kaigou: (5 flowers on brick)
[personal profile] kaigou
There were several issues with Paper Butterfly (Diane Wei Liang), one being that the voice was rather dry and distant, the other being that it couldn't seem to keep my attention. The reason for losing my attention, though, wasn't from the book but from my reaction, and I'm still trying to put my finger on it.

A few weeks ago or so, I recall linking to this essay [thx to [personal profile] soukup!] that discussed -- well, lots of things but this was one of the sub-themes -- the issue of works written for the insider group and works written for an outsider group. A significant point was that of the texts mentioned, some of them (which had been highly lauded in the West) were stuffed to the brim with a certain kind of sell-out, catering, mindset. The intended audience was clearly Western, and that audience's viewpoint was valorized over the insider/non-Western view.

Liang's biography grants her some level of insider-authority -- as someone who grew up in a work-camp, and later participated in Tiananmen Square. Although fiction, the story makes specific mention of the protagonist's mother giving evidence against her husband, to save the rest of the family (including children) from being sent to the work-camps alongside the husband. Later, the story positions the protagonist as someone working for the government while her classmates were protesting. Given that the story also spends time on someone's release from an isolated work-camp (and his laborious attempts to return to Beijing, which is no small feat when you consider the massive distances), I can see that such positioning could be argued as necessary for the story to give you context for the protagonist's eventual reaction.

Except... it felt... like the story was determined from the very first to refuse to believe anyone could be happy, or that life could be something other than bleak and hollowed-out. The protagonist's sister is supposedly successful, but her marriage and career are undercut with a characterization (and a slightly nasty tone to the narration) that renders her shallow, selfish, empty, and so busy being distracted with the shiny that she can't see she's miserable. The protagonist herself is supposedly successful at her PI career (including a male assistant-secretary), but she seems to chafe at social restrictions. I say "social" but the descriptions seem to tilt back towards "government" an awful lot of the time, as though its strictures were the foundation of society adopting same.

The subtle word-choices kept underlining this paranoid, bleak, shut-off existence. Not slamming you in the face, no, but unrelenting all the same. I mean, if I'm only a chapter or so into the book and find myself thinking, "wow, everyone who lives in Beijing must be thoroughly miserable in such a repressive system!" it's time to smack myself and go find something else to read.

I'm not saying I only want to read stories where the characters are all happy-happy. It's just that as human beings, we are infinitely adaptable and will find some small joys in even the worst of places, against all odds. Living in a communist society -- or under a monarchy, or an oligarchy -- does not mean a lifetime of never falling in love, never being proud of children, never laughing over drinks with friends, never playing kick-ball in the street. People can be frustrated and mad at their mucked-up government and still cut flowers to put on the table, or post their children's artwork and report cards on the wall.

It came to a bit more of a head, this morning, reading a blog-conversation ostensibly about the length of time it takes for a government to make a decision. China had been held up, previously, as an example of a government that didn't require lengthy debate about any major public work [Original thread here.] which prompted a round of "well, China's communist and doesn't care about its people". Or blunter version: yes, it sucks that our government projects are over-budget, but hey, if we were a totalitarian/communist country, we could be closer to budgeted without a problem!, but being a democracy is better, so it's okay that we're over-budget all the time.

I do think it's human nature to set ourselves apart from some Other (of any kind). We're loyal to what we know. We tend to assume that everyone's in the same place or context as us, thus we assume any Other is aware of their lack (of not being us) and feeling the burn of it. Monarchy, democracy, social-harmony versus open-dissent, national religion versus secular society, and on and on.

Getting back to the book at hand, I think the problem was that the protagonist kept having or hinting at an outsider's mindset. The story's narration seems to imply that the current (Chinese) system is damaged; that begs the question of what one thinks is good... and that in turn raises the question of: how do you know?

A world traveller may border on apologia due to developing a kind of relativity, which seems to be a common next-step after the culture shock. But that's far less common in people who've lived their whole lives in one place and have not had expansive, unlimited (or near-unlimited) exposure to other places and views. You think you've got the best ever -- okay, so you know there are parts you'd change and parts you think could use some work -- but still, it's the best ever. For you. And you still think it beats everyone else's.

