I’ve reached the end of my first week in China, and have already seen, done, and felt so much. Amidst the visits to the colourful villages and the beautiful singing, the welcome dinners and the shows, I’ve been trying to get to grips with how life works in China and how I’m going to fit for the coming weeks.
It hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes the most straightforward practical things take a really long time, because I don’t understand the language or the system is somehow different. How the cooker works is different. How the washing machine works is different- the buttons, the directions, even the plumbing (along with my propensity for flooding the bathroom…). Dining etiquettes, greeting etiquettes, restaurant locations, toilets- all are different. Smoking etiquettes are different (people smoke EVERYWHERE). Even the meaning of a smile can be different.
Though the food is often different too, it is, given Kerun’s hard work at finding me vegetarian options, usually different in a GOOD WAY! What a joy to have jewels of red dragon fruit in my breakfast bowl every morning!
The Chinese language was one of the main differences I’d anticipated. It has a reputation for being extremely difficult for foreigners to find a way into, but actually I’ve really enjoyed giving it a go! I’ve been keeping a note of the new words I’m learning, and trying to remember all the pronunciations so unfamiliar to speakers of Western languages.
My ever-thoughtful host, Kerun, bought me an interactive ‘speaking’ wall-chart to help me learn the sounds. Little did he know, in Quinta’s world, that’s a musical instrument RIGHT THERE!
Another difference I’ve noticed is the presence of the state. Though most Chinese people have apparently seen a relaxation in the demands of officialdom and party formality over the last 5 to 10 years, for a newcomer to China, it’s still a fairly present thing. During my first week, I had to go to the police station to register myself as a foreigner staying in China for a relatively long period. When catching the hi-speed train, the Chinese passengers had to show their IDs and I my passport a number of times during the ticket collection and boarding and disembarkation process. On my first walk with Kerun and Daniel around Guiyang, they pointed out the propaganda billboards that are a regular feature of Chinese public space. They read slogans like “A strong Communist Party means happiness for the Chinese people!” and “Fulfil the China Dream with intelligence and hard work!”. It was interesting too to find out that the words ‘propaganda’ and ‘publicity’ are interchangeable in China.
I’ve come into contact too with what seems to be a mix of party formality and cultural tradition during my first week. When I went to Kaili, a jumping off point for visiting the surrounding Miao villages, a fairly formal lunch was held, before which I met with the local party official. Sitting together with Kerun around the Mah Jong table, we exchanged words about my trip, why I was in China, what my hopes were and so on. He wasn’t unfriendly but looked uncomfortable and didn’t get much eye contact. I was jetlagged and disorientated, desperately trying to remember the word for ‘cheers’ so I could raise my rice wine glass in toast, and not completely comfortable either. People attended the meal whom I didn’t know and who appeared to be somehow important. The documentary-makers took photos. I just worked my way through the meal, blinked and smiled, and tried to be the good guest, but part of me was working hard to understand all the unspoken cultural codes and to manage the unfamiliarity of these politically-charged hierarchies.
Whilst there has already been enormous friendliness and generosity expressed towards me as a visitor here to China, which I have interpreted at face value and appreciated a great deal, the anthropologist in me will always whisper in my ear “beware the gatekeepers”. The people who tend to show me around during village visits, for example, will always be party officials. Often they seem just like regular people, perfectly relaxed and not making me feel in any way uncomfortable or directed. But nevertheless, it is they who will facilitate the introductions, who will guide. And if your working knowledge of Chinese is pretty much “yes”, “no” and “I’m a vegetarian”, then building relationships and having conversations on your own terms is hard!
Indeed I hadn’t particularly emphasised visiting the ethnic minority groups in my residency proposal, yet I find it’s somehow become a feature of my time here so far. Yesterday I learned that the city of Kaili had given some financial support to my residency and wanted me to do a second ‘final showcase’ performance there, as well as to visit again as a gesture showing their connection to the residency. I also learned that the central priority of the province’s governor was to boost tourism. It is understandable that the people hosting and supporting you will see opportunities for themselves in your visit- and why not- but these kinds of dynamics are impossible to see before you arrive and make carving out a space for what you expected to do during your residency quite challenging. It can be tough to tread the right line between being a respectful and responsible guest and making work that you believe in.
