When we first started peer-see a few months ago, we didn’t really expect anybody outside our little circle of friends and family to be reading it. In other words, we were thinking small. Very small. Out of curiosity, we just checked our access statistics for the first time, and we were a little surprised at the results.
First things first: We’d like to send big shouts out to our homies in Moldova.
Now that we have this global soapbox, we feel a responsibility to the international community to present the PRC as we see it. When deciding to come here, we had a lot of misconceptions about the Middle Kingdom. Thanks to the dedicated work of those fearless expats blogging China, our dated associations and groundless generalizations were brushed away like so many cobwebs.
Besides, one of the advantages of being a foreign teacher is how much you can learn from your students. In the process of dispelling myths they have adopted regarding your culture, you come out with a more developed understanding of their culture, its social mores and the subtle differences in perspective toward everyday life.
About a week ago, I learned that Americans like to eat cheese, drink champagne and perform. In correcting this image of an American that was decidely more Belmondo than Brando, I explained that our cheese isn’t, our champagne is vinted by Miller High Life and most positively hate to perform. All-encompassingly.
They dropped the cheese and champagne bit without much protest. After all, they’ve never been to the States, and both cheese and champagne are fictional to them anyway. But they absolutely refused to believe that Americans don’t like to perform. Why? Because they’ve seen it. As foreign teachers, we’re frequently asked to take the stage and put on a show. We try to be good sports about it, but we (Emily & I) REALLY don’t like to perform.
At the closing ceremony of camp, our boss asked us to dance. We did. That settles it; Americans like to perform.
The problem comes when what your students want to teach you something about their culture that is just plain wrong.
A case in point is the The Republic of Korea, where every electric fan is fitted with a timer. Ask why and you’ll get plenty of different answers, but all of them will be clear on one thing: if you’re Korean and you go to sleep in a closed room with a un-timered fan on, you’ll die. This method of expiration is known as Korean Fan Death, and every single Korean I asked believes in it. And why wouldn’t they? They can read about it in the newspaper. The manner of death differs depending on who you ask. Some people believe the spinning action of the fan cleaves oxygen molecules apart. Some people believe that the spinning action of the fan vacuums air out of one’s lungs. Some people believe that as Koreans are naturally less hirsute than their western counterparts, they are susceptible to a kind of super-cooling action from the fan and they can easily suffer hypothermia. Every year, even in the English language newspapers, there are accounts of Koreans around the world dying in tragic un-timered fan accidents.
I had students who were medical professionals. They believe it. Businessmen, mothers, students, politicians, professors…every Korean I have ever talked to about it believes it. I used to josh my classes by pretending to be groggy when entering class. When they commented on my dazed expression, I would explain that it was too hot in my room, so I rigged my fan to run without the timer…
“OH NO, Zhou Shu A! Very dangerous!”
It seems strange that a conviction, no matter how deeply held, that is so demonstrably false could possibly be so pervasive. It is. There is only one explanation I have encountered that explains both the deaths attributed to Korean Fan Death and how the myth might have been born. I shared that explanation with everybody I could. Nothing I said changed anybody’s mind. So I quit trying. Thanks to Korean Fan Death, I’m confident that even the smartest people fall into ridiculous traps.
And I’m just as susceptible to the same kind of lazy assumptions. I’ve been trying for a long time, but I’m just a little too close to pick most of them out. Here are a few I have caught.
- I don’t believe a walk in the rain will give you pneumonia.
- I don’t believe there are gangs of Satanists that abduct Christian children, deflower virgins or sacrifice livestock.
- THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS COW TIPPING! I don’t care if you’ve been. Cows sleep lying down.
Thanks to my Korean friends, I’m more careful when I speak to my Chinese friends about America. It only seems fair that I be careful writing about China to you folks…
So, in light of recent events in the United States of America regarding stem-cell research, we’d like to pre-emptively assert, once and for all…
Chinese people do not eat babies, no matter what they’ll tell you themselves.
That’s right. A couple of weeks ago, my students told me that the rich of Guangdong province dine on human infants.
It isn’t the first time I’ve heard this. My classes at University of Northern Virginia consisted of mostly Korean and Chinese students. We often talked about foods and cultures, and my Korean students would try to shock me with dog eating. On one occasion, a student from Shenzhen one-upped them.
“In China, people eat babies,” she said.
“You mean puppies?” asked another student.
“No. Babies. Human babies. In soup.”
“Ermm. Oh, yes. Well, in Korea we…Wait….WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY?!?!”
It was a like a bomb had gone off. Suddenly, my friendly, though unusually devout, Korean students had been transformed into the Spanish Inquisition. They grilled the poor woman for most of the rest of class. The story that came out is basically the same as I was told a couple of weeks ago.
Apparently, people believe that rich businessmen in Guangdong buy a very expensive soup made of aborted fetuses. The businessmen want the soup because it increases sexual potency. One of my students said that eating baby soup enables a man of 60 to get a young girl pregnant. Other reports say it is good for skin problems and can cure asthma. When I expressed disbelief, my students assured me they’d seen pictures. They told me these photos (or others like them) were circulated on the internet a year or two ago.
Here is a website with some of the photos (or similar to the photos) they described. Warning: THESE MIGHT DISGUST YOU. However, they shouldn’t. Why not? They’re fake. It is all fake.
Here’s an interesting explanation of this blood libel against the Chinese (Hmm….James Dobson of Focus on the Family is implicated. Has he addressed the Left Behind video game yet?) Unfortunately, fact-checking this information is as difficult for me as fact-checking the original accusation.
In the process of explaining to my impressionable youths how this rumour might have come about, I told them that American congressmen believed it to be true back in 1995. Once again, they didn’t believe me. They couldn’t. How could the American government know about it back in ’95 if it was just reported on the internet last year? They said that just didn’t make any sense.
They’re right. It doesn’t. None of it.
I need a drink. Some champagne would be nice. And some REAL cheese.
It’s what every REAL American eats, right?
[UPDATE 2007: We try again to debunk resurrected baby soup myth in Sinofoetophagophilia - "East Eats Fetus Meat" Meets Defeat.]
[UPDATE 2008: Indisputable photo evidence of baby-eating in China discovered! Peer-see exclusive!]