As a person who makes a living as a writer, I take the English language quite seriously. So I was of course delighted that The New York Times Sunday Review published an op-ed addressing one of my pet peeves: strict English constructionists.
You know the type. They believe that new slang and usage will, if permitted in polite society, lead to the speedy decline of civilization, as human beings will lose the ability to communicate with each other. To them, the English language is a pristine, fixed entity, of divine origin, and any attempt to introduce variations is heretical. And the youngest generation, with their (gasp!) smart phones, are the worst yet! Pretty soon we’ll all be babbling like zoo animals, communicating in grunts and cries and all the literature in our libraries will be dead to us.
Of course, this is all nonsense, and I’m glad the usually stuffy Times thought to run an article that articulates why. Consider that
- Much of the slang the constructionists disdain—”like”, “because [noun],” “literally,” etc.—have subtle linguistic uses in our language and heighten, rather than dull, conversation. For example, a contemporary person understands the difference between the literal use of “literally” (The sun is literally 90 million miles from Earth) and its figurative use (That girl had literally the loudest laugh I’ve ever heard).
- The constructionists themselves speak a version of English that, a century ago, would have seemed totally incomprehensible.
- If the constructionists got their way, English would never have adopted words that were once radical, but today are uncontroversial. One of my high school English teachers told us that the word “lifestyle” would have stopped conversation if uttered in, say, 1965. But today we use it without thinking because it is useful and precise.
I suppose that, if taken to its logical conclusion, a permissive attitude toward neologisms would cause us to evolve too rapidly and, thus, lose the ability to read old texts. But even if this happens (which is itself not a sure thing), the world will gain by making the written word more accessible to a wider audience.
I believe that a big part of the reason so many people say they hate writing, and reading, is that they feel that the language they encounter has little relevance to the one they speak. I don’t advocate that we stop teaching literature; to the contrary! But I would argue that our current vernacular is no impediment to learning how to write well. One of the things you learn when you start doing this for a living is that you’re better off writing how you talk. Shouldn’t that apply to non-professionals, too? Especially teenagers?
Just an idea that, like, might be worth giving a shot.…
Just over a year ago, early one Thursday morning, I sent an email to my college friend in Oakland with a link to a story about Jason Giambi, a baseball player he had admired when we first met, 13 years before. The story wasn’t much—just the sort of funny little thing you find on the Internet and pass along to a friend—and besides, it had been awhile since I had talked to him. Along with the link, I also asked why he had deactivated his Facebook account.
20 minutes later, I got back a short reply thanking me for the link, and explaining that he “wanted to see what life was like without Facebook.” His answer was unusually brief, but I didn’t think much of it. Perhaps he was busy. And who hasn’t considered disengaging from Facebook?
Later that morning, my friend hung himself in his apartment. He was 32, a post-doc in neuroscience at U.C. Berkeley, a baseball fan, a good cook, and a world traveler. At the time of his death, he was planning to ask his girlfriend to marry him. His email to me, we believe, was his last interpersonal communication of his life.
Ever since receiving the news two days later (my 32nd birthday, as it happened), I—and the many others who knew and loved him—have struggled to understand why a seemingly healthy man, in the prime of his life, had wanted so badly to die. My mind searched for a explanation. Was he unhappy with work? Anxious about getting married? Unsure about the direction of his life?
The answer to all these questions, to varying degrees, was yes. But over the last year, as I’ve thought and thought about my friend’s life, I’ve concluded that the questions themselves were irrelevant.
I believe my friend is dead because he suffered from depression, an illness that leads tens of thousands of Americans each year to take their own lives, while many millions of others live with the disease every day. Yet despite its prevalence, depression is poorly understood. Part of the problem is semantic. When we hear that someone suffers from depression, our instinct is that they’re just sad, a temporary affliction known to every healthy person, and one that is easily surmountable. We think of depression as a natural reaction to traumatic events in our lives, like a breakup or firing, and one that time can heal.
But depression is a disease, one that works in mysterious, irrational ways. I’ve read that to its victims, depression is so difficult because it is inexplicable. “Nothing terrible is happening,” a person might say, “so why do I feel like I don’t want to continue my life?” To a healthy person, this is inconceivable. And so when we lose a person to suicide, we wonder, if only for a minute, how they could be so selfish.
