I'm a zhongguo tong, dammit (and proud of it!)


Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by Daniel Bell, a noted scholar of Chinese philosophy who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The essay came with the intriguing title “Why Anyone can be Chinese”. Now I call this going down the rabbit hole of identity politics. To do so is like stepping onto a minefield, and Dr. Bell bravely if somewhat naively did so when publicly expressing his wish to be considered Chinese. Dr. Bell is Canadian by nationality and as his name suggests, he is not of Chinese let alone Asian familial heritage. All you need do is peruse the readers’ comments that accompany his essay on the WSJ website to find out what people thought of this idea.

Daniel Bell’s situation as described in his essay is one familiar to me and to many other foreigners who have made China their long-term home (note that I am speaking here of Mainland China, not Hong Kong or Taiwan, which have their own identity issues.) We are Mandarin Chinese speakers, and in some cases, we speak or at least understand local or regional dialects as well. Some of us have spent a great amount of time and effort learning the written language and are able to read stories, novels, essays and poems in modern and even Classical Chinese, though it is extremely rare for a foreigner to write in eloquent Chinese (lord knows I’ve tried!) Some of us can hold deep conversations and even even give public speeches in Mandarin Chinese about subjects ranging widely from history and philosophy to music to food. We are familiar with Chinese food and drinking culture in its many regional and local varieties, and we are extremely well-traveled in China. We understand many social and cultural nuances. We have seen dozens if not hundreds of Chinese films and (more rarely) TV shows. We count among our mates, dear colleagues, and long-term companions many Chinese people of different backgrounds. Chinese language and other symbols and elements (temples, mountains, cities) inhabit our dreams as well as our daily lives.

Many of us are partnered with or married to Chinese nationals. Those of us with Chinese wives or husbands have children who are known in Chinese as 混血儿 hunxue’er “mixed blood kids”. As in the case of my own two daughters, they are completely culturally nativized, having grown up in Shanghai with their Chinese mother and grandparents and other relatives and having attended kindergartens and grammar schools with almost entirely Chinese teachers and students. Most if not all of their friends are Chinese. They can read and write in English and Chinese. They are familiar with hundreds or thousands of Chinese characters, and they know all the stories, songs, poems, etc. taught to Chinese children drawn from the deep reservoir of Chinese history. They have a deep intuitive understanding of Chinese cultural norms. In other words, they basically possess all of the cultural and linguistic skills, knowledge, and references that a Chinese child learns while growing up here in China. Not that they are Chinese themselves—like I just mentioned, they are usually identified by Chinese people as “mixed blood kids” and as foreigners. 

It is worth noting that in my daughters’ case, even though they have spent most if not all of their lives in China and are completely steeped in Chinese language and culture, both of them lay a strong claim to being American. My eldest daughter was actually born in Australia, which complicates matters slightly, but both see themselves fundamentally as Americans. They are fluent not only in English but in idiomatic American English, and they are obsessed with the lingo spoken by other Americans their age. They love American culture in the form of TV shows, movies, and pop songs and they are always excited to visit America and maybe even hope to settle there eventually. Perhaps there is also the feeling that no matter how much they live and learn here in China, they will never be considered Chinese, so why not embrace their American identity? (That said, they also watch plenty of Chinese cartoons and TV shows!)

Getting back to our own question of identity—that is, mine and Daniel Bell’s and many others whom I am fortunate to count as dear colleagues and friends—the Chinese have already given us a name. They call us 中国通 zhongguo tong, which means something like “one who knows China”. This is a term reserved for foreigners obviously, but it is not a term that is easily given out. It is usually granted to foreigners who know many things about China and who speak Mandarin Chinese (or dialects like Cantonese) with a certain degree of ease and fluency. It goes without saying that this is not an official title, but rather one that is given generously and graciously and with the best of intentions by Chinese friends and associates, or sometimes even by 老百姓 laobaixing “old hundred names” or common folk whom you might encounter in a taxi or in a shop.

There are times when my Chinese relatives, friends, and colleagues will jokingly say things like “Andrew is Chinese,” or “Andrew is half Chinese” or “Andrew must have been Chinese in a previous life.” I always take these sorts of jests as a high compliment. But they are just that. Nobody, least of all me, would ever take seriously the notion that I could ever be Chinese.