A friend of mine who came to DC with her husband from Beijing was dismayed by the USian newspapers. "Why is China always the bad guy?" she asked me once, early in our friendship, and I was at a complete loss as to how to reply. It wasn't because I didn't want to get into the innate USian distrust of communism or totalitarianism (let alone whether such critique had merit); it was because I didn't even know where to start. To be honest, I've been through severe culture shock, and throwing more cold water on a person is not a help. (Not to mention as a new friend/host, it felt wrong to even consider launching into All The Reasons Your Country Is Bad.)

Another Chinese friend told me once that talking to her husband's parents (from the rural parts of Hunan) was sometimes frustrating, because everything they heard and read in the Chinese news, they believed. But then, she said, that's all they hear, so of course they believe it; it's not their fault that they don't know. It's just frustrating to know more, she said, and not be able to convince them that they didn't know the whole of things.

But over on this side of the pond, the same goes, y'know. You folks who write from non-USian locations remind me almost daily that the perspective touted in USian media is not the entire picture. Or that what non-USians think of the US' actions is... well, not always as complimentary as the innate me-from-here perspective would like to think. That long-term, open discourse has taught me that my-way is not automatically best-way. Any dissatisfaction I feel, or critique I have, of my own society takes on an additional nuance due to the exposure to comparisons -- but that doesn't automatically make me a miserable bitter person in a bleak existence, either. It just makes me more aware that here is not always best, and Other is not always worst.

Yet my experience is not universal; the majority of people I've met in-person do disregard external not-local or not-national perspectives. For them, the USian path is still the best one, even if it needs a little work here or there. And if their knowledge lacks, or is slanted more strongly towards the US, then they're like my friend's in-laws in Hunan. They're secure in their belief that they live in the best system, because everything they read and hear reinforces that.

Oh, sure, they'd still complain -- as Lily Tomlin once observed, humanity probably invented language because of its deep-seated need to complain -- but that doesn't mean they'd quit it. And it doesn't mean they'd spend their days bitterly listing all the ways it sucks. More likely, they'd list the way it sucks but abut this with the assertion that, hey, at least it's not Communist China.

The flip-side would be the stories my step-mother couldn't get out of her head, when she first considered marrying an American. Her new part-time residence would be in DC, the murder capital of the world -- and no stories sold quite so well as those that presented the US as a lawless, gun-toting, anarchic, dissenting noisy place full of narrow-eyed bigots and inbred mouth-breathers. (Admittedly, the gun-owning part seems to be what gets the most attention, from nearly everyone except maybe folks from Switzerland.) Stories that present Americans as practically trapped in their own homes, at the mercy of muggings and rape and car-jackings and what-not, had apparently been enjoying a massive stretch of popularity.

It's not because it's true -- or not true, or even half-true. It's because it's what people wanted to read, because it reinforced their perspective that where they live is better.

And that's what it boils down to, with Liang's mystery: it read like it was written for the English-speaking audience to get to read what they want to read, and not something that truly gave any insight or perspective or humanity to a distant culture. It de-humanized it, actually, because it felt twisted and shallow, lacking all the morbid humor and quiet wry frustrations that each of us feel as human beings, no matter our flag or political system or language.

Are there people who don't feel they belong, and want to live somewhere else -- anywhere else? Certainly. It's too much simplification to assert that everyone of X nationality is convinced that their nation is the best ever; every country or way of life will have its dissidents, although not everyone is able to leave where they are. I would definitely say that Eliot Patterson's protagonist, in The Skull Mantra, is in a position of serious disenchantment with his government, having been ostracized and sent off to the gulag for being too good as an inspector. But while he sees the flaws, he's not that quick -- in fact, is downright reluctant -- to give up his citizenship and try for asylum in the US or Canada. He ends up turning down the offer.

I didn't think much about that part, when reading, but I can see (in light of reading Liang) that this reaction might not have gone over well with a USian public. I can't see the insecurities reassured all that much when the much-besieged inspector does not leap at the chance to come to the US. An insulated reader would likely be (unconsciously, at least) offended that the proffered Western life is not seen as all that, or to be reminded that despite all our attempts to Other the Bad Guy, there might be reasons that some people want to stay.

Liang's protagonist reads like, given the chance, she'd happily throw away what she's got -- none of it sounds all that great, anyway, and mostly shallow and bleak -- and jump head-first into a life in the West. The protagonist may not give specifics, but her tone is consistently that she's stuck in something not-as-good, and life lacks all humor, all flowers on the table, all spark, for the protagonist stuck with the bitterness of second-best.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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