Certainly, striking out on your own- both artistically and otherwise- brings its cross-cultural risks. Probably for anyone hosting a guest from another country, there is a desire to show off your home area at its best. I’m learning that for Chinese people, this impulse is magnified tenfold. In both life and art, I’m typically far more interested in what is behind the show and the outward face. As a visitor here I might tend to look in the opposite direction from what I’m steered towards as an honoured guest. I realise though that this could run me into cross-cultural difficulties. Yesterday Kerun mentioned that the potholes film I’d made would possibly offend some audiences here in China, who might feel I’d focussed on the things perceived as ugly or somehow a weakness. I’d hoped the film might portray something simple and human, and hadn’t wanted it to be showy or informative- or offensive. I’d wanted to leave space for people watching to see a different side to urban progress and to feel something broader about the human experience of it. For me the potholes were not ugly at all, more the opposite. As Leonard Cohen sang, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Indeed I’ve noticed a strong emphasis on prestige and a certain kind of ‘perfection’ already in my short time here in China. I can sense by what people want me to see and know- about them, about their city- that the notion of these things is quite specific. People are keen to impress and be impressed and the catalyst will tend to be things like formal knowledge or learning, or a ‘good Chinese education’, traditional values like respect for one’s parents, money and wealth, virtuosity, and so on.
Kerun and I have had many interesting conversations since I arrived in Guiyang. Being of the younger generation as well as someone who has travelled and lived in the more cosmopolitan cities of eastern China, Kerun is freer of the perspectives of some more traditional Chinese people. Though he is influenced by these values he can also see them from the outside, as I do. Yesterday, while walking around Xiao Huang village, we talked about education. Many Chinese people feel that the discipline and rigour of their education system turns out very good students, and that when people go to schools in the West, their education takes a downturn. ‘Good students’ are considered to be those who succeed at subjects like maths and display a specific kind of formal learning and factual knowledge. They are also taught, according to thoroughly culturally embedded Confucianist teachings, to follow the rules. Indeed, Kerun said that whilst this might work up until middle school, it falls down thereafter as nobody knows how to be creative. Nobody is taught to be creative. I asked about the Chinese composers, film-makers and writers out there- where did they fit? He said in a way they’ve broken free, but in so doing are not considered to be ‘good boys and girls’ anymore.
This is quite a source of cultural conflict for me. I certainly aim to be a respecter of people but am not always a rule-follower. I value art-making and creativity enormously and feel depressed when it is underrated or devalued. I’ve in a way broken away from the classical training I had as a child because I found it in important ways limiting and restrictive- fraught with many of the characteristics underpinning the very values of Chinese education so respected here- prestige, hierarchy, competition, the pressure to impress, factual knowledge and technique over creativity, parental pressure, acquiring certificates and shows of success, and so on. I had anxieties from the outset of my residency about how my ways of working, the kinds of material I generate, might communicate with audiences. It’s often a dilemma, as a maker of things, particularly music for shows, whether to take the artistic risks you want to take, or make the kind of material you know audiences will appreciate. I’m still finding out what kind of music I might make during my time here, and how I might make it. And I figure I’ve been invited here to be myself and do what I do- to be different, if that’s what I am. But the cross-cultural dimension certainly magnifies these kinds of dilemmas and is certainly another line to tread.
I remember in my interview for this residency I used the analogy of jumping into cold water ahead of a long outdoor swim to describe the feelings I anticipated having at the outset of my time here in China. The first meeting of water and skin can leave you gasping for air, almost a physical survival alarm. Now a week has passed, and I think I’m just about past the gasping, but a big part of me is contemplating the long swim ahead, where the water won’t always be clear and I won’t always be able to see the bottom. But as with outdoor swimming, you acclimatise. And before long you find your rhythm. And when you climb out and reach for your towel, you’ll feel so pleased you took the leap.