May 8, 2008

Shanghai: "I am not now, nor have I ever been..."

Yes, that's a statue of Marx and Engels. It's in a rather nice park in Shanghai which we found around dusk. There were several old people doing Tai Chi, and it was threatening to rain, though it never did. A younger me would have called them heroes. Now, they seem to be only stone-carved failed romantics.

Back in high school, at the beginning of my political development, I got this notion that Communism was sort of cool. I think that lots of young liberals go through this. They are fascinated with the easy solutions that Marxism seems to offer, with the stark alternative that it gives in the face of American style capitalism. In my particular case, I remember that Portland schools were going through a spate of trouble. A series of ballot initiatives had cut property taxes, thus defunding education throughout the city. Teachers were laid off, programs were cut. I gave up playing the trombone (which I'd done in middle school) because my high school had cut its music program. My father, a teacher, was able to inform me about all sorts of very unjust cuts that happened throughout the district.

At fifteen years old, this was one of the first issues that effected me personally that I knew about. I already knew about nuclear weapons and global warming, but the directness of school funding was something new to me. I got angry. Very angry. I got angry at all of the people who could be so completely heartless as to cut property taxes. How could they? How could they be so selfish, so short-sighted? How could they be such, such...

(I searched for the word...)


How could they be such pigs. Selfish, awful, capitalist pigs. Pigs who want to take away my school, my teachers. Pigs who took away my trombone. Pigs who took away my father's coworkers. Pigs who did it to enrich themselves. If this was fruits of capitalism, I thought, then to hell with it as a system. Tax those fuckers. Take from them. Dismantle the estates. Break them apart. Give me my school back. Give me my trombone. Let my father's coworkers back in. If capitalism cannot offer those things, than surely, surely (so my angry young mind thought) than surely its opposite can.

Peace, land, bread.

I marched in a few different demonstrations throughout the city, and thought that our shouting and waving would change something. I likened it to revolutionary fervor, thought of myself as one of those lantern-jawed peasants following Lenin. No, I thought of myself as Lenin. He seemed to be able to turn personal anger, personal charisma, into waves of people and change. I wanted that power. I wanted to do what the Communist kitsch said Lenin could do. I wanted my emotions to break apart the estates, to give everyone peace, land, and bread.

Of course, intellectually, I knew that all sorts of awful things had happened in the Soviet Union, but I made the mental excuse of blaming them on Stalin. Stalin was never ideological. Stalin was about Stalin. Stalin would have been awful no matter what politics he employed. He was a corruption, an traitor, a distorter. I thought of the kitschy purity of Lenin, and imagined that as an ideal. If only Trotsky had succeeded Lenin, I thought. If only that madman Stalin hadn't ruined everything. But it would have been bad any way. Lenin was not a democrat, neither was Trotsky. There would have been corruption suppression no matter what.

Despite my mental excuses, blaming everything on Stalin, I continued to have a sort of Communist-lite streak throughout high school and college. My freshman year, I had a poster of Che on my dorm room wall. I'm not sure if that was meant ironically or not.

It was all a young man's attempt at radical chic. I wanted to be edgy, interesting, and passionate. Like so many others like me, I incorporated red stars and Mr. Guevara into that. There was a reason that Rage Against the Machine were so popular. I was part of that reason. I began to drift away from it in college. As a political science and philosophy student, I had to read more Marx then I really cared to, and thought that a lot of the systems he constructed were interesting, but not the most accurate.

Despite that, my attitude about "pigs" persisted. Cut up the swine, I thought. Bring to heel the rich, the corporations, the bloated oligarchs who are ruining America. Crush their gilded culture, and god damn anyone who tries to sell me anything. Money, the getting of money, the pursuit of money, the attraction to profit, the desire enrich oneself in any way, was a filthy, sick thing. Better to die for others than live for yourself.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little. But you get the idea: High school/college student liberal pretension, passion, and anger taken a little to far. Throw in my antireligious attitudes with that, and you've got the makings of an unreasonable young man.

My ideas have been changing for years. I'd thrown out the Che poster years ago, and at my current job I primarily teach, but I also sell things. I ask students whether or not they want to continue with lessons after their contracts are finished, and I also recommend textbooks to people. Initially, I thought that it was extremely awful that I'd ever ask students to spend money. I got over it, but that's another post.

Fast forward, years later, to the crowded streets of Shanghai. (This post is about being in China, remember?)

Everywhere, on the main tourist and commercial thruways, on the Bund, on street corners, people tried to acquire our money. Beggars did. Scammers did. But, most of all, hawkers did.

