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Monday, May 25, 2009

Interpreting Chinese Youth Sub-culture as a Haughty Expat

Like many foreigners in China, I find myself spending a lot of time observing and interpreting Chinese culture, particularly its modern youth culture. A lot of the time, I find myself fighting the urge to be haughty and snobby, looking down upon whatever Western food attempt, miscued Chinglish effort, local rock band, modern art display and other examples of contemporary Chinese art and culture through my ‘oh-so-cultured’ Western eyes.

I can almost see the online video about disrespectful Overseas Chinese, where the ungrateful ABC walks around some upscale display condominium, pointing out the inauthentic, "knock-off Western" paintings or a particularly poorly matched choice in bedroom furniture. It's bi-polar in the unique way that being an expat in China so often is, because I feel like I spend a lot of time defending China from the ignorant, outsider opinions of people who write off China without having stepped a foot inside it, do not speak the language, and know nothing of the country beyond Western media coverage. My relationship with China is not so much "love/hate" as it is "defend/critique."

In coming to China, it is easy to look upon a lot of contemporary Chinese culture, particularly that of the yuppie/nouveau riche classes, as tacky, kitschy, derivative and naive, to look upon its interpretation of modernity as simply a sloppy attempt to imitate the developed West. And then, as does happen so often during conversations about this topic, expats (like myself) will bring up the Cultural Revolution, China's rocky past and how amazing it is simply for any of this to exist at all. We’ll continue that though contemporary China may be a long way from Tokyo and even further from London or Milan, it's still a whole lot closer than it was 30 years ago.

I came to Chengdu having heard of a nascent art scene, and was quite sorely disappointed to see just how undeveloped and small it really is. Newspapers frequently run articles discussing how hot Chinese art is in the market these days, yet sadly, when I visited the art warehouse district in Shanghai, I found that the art I saw there which struck me as most original was made by foreigners. Having come interested in discovering youth sub-culture and rebellion, I’ve found that too much of it appears to consist of kids in tight jeans and Chuck Taylors who listen to Panic at the Disco, the more enterprising of them perhaps starting a band that sounds almost identical.

That's not to say that this doesn't happen in the West: it does, in great amounts. But I suppose that's just the point: I'd come to China looking for something different--"Williamsburg-in-Shanghai", but unique in a Tokyo-ish way, was my na├»ve ideal. And where it is indeed very different, so much of what is deemed contemporary and young here seems directly imported, or bastardized in interpretation, straight from the West. Whether it's young couples eating a “romantic meal” in McDonalds on Christmas, college students imitating Kobe on the basketball court or middle-class kids at a punk show, much of it feels completely lacking in Chinese characteristics. It feels hollow, inauthentic, and lacking the sort of localized, independent adaptation that made rock and roll, punk and the Weather Underground so,

In talking to a fellow foreigner about it, we noticed that so many of our young Chinese friends--all intelligent, open-minded and capable--were so devoted to going to America for college and fortune, that perhaps it left little opportunity to concern themselves with developing local culture and art. Most of them study hard sciences, not the humanities, and in their spare time they don't seek out "Carsick Cars" or the latest hip indie band, they practice their English through "Desperate Housewives." The most Chinese cultural activity I can point to is that some of them write Tang style poetry for themselves. Others take an interest in Tibet, minority culture and Buddhism. But even such an interest I've read comes originally from "Shangri-La chic" becoming fashionable first in the West, then being re-adopted by Chinese hipsters via Western media.

When you live in a society thrusting itself head-first towards a vision of development that is so culturally intertwined with being Western, and when so many of the best and brightest spend all their energy competing to get into MIT, it leaves little energy for subculture. My friend suggested that perhaps in a generation or two, the children of a more-established middle class will be more interested in the humanities, art and such things often considered non or less-monetary in nature. Perhaps that will be the case, though given the competitiveness of modern China, I wonder whether even future generations will be willing to take their eyes off the cash prize for long enough.

At this point, I suppose it's just too early to expect much of what the “cool kids” and their subcultures here to have developed its own characteristics. Having only recently gained access to Western media and lifestyles, many Chinese are in a ‘honeymoon’ phase in terms of their relationship with the West, possessing an idealized vision of societies of universal abundance and comfort. In reading Zachary Mexico's enlightening "China Underground," I was struck at how of all the counter-cultural youth he met, few of them seemed to be doing much that I would deem "innovative" or "unique." Whether this is partly due to Confucian, conformist education or other similar “uncreative Chinese” arguments is another argument altogether.

Eventually, when I go out seeking culture that feels sufficiently "Chinese," I find it amongst the elderly, and often enough, in parks: writing calligraphy with water brushes, singing local opera and playing Chinese chess or mahjong. I study kung fu at the local sports university, and though I occasionally do see some kung fu majors practicing, it's more likely that I will see track and field athletes taking a recreational tae kwon doe class. Chinese youth culture, to caricaturize, is more about Warcraft, NBA and KTV than anything uniquely local or particularly different, at least to Western eyes. That's not Chinese youth’s loss at all—rather, it's mine, as a foreign observer seeking out something that this country’s young people are not at all obliged to provide.

One China blogger at the site Lost Laowai has pointed out that more Chinese youth appear to be rebelling through fashion, a sort of baby step towards deeper forms of rebellion, borne of critical thought, dissent and creative communities. I can only hope this is true, but would imagine that such youth fashion circles are, in their own way, as conformist and imitative as mass culture, though admittedly within a much smaller community.

That's not to say there isn't creative, interesting stuff going on here, nor that I'm even aware of all of it. This is, naturally, just one non-expert perspective by a foreigner. Wonderful online platforms like expose us to non-mainstream music and creativity that were previously unknown, and I occasionally do meet or hear about locals doing exciting work. But my point is that largely, in my (albeit limited) time here, I haven't seen much noteworthy "contemporary Chinese culture" to date.


Idealized images of Westerners:

One of the best Chinese bands I’ve heard:


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