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A conversation with Aminta Arrington on China

Aminta Arrington, author of “HOME IS A ROOF OVER A PIG: AN AMERICAN FAMILY’S JOURNEY IN CHINA”

Following is a conversation with Aminta Arrington, author of the upcoming book, “HOME is a ROOF OVER a PIG, an American Family’s Journey in China.” (See my book review in a prior post.) Since the writing, her family has moved from Tai’an to Beijing where she now teaches at Renmin University. We talked about learning Chinese, freedom and individuality, Chen Guangcheng, hope for U.S.-China energy collaboration, and more. Click on the play button or right-click on the link to save the podcast for local listening: link.

(The conversation was carried out in two sessions, which I later joined into one. I should apologize for the echo, an artefact of Skype some times, which I can’t remove after the recording has been made.)

  1. perspectivehere
    June 30th, 2012 at 00:59 | #1

    @YinYang @Aminta

    Thank you both for sharing this interview. I have only listened to about half of it, but was already very much taken by the fresh and honest quality of the discussion. I especially appreciated listening to Aminta’s descriptions of her experiences in China, one that acknowledges her initial reactions, the differences between her preconceptions and values with what she experienced, and presenting her considered understanding of the Chinese view of things.

    It is often questioned, “does beauty lie in the thing itself, or in the eye of the beholder”? I.e., are one’s observations of the qualities of an object inherent in the object itself or a mere reflection of the observer’s own mind? Nowhere is this more true than for an American living in China – is the observation one is making driven more by what is really going on or the observer’s own values, standards, biases and preconceived notions? How do you tease out a true description of the real situation?

    Aminta appears to acknowledge that dilemma by how she reacts to things, by questioning her own reaction and saying, wait a minute, what is really going on, is it what I think it is, or is there more to it? How do the Chinese think about the situation? Without being judgmental, would a reasonable person in that situation feel, think or act the same way? How much is my reaction bound up in things like language, where certain words may mean the same thing, if translated literally, but mean very different things in the social context? This kind of self-awareness and honest reflection is a very needed corrective to one-sided presumptions.

    I liked her example of the way Chinese grandmothers would suggest that she put on another layer of clothes on her daughter because of the cold weather. She initially would feel offended because she thought they were criticizing her child-raising skills. Later on, she realized that within the Chinese context, these words are ways to express caring.

    {My own understanding is the Chinese concept of 理-someone or 理-something. This carries two concepts of caring and paying attention to. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t say anything at all – “不理你了” – not care about you = ignore you = leave you alone. I don’t know if this is a correct interpretation (I too am a foreigner in China after all!) but that’s the way I understand it. Perhaps one of you can comment on this.}

    So armed with this understanding, now she understands that she has a choice – she could either interpret their suggestions as criticism and get upset, or she could appreciate their words as expressing their care, and acknowledge the care accordingly. Neither way is absolutely “right” – she remains free to be annoyed, or to feel thankful – and she can react the way the situation calls for. It’s just that now she understands the intention behind the words, and that makes all the difference in cross-cultural relationships.

    I am excited to read the book. Aminta has pointed the way to a more informed understanding of Chinese culture, as experienced in the urban context most Chinese are living in, and surely this will help any American (or westerner generally) living in China or dealing with Chinese cultural relationships.

  2. June 30th, 2012 at 15:57 | #2

    The book seems interesting for its insights into living and working in China. Maybe I will read it.

    I think the point you and Arrington talked about the lack of cooperation in curbing environmental degradation is really important. I wondered about this too. It seems a treaty between the US and China can dramatically reduce emissions by creating the will and more scientific engagement will produce the means much as SALT has dramatically reduced the nuclear weapons between the US and Russia.

    However, I have one quibble to raise (I know, I’m such a fact gestapo). At one point she said that during the EP-3 crises, she had told her students that the incident occurred in “international water.” They responded that they or the Chinese “don’t care about the law.”

    I bring this up because I think this is a great example of what yinyang and Arrington were talking about at the beginning, namely, the absurd amount of anti-China bias in the western press with regard to reporting on China. It’s so pervasive that falsehoods become part of the popular culture where no one even bothers to question them anymore thinking that they are too obvious to question.

    In the EP-3 case, it was widely reported in the US media that this incident occurred in international water but that is simply false. The EP-3 plane was first engaged and forced to land in China’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone).

