We are all being told how we are supposed to behave.
First our parents (and teachers and peers) tell and show us what sort of behavior is normal and acceptable; later, advertising and various public and educational campaigns try to push us towards their preferred ways of acting.
Interested in social affairs and intercultural couplings?
Scoffing at “news” about the rich and famous and their ostentatious lifestyles?
Enjoy reading the gossip columns and want to read something of a little more substance?
On the surface, these novels are merely fictitious accounts of the lives of truly upper-class – and merely “crazy rich” – Asian jet-setters from Hong Kong, Singapore, and increasingly mainland China.
The look at these people’s lives is hilarious.
There are the parties and shopping trips that are to be expected; there is profligate luxury and concern over social rankings; there are games of status, concerns about company performances and portfolios; and worries about the children.
These super rich people’s lives seem so removed from the lives of ordinary people and even of rich from other places, but at closer look, they appear quite similar, too:
concerned about money, not wanting to pay too much, then again paying way too much on luxuries;
concerned about their children for whom they want the best of educations, but who still seem to end up only questionably well-adjusted – and if they are well-adjusted, then still in ways that the parents consider crazy because it’s not what they’d planned for their children;
caring about social status games and gossip and Habsburgian marriage politics, and all in all having issues like everyone else… except when not. And at very different levels, too.
The novels are, if you are at all interested in these issues, a lot of fun to read.
Interracial, Intercultural, Intersocial?…
Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend are also good starting points, if so inclined, for thinking a bit more deeply about not just intercultural relations and relationships (which are quite a popular topic and ‘educational’ theme), but also “inter-social” issues.
Cultural differences are usually noticed only, but easily, when people from different cultures come together. No big surprise.
One big issue there? When a couple is obviously intercultural and/or interracial. Otherwise, we often assume that all people of a group are quite similar; Americans are Americans, or at least so are Caucasian Americans and African-Americans; Chinese certainly are Chinese (supposedly), and so on. For couplings across those lines, we expect trouble.
In talking so much about intercultural and international relations, we often forget that differences already exist between the lifestyles and attitudes – the cultures, if you will – of people who seem to be (or are) of the same national / ethnic / “racial” / cultural background, but have different wealth, status, and pedigree…
Kevin Kwan’s novels are also all about that theme, if you so read them – and where it is relatively easy to remain above the complications of intercultural interaction (or to feel that way, at least – just don’t interact with “them”), such “inter-social” themes can easily arise even more unawares, but hit you even more intimately.
When you marry into another family, and that family has a different cultural background and social pedigree from your own, especially, complications arise, and you cannot stay detached.
Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend is not just about the spending and the scandalous lives of the super-rich that are those novels’ characters, but also about such intercultural and inter-social issues.
One of the main characters, after all, is Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American who ends up thrown into the world of these super-rich and socially distinct.
Ethnically (“racially”), she may be like them, but in other respects, they are worlds apart.
As a “banana” (“yellow on the outside, white on the inside”) Chinese-American, Rachel’s attitudes and ideas just don’t quite mesh with those of the “real” Chinese; but it’s not making things any easier that there is a chasm in net worth and social class and family background between her and her fiancée (and his family, especially).
The issue is all the more noticeable when the novels look at Kitty Pong, a Chinese marrying into a super-rich East Asian/Chinese family – except that she is mainland Chinese and from a, let’s say “challenging” social background, while her husband(-to-be) is from an established uppercrust one.
She would be just the type of person often mocked for the bad taste and ostentatiousness of newly rich like her, but here… Well, things take some unexpected (and some to-be-expected) turns, and one can come to feel for her.
Nouveau riche, like… having to drive a Ferrari to a cheap mall in Haikou, Hainan
Being Your Other
Almost all the people we learn about are Chinese, would one go by superficial looks, but they all also set themselves apart from each other through their background in different countries and, rather more importantly, from different family lineages.
All the hijinks, the challenges of personal life, the meddling of mothers, and the general acceptance or ostracism by society ladies (and it is noticeable – and not far from the truth, I dare say – that it is women who are much more concerned with status and standing than the men… even if the men are far from immune to it) thus hide a deep question that is straight out of the intercultural education handbook:
How do you remain and/or change yourself in order to fit into a different cultural context? Can you even do so?