I thought about my friend after hearing the recent news that L’Wren Scott, the fashion designer and girlfriend of Mick Jagger, had hung herself in her New York apartment. Predictably, within hours, the media began searching for a rational explanation. First, there was a rumor that Jagger had ended their relationship weeks before. (Untrue, he said.) And then, there came the news that her fashion business, one she built from the ground up, was undergoing severe financial difficulty and that Scott was in debt.
The focus on these stories isn’t surprising: They’re appealing because the likelier explanation—that Scott suffered from depression—feels insufficient and unsatisfying. After all, here was a woman who was beautiful, successful, in love, and surrounded by friends. She was the person who was supposed to shrug off life’s setbacks—not one to take such drastic action.
But still, we search for an answer. The New York Post ran an article last week that described L’Wren Scott’s life as an “elaborate facade,” one that appeared fabulous on the surface, but hid a dark reality. Maybe this is true, but does it even tell us much? I suspect that a lot of people with depression might describe their own life that way: as masked and fraudulent, consumed with a great struggle only they know. This duality explains why my friend could, hours before taking his own life, reply to a tossed-off email about a baseball player as if nothing was wrong.
Ultimately, no one will ever know why Scott did what she did. Suicide has its own logic. Consider my friend: He may not have been wealthy, famous, or in love with a rock star. But he had a brilliant mind, a great relationship with his parents, a wonderful woman who loved him, and friends around the world who knew his generosity, humor, and kindness. He had a rich and interesting life, and it was just beginning. Like the millions of others who commit suicide every year, he had so much to live for. He simply suffered from depression.…
I have a piece up this morning at the Daily Beast on Saturday’s horrific terrorist attack in Kunming, arguing that China still hasn’t figured out a way to deal with its Uighur minority. We still have a lot to learn about the specific individuals behind the attack, their motives, and their financial backers (if anyone), but it seems safe to say that Han-Uighur relations in China will get worse before they get better.
As longtime readers know, I lived in Kunming from 2007 to 2010 and consider the city my “Chinese home.” Kunming is the place where I learned to speak Mandarin, earned my first non-teaching income, and began to take writing more seriously as a profession. I still have a number of friends who live there, and spent a frantic hour or two Saturday making sure that they were all ok. (They were, thanks). I’ve been inside the Kunming Railway Station dozens of times and can visualize the exact area where the stabbings occurred. Anyone who has spent time inside a large, urban train station in China knows how crowded they get. I can’t even imagine how terrifying it must have been to be there.
Kunming—and Yunnan Province in general—depends greatly on tourism, and I hope that this event will not deter people from visiting the city. Development has robbed Kunming of some of its charm, but it’s still one of the prettiest provincial capitals in the country, and is a nice contrast to the smog-filled cities on the east coast. Violent crime and terrorism are rare there. It’s safe. You should go.
If you do, rent a bicycle at Xiong Brothers and ride to the top of Cemetary Hill, where you can get a view of the whole city. Then, halfway down the hill, stop and eat spicy chicken and roasted peanuts at the Hani restaurant, where a waitress in native dress will serve you the best pineapple rice you’ll ever have. Then, having gotten your exercise for the day, pop open a cold Beer Lao at Salvadors on Wenhua Xiang and say hello to Xiao Hui, the local handyman, who can fix anything … and I mean anything. Take in the sunset at Green Lake Park, waving to newlyweds posing for photos, and walk back through an alleyway, where old men sit outside playing mahjongg. For dinner, don’t forget to sample some of the best food in China: ham wrapped in fried goats cheese, and red bean stir-fried with mint. And then, in the name of all things good and holy, have a beer at the Camel Bar, one of the best watering holes in all of China.
Ask a hundred people in Kunming what to do, and you’ll get a hundred different answers. But to the many people I’ve met over the years who dismiss China as a gray, disgusting shithole, I say: go to Kunming. Go to Dali, go to Lijiang, go to Shangri-La, go to Hekou, Dehong, Xishuangbanna, and Jianshui. Bring an appetite and a sense of adventure and, most importantly, a sense of humor.
I am convinced the good and hardy folks in Kunming will get through this horrible time. And as soon as I can, I’ll be back. You should come, too.…
Matthew Yglesias has an amusing post about the Chinese pirated version of Old Boy, a Korean film recently remade in the U.S. Alas, the DVD cover included a negative blurb of the film:
Oops. Yglesias writes that “the marketing aspects of the industry still haven’t perfected their work.” Well, that’s one way to look at it. The other is that pirated DVDs in China often contain some combination of these more basic errors:
- A marketing blurb from an entirely different film.
