Saturday, December 15, 2007

life in Asia: French and American views

My French brother Xavier and I had a chance to talk at some length both before and during dinner on the evening of December 5th. Xavier had just gotten back from his monthly jaunt to Shanghai, where he has both an office and a residence large enough to accommodate him and his family. When the family travels to China, the kids go to a French school in Shanghai. I imagine that they're picking up bits and pieces of Chinese; Xavier, for his part, does his business dealings in English (or Chinglish, as he jokingly admits), but he too is studying up on Chinese, trying to memorize several hundred characters every study session. The eventual plan is for the entire family to move to China. Xavier says he doesn't mind saying goodbye to France.

One topic of discussion was the contrast between the Chinese and the French work ethic. Xavier is well aware of the French reputation for-- well, not exactly laziness, but a lack of drive when it comes to putting in some overtime. "In China," he said, "it's the people who bust their asses who get the money." Xavier, one of four very energetic and highly motivated sons (all of whom I consider hardworking), appreciates this attitude and is, as a result, thriving in China. "The same amount of effort would produce smaller results here in France," he told me.

Another topic was l'arrogance européenne, or European arrogance. Here, Xavier was referring to the attitudes of European businessmen who step into China and act as though they're king of the hill. A close cousin of this phenomenon is the European (business)man who, like the guy in Vegas, feels he can fuck around on his wife because he's in a totally different world now. Xavier's way of referring to such people-- une bite à la place du cerveau-- had me laughing. The expression means "a dick in place of a brain." I told Xavier about the English teacher scandals in Korea and noted that such arrogance wasn't uniquely European: it was also American, Canadian, Australian, etc.

A third topic, the one on which we had some polite disagreement, was integration into Asian society. Xavier takes a much more positive view of this than I do. He already feels integrated into Shanghai life, a sentiment that raised red flags in my head. My feeling is that a white boy remains forever a white boy when in Asia, no matter how comfortable things seem or how much of the language he masters. In my opinion, we have to be careful not to conflate two different kinds of comfort: (1) the comfort of true integration into a once-foreign society (possible, though not guaranteed, in the West, while nearly impossible in the East), and (2) the comfort of being a "privileged alien." This latter form of comfort is, in my opinion, what most of us expats of the whiter persuasion actually experience.* Part of the pleasure arises, whether we know it or not, from our difference. Anyway, Xavier shakes his head in amazement at his fellow Europeans-- the morally bankrupt ones who think Asia is all about fucking ("ceux qui sont venus juste pour baiser"). I shake my head, too. Finding a nice girlfriend while in Asia is one thing; nailing every piece of ass that wanders your way is despicable.

Xavier's parents weren't all that impressed with certain aspects of China. Cleanliness was a major issue: "One time," said Papa, "we were in this restaurant where a Chinese guy didn't like the food he was eating, so he took the morsel out of his mouth and put it back in the bowl!" That sounded pretty disgusting to me; I don't recall ever seeing anything so extreme here in Korea (where people usually whisper about how dirty the Chinese supposedly are). Xavier agreed to some degree, but noted that China is huge, and not every region is progressing at the same rate. Some neighborhoods, he noted, are new and immaculate, while others are true dumps. For my part, I talked about the results of modernization in Seoul, about Korea's status as a technical power, and how the changes here, at least on the physical level, have been generally positive.

We didn't have time to get into much more than that over the course of two or three hours; Xavier was pooped and needed to get home with his family. Still, it was great to engage in such a conversation and to hear a different perspective.

*It's true that white expats take a lot of shit while in Asia, and much of the problem is rooted in anti-white racism. But there is also plenty of resentment directed at white privilege: you don't have to search far in Korea to see which skin color of foreigner is doing the blue-collar work, and which predominates in the white-collar market, securing decent-paying jobs with comparatively little effort. The question of white privilege is a complicated and nuanced one, given short shrift here, but if it comes down to a simple yes/no question-- Does white privilege exist?-- then the answer is an obvious yes.


1 comment:

John B said...

Shanghai and Seoul are pretty different places, which might account for a big difference attitudes to foreigners. Also, I suspect Shanghai is more welcoming of foreign investors than Korea, whose economic success was more self-made. Shanghai's current boom is fueled by globalism, or at least such is the reputation.