只是我们见不到 – It’s just that we can’t see them – English

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During a class on television and media analysis, the teacher showed us one episode of an American Reality Show. The protagonists were Paris Hilton and other scandalous personalities like her, who were sent to do the work of “ordinary people”. At the beginning of that particular episode, the host is sending one of the ladies to work at the Wal Mart warehouse, and her first question is: “What is Wal-Mart?”

This seems like an incredible question to us ordinary people: although many people like me never buy things in Wal-Mart, who sell trays of meat for huge families, but nothing in small quantities, still, not knowing what Wal Mart is? It’s like not knowing that H2O is water.

In this world, only 0.01% of people could ask this question. Why would they know what Wal Mart is? They don’t know where the food on their table comes from, they don’t look at American TV programs – at most, they care about popular music and a little bit about the results of the presidential election. We usually forget about their existence, because we do not see them – and some people are not even aware of their existence. We know abstractly that a handful of rich people float above the world. And we think that the difference between us and them is that, if we saved money for long enough, we could afford to buy the things that they have. But in fact, the distance between us and them is expressed in this one sentence: they do not know what Wal Mart is.

The first is just a distinction of wealth; the second is a class distinction.

Growing up in Socialist China, when I opened books of history and politics, everything was class, class, class. But when I was little, I always thought that “class struggle” (OK, this is a sensitive word) was a role playing game where the good guys must get rid of the bad guys, because at that time, I had no opportunity of seeing what class was. The society known to me and my peers is a muddled one; some people were a bit poorer, some people were a bit richer, some people could get an ice-cream every day, some people could only get an ice-cream every third or fourth day. But the adults all watched the same news, the kids all watched the same cartoons, the people who lived in the same area all went to the same market to buy food; in the city, only one department store and the central post office had air conditioning, and on summer nights, we all went there to enjoy the cool. I grew up in a compound, and I played with everyone, the peddler’s daughter and the painter’s son, and together we pestered our parents to give us pocket money to buy one Yuan a box biscuits DaDa buns, or a 5 cent ice cream. In the New Year, we would drive out for just an hour and reach the country, where we would play with relatives’ children and burn firecrackers or sparklers. I occasionally mocked one of these children for being dirty, and my parents locked me in a room with the TV on, with Journey to the West playing, which I had already seen seven or eight times. After a while, I would start feeling bored, grumble that I had been wrong, and be sent out to look out for my cousins and play with them. My cousin told me the stories of Gourd Baby from picture books, and took me on electric cars used to replace buses going into town to go ask for fortune-telling from the local temple’s priestesses. The long commutes back and forth muddied my clothes, and so I grew unconcerned about keeping my new clothes clean, and happily went shrimp-catching with the other country kids.

My childhood, of course, is not representative of the childhood of my peers; the 90s were not the same for people in Beijing and Shanghai, and even less so for people from Guangdong. But I believe that all the people around my age remember when Mc Donald’s and KFC started opening everywhere, and we all wanted to go and try that new food; and if you grew up in the city, you can still remember when people from the country queued in front of the KFC, and how we would look at them with curiosity. This might be the first time we became aware that the world had ‘them’. As I was growing up, I didn’t know there was a difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’, then later I heard kids’ cruelly taunting ‘them’, and eventually I even forgot what ‘they’ looked like. Last time I went back to China, at a Mac Donald’s counter in some shopping mall, I heard a man with a strong northern accent shout out: “Miss, how come the chicken McNuggets you gave me are so much smaller than those on the picture? You tricked me!” Everyone around looked at him and secretly laughed. I looked at him across the glass door, and suddenly remembered when I was eight or nine years old, and had a great debate with my cousin about what “Kentucky Fried Chicken” was. I insisted that it was chicken from Mr. ‘Kentucky Fried’, and my cousin didn’t stop mocking me for a long time after that.

Yes, at the time, my level of English was probably the same as my current level of Latin is. When “Titanic” swept over China – the first American film to do that – I pestered my cousin, who was then in High School, to teach me the song. The only English I knew were my ABC’s, and so she had to transliterate the entire song with Chinese characters. I still remember the beginning as ‘Ai Wei Nai Te Ying Mai Jun Si’. My peers and I grew up under the ‘study hard for English, and build a modern nation’ pedagogy; we felt that the TOEFL was the ultimate exam, and our models for studying English were Yu Minhong and his founded New Oriental Education; in our heart, there is a magical but unattainable place called ‘foreign country’.