- A mismatched title, actor, or cover photograph
- A credit listing from a different film (this happens almost 100% of the time)
- The cover from a different version of the same film. (For example once I bought a DVD of the Japanese film Shall We Dance only to get home and find that instead I had acquired the Richard Gere-starring American remake.)
Pirated movies in China sell for as little as $1, so there’s little incentive for manufacturers to invest time and resources into details like marketing. As long as the movie itself works—no guarantee, by the way—customers care less about the accuracy on the paper cover. In fact, they’re actually a form of free entertainment.
My sense from talking to friends in China is that far fewer people bother buying DVDs, anyway; downloading is that much easier. In a way, this is too bad—slinking into corner stores to buy pirated movies was a major part of my China experience, especially during the first couple of years.…
I know sideline interviews after football games are stupid. I know players rarely speak with candor, so Richard Sherman’s remarks were refreshing. I know racist bigots said terrible things about him on Twitter and elsewhere. I know Sherman went to Stanford and did well there and is generally a stand-up guy. I know he’s a fantastic cornerback and is probably right that the 49ers shouldn’t have challenged him on that play. I know that Sherman is thoughtful and willing to engage in venues such as Sports Illustrated. I know that he’s absolutely right in decrying use of the word “thug,” which is loaded with racial symbolism. I know that the NFL would be more entertaining and interesting if there were more players like him. I know it’s hypocritical for fans to cheer players in a violent, high-risk game for three and a half hours and then expect them to behave like gentlemen afterwards.
But having watched, and re-watched, Sherman’s post-game outburst with Fox’s Erin Andrews (herself the subject of a stupid, sexist column by Jeff Pearlman that I won’t link to here), it’s clear to me that he acted like an unprofessional jerk. I’ve watched a lot of football games in my life, and have seen countless interviews with players in Sherman’s situation, and I cannot remember one behaving with less class than he did on Sunday.
It’s not that big of a deal, really. But I’ve been surprised at the lengths Sherman’s defenders have gone, turning him into some sort of hero for subverting the dull tradition of post-game interviews. Doesn’t it make more sense to praise Sherman for being a talented and intelligent football player and recognize that he fucked up? Or realize that, whatever his other virtues, being a gracious winner isn’t one of them? (For all the “heat of the moment talk,” it’s worth remembering that Sherman continued to insult Michael Crabtree in a post-game press conference).
Put another way: I don’t remember media critics or fans reacting with disgust after a player reacts to a victory by expressing joy, relief, and praise for his opponent. Doing so is considered a basic act of sportsmanship, and is something that children across the country are taught when playing youth sports. Are Sherman’s defenders willing to cast aside sportsmanship from now on? Or do we not care so long as players keep us entertained?
On the list of outrageous behavior by NFL players, Richard Sherman’s post-game antics rank pretty low. But that doesn’t mean they’re defensible.…
Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe that it’s already 2013. (Where did the time go? I have so many appointments!) Once again, as always, I want to thank all of you for reading and for your e-mails and Facebook comments. It’s truly a pleasure to have so many thoughtful people to correspond with.
As 2013 comes, I do have a few changes to announce. Next week I will begin work as an Associate Editor with The Atlantic, helping to shape the website’s already-excellent China coverage. To say that it’s a privilege to join The Atlantic- a magazine I first began reading as a high school student more than fifteen years ago- would be a tremendous understatement. Needless to say, I am very excited to get started. The new job also brings me to a new city, Washington, where I’ll be based for the foreseeable future. As a person who loved every minute of life in New York, having to leave the city is certainly bittersweet. However, DC is a fine place in its own right and I’m looking forward to exploring its streets, restaurants, museums, monuments, and parks.
As for this site, I will be continuing to blog in some capacity, so stay tuned! In the meantime, I hope you all enjoy a great start of the year.
Eli Bildner of Tea Leaf Nation has noticed an interesting rhetorical shift in Chinese discourse: people have begun referring to themselves as “taxpayers”:
Over the past year, the word “taxpayer” (nashuiren or nashuizhe) has appeared with increasing frequency on Chinese microblogs and websites, yielding almost 12.5 million results in a search on Sina Weibo, one of China’s most popular microblogs. And just like in the United States, many Chinese “taxpayers” are hardly satisfied with their government’s fiscal record.
