Thursday, April 3, 2008

Chinese cheese is superior to anybody else's

At the home of XM's mother's friend, Mrs. S-F, I was keen to see how she makes "tofu cheese" (doufuru, 豆腐乳). Much simpler than I imagined (I was thinking vats in the backyard), she put squares of regular tofu, soaked in baijiu into a Styrofoam picnic box and let them sit at 6-9 degrees C for a couple of weeks. When they grew a yellow mold, she put the tofu into jars and again let the jars sit for 20 days. And then, tofu cheese.

When I returned to the living room, her husband said to me, "I know why you are interested in tofu cheese." I thought, how does he know I enjoy learning about ye-olde-tyme ways of doing things, a la Renaissance Faire or Foxfire series? The answer: "Because it's Chinese traditional culture!"

Old China Hands should have been able to guess. Yes, 5,000 years of civilization brought us everything we know including doufuru, and all of it is sacred and untouchable. Unable to muster the expected reply, something standard and acceptable to the group, XM said, "Lauren just likes handmade things", and the conversation moved on.

Later that night, listening to the radio while XM worked on a drawing, the radio featured an interview with the headmaster of a local high school that was selected by the central government to participate in international exchanges. The school had hosted a group of kids from a school in Australia for two weeks earlier in the year, and also had a German girl on a one-year exchange.

On the program, the headmaster has a particular way of relating stories about these foreign students that irked me: while she praised them for certain "foreign" behaviors (zeal towards extracurricular activities, independence), all of these behaviors ultimately related back to how wonderful Chinese culture is. For example: "I was impressed that the Australian kids spent hours each night practicing the words to 'Jasmine Flowers' [Molihua, 茉莉花, a famous traditional song]. I was just astounded at how well they were able to perform it a week later." (Tone: It was a huge effort for them to learn a song in Chinese / I never imagined it was possible for foreigners to pick up Chinese/our song so quickly. )

I mentioned to XM this phenomenon of some Chinese people imagining China as the center of the universe. Is it really that shocking that foreigners can *gasp* learn a foreign language, albeit one that uses characters and tones? Is Chinese culture really so superior that foreigners are here only to bask in its wonderfulness? Maybe because I have travelled to other countries--heck, other places in China--I find it hard to interact with people who say things like "This teapot is superior - only in Jiangsu province can you find this clay." (Here I think to myself: yes, but other places have other clay, and then say, "Boy, that is amazing, you Jiangsu people are so fortunate; back home we have nothing of cultural value").

Because when you do travel, you realize that everybody (at least everybody in China) says that about their hometown (or about their province/China, depending on the scale they wish to pride themselves). And you realize, more importantly, that every place has something to be proud of, and everybody thinks fondly of their hometown, if not because it really is interesting, but because it's natural to have feelings for one's home.

XM assures me that this strange way of thinking and speaking is isolated to the older generation of Chinese, people now in their 50s and 60s. Why they think this way, we don't know. Maybe it comes from highly nationalist education in their youth, or maybe as a reaction to all of the (westernizing) changes of the past twenty years. I considered making the effort to share with them the interesting things I have seen outside of Nanjing, or Jiangsu, or China, but in the end I never do. I don't think they're so interested in listening, just talking. So even though I can't put on my really-impressed-foreigner face anymore, I'll still listen.


Anonymous said...

This cultural pride is not limited to older generation Chinese.....have you even seen "My Big Fat Greek Wedding?"

Patriarch of Greek family attributes every good thing to invention by Greeks, including a popular window spray cleaner.

Lauren said...

@ anonymous: Yes, I have seen and even love that movie. It's true that national pride and ethnocentrism is not limited to Chinese. But I believe the difference is that it is natural to become prideful when outside your own nation, but not when in your own nation.

I find myself defending US politics to Chinese when I would argue against it at home. (I even find myself reminiscent here about songs from the 90s that I hated at the time). So I think it's quite normal for the movie's immigrant Greek family to want to be super-Greek in the US.

The strange thing here is, why are some Chinese so China-centric inside China?

Alice said...

some people in the u.s are really proud of their country inside the u.s.a and would say stuff like the united states is the freeest country in the whole world to the media to foreigners like British etc. I don't understand your argument which is very convoluted. Are you basically saying why should chinese be proud of their own country inside china? My question is why shouldn't they be? Because it bothers your sensibilities? Because this stuff doesn't happen where you come from? I've been to U.S and I have certainly got a lot of it. I live in Canada and I have had disccussions with my friends from different provinces about about which province is the more useful one or the more prettier one.

alice said...

Basically why shouldn't they be china-centric in china when elsewhere in the world people are country-centri about their own countries?

Anonymous said...

Your husband to be xm sounds like he has to be apologetic about the people around him. Is that what you like then? Natives of their own country to be apologetic and "re-assuring" that not everyone will offend your sensibilities.

syz said...

Sorry, I think I'm going to side with alice and Anonymous on this one. Pretty much everyone everywhere thinks they're better for some reason. Americans (and I'm one of them) are particularly prone to thinking the rest of the world basically wishes it was America (except for a few religious fanatics) and it's not at all limited to pride that wells up when outside the country. The only difference is what particular item/characteristic the locals take pride in.

Edie said...

Keep up the good work.