(With My) Back to the Wall

To return to my previous entry, ‘Poster Boy Hamlet’: after the poster competition, Jane Moody asked us if we would come early to the Berwick Saul Building opening event, as our posters were going to be displayed in the lobby.  Would we mind standing next to our entries and introducing them to the guests? As a first year PhD student, this was, of course, a little nerve-wracking.  What if somebody asked me a theory-laden question that I only half understood?  What if I was challenged about my methodology? What if my poster sparked interest, but my answer lost it?  Of course, this was doubtless why Jane was offering us this opportunity: to encourage us to think about how we conveyed our research in an attention-grabbing way, and to build our confidence in answering just these sort of questions.  So, to practise, I asked my co-winner to introduce her poster on forensic linguistics.  It was fascinating.  I had never thought about how the police decided whether or not somebody was making a hoax call! I then introduced mine to her, and she expressed equal surprise that Shakespeare was performed in East Asia.  It was all going very well, until a friendly history lecturer came over and began to quiz me on my work.  She initially seemed interested and continued to smile politely, despite the fact that I don’t think she had wanted a ten minute monologue.  I remembered too late Judith Buchanan’s advice: sum up your research in three punchy sentences!  The history lecturer must have been relieved when, suddenly, a young Chinese man was at our side.

‘一千个人眼里有一千个哈姆雷特, yi qian ge ran yanli you yi qian ge hamuleite: Inside one thousand people are one thousand Hamlets… Hahaha! How do you know this saying?’ he said.

‘My Chinese tutor taught me it,’ I began.  He peered more closely at my poster.

‘Ah, this is very interesting, this poster…’

Oh no.

‘Are you from Mainland China, by any chance?’ I asked quickly. I somehow sensed that ‘interesting’ was a euphemism.

‘Yes,’ he said.  Darn it, I knew I shouldn’t have added the reference to Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese boy, a computing major who had come to the opening with his friend, began to read out loud: ‘What was this production saying about Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms or his clampdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement?’

I’m not sure if he then said this, or whether I just saw it written across his face: ‘Why can’t  you foreigners mention China without mentioning the Tiananmen Incident?’  And I knew what he was feeling.  My Chinese students in York had felt under constant pressure during the Olympics.  ‘Why nobody talking about  good things in our country?’ they frequently protested.  ‘You Westerners always talking about China and human rights, China and Tibet.  But Tiananmen was years ago.  We were babies.  What about Guantanamo?’

‘What’s this colour?’ the Chinese student said, jabbing his finger at the text boxes. The history lecturer politely left.

‘It’s red.  It’s influenced by the New Year red paper couplets,’ I began to explain.

‘It’s not red, it’s pink,’ he contradicted.  He was smiling, but he reminded me of one of my students in Jinan many years ago, the ardent young communist Tiger John.  Tiger John had picked up my latest edition Lonely Planet Guide (1993) and shaken it in my face.  ‘Why they put this picture on the cover,’ he demanded, tears pricking his eyes.  It was a photograph of an old man, in neat but patched clothes, guarding a bicycle parking lot.  ‘Always, you Westerners wanting to say we are poor; wanting to say we are bad place.’

‘Have you been in China?’ the Chinese computer major asked, bringing me back to the present, a crowded building in York, where waiters were circulating with wine and canapés.

‘Yes, I lived in your country for several years.  I love it – and respect it.’

‘Maybe if you write this, and you want to come to China again, you won’t get a visa!’ he said.  ‘Only joking! Hahaha!’

‘Ha…’ I said. ‘I think China is a good place.  And I think Deng Xiaoping was a great and an important leader.  I know that many of my Chinese friends say that Deng Xiaoping’s reforms transformed their lives.  He made many people’s lives better.  I know that.’

‘Maybe if you do go back to teach in China again, and you say this,’ he continued to jab my poster, ‘you will be deported!’ he said.  ‘Only joking! Hahaha! Maybe the People’s Daily headline will say, Foreign Expert Sent Home! Only joking!’

I half-wish I hadn’t put the word Tiananmen on that poster.  How, in a couple of hundred words, could I get across the complexity of contemporary Chinese history?  Lin Zhaohua struggled, and he had the vehicle of Hamlet to convey it.  How was I so insensitive not to realise that if I added it, although it might spark the interest of a Western academic, or even a Chinese academic, it was bound to wound a young Chinese boy?

(c) Saffron Walkling

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