Finals are over! And this post is long overdue. My two exams, two essays, and two presentations passed without undue stress, and I felt fairly confident in my performance. Now everyone’s gone for the most part, either back to America as is the case with the undergrads, or off to other regions of China as in the case of my fellow Fulbrighters. They’ll be missed for sure, and Harbin is already feeling like a slightly different city. Finals ended on Friday, and in keeping with our duty as students, that meant we had to go drinking. Wait, let me amend that, first we had to go have a big meal of chunbing (Chinese fajitas) as a last hurrah, because they’re frickin amazing and nigh impossible to find outside of Harbin for whatever reason. We actually managed to order a proper amount of food even!
Then came the drinking, which prompted only my third visit to the bar of the semester. I wasn’t particularly feeling it honestly, and so in lieu of a heavy dark beer I ordered some Tanqueray neat. As much as I love the bar we were at for their great selection of beer, it seems even they are not above bottle-swapping, as what I received was certainly not Tanqueray to my palate, rather something terrible. What the fact that I can distinguish gins on taste alone says about me, I leave to you dear reader to judge. Disheartened, I went to the bar to order a better beverage, and thus began the highlight of the night, and possibly the last four months.
At the bar was a drunk Chinese guy who threw his arm around me as soon as I sat down. Thus begins the classic conversation of, “Where are you from?” “Guess.” “America?” “Yup”. This guy guessed it first try, but I’ve gotten Russia, Germany, England, Xinjiang, and Pakistan oddly enough among others in the past. I was prepared to just order my drink and leave, but the next sentence our of this guy’s mouth was “you know, the American left is just like the Cultural Revolution right now.” And at that I knew I needed to sit my ass down and pick this guy’s brain.
The criticism that often gets levied at “leftist” or “PC” culture these days is that it’s actually quite oppressive despite preaching a message of tolerance. I think that’s a load of crap, but it does apply to some people, and the comparison to the jingoism and intolerance of the Cultural Revolution was not one I had made before, Over the course of our conversation he bought me three drinks despite my protestations, which pushed me up to peak Chinese ability, and then past it, so by the time I started talking with his sober friend I was doing a lot of smiling and nodding. We covered a whole range of topics, but I’ll try to sum up the best moments of our 3-ish hour conversation. At several points he started ranting about how China is more capitalist than America, and how he was a huge capitalist of a communist party member what with his stock trading and debt, and how Mao Zedong would be so ashamed to see him today. We covered U.S.-China tensions. His verdict was “if it comes to nuclear war, we can’t do shit about it so who cares?” Delightfully nihilistic.
It’s hard to convey how viewing the cultural conflict at work on this guy’s psyche affected me, but at the time it was just so unique, so raw, so unlike any other interaction I’ve had with a Chinese person that it was immensely beautiful. I represented America, explained to him our system of government, and even aired a potentially controversial opinion on Tibet that both my drunk and sober compatriots agreed with. This is what Fulbright is about: people to people connections, giving a face to a country. In my new drunk friend’s words, “We’re the same, just different countries, who cares about that political stuff?” This is what I’m here for, this is what I live for. I may or may not see them again, but actually engaging in dialogue on a personal level (not necessarily with the help of alcohol) with people and building good will is half of what I’m getting paid to do here. I’ll leave it at that and leave you with some pictures cool snow sculptures outside one of the dorms.