    International law (as stipulated in UNCLOS) treats EEZs as a separate entity, with its own legal standards and so forth, from both territorial waters and international waters.

    UNCLOS says that traveling in another country’s EEZ is permitted so long as the vessel is not engaged in hostile activity. Now many countries including China thinks that reconnaissance (a euphemism for spy) is hostile. The US takes a two-faced approach (much like many of the US’s other foreign policies) to this interpretation. That is, they “interpret” the law as allowing them to be able to spy on others in their EEZs but do not permit others to spy on the US in its EEZ.

    Of course, this lack of reciprocity and lack of impartiality in practice grossly undermines the rule of law at the international level.

    Here’s a good summary of the legal aspects of spying in the EEZs by the East-West Center with a focus on the Hainan incident.

    http://scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/bitstream/handle/10125/21571/BaliDialogue.pdf?sequence=1

    With regard to Chen Guangcheng, Arrington mentioned that her law students did not have much to say about this incident.

    It could simply be that the students did not know enough about the situation to comment in an informed manner. In my own experience in talking to legal experts, I often get the impression that they often do not want to comment on some topic. It’s not because they do not have opinions but rather it’s because these people tend to know the intricacies of law, its nuances and contingencies. And without knowing much about the particular case, it’s hard to apply legal principles to it. So there is that lack of information regarding Chen’s specific legal circumstances in Chinese law. It may also be that her students are ashamed of Chen’s actions in going to the US embassy and taking money from the NED (which yinyang mentions) and so might not care that he is going to the US. They may see this as a settled issue. He gets what he wanted and the Chinese are rid of a person they view as a criminal and agent of foreign subversion. Everyone’s happy and it’s a settled issue.

    I also agree with what she said her husband said about the Chinese valuing individuality but they do not value displaying their individuality in an aggressive or flamboyant way as their American counterparts. I believe that much of the American way of displaying individuality and opinion comes from a general sense of antagonism within American society. We don’t value harmony as much as the Chinese. Instead, we value struggle, fight, victory, etc. There are also many tensions in American society that do not exist in Chinese society which instills in Americans a sense of defensiveness and a reflexive aggression to any perceived threat to one’s autonomy or dignity. Take Arrington’s story how she felt offended at first by the old Chinese woman who suggested she put more clothe on her daughter. Arrington seemed to have took this as criticisms of her parenting when all the old woman seemed to intend was to give caring advice. In Chinese society, I don’t see that basic sense of insecurity and vulnerability and its associated reaction to defend oneself as I see in the US society.

  3. JJ
    June 30th, 2012 at 20:52 | #3

    @perspectivehere

    {My own understanding is the Chinese concept of 理-someone or 理-something. This carries two concepts of caring and paying attention to. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t say anything at all – “不理你了” – not care about you = ignore you = leave you alone. I don’t know if this is a correct interpretation (I too am a foreigner in China after all!) but that’s the way I understand it. Perhaps one of you can comment on this.}

    I totally agree! I used to get so annoyed at my relatives or friends commenting on how much weight I was gaining living in the US but it wasn’t until I realized that it was because they cared about me that I learned to appreciate it.

    They don’t just comment about things, but try to offer suggestions and ways to help you.

    Of course, I feel this is also one reason why a lot of Chinese folks have this impression that Westerners (actually mainly Americans I think) are a lot nicer and polite to strangers.

    And what’s even more interesting is that I know a lot of Asian students who come to the States and eventually say how “fake” so many Americans are.

    The reason is they misinterpret the politeness that Americans show as true friendship—since in a lot of Asian cultures, you wouldn’t show that level of concern unless you wanted to be friends.

    So there’s this cultural misunderstanding from both sides.

    Kinda fascinating now that I think about it.

  4. perspectivehere
    July 1st, 2012 at 06:09 | #4

    JJ :
    @perspectivehere

    Of course, I feel this is also one reason why a lot of Chinese folks have this impression that Westerners (actually mainly Americans I think) are a lot nicer and polite to strangers.
    And what’s even more interesting is that I know a lot of Asian students who come to the States and eventually say how “fake” so many Americans are.
    The reason is they misinterpret the politeness that Americans show as true friendship—since in a lot of Asian cultures, you wouldn’t show that level of concern unless you wanted to be friends.
    So there’s this cultural misunderstanding from both sides.

