November 20, 2015, by Tony Hong
Chinese Frustrations: My Rightist Mobility, My Leftist Hypocrisy
By Flair Donglai Shi,
World Literatures in English (MSt) at University of Oxford.
(Caution: the words “rightist” and “leftist” are used in the vaguest/broadest sense possible in this article, which is full of generalising languages and assuming discourses that the reader is welcome to deconstruct)
My British dustbin is my best friend. It always sits there beneath my long chair, always hungry for more, and always happy with whatever I feed it. It takes whatever I do not want, and always watches them come and go. No matter what happens, it stays the same, proud, shiny, strong and confident, as if it never knows that it is meant to be a dustbin. Maybe it does not need to know, because it is British, and it always, and always will, stay in Britain. Dustbin or not, I guess it feels more at home with itself than I do. It does not need to know how fashionable the pattern on its body is in a faraway noisy country called China.
In China we have all been taught to love our own flag, the symbol for the party, the four classes it liberated and led, and the blood of the brave martyrs which dyed it so bloody (literally) red. But in fact we love the British flag more. For some inexplicable reason it is just more beautiful, more fashionable, more “yangqi (洋气)”. It carries all sorts of Occidentalist imaginations of the Chinese people. The pattern is everywhere in China. It appears on watches, gloves, scarves, teapots, clothes, quilts, scooters, carpets or even cars. It is so absorbed into a kind of knock-off fashion that the Chinese are not even aware of it when they wear it on themselves. Compared to the authoritative ontology of the Chinese flag, the British flag in China is, just like the country it represents, more “democratic”—anyone can have it, display it, wear it without necessarily knowing what the pattern stands for and where it comes from. But as a graduate student in the UK, I know what the pattern stands for and where it comes from. What’s worse, as a graduate student specializing in postcolonialism, I also know how it appeared on the upper left corner of many colonial flags, including that of British Hong Kong that occasionally makes its appearances when people there are protesting against China nowadays. I used to love the Union Jack, just like many Chinese teenagers do. But ironically, after all the education I received from the Kingdom itself, I learned to not like it, and this postcolonial attitude cannot help but reveal itself in the fact that I would only tolerate the pattern in my room if it is printed on a dustbin. What’s worse, I learned to despise my fellow Chinese who still love the British flag. I despise their ignorance, and I despise that they conjure up all these nice romantic visions of a country that have never even visited. Sometimes I cannot help but lecture them about all its oppressive history, in a very conceited and self-important manner.
But more often than not, I stare at my best friend, the British dustbin, from time to time and reflect on my upward mobility and the hypocritical leftism I learned from the British. I guess such reflections simply cannot be done through such metaphorical and figurative terms, no matter how radical, reductive and problematic they sound, and straightforward honesty is a sine qua non for a clear expression of such fundamental confusion, of the existential paradox I feel I cannot escape from. Growing up in China, for my generation, means that we are breathing the polluted air of rightist, or the better-sounding “progressive”, modernity, a modernity that is delicately woven by discourses of capital, power and self. We grew up in a system where we are constantly urged to compare and compete, to climb up the social ladder in whatever way we can, for ourselves and our families. We were constantly told about the harsh reality that is our society, and all we strive for is to survive and do better, and eventually feel better, than others. That’s why we want to come to a place like UNNC, and eventually go abroad, go to Oxbridge, go to Harvard. We never really believed in the humanities: we always know that our politics class is rubbish propaganda, we always know that our history class is one-sided nationalistic construction, and we always believe that it is only natural that people are selfish and construct things with themselves as the centre. So Chinese students always find Western concepts such as “ideology”, “stereotype” and “discourse” extremely hard to understand. It takes us ridiculous realizations to understand the leftist, and usually deconstructive, politics surrounding these terms, a politics we used to take for granted. For example, when I encountered the postcolonial critique of Eurocentrism for the first time, I did feel like I had an important epiphany, which is not about how evil Eurocentrism is, but about the astounding fact that Eurocentrism can be criticized at all. “Isn’t it just normal for Europeans to be Eurocentric? Isn’t it just normal that we Chinese are quite Sinocentric too? What can possibly be wrong with this human nature?” was my initial thoughts. But no matter how natural I thought (or maybe still think) it was, I happily accepted the critique of Eurocentrism anyway, as doing so would lend me more critical power to be accepted by the West, to grab more power in the West which I used to (maybe still) deem as better than China. Hence the ironic journey for us Chinese humanities students educated in the West: we embarked this journey, as rightists, to better ourselves against others, to be more cultured than others, to be more international than others, yet we are educated to be leftist, to care about others, to care about women, black people, LGBT people, or just every other human being. We are now trained by the West to be “aware” of (sometimes we feel “awareness” is the only thing we get from such leftist education) the ideologies behind any stereotypes or discourses, to deconstruct every constructive narrative out there, Chinese or Western or whatever.
