I went back to Beijing right after Portland! Last time I was home was almost 8 months ago. And for a place like Beijing, 8 months is long enough for a person to feel that she needs to catch up with the city.
The Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin said in the Clarke Award ceremony: he once wrote sci-fi to reach magical worlds through his imagination, only to find himself surrounded by a surreal world resembling sci-fi on its own. Liu was born in the 60s and people in his generation saw such an incredible amount of progress in their living world that few in human history can compare. I definitely can't resonate with that completely, but even then, I notice so many changes in Beijing every year I go back that this society's growth feels surreal to me, too.
I was literally just telling my friends last week in Portland that Beijing doesn't have many artsy coffee shops and bookstores are disappearing. Then, in the past few days, Beijing proved me how wrong I was. And on top of that, it showed me how much more convenient it had become in the 8 months I was away.
In subway stations, shopping malls, or neighborhoods, there are all of a sudden a lot of vending machine selling things from drinks to flowers and lipsticks (themed around the Forbidden City, for example). I finally got my digital subway card in an app that allows me to just scan QR codes to pay for subways. I can order on my phone in restaurants by scanning a QR code. A lot of restaurants and coffee shops provide portable chargers that you can rent by, again, scanning a QR code. I actually do not bring any cash or card with me anymore. Within 2 mile radius of where I live, I've found several well-decorated coffee shops that provide blue-colored latte, latte made by pouring milk onto iced coffee sphere, desserts in grey cubes or pink ellipsoids, etc... AND A LOT OF THEM CLOSE AT MIDNIGHT.
Not to mention the bajillion extremely creative desserts in areas farther from my neighborhood... It's unbelievable. And they probably mostly are a lot healthier than the dessert in the US because they have less sugar.
And a bookstore opened in the shopping mall right next to my neighborhood, which is a big deal because that shopping mall has existed for 15 years and is popular and now it has a bookstore in there?!!! That tells something. And actually, everywhere I go, I see well-designed and well-curated bookstores that I didn't imagine that area would care to have. There are so many books translated from non-English languages (a lot from Japanese, especially. And a much larger amount from non-East-Asian and non-Western-European countries than I had expected) and so many books' covers are so well-designed, too!
Ahhhh I take my words from a week ago back. Beijing is actually a lot of fun to visit. If anyone reading this ever visits Beijing, please let me know!! I'll do my best to educate myself about what Beijing is like now while I'm still here.....
I started reading and got addicted to The Three Body Problem series!
I've read some interviews on other Chinese sci-fi writers over the years, but I'm only getting so interested in their works now because of 1) how often I see TBP and a few other Chinese sci-fi in US bookstores and 2) the Chinese sci-fi movies from this year: The Wandering Earth (which is based on a short story by the same author of TBP) and Shanghai Fortress.
Two writers I am really excited about:
︎Han Song 韩松
Han Song's main profession is a journalist for the state news agency Xinhua — he's been in the journalism industry for decades and has seen and reported on many major events in not only China but also in the world. A very interesting fact: he wrote in a sci-fi short story ("Mars Shine on America"，《火星照耀地球》) in 1996 that a plane crashes into the World Trade Center in 2066. During his visit to the US in 1996, Han Song sensed a tension in America's society when talking to local communities and, when standing in the World Trade Center, just felt the building wouldn't last long. Journalism has trained him for a much greater sensibility to the world, and I'm extremely curious to see what world and story could come out of his pen.
︎Hao Jingfang 郝景芳
She's the second Chinese author to win a Hugo Award, I believe. She's a genius. She won the highest national writing award for high school students, then became a physics major at Tsinghua University, then received a phD in economics. Her Folding Beijing (《北京折叠》), after I googled the story's concept, sounded incredibly real philosophically: Beijing is so overly populated that it has separate, foldable spaces for the three groups of people. The wealthy elites get 24 hours. The bottom class gets 8 hours from 10pm to 6am the next day. This concept alone is enough to get me excited to read it soon!
My friends (who also grew up in China before going to high schools and colleges in the US) were debating the other day if we should work in China or the US after graduation. One of them commented that culturally we're stuck somewhere in the middle and we can't change that really.
I've given a lot of thoughts to this topic this year. In short, I agree with that friend and I love that I am sort of in the middle.
Well, there definitely are a lot of annoying things about not really fitting in any specific culture. It is better in the US just because of how many foreigners go there all the time. But every time I go back to China, I have to re-remember what I have learned to take for granted in the US is sometimes weird, improper, or not okay. My poor parents, who have never lived outside China, have to deal with their daughter changing in ways they sometimes cannot understand, and try their best to understand a dramatically different culture they haven't experienced personally. Especially this year, we've gotten mad at each other for so many times because of the growing gap in the worlds we see and experience.
BUT, I want to reiterate that despite all that annoying stuff, I LOVE this feeling of being in the middle. I am not perfectly neutral on everything — I adopt more Chinese ways of thinking on some matters and more American ones on some others. But whatever I believe in, I remember why the other culture would do things differently. China and the US, especially, are so different that, after being quite immersed in both cultures, I get to see a lot of the limits or basic belief structures by comparing each culture to the other. And for things that the two countries share, which are much harder to notice for sure, I intuitively remember that some cultures out there would be at the opposite end of the spectrum with China and the US.
I feel that, the older you are, the more effort it takes you to understand (not simply "know") a very different culture. High school (and probably early college) is a particularly dividing time between when it is very easy and very hard to adopt dramatically different values and beliefs. At least for me, it was the last two years of high school and first year of college when I experienced dramatic value changes. For one part I had to be open on my own end to let the changes happen, but for another part I also felt that I was forced to be open because humans intuitively want to resolve conflicts. And I am quite confident now with my openness to cultural differences: even though I cannot understand everything about every culture, at least I definitely won't laugh at other cultures for simply being different from me.
On limits—it is really interesting to see how each country curates its news on the other country. In the US, Chinese people are helplessly ignorant of human rights (internment camps, social credit system), have no ethical frameworks in science (CRISPR, weird employment of AI technologies), are pitifully watched by their government, and are COMMUNISTS. (I'd later learn from my friend Cammie the term "techno orientalism.")
I'm less attuned to how China portrays the US because I spend way less time accessing Chinese news websites and social media now. But it seems that in China, American people have way too many guns (hence, the country is unforgivingly dangerous to live in), have way too many weird (many Chinese people would call these things "cool" with a condescending tone) people and life styles, think they are always right (and thus try to make decisions for everywhere else in the world), and are CAPITALISTS. (though I'd argue that the communist image of China in the US is far more politically charged and distorted than the capitalist image of the US in China)
Books on China in the US always have red covers, often with portraits of Xi Jinping or Mao Zedong (or the Communist symbols), often in a visual style imitating the notorious propaganda posters. When I walked into bookstores in Beijing this week, a book called The American Trap was always on the first display table people see upon entering, and apparently it's a #1 best seller.
The list could go on for a while. My point here isn't about the falsity of specific news: internment camps are real and the US citizens do have a lot of guns. But it's about what each country selects to report about the other, out of all the things to give attention to. Each country portrays the other as an unimaginably cold and utterly unrelatable entity plotting by all means its global expansion and intervention. My cultural immersion on both sides makes me more sensitive to each country's agendas.
I really treasure this kind of perspective, or mixture of perspectives, that I have. On matters like the ongoing Hong Kong protest, I've gotten to see and relate somewhat personally to both sides of the issue, while not feeling morally obligated to pick a side.
What is the most valuable thing I could do in face of something like Hong Kong's protest? How can I put my relatively neutral cultural background to the best use? I want to try to come up with a few answers in the next year...