Saturday, August 02, 2008

How not to Understand China

I'm at Starbucks in Beijing the other day, stealing their wireless. It seems to be some odd company policy that transcends borders. In New York City Starbucks is one of a couple stores where you will never be hassled for using the bathroom without buying anything (which makes the bathroom line an interesting ethnographic site in itself). In Beijing you can sit down and surf the web for an hour without buying anything and they won't look at you twice.

Anyway, its the Olympics and there is a swell of journalists descending on the city. You see them everywhere, filming various street scenes and talking to people. A radio journalist, who I want to say is French, is talking to a bunch of upscale Chinese 30 somethings who are sipping their Frappacinos. From what I can overhear, she seems to have gone through the "Local Superstitions" section of her tourist guidebook and is asking them about it.

"Why do the Chinese believe this...."

"And what is the origin of this custom..."

One of them speaks English, and is reporting back for the group. A lot of their deliberation consists of "What is she talking about.... I've never heard of that, have you?"

The guy who speaks English starts most of his sentences with "We Chinese..."

I am filled with the urge to put on my anthropologist hat, and introduce myself as an expert on Chinese culture.

"The Chinese are a primitive people, who's culture is based on superstition and fear of the unknown..."

The good thing is that I am constantly surrounded by a reminders that - no matter how bad my own research into China could get, I'm far from the worst.

That, and I've been filmed doing kung fu on Al Jazeera and some German TV station.

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