In his new book Beijing Welcomes You, Tom Scocca explores the transformation of Beijing into a symbol of Chinese power and influence in the 21st century and what China is telling us, intentionally and unintentionally, about our future together. In the excerpt below, Scocca delves into the enthusiasm with which Chinese people stereotype Chinese people.
The Year of the Pig would begin in February. At the Carrefour supermarket, by the north side of the Third Ring, the entrance ramp was lined with pig merchandise and decorations in the red of the festival season till it resembled an inflamed esophagus. There were to be no pigs on CCTV, however. In a gesture of intranational (rather than international) hypersensitivity, the state broadcaster was banning on-air pig imagery, so as not to offend the sensibilities of China’s Muslim minority.
This was, according to most reports, a super-propitious year in the traditional animal zodiac, a Year of the Golden Pig. Actually, by the six-decade cycle of five elements and 12 animals, it was supposed to be a Fire Pig year; the Golden Pig had come up in 1971, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. But people liked the idea of a Golden Pig. It sounded fat and prosperous.
Chinese culture was proving oddly malleable. The thing about Chinese people is that they are always telling you what the thing about Chinese people is. For a long time, I made the mistake of trying to pay attention to the specific things themselves. The Chinese will tell you that Chinese people are less formal than Westerners, and they will tell you that Chinese people are more formal than Westerners. Chinese people are outspoken, and Chinese people are reserved. They are very blunt, and they are very indirect. They are too curious and not curious enough. Chinese people are naturally thrifty (or cheap); they are inherently generous (or wasteful). The outlook of the Chinese is inflexible, and it is adaptable.
Once you get going, it’s hard to stop. The thing about Chinese people is that they insist on bundling up against the slightest threat of cold. The thing about Chinese people is that they wear replica basketball uniforms without player names or numbers on them. The thing about Chinese people is that they love watermelon and fried chicken. The thing about Chinese people is that they never take the manufacturer’s sticker or plastic label off anything they buy, ever—microwaves, security doors, rice cookers, DVD players, bathroom sinks—even when the paper starts to wear away or the edges of the plastic film peel up on their own.
Americans tend to get their backs up if anyone (particularly a foreigner) tries to make any sort of sweeping claim about our national habits. I more or less reflexively inserted tend to in the preceding sentence, as a bit of protective chaff, to soften the generalization. We will consent to be called freedom-loving or entrepreneurial, but more concrete collective observations—that we watch a lot of television, say, or that we are getting kind of heavyset, or that we shoot guns at each other more often than people of most other nationalities do—are an insult to our sense of dignity as free individuals.
But the Chinese are eager to hear what foreigners think about them, as a nation and a people, to the point of helpfully suggesting essentialist pigeonholes the observer might want to put them into. One prevailing explanation for the countries’ different attitudes is that America has always had a dynamic culture, while China is more tradition-bound. This is a terrible explanation. A 30-year-old Chinese citizen has seen more disruption and change than a 60-year-old American has; a 60-year-old Chinese citizen has seen more than a 200-year-old American would have. It was routine business for the government to rewrite the entire holiday calendar, or outlaw a whole category of motor vehicles, or ban and un-ban particular enterprises or classes of merchandise or kinds of information.
So what was one more spasm of change? Out behind the apartment, where a dead-end street crossed an arm of the Liangma River, construction walls had appeared, with heavy machinery working behind them. When I peered through the fence one afternoon, I saw that there wasn’t a building going in; what was under construction was the river itself, in its man-made banks. A cement truck was parked at the bottom of the riverbed, waiting to pour new pavement.
In the demolition zone at Xinfucun, where the graffiti had been before, the remaining buildings had been leveled, the trees cut down and carted off in autumn. All that was left by winter was a wide, bare lot, strewn with rubble and patrolled by magpies. The lone structure in the space was a small open shack, furnished with a filthy tan armchair and wooden dining chair gone pigeon-toed in its old age. In places, the floors and foundations of the vanished houses still showed on the ground. Between two poles that were left standing, fish had been strung up to dry. For some reason I couldn’t imagine, deep deposits of broken eggshells filled the hollows in the dirt, along with broken bricks and burnt-out fuel cakes of pressed coal. Two men on the west side of the lot were tending a motorized pump, the only sign of any work going on at all. A smartly dressed woman passed through, walking a fluffy dog. The dog was grimy.
On Feb. 11, the city sent out a text message to everyone’s cell phone, declaring that line-up day had arrived. This was part of the Olympic effort to reform public manners, one day each month when Beijingers were supposed to practice forming orderly lines at entrances, ticket windows, public-transit stops, and everywhere else an outsider might be appalled or endangered by the city’s usual jostling, swarming free-for-all. The date was the 11th because the two 1s represented the principle that even if only two people were waiting for something, one should line up behind the other.
At the Dongzhimen transit hub, as the 966 bus pulled up on the avenue, waiting passengers crowded the entrance, refusing to yield to the people getting off. A motorized tricycle cab weaved aggressively through the pedestrians. Where the 623 bus stopped, more would-be passengers formed themselves into a solid wall, again blocking the doors. The same happened for the 916. Down inside the subway station, people were sacked out in the pedestrian tunnel, lying on thick beds of dirty blankets and rags. At the ticket window, things were less crowded, but the rule was clear: Even if only two people were trying to buy tickets, one would be shouldering in while the other was still finishing up. Habit was stronger than etiquette, or numerology.
Buy Tom Scocca’s book Beijing Welcomes You.