So as I’ve traveled, I’ve kept track of just a few of the more interesting observations and interactions that I’ve experienced, primarily, those that seemed to indicate aspects of culture that stand out. Here are a few favorites:
1 | ENGLISH WRITING ON CLOTHING
It seems no matter where we go, common clothing is riddled with English writing, and often it is beyond apparent that the wearer has no idea what it says. One man’s had read “Please Call Me Girl.” Another woman’s shirt boasted a cow testicle eating festival. Both might have been stylish if I didn’t know what they said, but literacy broke the spell. We’ve seen plenty of misspelled imitations of American brands as well. It seems Chinese culture has come to glorify certain pieces of western culture, in bizarre ways. It is probably the same glorification that has lead to the widespread KFC popularity.
2 | PLASTIC WORKMEN
Driving down the roads in the Chinese countryside, the was quite a bit of road maintenance and construction, leaving lanes periodically blocked off. Along with the typical orange cones, I saw in the distance what appeared to be a workman, waving an orange flag to direct traffic. As we drew closer, it became clear that it was in fact a mannequin dressed in a construction workers’ uniform and helmet, motorized to wave a flag. Honestly this surprised me most considering that China is near full employment and tends to be hesitant and very intentional about any sort of automation. But even more it begged the question: what was this achieving that couldn’t be done by solely traffic cones?
3 | POLICE PHOTOGRAPHERS
Interactions with the police have always been fascinating to me because they operate based on authority rather than legal jurisdiction. In other words, as long as nobody of higher authority than the officer is present, the officer has unchecked power. It’s no secret that our second homestay was truncated prematurely by a police visit (our passports hadn’t been registered with the local authority in the region). But the circumstances were odd. They knocked on our instructors’ door, entered, and just started looking around taking pictures. No warrant necessary.
But even more odd, the police weren’t seemingly taking photos to document, or at least not in any formal manner. I caught one of them taking unnecessary candid shots of me doing outdoor work for our host family, or talking to each other. One officer complimented our bodies. It was weird. Similar situations happened at traffic stops. In one case, we were asked to all get our of our respective cars and take a group picture WITH the officers. We all broke out our best mugshot expressions—it was awesome. I guess a group of Americans is exciting for them.
4 | JAY-WALKING SURVEILLANCE
This one is my favorite. With major crimes so heavily policed, it seems that minor infractions, like jay-walking, fall to the wayside. Chinese society is pushy, and jay-walking seems common. One particular street corner had a hilarious solution. As we walked up to the corner, I noticed a giant, LED billboard on the opposite corner. On inspection, we realized what the images on screen were: it was a slideshow of security camera shots of people jay-walking, with a zoomed in face shot on the side to match. The government was shaming these jay-walkers.
As hilarious as this is, I find it most fascinating that this would even work! I guess this is a social credit system at its finest. With the actually legal consequences, social shame is a strong enough disincentive, and while a respect for legality and authority may or may not really be pervasive (it would be hard to measure), people clearly want to at least look like they respect these rules, to avoid being viewed as a rule breaker. In the States, people would be humored to see themselves on screen, unaffected by social pressure. Not here. Not in China.
5 | TOY GUNS
It seems like large, realistic looking toy guns are a rather common toy here, “especially for young boys,” my Mandarin teacher noted. It seems like every random store that sells toys inevitably has a large box boasting a black or camo toy rifle—even the tiny toy section of Miniso, a store that mostly features cosmetics and dried fruit, tends to have some sort of firearm available. A fake one, of course. Civilians don’t own guns in China.
Not long ago, I visited my host family’s home town a few hours outside of Kunming. Arriving around dusk, I was thrown off to be greeted by just the silhouette of a figure pointing an assault rifle at me. I was reassured just moments later to discover that it was merely my 8-year-old host brother boasting his new toy, but it still caught my attention.
I realize that this issue does not necessarily stand in stark contrast to the toy gun fad in the United States, and that even within the US, it varies tremendously from area to area. But there are some clear distinctions worth noting. First, whereas the majority of US toy guns are designed to bear some distinction to the actual weapon, typically with an orange tip, there is no such effort in place here. This, of course, is a privilege resulting from the entire void of gun ownership; a toy gun will never be presumed as real. But the bigger difference between toy guns in the two cultures seems to be the connotations: toy guns here are neither associated with hunting culture nor with a notion of freedom, and “the right to bear arms.” Guns are associated with service to one’s country, fighting for China, and protecting the state. Parents buy their kids toy guns to cultivate civil service.
That’s it for now, but stay tuned for more observations and reflections coming up, on a much less trivial topic: censorship.