    I had a french language teacher in high school who said something similar about French people and Americans. My teacher said that French people form friendships less casually than Americans, but when they do form friendships they are more solid and dependable than American friendships. Americans will be friendly to acquaintances, but really don’t expect that to mean much (i.e., they are not thinking of commitment). So there are many examples of French people who go to the US and get disappointed when what they think of as good friendships turn out to be not to be as close as they thought.

    I wanted to see if what my high school teacher told me oh-so-many-years-ago is still observed. I found this website written by a retired Frenchman, who seeks to explain France and French culture to Americans, and points out common American misunderstandings and stereotypes.

    http://www.understandfrance.org/Diaries/Editorial.html

    Reading this site, I noted that the complaints that Chinese have towards American media stereotypes and criticisms of China and Chinese people/culture are not that dissimilar to French complaints towards American media stereotypes and criticisms of France and French people/culture.

    I think this site would be interesting and relevant to HH readers because frequently there is HH discussion of views of “the West”, and yet within “the West” there is a huge divide between Anglophone and Francophone worlds. In fact, the French perceive that there is an enormous amount of anti-French press and stereotypes in the US (and British) press. As HH is an English-language site, we do not get much benefit of French / Francophone viewpoints.

    I agree with the author of the site. I do perceive a lot of anti-French press in the US and UK.

    I also note that in the English press, there is not very much mentioned about historic ties between China and France, such as the fact that many of the Chinese Communist Party leadership learned their communism from French factory workers in the 1920’s.

  5. perspectivehere
    July 1st, 2012 at 11:19 | #5

    @JJ

    I totally agree! I used to get so annoyed at my relatives or friends commenting on how much weight I was gaining living in the US but it wasn’t until I realized that it was because they cared about me that I learned to appreciate it.
    They don’t just comment about things, but try to offer suggestions and ways to help you.

    Besides “Li” (理) another interesting word-concept in Chinese which is often misinterpreted by Americans is “guan” (管). One of my favorite American bloggers in China is Mary Ann O’Donnell, who blogs on life in Shenzhen at her blog, Shenzhen Noted. She is an anthropologist by training, and her blog offers pretty enlightening insights and comparisons of Chinese and American culture. She once wrote a piece, “all seeing eyes” that critiqued naomi klein’s article in Rolling Stone, “china’s all-seeing eye”, and which touched on the “cultural politics of guan (管)” in Chinese society – how “guan” (管) is used and understood in word and in practice. I excerpt the relevant part, which I think is wonderfully insightful:

    ***** Quote*****
    “how do the cultural politics of panopticism (so glossed) differ from the cultural politics of guan (to be glossed)? in shenzhen, guan refers to practices of taking charge, ranging from teaching a student how to hold a pen through organizing social events to directing traffic and enforcing laws. like panoptic methods, guan practices target human bodies. teachers routinely hold a student’s hands when she is learning to write; the organization of events often entails mass calisthenics or the performance of many bodies in coordinated action—at our school, marching is considered one of the signs of effective pedagogy; directing traffic and law enforcement both entail the placement of bodies with respect to each other within a given environment. this is important: like panopticism, guan authorizes certain forms of violence in order to bring bodies into alignment with society. both tian’anmen and currently, tibet are examples of guan. moreover, like panopticism, guan practices presuppose constant monitoring. the image of chinese students doing homework, while their mother, father, and grandparents watch and intervene exemplifies guan.

    however, unlike panopticism, guan practices draw legitimacy from the understanding that disciplining bodies is a form of caretaking. in this sense, guan requires the physical presence of those who guan and those who are guan-ed. as such, there are many instances of people excessively guan-ing those in their charge. excessive guan-ing makes for tiring social relations. both the guan-er and the guan-ed find themselves in constant negotiation. for many teachers and students at my school, for example, guan-ing a student’s homework is a necessary evil. nevertheless, guan is unquestionably better than the alternative, which would be “not to guan,” leaving the child to do whatever she wanted to, but failing to help prepare her to take high school and college entrance exams. a similar logic characterizes many chinese criticisms of the government. if schools collapse in an earthquake; it is a result of a failure to guan. if those who failed to guan continue in power, it is also a failure to guan. hunger, unemployment, social unrest—all are symptoms of governmental failure to guan.