If it is really the case that, as Wittgenstein says, our language marks the boundaries of our existence, then myself now and the friends who ate ice cream with me then no longer share the same world. ‘Me and my peers’, I can use this expression to describe myself and my comrades from three to ten years old, but after that, this word becomes more and more ‘slippery’. Myself and a few of my peers left this small city in China’s hinterland for the legendary life overseas, and we like to discuss Wittgenstein, or Maison Martin Margiela for H&M. Some others of my peers I can also see overseas, they live in a rich area where you need 100,000 dollars deposit to get a lease, I only meet them occasionally to help them write their papers and make some extra money, or go to Chinatown and get tea in the only Cantonese restaurant. And yet others of my peers, I only have very rare occasions of seeing after they grew up, they never left the compound where I grew up, their old house and the compound reached a similar state of disrepair. Maybe they ran away from the works to university, or they might have directly gone down south to look for work. They eventually turned into ‘them’. I hate that me and my friends are labelled by them as rich white princesses. I know that trying to talk to them about my struggles with scholarship and renewing my visa would be like speaking in a foreign language. When I talk to them, I stammer, afraid that if I followed my habit of mixing languages in my speech, we would both feel ridiculous. Last time, I heard one of my childhood friends say: “Hey! Did you meet homosexuals overseas? I heard there’s a lot of homosexuals overseas’. All I could do was keep looking down into my cup of 1.5 yuan green bean ice cream – remembering how, when I was little, a cup of green bean powder with ice and sugar like this would cost only 20 cent. I had not expected that, after prices got ten times higher, the price of other things would not change.

For a while, there was a very popular nostalgic subject on Weibo, which said “if you can recognize XXX on the picture below, it means you’re old already”. There were many things on the pictures I could recognize: firecrackers, ‘pop’ lollies, Wahaha milk, with Calcium (the children from Guangdong replaced it with Yakult), backgammon arcade games, Sony CD players, little raccoon soap, Swiss sugar. When friends and I talk about the things of our childhood, everyone remembers the first time genuine toys from Japan or American Barbies appeared on the shelves of the Friendship store or the duty free shops, or when the first Carrefours appeared in the mainland, and everyone line up to get a baguette. As a kid, I lived in a very closed environment, and had few opportunities to go on the streets, but I was able to understand the excitement and curiosity of the age and times without effort.

But I don’t know if the next generation will be able to understand the childhood of their peers so easily. I’m not even sure if seven or eight year old children now can understand the childhood of their peers who live in the same city. Younger friends of my parents have just returned from Australia with their five-six year old son, the child’s Chinese is very poor, he often gets very angry, and throws his ipad at people. But the part-time maid in their house would be embarrassed to beg for the instant-translator which their son has already wrecked for her own six or seven year old daughter.

For the little kids who just start primary school, all of this at the start is just a difference in wealth: in their eyes, the difference betwen an ipad and an instant translator is no bigger than the difference between a proper ice cream and an icicle when I was a child. But the difference between ice-cream and icicle in itself has not changed the life trajectory of my and my peers, while the distinction between ipad and instant translator gradually becomes a class distinction. The little boy who plays with the ipad has come back to China to study Chinese for two years, then he will go back abroad with his mother, and will be attentively watched by adults, choosing himself whether he wants to work in law or finance in the future. But the little girls he saw when he was little might, in twenty years time, be married, and through the points they scored and compensation money for building destruction, have taken hold of a low rent two-room apartment in a city, and start looking after their young relatives.

I don’t know how two people with such life trajectories can come to understand each other. In the scenario we described at first, the little boy may ask after growing up: what is taobao? What is the Spring Festival Gala?

I remember when I just started university, my parents entrusted me to one of their friends. At first, I only vaguely knew that this friend was ‘a very rich man’, and liked to take me to private clubs with no shop-front for dinner. Once, they invite me to a ‘party’ at their house, saying it was to welcome their daughter who lived overseas. In line with my understanding of usual ‘party’ etiquette, I just replaced my T-shirt with a blouse before going. When I went through the door, I saw that all the furniture in the living room had been moved, and they hired a special waiter who walked around offering wine. My host family enthusiastically introduced me to their daughter and their daughter’s friends, and said, you young people must have lots to talk about. I was embarrassed to stand in the middle of my ‘peers’ who all wore luxury clothes, without high-heels, and a head shorter than anyone else. We had some vague conversation about the winter weather in the UK and driving a car along Repulse bay, then our conversation finished. After a while, I quietly walked away to find something to eat, then sat on the stairs with my bowl, praying as I ate that nobody would notice me.

This was the first time I learnt the word ‘class’, so to say. I do not know how sociologists define ‘class’, but for me, the meaning of class is that embarrassing moment when I am completely unable to communicate. that feeling of panic and not knowing what to do as I walk into a group of people, and that strong sense of estrangement and doubt when you face another person: Who am I? Who is he? And what’s the overlap between us?

As I sat on the stairs in embarrassment 一 a person eating chicken wings at a cocktail party – I suddenly remembered a scene from my childhood, when once I looked at the fashion magazine my mother was holding and asked, who would be so dumb to buy that 20,000 Yuan handbag? Look at my schoolbag, it’s much bigger than that. And my mother, coaxing me like you do children, said, there are people who will buy it, it’s just that we can’t see them.

When I was growing up, I really never had in my class another child who liked to boast that his parents had just bought an airport, and I also didn’t meet any child whose relatives went to Beijing to sell pork at the butcher’s. The China we can see is slowly turning into the China we can’t see. Our horizons narrow, but sometimes something bounces into sight. The shock and confusion of these encounters, if someone wrote them down, could become the best novel of our generation.

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Source : Douban, 19 November 2012

About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org