Let's not go down the rabbit hole of what constitutes "Chinese", which many leading scholars in my field of Chinese studies have written numerous articles and books about. As for this concept of zhongguo tong, there are many levels and layers and nuances even to this identity, and books could also be written about it by leading sociologists in our field (hint hint James Farrer).

We are a tribe of sorts. I count many zhongguo tong among my dearest friends, and when I meet other zhongguo tong for the first time, or even read their essays and blogs online or see their Facebook posts, I feel a sense of一见如故 yi jian ru gu (“at first glance I feel we are old friends”). We have an instant bond and a deep mutual understanding. It doesn’t matter where we came from. It suffices that over many years of strenuous continual effort and struggle and personal sacrifice, we learned Chinese language(s), history, literature, culture, geography etc. and that we have made that knowledge part of our core identity as human beings. 

And so, let us be satisfied with our unofficial honorific title. And maybe someday we can earn the even more coveted official title “Friend of China.” But to be seriously considered Chinese? Surely you jest, Dr. Bell.






On the Value of Liberal Arts Education Part 2: Classical vs. Jazz

My previous journal entry was about my transformation from a science and math nerd to a China/Asian Studies nerd and how the liberal arts experience at Dartmouth enabled that transformation. Perhaps I overstated the case a bit. Looking back on those days, while I professed to have an interest in science, ironically it was more from a humanities perspective all along. Maybe that's why I felt an affinity with the scholars of ancient China with their multiple interests all grounded in a basic love for humanities and arts.

Whatever the case, I think this was a fairly accurate description of my internal processes and motivators as I made that transition back in my college years. Whatever it is that separates a scientist from a humanist, I definitely have favored the latter path in my own career and life. And I have my Dartmouth education at least in part to thank for that.

When I speak to people about the enduring value of liberal arts education, I certainly mention this story but I don't dwell on it. After all, I don't want youngsters to get the wrong message about the sciences. Rather, I look at the more holistic experience of liberal arts education and again use stories and people from my own experiences to illustrate that. 

Some of us are destined for a liberal arts education. If you look at my own family, you'd see that I was no exception. My mother went to Carleton College. My dad went to Swarthmore. One of my uncles went to Oberlin, the other to Harvard. My step-father was also a Dartmouth grad, as was his own father. The education and value system that I inherited as a boy were definitely deeply influenced by those of my parents and extended family members, who embodied the liberal arts ethos in many ways.

When I talk about liberal arts to people in China and elsewhere, I often mention the great experiences that I had as a member of the Chamber Singers. I have written about these experiences in a previous journal entry. What I say less about is how during my four years at Dartmouth, I spent a great deal of time learning about music. Most of that learning was done outside of a formal classroom. The Chamber Singers of course was an extracurricular activity, though it seemed at times to be as rigorous as any class. In addition, I took piano lessons with one of the music instructors at Dartmouth. I'd taken lessons in high school, and had achieved some progress, but certainly could not compete with the many talented classmates (most of them Asian) and friends of mine who were highly proficient in reading sheet music and performing classical pieces. Would that I had studied jazz at that time, my life might have been different. But I'll get to that point later.

The fact is, while at Dartmouth, I became obsessed with classical music. I have to thank my dad at least in part for that, since he often gave me tapes of classical pieces and musicians he liked. Through my father, I was introduced to the preludes and etudes of Chopin, and the impromptus of Shubert. Since it has been well demonstrated that there is a strong connection between learning Chinese and studying/appreciating fine music (I say this partly, but only partly, in jest), I found myself surrounded by accomplished and talented musicians at Dartmouth, who introduced me to other periods, genres, and musicians from the broad landscape of what we call classical music.

I read many books on classical music, especially the great pianists from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods. Above all, I listened. I spent many hours in the music library listening to records and CDs. For some reason, I took a strong interest in Brahms. But I was also listening to Dvorak, Richard Strauss, Mahler, and others who were leading the world of classical music into the 20th century.

None of this, mind you, was done for a course or for credit. Why it did not occur to me to take an actual course in music history I can't say. But the point I'm making here is that a good liberal arts environment will encourage students to learn things on their own without a formal course of study, and that is a great preparation for post-collegial life.