    on foucault’s reading, guan is not a modern form of power. however, most of my Chinese friends don’t trust abstract monitoring; they believe in the physical absence of a guan-er is an untenable. they point to the fact that many of the surveillance cameras don’t work, cellphone sim cards are bought, sold, and disposed of at unregulated street kiosks (i.e. cellphone numbers are unregistered in china), and its relatively easy to hack around the great firewall. in other words, the clearest difference between the cultural politics of panopticism and guan is the assumption of how successful surveillance actually can be. insofar as the underlying metaphor of panopticism is incarceration, it presupposes human bodies are always already at the disposal of surveillance operations. in contrast, guan presupposes that human bodies constantly allude surveillance operations.

    chinese parents and teachers repeatedly lament that little bodies may be placed at desks and isolated from other little bodies, and yet the supervisors still cannot guan their charges, whose “hearts are not in place (心不在焉)” and “spirits absent themselves (出神)”. at the social level, it is even more difficult to ensure proper guan-ing. most of my friends assume that if something is being guan-ed, it is because someone has a penchant for excessive guan-ing (like a busybody), has been forced to take charge (by public opinion), or has a private agenda (internal politics). indeed, many have resigned themselves to the impossibility of successfully guan-ing children and colleagues, let alone the country. “can you guan it (管得了吗)?” they frequently sigh in a social world where peasants frequently protest change, students and netizens argue for increasing freedoms, and tibetans continue to protest han rule.”

    *****End Quote*****

    I love her description because it expresses the multiplicity of uses of the word “guan” in concrete family, school, work and political contexts.

    In 2009, when Jackie Chan got into hot water in the media over controversial comments, it was his use of the word “guan” (管) and how it was subsequently translated and interpreted (as advocating more government “control”), that caused the kerfluffle.

    The Telegraph article below is typical:

    “Jackie Chan says Chinese people need to be ‘controlled’
    Jackie Chan has triggered controversy by claiming Chinese people are so chaotic they need to be firmly controlled by the government.”
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/5182114/Jackie-Chan-says-Chinese-people-need-to-be-controlled.html

    The Telegraph article makes his statements sound pretty bad, but his remarks when heard in Chinese are sensible and uncontroversial – see video here. when he says “我们中国人需要管的“ (1:12), it sound unremarkable, because the absence of guan will mean that everyone just does what they want, which is unacceptable.

    Obviously, when Americans and Brits way “people should be free to do what they want”, what they are really saying is that “people should be free to do what they want as long as it is lawful and does not harm anyone else.”

    In Chinese when you say that people should have “自由” it implies that people will be completely self-centered and unrestrained, and in fact would connote a kind of excessive freedom that is both irresponsible and harmful to others, and therefore you need both rules and enforcement from the relevant hierarchical relationship responsible for those people (whether family elder, work unit supervisor, security guard, teacher, etc.) to make sure people stay in line with what is appropriate behavior – hence they need to be “guan-ed” because Chinese history (including in Taiwan and Hong Kong) is replete with examples where people behave badly if not properly managed.

    That’s my perception and interpretation, but I welcome other thoughts and viewpoints.

  6. July 1st, 2012 at 22:24 | #6

    Thank you all for chiming in. Another thing I felt I should point out is that after leaving Tai’an in Shandong to Renmin University in Beijing, Aminta got much more exposure, and she referred to some of her students as elites. I think much of it has to do with the English proficiency at schools like Renmin University.

    Also, we are in such an English language dominated world that Americans are still unaccustomed to think perhaps the way to get the most out of the Chinese perspectives is to converse fully in Chinese.

    Anyways, as you can tell, I was very taken by Aminta’s attitude and sincerity in understanding a new culture.

    Melektaus – thanks for clarifying the point on the EEZ violation with the EP-3.

  7. JJ
    July 4th, 2012 at 22:19 | #7

    @perspectivehere

    Very interesting!

    And I totally agree with his comment here, “the French person will recreate distance with silence, the American with conversation…”

    It’s really strange how in that sense, French culture is much more similar to Chinese culture than American. But since Americans seem to be the current “representatives” of Western civilization, this causes a lot of miscommunication.

    And thanks for introducing me to Mary Ann O’Donnell’s blog. I’m always surprised how some foreigners can see the real China and understand the culture, while other’s always seem to get it wrong (even if it seems like they’re trying to understand it).

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