"Bag? Watch?" They said.

There they were, approaching us, using a handful of English expressions. Sometimes they held out a handful of watches. Sometimes it was simply a card with photographs of merchandise. Sometimes it was nothing at all, simply the cry of “Bag! Watch!”

"No thank you."

"T shirt? DVD?"

And so on. In the busiest areas, I'd put them at about three or so minutes apart. Walking by any shop, eager salespeople would try to get us to come inside.

Initially, I responded quite badly to this. I loathed it, in fact. I wished that the hawkers would shut the hell up. The latent anti-selling sentiments in me fired up. These people shamelessly attempting to get money by selling me (probably fake) stuff. God damn anyone who tried to sell me anything. Money, the getting of money, the pursuit of money, the attraction to profit, the desire enrich oneself in any way, is a filthy, sick thing. So said the unreasonable young man, still buried a big in my mind.

I talked about this with Kori. My emotional gut reaction, my gut reaction that had been shaped by years of radical chic and anticapitalism, my gut reaction that wanted to cut up the estates and tax the rich into oblivion, my gut reaction had came into being from attending Nader rallies and hanging out at radical bookstores in Portland, my gut reaction said this: The seller is a predator. They who would separate a person from their resources is a wolf. The companies, powers, and salesmen in this world are something to be on guard against.

Do I believe this? No. But I felt it. It's really annoying to feel things that one does not believe. It bugs the shit out of Kori. I try to, as much as possible, feel the things that I believe, not otherwise. It's difficult, but I consistently succeed at this.

"How disempowering for you you as a buyer," she replied.

I hadn't really thought of it like that.

When you grow up and shape your politics as devoutly anticapitalist, you don't think about buyers having any power. You don't imagine the spending of money as any kind of act of influence. Money, you think, is taken from the masses, not given by the masses. Money must be held onto. Money is the most coveted part of you, and must be protected.

How disempowering for us as buyers.

Her response prompted a great deal of introspection. These people were not pigs. They were not predators. These were people in a developing country, one that had been ravaged by Communism and suppression. Shanghai was allowed to develop in a fairly capitalist manner, and it had made the city rich. They were trying, as best they could, to make their own lives better amidst all the wealth that was around them, and would probably remain beyond them.

And, one of the most obvious signs of wealth around them, was us. Two white people, two obvious foreigners, traveling in China. Kori and I both make middle class Tokyo salaries, enough money to have fun on a consistent basis in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Enough money to travel to China.

These people would have been idiots not to approach us. We were the ones who could most easily afford their merchandise. Their prices, even if they were inflated, even if they were expensive by Chinese standards, were ridiculously cheap compared to what we would have paid in Tokyo. I bought two shirts in China, and paid less than ten dollars for each one.

Really, I was the one who was in charge in these interactions. I was the one with the money, I was the one who made the decisions about where it went. I was not being preyed upon, rather, I was being courted, and I was perfectly able to say "no," when I wanted to. After a while, these people just seemed desperate, and I tried to feel a bit of compassion for them even as they annoyed me, even as I turned them down.

The models of anticapitalism, anti-selling, anti-money that I'd had as an unreasonable young man seemed quite silly at that point. There, walking through a country that is still nominally communist, I made peace with the fact that I don't really mind capitalism at all.

The truth is, I like to buy things. I like it when things are sold cleverly or well. I like to spend money. I enjoy a lot of the stuff that supposed "pigs" would.

Now, I do generally dislike consumerism, and I'm in favor of stuff like socialized medicine and adequate funding for public works. I don't mind taxing the rich more than the middle class, and I still consider myself to be quite liberal. But, I'm not ideological anymore. The unreasonable young man is gone. The last bits of him, with red flags blowing in the wind, were left in China.

Kori asked me what Marx would have thought of the Soviet Union or China. I thought about it, and said that I thought he'd have been appalled. Marx was a privileged man, and had some fairly muddy ideas about human nature. He was a romantic and a philosopher, and I think his heart was in the right place. His philosophy was appealing because ultimately, it's rather simple. I think that calling Marx "wrong" misses the point. I prefer to think of him as clouded by emotion and shortsighted.

I wonder how the man carved into that statue would have reacted to the hawkers on the streets of Shanghai. I imagine him dismissing them as petty bourgeois or clouded by false consciousness. I can't imagine him seeing them as they are: People trying as best they can to get by.

It's a curious experience, moderating and changing one's mind. There's a sort of high to it, though, a sort of liberation. Why tie myself to, or apologize for, things I don't believe? The strictures of ideology are something that I'm happy to have left upon the streets of Shanghai.