In a post last Friday, one Chinese microblogger (@Dvampire-MrFox) excoriated government officials who played hooky from work after China’s National Day vacation. “This is our money as taxpayers!” he wrote. “What are we paying them for?” Posting later that day, another microblogger (@薇薇-伍月) criticized the city of Zhengzhou’s poor record in providing housing for migrant workers: “Where the heck is our taxpayer money going?” she wrote.
This is a trend worth noting for two reasons. First, the Chinese government will begin to rely more heavily on income tax revenues in the coming years, mostly as a way to secure an alternative source of financing. Compared to developed economies, China has a relatively low tax base, but as more of the population surpasses the minimum income threshold the percentage of Chinese who pay income taxes will rise.
Secondly, the public has become increasingly intolerant of corruption and has begun to express more concern about how, exactly, their tax dollars (tax yuan?) are being spent. The brand-new Xi Jinping regime has already begun an anti-corruption movement, but there’s little reason to think it’ll ultimately prove effective absent systemic political change.
It might be tempting to say that “taxpayer” is just a word, one likely imported by a Chinese person who became familiar with the American usage and thought the term would apply quite nicely in China. But words matter. Throughout recent history the Chinese have mainly regarded the government in a paternalistic way, but should the paradigm shift and people consider the government to be working for them, with their money, the consequences could be significant.…
Will Moss at Imagethief has a funny, poignant post announcing his departure from China after eight years. I particularly liked this part:
For an increasingly cosmopolitan and globally interconnected country, China isn’t really a place encourages foreigners to settle down. In fact, it goes out of its way to keep us at arm’s length. I should make a collage out of eight years of temporary residence certificates arranged around the confession I had to sign for registering my son’s birth with the police a few weeks late. Economic migrants bleed across the borders in search of something better, and perhaps some Vietnamese mail-order brides wind up here for the long haul, but in general foreigners don’t immigrate to China. We just visit, sometimes for a very long time.
Will raises an interesting question- why don’t more foreigners immigrate to China? Policy, of course, plays a large role. Here is a partial explanation from a Brookings Institute study:
The Chinese government is inexperienced in the administration of international migrants and falls short in its laws and policies relevant to transnational immigration. This is especially true with respect to the granting of “eligible status” to immigrants, which is still under strict policy control. There is a very limited quota of Chinese “green cards,” or permanent residence permits for foreign citizens, and applications for such permits are usually influenced by politics: they are primarily issued for “international friends” of the Communist Party instead of for international immigrants. Current immigration policy also tends to encourage accepting immigrants who are highly educated and can work in high-tech or bring large investments with them, as China already possesses abundant labor resources.
But Will’s piece- as well as similar articles by Mark Kitto and Charlie Custer- are getting at another question- why do expats decide to leave China after a lengthy stay? Why not just settle in the country permanently? As Will says, hardly anyone stays forever; even Sidney Rittenberg left. But he also adds:
We leave. That’s what we do. But just because leaving China is normal doesn’t mean something isn’t going on. Among my friends there has been a tangible change in mood in the last couple of years. A sense of excitement about being here that endured for many years has in many cases given way to a sense of weariness or indifference. The most common reaction when I tell people my company is moving me back to California is, “you’re so lucky!”
I’ve noticed a similar pattern with my own group of expat friends from China. Most of us came when we were fresh out of school, living frugally and happily with only English-teaching jobs to tie us down. But as the years passed, our roots in China deepened. We found careers and relationships and bought books and furniture and took trips around the country by air, rail, and bicyle. We learned the language and met the locals and ate the food and drank the beer and accumulated a fine list of “China stories” to entertain our family and friends back home.
As long as our lives were simple, China was perfect; it was inexpensive, exciting, challenging, and full of opportunities. But with life’s progression came complications. Friends who started small businesses complained endlessly of government interference, unscrupulous partners, and lousy employees. Friends who started families worried about air pollution and food safety regulations. Some of us looked at high-level career opportunities in the country and found them curiously lacking; whatever happened to the China of limitless possibility that we had told our friends back home about?
Then there was the question of assimilation. The Chinese are wonderfully hospitable people, but, as Mark Kitto says, you can never be one of them. Did I want to spend the rest of my life in a country where I would always be regarded as an outsider, no matter what I did about it? I recalled living in Italy as a college student and finding, after six months or so, that my identity as an American had become irrelevant. I was just a friend, a roommate, a classmate. In China I never got to that point, even after six years, and I realized toward the end of my stay there that I never would.
