Getting Sick in a Foreign Language

by Jonathan Campbell

19 April 2007

There is something familiar to me in that idea of an abandoned past; in a place like Beijing, you too can become anybody, literally. Because of the disconnect between here and Back Home, you can create for yourself the identity you've always wanted.
Photo from IES 

I think it’s safe to say that I’m doing Good Things here. While I’m not reducing carbon dioxide emissions, housing the homeless, or bringing literacy to the countryside, I am helping to make quality music happen in Beijing and beyond. I feel like I’ve done a decent job presenting good acts in Beijing and representing the best of Beijing rock to European audiences through the tours I’ve organized for Subs; I’ve added to the quality of life for those living in this city, albeit in a cultural way rather than an environmental or monetary one. There are also others who are doing Good Things musically here, and I believe our efforts are acknowledged and rewarded, not through pats-on-backs or a substantial salary, but through a common understanding that we are fighting the good fight and will continue to do so with an ever-increasing ease of getting Good Things Done.

But then I get forwarded something like this “press release” recently, about “a ground-breaking production that is making both cinema and music history”: A self-produced documentary about a foreigner in the Chinese rock scene. As I scan the lines—“The new rock revolution…is on the way”; “Eastern and Western cultures are brought together in way never witnessed before”—all I can think of is: What have I spent the past half-dozen-odd years of my life doing? Once again, I find myself shouting at the screen, like I find myself doing all too much when I’m reading reports on Chinese music. It’s an unhealthy habit I have: I take things far too personally. But what’s even less healthy is the stuff that’s eliciting my unhealthy reaction.

When I read lines like “potentially the biggest thing to happen to China music” and “the hottest army of…artists in China”, I know that, likely, many people will believe it. I know better, but then, I’m one of the very few people (relatively speaking) who would—and of the few people who’ve read it, I’m probably the only one who is taking it personally, but then, that’s what this missive is about. I see the list of participating artists, most of them asterisked names still waiting to be confirmed, and I know that they’ll likely never give their permission, but it doesn’t matter, really, because nobody outside of Beijing has heard of anyone, asterisked or not.

To the film festival circuit, the hype combined with a dearth of information available about China (and even less China music-related information) will mean that audiences and judges are sure to eat this stuff up because, well, what else is there? One hopes that the audience would know enough to tell when something smells rotten, but then again, it’s best not to subject anyone to anything remotely rotten-smelling in the first place. But here’s where I worry: There’s a dish in China called Stinky Tofu. They say it doesn’t taste nearly as bad as it smells. And I can tell you that while what “they” say is absolutely true, until you’ve taken in a noseful of the stuff up close—despite the screams from their olfactory systems, people (yup, me too) are willing to scrunch up their honkers and dig in to that first bite—you won’t know how little that’s actually saying.

This is the kind of project that seems to me symptomatic of the problems of expatriate life in Beijing, and, I’m guessing, elsewhere: In the societies that are formed and the kinds of people that live in (or, perhaps, are shaped by) places far from home. It may sound like I’m out to dump on particular people, but that’s not the case. The point is the extremes of the spectrum of expats in Beijing in general (“away from home” in even-more-general) and of the people in the arts scene more specifically.

A nice way to say what I’m trying to say is that Beijing is a great place for people-watching. Since whack-jobs generally make for the best watching, what I’m really saying is that there are a lot of whack-jobs here. Beijing isn’t so different from elsewhere in the non-Western world where expat populations gather. Basically, it’s made up of two types of people, both equally drawn to places where Things are only just getting started. While there is a spectrum, it seems that the bulk of people here sit at its two extremes: the super-cool folks and the super-horrible folks. There are those who are eager to discover a new part of the world, eager to learn about it, and eager to be involved in it. And then there are people who are desperately seeking something different—not in an “I-need-a-change” kind of way, but more in an “I’ve-pissed-off-too-many-people-to-stick-around” kind of way. If Beijing is the Wild West, then it too has its rumours of gold mines just waiting to be picked clean. A chance to strike it rich, quick and easy.