It is ironic not only because we are from a supposedly “socialist” country where no one believes in socialism anymore but also because ultimately we learned to use another set of racial socialist values (postmodernist etc.) from the West to climb up the social ladder in this age of global neoliberalism. This is frustrating for the Chinese (or any groups from the so-called third-world countries) humanities students educated in or by the West on two levels. Firstly, on a personal level, we embarked on this journey against the neoliberal capitalist order by subscribing to all these quasi-socialist ideas and theories about ideology and power, only to be more and more incorporated into the neoliberal system and confined in a relatively insignificant place in it, which is the humanities departments in the academia. We compete with each other by reading more and more Foucault, Bhabha or Derrida, by exercising this endless process of deconstruction. We write many articles on how we have seen through whatever narrative (or better still, discourse) we deem oppressive, and after writing about it for 30 years we become professors, only to be paid slightly more to keep writing about it with limited real socio-political impact on the society. But at least for us, we have climbed up, we have become professors, and we have come to the top of this radical leftist machine situated closer to the metropolitan centre of the world. Secondly, on the international or national level, all this leftist politics we do in and for the West, in the name of “against the West” is exactly the opposite: to better the West and keep it on top of the rest. Multiculturalism, feminism, queer theory, posthumanism and the postmodern philosophy in general, only help to construct a monocultural/homogenous, sexist, homophobic, anthropocentric and “stuck in the modern” Other, be it China, Japan, Uganda or Iran. As unfinished as the struggle for multiculturalism in the West is, many Chinese people have already had this imagination about a colourful West where differences will be accommodated and all races and cultures shine, unlike China. So they want to leave this “fake” socialist China and come to this “real” socialist West (without necessarily thinking in such terms).
That’s why our privileged status and our leftist politics make us quite hypocritical, and the awareness about such hypocrisy only makes us even more frustrated. Studying postcolonialism or world literatures in a place like Oxford University only exacerbate such frustration, which, often in the eyes of others, can be so unnecessary and hypocritical itself (what do you have to worry about once you are at Oxford, right?). I may throw rubbish into my British dustbin and express my dissatisfaction about it from racial or sexuality perspectives, and I am able to do so only because I have the mobility to come here and read all the leftist theories in English taught by western professors in the universities. In a way, I can only do this through a process of becoming British, or more accurately, becoming a queer person of colour engaged with the politics of this country (by somehow treating it as my country, as the place that I am living in and based in and intend to better). Hidden in this is my rightist mobility and privilege to change modalities: from a third world subject to a third world diasporic subject in the West. For my friends in China who have never left China, this point is super clear as they always talk back to me in my “lecturing”: “you always criticize the UK but it is only because you are based there now, so don’t tell me about how bad it is and tell me to stop loving it. I cannot afford to not love it because I am not there yet. Would you be willing to swap positions with me?” They always make me wonder, is there a way to shed this leftist hypocrisy except for me to confess: I throw rubbish into my British dustbin, but it is still the best friend whom I cannot live without?