And so I left. The circumstances weren’t terribly dramatic. I had been accepted into a grad school program and felt it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Some of my other friends left around the same time, too. Others stayed. Eventually, I imagine that just about all of them- almost to the very last one- will find their way home.
But, like Will says, it means nothing at all. Occasionally I get e-mails from readers who are contemplating moving to China to teach. I’ve encouraged each and every one, without exception, to go. China remains an amazing place to live, even if, ultimately, your stay will simply be a very long visit.
Matthew Yglesias has a good post at Slate putting China’s growth- and current slowdown- into some perspective. Toward the end, he lays out the bullish case for China’s interior:
My bull case for China would be that for all the rapid catch-up growth the PRC has seen there are still enormous region-to-region gaps. That means that even if Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta have run out of room for further catchup, there’s still enormous scope for interior regions to catch up with the prosperous coasts. We know that existence governance institutions were good enough for coastal China to do a lot of catch up so why shouldn’t they be good enough for the interior to catch up with the coasts?
In response, Max Fisher writes that developing China’s interior depends on developing export-oriented industries and/or encouraging domestic consumption. This is basically correct, and it’s worth explaining why in more detail:
For one thing, it’s unrealistic to expect China’s interior to ever approach the prosperity level of the coast. After all, Kansas and Arkansas have always been poorer than New York, and will likely always be. The inherent economic advantages to being on a coastline aren’t going to go away. The more realistic goal, then, is whether inland development can occur quickly enough to offset the slowdown affecting China’s coastal region. I believe it can, for the following reasons.
First, the infrastructure in China’s inland regions- think Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan- remains in dire need of upgrades. Rural parts of these provinces lack access to decent roads, for one, and there are severe deficiencies in electricity and plumbing. China may have built a handful of sleek airports in recent years, but a quick visit to the countryside reveals just how much work needs to be done. Beijing can continue investing enormous sums into fixed assets without experiencing the kind of diminishing returns evident in developed economies, something that will keep GDP figures high.
Second, China’s economy is so fragmented that its inland regions are best seen as part of other regional economic networks. The southwestern provinces may face logistical challenges in terms of trans-Pacific shipping, but they are better positioned for trade relationships with countries like Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Xinjiang has the advantage of being next to the energy-rich Central Asian republics, while parts of northern China are best suited for trade with Russia. Obviously, this won’t amount to more than a small fraction of China’s trade to Europe and North America, but it does represent a viable export strategy for these regions.
Third, reform of China’s antiquated hukou laws would spur urbanization in the inland provinces, as rural Chinese from Sichuan and Hubei will migrate to cities like Chengdu, Chongqing, and Wuhan. China is often thought to have a large number of “mega cities” but given the size of the rural population, the number and size of these cities should be much higher. And they will be, as I believe that hukou reform will happen sometime during the Xi/Li years.
Eventually, China’s economy will reach a point where political corruption becomes too big of a problem to ignore. But that point, I believe, is not imminent simply due to the enormous potential of inland development.
First, a brief update from New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Much of the flooding, infrastructure damage, and electrical blackouts avoided my part of uptown Manhattan, and as a result we’ve emerged relatively unscathed. Thank you to friends and family who wrote expressing their concern- I appreciate it!
Here’s a roundup of some of the more interesting China stories of the past week or two:
- Evan Osnos of The New Yorker on what the likely fallout of the Wen Jiabao story will be. Evan’s takeaway? The fact that the story isn’t surprising doesn’t mean it isn’t newsworthy.
- On the subject of Wen, the Useless Tree writes that the Chinese Prime Minister has failed the Confucius test.
- NPR’s Louisa Lim profiles ex-government official Bao Tong, a former secretary to Zhao Zhiyang and a leading critic of the Communist Party’s grip on power. Bao says that “there’s no ideology, there’s no socialism, there’s no communism. All that’s left is power.” Sounds about right to me. In June, Ian Johnson wrote a similar profile of Bao in the New York Review of Books. Both are worth reading in full.
- John Garnaut compiles the A to Z of Chinese politics for the Sydney Morning Herald. This is an excellent, succinct primer of what the key issues are in advance of the 18th Party Congress.
- A Chinese student at Hampshire College writes about how living in the United States has turned him into a Chinese nationalist. This goes both ways, for sure- I remember angrily defending American politics- even George W. Bush!- to critical Chinese friends in the aftermath of the 2004 election. It’s remarkable how living abroad can intensify feelings of national identity, even though most people travel to, at least ostensibly, gain a different perspective.