Only here, this different context is one that is socially and culturally different not in the way we constantly talk about it, in terms of race/ethnicity or nation-and-culture, but in terms of social standing and the culture that goes with it.
And there, it can all look so calm and peaceful…
The way of being that goes with that is just what Bourdieu described as “habitus,” the typical kind of bearing and poise (and then more) that makes one recognizably belong to a certain class even before words need to be spoken … and I bet not many people who start reading Kevin Kwan’s novels expect themselves to end up thinking about such highfalutin concepts from social theory.
Once you get just that little awareness of it, however, you can approach intercultural/”inter-social” affairs with much more clarity, at least when it comes to why, thanks to different contexts, different ways of having grown up, made (or even lost) fortunes, and formed identities, people from different social backgrounds will act and appear so differently.
And of course, you can simply enjoy the whirlwind tour that Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend takes you on.
Taking an interest in how other people live, whether it is through gossip or analysis, in envy about lifestyle or relief not to be living with such issues, is only human, after all. You don’t have to pretend it isn’t, no matter your social/cultural standing ;)
And besides, in the allure of some brands, all people seem equal ;)
I’m back (at?) home in Austria, wondering if I’ve failed with the small (photo and writing) projects I started in and on Beijing because I’m not finished with them… and yet I realize that this is just one of those points where being somewhere else can actually bring you closer to a place.
It’s not this dream that “if only I were *there* rather than *here*, I’d be so happy and everything would be so great” that people sometimes fall into that I am talking about.
Yes, I know.
Where you are can be familiar and “at home” just as well as it can be that familiar hellhole you want nothing but to get out of – but so can any other place.
We have a natural tendency to think in such ways.
We get used to what we always see, tell ourselves that somewhere we don’t know would be much better, and end up liking or disliking both here and there based more on what we decide to focus on than all that’s really there.
This process plays out particularly well when it comes to foreigners in China, where a whole other level of exoticism or “going native” or criticism or you-name-it comes into play.
One of the constant debates among “China watchers” circles round and round the (im)possibility of knowing China when you are not living there.
It just happens too often that some expert/pundit visits Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen and pronounces the power that China has become. Equally as often, experts or analysts sit in London or Washington and declare China’s impending collapse.
Meanwhile, “old China hands” live in the midst of all the chances and changes and challenges in the country and shake their heads over the naiveté of these pronouncements.
You may have noticed something similar when it comes to your own country, or even city or county:
The further someone is away, the simpler their statements about a place, and the more convinced they may often be about them.
At the same time, however, the opposite problem can also apply:
Being in the midst of a place makes one only too aware of all the nitty-gritty details of daily life, but less likely to look down deeply into the history of this place, or up and at longer-term trends and patterns.
When we are in a place we “know” (i.e., we have been for a while and know our essential ways around), we don’t usually even notice any sights that are of note to others from farther away anymore.
In Beijing’s National Library
This is what has always struck me about my China experiences (especially because it was the same pattern I then noticed about my attitude towards my native Austria):
Living there is great for the direct lived experience, indeed.
But the same direct experience also makes for so much focus on everyday things that happen and that need doing that there is little time and energy for anything else.
Only when I’m back somewhere else do I get to better libraries and more of an interest in understanding more deeply what I had been observing before. Not to mention the critical distance from which to try and see larger patterns, not just everyday problems.
It’s just this kind of a balance that is a back-and-forth between intimacy and distance, engagement and aloofness, that we actually seem to need in many a situation.
Even romantic interest doesn’t work without some degree of separation (at the very least, enough for interesting individuality); variety spices up life; the familiar becomes more interesting (and all the more comforting, often enough) only once it has been the unusual.
If you’ve been reading these pages, you should be aware that I’d argue there’s much more “there” here, wherever you are, than commonly said. Too many, ubiquitous, arguments try to get people to travel and argue that it will somehow, magically, make you a better person with more experiences and education. Well, it doesn’t work that way.
Still, for everyone who doesn’t just want to be stuck in one place, never knowing how much more there is out there, cultural intelligence is fast becoming an essential skill.
Recently, the trend in writing about China seems to have become focused on the theme of exodus. Long-term expats are leaving, and telling all about the reasons. Mark Kitto – already famously? – gave one reason in the very title of his article: “You’ll Never Be Chinese.”
There is a lot to be said for his argument, and quite something against, but it’s the general theme of home I’d like to take up.