It's funny how, given my ongoing obsession with jazz throughout my adult life, I did not take a deeper interest in jazz in college. I began to be interested in jazz in high school, after my dad gave me a mix tape that covered some of the greatest musicians in American jazz history. Had I taken that interest into college, I might have joined Dartmouth's famous Barbary Coast jazz ensemble (though my piano would have needed a great deal of work to get to that level). Like my classmate Matt Roberts '90, I may have gone on to take a lifetime interest in jazz performance. Instead I went on to become a historian and documentarian of jazz in China. Not the same thing by a long shot.

The Ah Q Jazz Arkestra performing at the Beijing Bookworm in March 2017. Matt Roberts on trombone, and David Moser (foreground) on keyboards.

The Ah Q Jazz Arkestra performing at the Beijing Bookworm in March 2017. Matt Roberts on trombone, and David Moser (foreground) on keyboards.

When talking about my Dartmouth experiences, I often bring up Matt, who is known in China as Rao Mengzhi. Matt started living in Beijing around the time I graduated in 1991, and he has basically been living there since. Although he has built a fine career in other fields (journalism and the business world to be precise) he has always devoted a significant portion of his life to music. Matt is a jazz trombonist and he plays in a band called Ah Q Jazz Arkestra along with my colleague David Moser (another great liberal arts humanist, who plays keyboards in the band). They recently celebrated their 14th anniversary. When I told Matt that I was bringing up his example during my talks on liberal arts, he remarked that at Dartmouth, they taught us to work hard and play hard. In other words, we learned how to be dedicated to our work, our jobs and careers, but also our passions, whether or not these coincided with our careers (and ideally they should). So while Matt didn't earn a living per se as a musician, he is still a professional musician in every other sense of the word. That said, most musicians have jobs that support their love of performing music. Relatively few can earn their living primarily by their music alone.

Matt also told me another story, about his first trip to China in 1987 and how his music teacher at Dartmouth asked him if he was planning to bring his horn. When he said no, his teacher scowled at him, and next thing he knew, he was bringing his horn to China. Since then, he has gone on to play a significant role in the revival and spread of jazz in China. Who knew that that scowl would be such a decisive moment in his own life and in the history of jazz in China?

These moments and passions, added up, make for a fine liberal education.

Next I'll talk about my other longtime Dartmouth alum pal, David Spindler, who taught me everything I know about the Great Wall of China...




Rocking Kunshan: A Night with The Eagle Bar Band

I know them as the Eagle Bar band. While some of the band members have come and gone, they have remained fairly stable. Marvin has always been the band leader and lead guitarist. Ama is the singer, though the others also take turns singing. Jerlon, another guitarist and a great singer himself, joined in the past two years since I moved to Kunshan and became a habitué of this bar. Carlos has always been on drums. Kenneth was the bassist, then left for a while, and recently returned. It's a fabulous band. I blogged about them in my previous blog on Kunshan bars and clubs. 

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昆山的酒吧 The Bars and Clubs of Kunshan (Part One)

Here are several establishments I've visited in the past two years and some of my impressions of each. Obviously there are many more clubs and bars in Kunshan than I cover here, including bars catering to specific ethnicities and nationalities (e.g. Japanese) and perhaps another installment will follow eventually (hence the Part One in the title of this entry). My one big caveat is that I almost never spend the weekend in Kunshan (I weekend in Shanghai) so some of these observations might pertain more to weekday than weekend nights...

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Getting Green Again: Remembering our Class of 1991 25th Reunion at Dartmouth College

I have been meaning for quite some time now to write a piece about my experiences at the 25th Reunion for our class of 1991, held on June 16-19 2016 at Dartmouth College. Several hundred '91s joined the reunion and it was quite an experience to see so many faces I hadn't seen in 25 years or more, and to rekindle memories and re-experience some of the youthful vigor of our Dartmouth days. 

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Vinyl School Years: My Favorite Albums from the 1980s (Part 1)

Inspired by my father, and by my forthcoming book on Chinese rock scenes, I take a trip down memory lane, recalling my favorite albums from a misspent youth in Massachusetts. Artists featured in this blog include The Clash, The Dead Kennedys, The English Beat, Polyrock, The Stranglers, Ultravox, Talking Heads, Snakefinger, R.E.M., and Thomas Dolby.

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The Year 2016 in 10 Favorite Books

A list of my favorite reads in the year 2016, not necessarily published in that year but mostly recent publications, including books on music, history, Shanghai, and autobiographies of two British gents.

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