Sunday, March 16, 2014

Far Away So Close

I just got back from China. I lived there for a year. It was not scary, dystopian, Orwellian, expensive, or "evil" (whatever that means, although there are quite a few internet searches for "China is evil"). It was, however, at times the following things: bureaucratic (especially in banks), crowded (in big cities, especially in subways), dirty (we'll talk about bathrooms and children and hygiene and toilets another day), and irritating (for the aforementioned reasons).

I would say that the main thing I think about China after having lived there is similar to the main thing I thought about China before having lived there: it's misunderstood by the West, or at least people in the U.S., to a startling degree, but that's true about most foreign countries. People in the U.S. who haven't traveled extensively abroad seem to retain these vague ideas of "otherness" about basically everywhere else in the world. China gets a lot of special thought right now, because we have the likes of Donald Trump who freak out at the thought of the international economic warfare supposedly being waged between the two countries (nothing a little revenue tariff couldn't solve, I say...) and because people do stupid things like shop at Walmart while lamenting that no products are "made in America" anymore. (Hello, McFly?!)

So we got back to Phoenix at the very end of February and shortly thereafter I came across a flyer advertising Shen Yun 2014, a show with live orchestra to be held at ASU's Gammage Theater in March. Just checking out what's going on in my hometown, and at the lovely Gammage where I have of course seen shows in the past, I read about Shen Yun - the extraordinary journey of ethnic and folk dances, thunderous drums, soaring voices, animated backdrops, and so on. Underneath all the reviews with their cries of "Mesmerizing!" and "Dazzling!" there was a paragraph headlined in bold:

"NOT MADE IN CHINA: Shen Yun cannot be seen in today's China, where traditional Chinese culture has been mostly destroyed under communist rule. Based in New York, Shen Yun is a nonprofit organization dedicated to reviving authentic Chinese culture."

Why is this distressing to me? Who am I to tell these Chinese artists in New York what "communist rule" has or hasn't done to their culture? Well, those are interesting questions. But it's not just about China; I spent eight years pondering what the occupation of the White House by Dubya and his murderous cronies said about me as a United Statesian, and I suspect the people who flood my Facebook news feed with dire warnings about "Obamacare" and the government taking away all their guns might not think I speak for them, politically.

But people -- maybe not all people, but a whole lot of people -- who are not in China seem to find it really easy to believe that this Great Oppressive Chinese Whatever in the Sky is squelching and destroying (or, I guess, has theoretically already squelched, under Mao) all that is right and good in life. And when a line like that appears on the brochure, it feeds the frenzy so well, which is what the Shen Yun artists seem to want. Their web site is filled with comments about the Chinese government being unable to stop the worldwide popularity of Shen Yun -- and about the government's "oppression" of Falun Dafa (aka Falun Gong), which is the spiritual discipline at the root of this Shen Yun show. And so it comes back to religion, but that's not mentioned anywhere in my advertisement brochure. Just the phrase "culture has been mostly destroyed," which is as vague as it is manipulative.

Ooooooh, Big Bad China.

Meanwhile, the big thing that happened (besides the Oscars, which are obviously the biggest news story in the world to me every year) since our return from Asia was the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines flight. It has been strange to watch news stories, especially the initial ones, with their maps of the area, which undoubtedly a lot of people needed to know just exactly where in the world this great and exciting mystery was happening. Those countries have basically been our "backyard" for the past year as we lived in Guangzhou. We flew in and out of China multiple times, and we flew on Malaysia Airlines a couple times. We loved Malaysia itself, in fact; Kuala Lumpur easily skyrocketed to the top of our favorite-cities-of-the-world lists. It is interesting to be so recently removed from all that, in my hometown of Phoenix, watching the news and wondering about the flight but not thinking of it as "remote" in the slightest. I was just there, geographically and aeronautically, let alone mentally.

The world is not a big sphere of Us/Them that we inhabit only a tiny part of, despite how we so often present it to one another and to ourselves.

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