China and the “First World”

UnknownToday it rained in Wuhan, and it’s 90 degrees. Quite a respite from yesterday’s high of 102. I’m back in my favorite little coffee shop, Figaro. It’s actually the only coffee shop I know how to get to, but it works for me. The market I love so much was demolished the day I left for Nanjing. The American teachers who stayed behind in Wuhan told me a guy came in the next morning in jeans and a polo shirt with a sledgehammer, and just started smashing windows even as vendors were trying to clear away the last of their stuff. The rules are different here. No hard hats. No OSHA. Just workers with their bare hands doing the work that needs to get done.

I came to China with an open mind. I try not to judge what I see–I observe and take it in and wonder about it all. Someone in the group of teachers I arrived with mentioned the phrase “third world developing country” in reference to being in China. As in, he tries to remember that we are in a third world country when he wants something faster or cleaner or better. This phrase reminded me of the conference I attended just before coming to China, Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed. One of the keynote speakers talked about “heteronormativity,” which means using heterosexuality as the normal measure for sexuality and gender, hence the letters LGBTQ… etc, which are all designations in relation to the “norm,” which is supposedly heterosexuality. imagesWhen I heard this American talking about China being a third world developing country, I thought about the phrase, about the “developing” part, and understood in a new way that this phrase means the speaker thinks that country is trying to develop toward something, and that something is the “first world,” aka USA and Europe. Maybe there is already a phrase for this, but I don’t know it. “Westernonormativity”? I’ve thought about this before, the idea of USA and/or Europe considering themselves the norm, especially in reference to the way maps are drawn, to the way money flows, and to fashion trends. As many of my Chinese friends have told me on this trip, the Chinese are very interested in Western culture and in replicating its fashion and economics, but I think they are losing something essential in the process–they are losing their own sense of being the center, which is what Zhongguo, the Chinese word for China, actually means.

Unknown-1Last night, I read a review of Liao Yiwu’s memoir, For a Song and a Hundred Songs, in the July 1, 2013, issue of The New Yorker. Liao was imprisoned at the Song Mountain Investigation Center from 1990-1994 for reciting his poem, “Massacre,” written in memory of pro-democracy protesters. Reading this review while I’m in China brought something deeper to my understanding of the topic. As I’ve been traveling by train, I’ve actually been wondering where the Chinese prisons are. I’m sure I’m not the first to say this, but you can tell a lot about a culture by the way it treats its prisoners and its children. In the US, we have more people imprisoned then any other country in the world, actually, more than many other countries combined. Many people make money off of the US prison system–building it, running it, and representing its “clients.” We have far too many prisons in the US, and far too many prisoners. How we treat children. Hmm. I’ll save that for another post.

In China, according to the review of Liao’s book, prison is a horrific kind of mental and physical hell. Prisoners torture each other in all kinds of ways. Shit figures into that torture a lot, which I think I understand just a little better than I did before I came to the US. Not that it’s torture to be here, not at all. What I mean is that shit is not hidden and sanitized in China like it is in the US. Of course, as a traveler, I’m sensitive to how the local food is affecting my body, so I’m thinking about shit all the time. And apparently, Liao was, too. I want to read his book when I get back home, as well as The Rape of Nanjing by Iris Chang. Unknown-2After visiting the Massacre Memorial Museum in Nanjing, I have some ideas for the novel I’m working on, which is set in the future when things are bad and people are very unkind to each other. It’s amazing how looking to the past can answer questions about how we might conduct ourselves in the future. I’ve been reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman as I’m working on world-building for my novel. He uses the technique of looking to the past – how the world looked before we were here – to see how it will look after we are gone. I’m sort of doing the same thing–in the future, I’m assuming we’ll treat each other in ways similar to how we have in the past, times when there was too little to go around, or at least, people thought there was too little to share.

On to a happier subject. Today, we visited two incredible places in Wuhan–the Wuhan Provincial Museum and the Yellow Crane Tower. Both of these places were amazing. I’m running out of time and access to wifi to write about them tonight, but let’s just say that you’ll want to check back for my next post to find out about the national treasures housed in the museum and the incredible views to be had from the tower.

Oh, and if you were wondering, I’m feeling much better today. No more traveler’s intestinal troubles for now.

1 thought on “China and the “First World””

  1. Really thought-provoking post, Lania! I’d love to read some of the books you mentioned, too!

    Glad you’re feeling better!

    Love you,
    J

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