at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

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Ferrari in Cheap Mall on Hainan

Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend, Intercultural Relation(ship)s

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?

Check out Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend (the latter of which has only just been released this June 2015, just in time for a beach read).

Just Novels

Hong Kong Night Shopping StreetOn 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.

Couple at Chinese Uni

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.

Ferrari in Cheap Mall on Hainan

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.

Lamma Island Harbor at Night

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 ;)

And besides, in the allure of some brands, all people seem equal ;)

Rural Chinese Kitchen

Not Just ‘Speaking of China’…

Just as my wife and I were waiting for our flight from China to Austria, from her country to mine, we caught the movie “For All Eternity” on TV. The story of an Austrian woman who fell in love with a Chinese man and followed him to China, all in the middle of the tumultuous 20th century.

I feel quite at home in China, to the point where the familiarity makes it difficult to write or photograph anything meaningful. What so many reporters, let alone tourists, consider strange, I consider quite normal…

And yet, I’m not entirely sure I would want to move to China; what my wife and I want from life makes Europe rather more appealing…

Jocelyn Eikenburg, author of the fabulous blog “Speaking of China” (which is all about “Asian Male / Western Female” couplings and, more generally, intercultural relationships – which is how we got in touch and what I now, again, guest-blogged about for her, too) recently went the opposite way.

The USA, that great melting pot / mixed salad of peoples, turned out rather less welcoming than expected, and so she and her Chinese husband moved (back) to China.

Focused on making oneself at home as I am, and knowing how often people think you can only be at home in places offering the comforts they’ve come to expect as normal, it was the perfect reason to ask Jocelyn for some insight…

So, let me turn right over to her:

How I learned to feel at home at my in-laws’ place in rural China

By Jocelyn Eikenburg

Jocelyn at her in-laws'

One fall, after returning from a summer spent living with my in-laws in China, I took out my digital photo album to show my American friends what their home was like.

There was the kitchen in their home, with soot-stained walls from years of burning wood to fire their huge wok. There was this shot of their doorway, fringed by red couplets that faded in the sunlight as well as a random motorcycle and piles of tools, pails and rope in the corner. And then there was the foyer, with a pile of black knitted hats dumped all over the unfinished concrete flooring – the same flooring used in almost every room in their house.

I assumed my friends would be curious and even a little surprised by what they saw. But what I never expected was how stunned they were about my in-laws’ home. In In their American world of sparkling granite countertops in the kitchens, tidy and uncluttered front doors, neat little garages that hid away things like motorcycles or tools, and floors covered in carpeting, tiles or wood, my in-laws home just didn’t compute. Which of course, left them with one simple question for me:

How could someone ever feel at home there?

Rural Chinese Kitchen

It’s a fair question. After all, I thought the very same thing years ago when, in February 2003, I first walked through that doorway. I puzzled over the faded red couplets, the concrete flooring everywhere, the soot all over the kitchen ceiling, the random piles of stuff in corners of the yard, and most of all, the utter lack of central A/C or heating. I remember settling into one of the many no-frills wooden stools huddled around the dining room table, wondering how anyone could feel comfortable eating in a chair with no back to it. For the longest time, I kept putting off returning there – always telling John to give his parents excuses why we couldn’t go.

I’d love to tell you there was some great epiphany, a sudden “a-ha” moment that changed how I felt about that home and even them. But when does life ever work like that? No, it was more a matter of time – of me getting used to their house and then discovering the greatness under its roof. (See my post “8 Surprising Things I’ve Learned from Living in China’s Countryside” for more on this idea.)

photo#3

With each subsequent visit there, I started finding small little things that I really appreciated about the place. John’s mother would always go above and beyond to stir-fry an impossibly large number of vegan dishes (more than a person could humanly finish in one meal). Most of the food on the table came from the family’s garden behind the house, and it was some of the freshest and most delicious produce I had ever tasted. John’s father would draw and hang these pastoral village scenes on the walls of their home, inspiring all sorts of delightful conversations about the little river town where he used to live as a boy. Relatives and neighbors would wander in and out of the house, bringing us their smiles, laughter and – more often than not – some delicious treat to take home. (For that matter, even John’s parents insisted on sending us back to the city with ungodly amounts of food!)

Ultimately, I came to realize that what helps you feel at home in the most unlikely places is the people. When you are surrounded by such warm generosity and hospitality, you feel loved – and you’ll come to love the people behind that house, no matter how different it is from how you grew up.

photo#4

Love is a powerful thing. Powerful enough to change how you think about a foreign country, culture or even a house.

In 2009, my husband and I returned to his family home to find an enormous addition to the home, including a clean and modern new suite just for my husband and me. The bedroom had wooden flooring, painted walls, a flatscreen TV, a comfy bed and a beautiful view of the garden out back. The bathroom included a flush Western-style toilet, white tiled walls and flooring and solar-powered hot water for the shower. It was everything I had ever wanted in that house in all the years we had been visiting there.

My father-in-law later told me, “This is your home,” words that almost brought tears to my eyes. I thought about all of the years I had spent learning to adjust myself to my in-laws’ home, never imagining that one day they would actually adjust their home for me. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Jocelyn Eikenburg blogs about love, family and relationships at Speaking of China, and calls Hangzhou, China – her husband’s region – home.

 

The Remains of ZhongYuanJie

Chinese Family Affairs

Children matter, but it’s the ancestors who’re everything.

It’s all well and good to read about the structure of Chinese family life, know of the value of filial piety in Chinese society, but something completely different again to be a part of it. But of course, being part of an intercultural relationship also means being part of a different kind of family life – and if meeting the parents is nerve-racking enough within a culture, it’s even more so when the differences aren’t just personal quirks, but also have their roots in a different cultural and social background.

Read More

Couple at Chinese Uni

Be a Man… Or, What China Taught Me About Gender

They are some of those strange observations the foreigner makes in China:

Guy and girl sit next to each other in the park. They coddle each other, obviously very much in love.
Same people, same place, half an hour later: she has her back turned to him, sullenly plucks on some leaves, obviously irritated. He stands there, dumbfounded, obviously not quite knowing what to do.

Guy and girl walk down the road. She suddenly stops, pouts, “huhn”-s at him; he has to scramble for words to convince her that she’s the best and prettiest, and worth everything and anything, before she even takes another step.

Oftentimes, many such behaviors found widely among East Asian girls, along with a deep-seated fondness for everything cute and girly (not least in clothes and accessories), make their foreign observer incredulous.

Read More

Culture and the Body

Sex and Culture: So Much More Than “Just Two People”

Is sex fun?

You’re probably wondering where this is supposed to go now, thinking something along the lines of “well, if it’s consensual, yeah – why else would people do it?”
Even cultural backgrounds should not matter much, except where they shape the conditions when it’s acceptable to get busy. It’s just a biological thing after all, just two people.

It is exactly in such “simple” situations that cultural knowledge seems to go out the window, at the same time at which culture exerts its strongest influence, exactly because it becomes so strongly hidden.

Read More

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