Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Chinese New Year - Not for the sheep-willed

It's been a full zodiac circle. Twelve years ago in the Year of the Sheep 2003, I landed in China and I must confess that I knew nothing about the Chinese zodiac.

In my country, Germany, we were taught little about the East, except that it was our cultural and ideological adversary. And where I attended university, in Edinburgh … boy, did the British entertain prejudices against mainland China.

Registered as a Russian major at Fudan University in Shanghai, a metropolis of 20 million people, I found a small room near Wujiaochang crossings, only a 1 yuan (then worth about 12 US cents) bus ride down Siping Lu, passing Tongji University, to the famous tourist spot "The Bund" opposite Pudong. The very day of settling in town I bargained a gregarious Holland bike that was stolen barely 20 minutes later when I checked into a local store for bread and a glass of rancid nutella (chocolate spread) which, as if teaching a painful lesson in humility, caused the first and still most hideous food poisoning in my life.

They say the Year of the Sheep (or goat), is a weak year, full of bad luck, and bad news for "sorry kids" who are born in the year of this tender, meek, and over-sensitive manifestation of a push-over. Of course, belief in horoscopes is superstition. Still, Dragon, Tiger, and Horse years have indubitably more spiritual appeal in this country.

Fudan University is the silent southern superstar. We don't have anything like it in Europe. The unofficial campus has the size of a Parisian suburb, and it accommodates tens of thousands of students, teachers, staff, and all services. Life was extraordinary cheap. My monthly stipend of US$80 got me 80 meals - twice that many if street malatang or chaomian. Still, I lost 16 pounds that year from over-work and exhaustion.

In the Year of the Sheep, you keep a low profile, it was explained to me. We care for another, we are being cared for, and we promote peaceful coexistence. When US vice-president Dick Cheney spoke at the American Center, he generously promised China a back-row seat in world history. None of us imagined, of course, that China would have replaced the mighty USA as the world's largest trading power exactly one turn of the zodiac later.

During the same years, some China experts, fired by US foreign policy and an ideological sense of mission, launched their greatest anti-China campaign since Vietnam. It was (and still sometimes is) difficult to read Western newspapers or watch Western news channels without feeling physically ill over so much Western negativity, ill-will, and contempt.

The German community in Shanghai still behaved like colonialists. Speaking Chinese was a skill reserved for low-rank expats. There were only 200 or so German students matriculated in China. Professors and businessmen who spoke favorably about China were ostracized. The German weekly newspaper Die Zeit still used Chinese names in reverse to ensure "proper" European order. And overall, the German media censored most Chinese cultural terms to keep language clean and "pure".

In contrast, the way the Chinese approached foreign languages at Fudan University was mind-blowing. They were unbelievably studious, and excelled at memorization and rote learning. In just two semesters, students were able to memorize the Concise Oxford Dictionary, to read German high literature such as Die Physiker, or to recite their Russian textbooks. You are here to study, not to work, Fudan's president told us. Our life-style, Spartan and minimalistic, had to reflect our humble existence as xuezhe - scholars.

It is no secret that the Chinese as a group are intellectually superior to most Europeans when it comes to test scores; or, as a quasi Third World country, they just have to try harder academically (which is a more politically correct way to say the same); however, they are not nearly as creative, aggressive or assertive.

So, while some Western media outlets have been endlessly making fun of China and its people for the past many years, the latter have largely ignored the enviousness and jealousy and, instead, concentrated their energy on the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Most people who have experienced Chunjie, the Chinese Spring Festival, are now effectively celebrating two "New Years" - one on January 1, the other later that month or in February.

Back then at Fudan University, on Chuxi, the Chinese New Year's Eve, we dodged some cameras and, packed with Zhongnanhai cigarettes and affordable Kong Yiji huangjiu (a yellow wine), sneaked onto the roof top of Fudan's foreign student dormitory, a 23-storey building. The majestic view over Shanghai with its trillions of lights and reflections and cracking fireworks thundering the heavens left a lasting impression.

All our worries politely left for that precious moment. I'll never forget where my friends are in the world. We may have been poor, but we celebrated like kings.

Thomas Pattberg is a German writer, linguist, and cultural critic.

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