Beau said...

Keeping in mind that I am not often given to public bouts of sentimentality, I want to say that part of me will miss that unreasonable young man. But since you have changed, I got this great deal on a...

Joseph said...

I always used to hate bargaining as a kid -- I hated arguing about the price, and I hated the feeling that I may have paid way too much for whatever it was I purchased (which, as an obviously wealthy foreigner, it was almost guaranteed that I had done). More than that, though, I hated the thought that I might drastically undervalue how much something was worth and offer somebody a ridiculously low price for their goods.

One day, offhandedly, my dad pointed out "You know, they won't sell it to you unless they make money off the deal, right?" Which is a trivially obvious thing to say, but it had never really occurred to me until right then.

I think it sort of underscores your point, though. People don't sell you things because they're forced to. People sell you things because they're going to profit from it -- people /want/ you to buy from them. Duh. But still, realizing that made me, in some stupid way, feel a lot better about capitalism.

Joseph said...

That being said, I /hate/ being pestered by merchants. I will gladly ignore a store and go to a neighboring vendor, even if their prices are higher, if someone is going out of their way to hassle me to shop from them.

Sydney said...

I think it's an integral part of adolescence to choose an ideology and become a bit of a zealot. Up until puberty, your brain organizes things pretty dichotomously. And then one day you wake up and are suddenly aware of all this ambiguity and it's scary as hell. Plus your hormones are going nuts, you're pretty sure you should be having sex right now oh my god why am i not having sex right now and you're in school 7 hours a day with a bunch of other unbalanced teenagers - no one has time for a complex, well-thought out personal ideology. I think that as the pendulum swings from black & white to all ambiguity all the time, from girls/boys have cooties to BOOBS!/PENES!, so too it swings from politics what? to oh my god this is what I believe and you are seriously an asshole if you don't see that I'm right. And then you get older, your body calms down, your brain calms down, you have some sex, and you wonder, "How did I ever feel that passionately about this shit?"

I remember arguing with someone (my dad, perhaps? more likely my mom) about the relative merits of socialism and capitalism (and I did not have anywhere near the grasp on them that you did). My interlocutor/rebutter said, "It's just not that simple..." and I interrupted and shouted, "No! It IS just that simple!" I remember thinking, "Oh my god, adults are so stupid! They're so afraid to lose any of their creature comforts that they won't do what's right simply because it's right!"

And I remember the first time I was forced to confront these "ideals:" when I registered to vote. My "ideals" told me to register as a member of the Green/Pacific Party. But my hand kept moving my pen over the Democrat scantron bubble. I finally gave in and justified it to myself that I wanted to be able to make a difference in the democratic primary, that I was being realistic that the Green Party was never going to field a viable candidate so I ought to at least have some influence over the next most liberal candidate. But in fact what I felt was that shameful anxiety that lived near constantly in the pit of my stomach in those days: the possibility that my mother was right when she said (flippantly, as I remember) that registering for the Green Party was just throwing your vote away.

It's funny how these beliefs hold us in their sway for so long. Mom has had the same conversation with so many women of her generation: even though they want Obama to win, they're not sure they have it in them to not vote for Hillary. They know it's a kind of violation of the women's movement to vote for her simply because she's a female candidate, but after so many years of fight and struggle for some approximation of equality, it's irresistible. It will be interesting to see how the primary turns out.

I'm rambling. Sorry. This was a very evocative post! I'll go clutter up my own blog now. :)

SonicLlama said...


Your short anecdote about snapping back with "It is that simple!" is a really nice summation of adolescent political passion. I'd say it's iconic in it's description. I can picture that being yelled by almost any young, passionate person about almost any issues.


I didn't like being pestered by merchants either, but aren't we anyway, all the time? Every day I see lots of billboards, internet banners, and and ads on Trains that say, essentially "spend money on our stuff." I don't mind all the marketing, really, because I just register it as part of the modern landscape.

One thing I told myself to deal with the initial annoyance of the sellers was that they are doing the same thing that ad agencies are doing every day, except with less technology or sophistication. Thinking about it like that made me much more at ease with my surroundings.

Joseph said...

Yeah, but impersonal things like TV spots and billboards I can ignore without being rude. Merchants yelling at you play exactly against the behavior we've all been taught that it's rude to ignore people who're talking to you. If I'm in a store browsing, I don't want to have someone walking around taking personal attention to me doing their damnedest to get me to buy stuff (it annoys me when this happens in the US, too).

I've gotten better at not feeling bad about ignoring hawkers, but it's still annoying.