After all, somehow, even people proposing international, nomadic, location-independent living often talk about the pleasures of living free and unencumbered by ties to any place – but all the while, the notion of “home” figures prominently in their lives.
Sure, there are some who just tick off the countries they’ve been to, the places they’ve lived, without much of any apparent care for where they find themselves. Sure, there are different things that are important to different people – and if you seriously enjoy being in the mountains, but were born and raised in flat land (such as me, here), you may want to consider moving.
It’s often less about living nomadically and being free from ties, so much as it is about the latter, though: an attempt at finding a place to call home, a place that just feels right.
They dance – but are you a partner or an outside onlooker?
Well, a move can help with that. At least, a different context may make for a different frame of reference.
Go somewhere else, and things look different. Whereas you wouldn’t buy foods on the street where you come from, because that’s what you do only in a sterile-looking supermarket (which is boring), it’s normal and even pleasurably exotic in another country (regular digestive problems notwithstanding). It’s all (at least more easily) accepted somewhere else, and the fun and exoticism may make it more of the home you imagined sitting “at home” in a place you felt you knew only too well.
There’s quite something to the notion that you may not simply be at home somewhere, and especially where you grew up. I’m a strong proponent of the view that it’s better to feel a bit uncomfortable, especially in the place of one’s origin, rather than feel comfortably at home without ever experiencing any other place (and its people and culture).
Even the average corporate expat willing to go abroad probably didn’t feel quite “at home” where s/he grew up, studied, lived, and thus has a rather less “natural” tie to any such home.
If we are not simply at home in some place, if there is no home – here, or out there – just waiting for us, though, then that applies everywhere.
So, the problem is when the exoticism and excitement about a place becomes an expectation that things should be better there quite naturally, and that, if you feel rather better there – maybe even at home – things should just go exactly your way.
There’s the rub. It takes two to tango, and as the stranger, you must make yourself at home. Yet as the stranger, you may not be accepted.
Power plays between people and countries, openness or closedness of societies, racism or other notions of superiority and simple ethnocentrisms, expectations and experiences,… all come into play – and the expat who moved somewhere because he/she loved that country/culture so much may find that the feeling is not, or not always, reciprocal. Add in that the allure of the exotic fades away and the negatives may come to outweigh the fascination, and discontent can easily be bred.
China has been one of the best, and most difficult, examples of that.
The country is big and diverse, and thus offers great fascination, and it is a place with a landscape and climate for just about everyone. The people are typically curious and hospitable, and may even follow the notion that you are somewhat Chinese as long as you (struggle to) learn the language and fit into the culture. Of course, as everywhere, cultural conventions can make for a bit of a shock – and it’s typically not those stereotypical things like dog meat, but things like the unexpected openness with which visible differences between people – which would typically be talked about only in a circumscribed way, if at all, in ‘the West’ – are discussed: tallness, supposed handsomeness, soggy midsections, big noses… And when the situation somehow changes to a disenchantment with the foreign(ers), these obvious differences single out any foreigner, and the side of China where you are always on the outside if you weren’t born here and look, speak, and think like a Chinese can quickly come to the fore.
There is, of course, also your own set of priorities. China is on the rise, and China is and remains fascinating. Having lived in one place, even if it should be a part of China diametrically opposed to where you grew up, the fascination will be replaced by familiarity, though – and that may be comfortable (if not broken by rising ‘outsiderdom’), or a reason why other aspects, such as ‘outsiderdom’, but also pollution, career opportunities, etc., become more important.
As many of the expats now leaving have noted, once you have children, rampant pollution of air and water, food scandals, insane traffic and test-based schooling, along with legal uncertainties inherent in outsider status (and in China, also the status as citizen) easily become just too much.
As those who stay have started commenting, China is and remains fascinating, has more job opportunities for those who can navigate its market and offer something that is needed.
To me, the lesson is that one needs to make him-/herself at home, anyways, anywhere, as much as one can and wants to. And one needs to make him-/herself sufficiently uncomfortable, so to speak, to not only fall into an everyday monotony, but continually learn and do something more, better. Disenchantment comes everywhere, no place – and no person – is perfect. Handling that is a big part of what life is about.
Only part of all that is up to the individual, though; social acceptance in smaller social circles, for example, but not by the general population. It takes two to tango.