I remember reading about Shanghai in the 1920s, known back then as the Paris of the East, when flocks of Europeans took over the city swinging ‘til the wee hours. Nobody asked each other about Back Home; it was assumed that the reason one was in Shanghai then was because of some dirty little secret. Don’t ask, don’t tell. There is something familiar to me in that idea of an abandoned past; in a place like Beijing, you too can become anybody, literally. Because of the disconnect between here and Back Home, you can create for yourself the identity you’ve always wanted. It’s a chance to start from scratch.

Photo from

Photo from

In my experience, living in Beijing—and at least partly in Beijing’s expat world (which is easy enough to avoid, but also easy enough to join)—is a lot like university. In college, nobody knows you were just some average dude back in high school; in Beijing, there’s very little chance you’re going to run into anyone from back home. In school, you are—for the first time—out of the reach of you family’s authority; in Beijing, ditto, though this applies perhaps less to mom and dad than to The Spouse Back Home. And whether or not Animal House is an accurate representation of the bulk of university experiences, suffice it to say that when it comes to nightlife, the expat population doesn’t seem to have left the hallowed halls of their alma maters.

Of course, I won’t pretend that people don’t party Back Home. But the other thing about Beijing is that it’s a small town (of 15 million) for the foreign community; it’s actually hard to stay away from people you’d rather avoid. It’s also easy to find yourself hanging out with people you’d never hang out with, in places you might not even be allowed in to back home (I know I’ve found myself in swanky clubs that I would’ve crossed the street to avoid, or been sent across the street by bouncers before I even had the chance to realize I should stay away). This manifests itself in both good and bad ways: You can make connections that would be out of reach elsewhere, and you may also end up in situations with people you would rather pass up had you the chance to think it through.

There seems to be an understanding that expats in Beijing share a basic common trait: We are all the same because we are all strangers, and therefore, we’re all comrades in the same boat (even more so if you happen to come from the same country—“Wow! I’m from Canada too!”). This also manifests itself in the weirdness I hope I’m not alone in feeling when I walk down the street past a fellow non-Chinese (ignoring the fact that some people who look Chinese might not actually be Chinese); it reminds me of university because at my school, there were so few people that it seemed like you had to say “hey” or at least give the casual nod to the person passing you by. Who is that? He looks familiar, I think I know him. I should say hi. But wait, no, I don’t know him. Oh, crap he’s looking at me! Now what?!

As a foreigner in the Beijing, it is pretty easy to get right up in the local arts scenes. Exhibit A: Me. But the flip-side of the ease of entry into the scene is that what’s lacking is a decent filter. It’s sort of the same situation that I wrote about in an earlier column when I spoke of the abundance of mediocre overseas acts passing through Beijing. There are lots of people coming through town promising Big Things. And when you’ve got extreme ends of a spectrum at work, my fear is that when the bad end winds up, oh, say, filming a documentary that might sound good on paper, the good end might want to get worried.

So what to do? Ignore the crap and get on with the good stuff, I suppose. Which I do, mostly. When I’m not yelling at magazines, newspapers and websites, that is.

* * *

After writing the bulk of this piece and stewing over it for a while I came across a pretty pertinent few lines in Love, etc, by Julian Barnes. “Don’t get sick in a foreign language” was the advice given to one of the characters, an expat. But to her it doesn’t mean flipping through the dictionary and looking up “antibiotics”. What it does mean is: If you’re going to be an expatriate, make sure you’ve got the temperament for it because anything that goes wrong gets exaggerated. Everything that goes right makes you feel terrifically pleased with yourself—you made the right decision, you made the break—but anything that goes wrong—quarrels, drains, unemployment, whatever—is likely to be twice as much nuisance.

Twice as much, indeed.


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