in a malicious sense). There were occasional issues with teachers at the Taiwanese kindergarten Amber attended, like the art teacher who had the students make drawings of “Americans”, featuring blond hair and blue eyes, even though there was an American citizen in her class who did not fit the stereotype at all. For the most part, however, kindergarten went smoothly. Had Amber gone on to attend a public elementary school in Taiwan, however, I'm sure some of her classmates, as they began the process of identifying themselves as Taiwanese, would have started pointing out to her how different she would have been from the other kids (even though there would have been a good chance some of them would have had Vietnamese mothers). 

For now, things seem to be OK. Sure, a lot of Chinese make the same well-meaning but ultimately ignorant remarks about how well Amber can speak Mandarin etc. (to which I’ve been trying to convince her to reply along the lines of “Of course I can speak Mandarin, you dumb bitch. I’m Taiwanese!”, with the “dumb bitch” part being optional, but so far she’s declined to do so). But my daughter attends an international school with many other bi-cultural kids, and I know that back in the U.S. her family background will be far from unique. 

I also know that at some point in the future, Amber will make a decision on how best to identify herself in relation to others. Whatever choice she makes, I won't call it "superficial", but will try to be understanding. 

As for Ariana, people in her situation are generally only given two choices: they can be ハーフ or 外人 (foreign). What many of them would like to be is 日本人 (Japanese) like everyone else, but it's very difficult for many Japanese at present to think of them in that way. However, now that Miyamoto is going to represent her country in an international event, here's hoping things are continuing to change, and for the better!

As the BBC article noted in its final paragraph:

Ariana Miyamoto is part of growing trend in Japan. One in 50 new babies born here are now biracial, 20,000 babies a year. Japan is changing. Now how will it react if Ariana Miyamoto lifts the Miss Universe crown?

With lots of cheers, congratulations and perhaps even pride. If the numbers are true, Japan’s future is looking very bright. 

As for Taiwan, I leave you with this absolutely horrid but sadly revealing music video, and the brilliant response to it from a budding entomologist:










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