Thursday, June 12, 2008

Guest in Progress: Jason Harper

I thought I was traveling far when in the autumn of 2005, I drove off to Wichita, Kansas, to teach for a month as the visiting writer in residence at Wichita State University. (When the director called me to tell me I got the job, she said, “You know, there are no trees here. Will that bother you?”) I survived and actually had fun (great fried chicken at a branch of Stroud's; excellent steak at Scotch and Sirloin [doesn't that name say it all?]).

Wichita is nothing compared to where Jason Harper, one of the students I met there, is teaching now: Sias International University in Xinzheng, China.

I read part of Jason’s wonderful short novel Yellow No. 5 in progress, and I’m delighted to see that not only has the book been completed, but it’s going to be published this fall by Another Sky Press.

While people may have given my East Coast, shiny patent leather boots a second look in Wichita (trust me, they’re fabulous!), that was nothing compared to what Jason has experienced in China. How does living immersed in another culture affect one’s writing? Read on for Jason's take....

I’ve had “minority” friends for as long as I can remember. I cringe when writing that word. Minority. It’s such an inaccurate word, a worthless word, a meaningless word, a word with so much classification and prejudicial power. “Discrimination” too.

To write “minority” and “discrimination” is uncomfortable, but to experience it is dreadful. Experiencing uncomfortable words is a painful way to learn about new things, to try to understand different things, and by analyzing and filtering these things through observation and writing can help develop a new perspective – a new eye – that helps a writer get a glimpse and feel what others see and feel.

Call it character development. It’s insightful; it’s torturous; it’s enough to make one cringe…

- - - -

Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood, the families living nearby varied from address to address, house color to house color, big to small. I classified the people in them based on whether they were kids or grown-ups, knew about Star Wars or not, whether they had a big, scary dog or a fat fluffy cat, or if they were (in pre-teen’s simple terms) nice or not.

But never if they were a “minority” or not (even though most were).

It’s always bothered me, this “minority” label, and as I grew older I’d become bothered by stories about the endless discrimination that accompanies that classification. Friends were friends! Skin tone was skin tone! Nice was nice…Race was meaningless to me; it didn’t matter how someone looked, it mattered how they were.

Throughout my life I’ve been lucky to have met many people and made friends with different addresses, various house colors, kids and grown-ups, who have big scary cats and fat fluffy dogs. The stories they’ve told me about the nasty looks, the unequal treatment, the outright discrimination they suffer on a daily basis enraged me, but I could never do anything about it or never fully understand it; I could only listen, fuming over something I did not comprehend. I could not grasp the gravity of their encounters because I’d never experienced it myself.

Until I came to China.

I teach academic and research writing at an international university south of Zhengzhou in Henan Province, and have experienced discrimination time and time again. Whether being obscenely overcharged at restaurants, hotels, department stores, street markets, taxis, and at convenience stores, getting aggressively cut in front of while waiting in lines, or suffering sneers and stares while walking with my Chinese friend Sparrow, I’ve come to realize what it feels like to be a minority and to be discriminated against.

I was very excited to move to China for many reasons, but one in particular was to have a diet of Chinese food. Not the buffets or the incorrectly labeled US-Chinese food (and often misspelled) “kung pow chicken” – but a diet of dishes from recipes centuries old, local cuisines in tiny shops, and exotic street food cooked and served from carts next to rickety rickshaws. Upon arrival, I eagerly hit the streets and restaurants as often as I could. Most menus were in Chinese, but occasionally I’d find a place that had a menu with English subtitles, mostly in cities like Beijing. Over time, I’d invite my new Chinese friends to dine with me, and they’d just ask for the regular menu. When comparing items of interest, I noticed the prices on my English menu were twice – and sometimes ten times – higher than the Chinese menus for the same dishes. To my astonishment, restaurant after restaurant had these English menu price increases, a practice that would be reprimanded in the US.

“This practice is common,” I was told by Wei Wei, a student in my writing class. “Keep your vigilance; you are a foreigner.”

As I got accustomed to the food here, I also became familiar with the economy and the going rate for many things: a 600ml bottle of Coca-Cola is 2.5 RMB (about 35 cents), a dinner including a medium-sized bowl of noodles with beef and vegetables, two pieces of shaobing (flatbread like a cross between a puffy pretzel and a pita), and a bottle of jasmine tea costs 3.5, .5, and 2.5 RMB respectively, or 6.5 RMB total, or $0.92 for dinner. A haircut here costs 5 to 10 RMB, which includes wash, cut, a wash again, and styling. I bought four Ralph Lauren oxford shirts (priced in the US around $100 each) for $42, and flew roundtrip to Shanghai one long weekend for $80.

But I had to learn these prices. Before I got a grip on the “system,” I was charged much, much more for all of those things. And why? Because I’m “a foreigner.”

Empty taxis often pass by me, even during the day, even in big cities, whether I wave money in the air to try to get their attention, or if I shout, or stand out in the middle of the road. Sometimes they pull over nearby, only to allow a Chinese person to get in. One evening, after a conference in Zhengzhou, two other American males and I tried to hail a cab. We were all in conference attire: ties, trousers, Ralph Lauren oxfords…but we still could not get a cab. And Peter is nearly fluent in Chinese. After over an hour, finally a cabbie stopped to pick us up. This also happened in Shanghai during my spring break; when I finally got a cab, the young driver (who spoke English) explained that it was because I am a foreigner.

Hotels are cheap relative to US economy, but when a Chinese friend books the room, it’s hundreds of RMB less, and some hotels will not allow me to stay even with a passport. If they do, they unabashedly charge me much more money with an apology for the “inconvenience” and collect my money with a smile.

Waiting in lines here is a nightmare, even for the populace. But I’m consistently nudged, wedged, moved around, dodged, flanked, and/or passed by. I remember waiting in line at a subway stop in Beijing, and a woman older than my grandmother jostled me around when getting on the train. When push comes to shove, foreigners are second-class.

A professor at Wichita State had spent some time in China a few years ago, and before I left, Dr. DeFrain mentioned that he often got stared at when he was in China. Not just started at, but ogled, and he went on to say that I’d have my photo taken (voluntarily or not) countless times. I didn’t believe him, but after finishing my first month here I’d been photographed and video recorded on cell phones and cameras countless times. Foreigners tend to draw attention.

This unwanted attention has also affected the people around me. Whenever walking with my friend Sparrow, she (and we) is/are the object of stares, glares, jabs, jibes, sneers, and an array of other harmful, hurtful, disapproving diatribes that are lost on me only by literal language translation, but not by their unspoken language. I can read their faces – and Sparrow’s – when she and I walk together in public. Sparrow quietly endures this, never telling me what they are saying, never explaining why they would say anything (even though I know), and never showing me how she feels about it all. She just purses her lips, sighs, then forces a smile and tells me it doesn’t matter. But it does matter to me, I know it matters to her, and it’s very clear that it matters to the people here, too.

I miss my “minority” friends. I often think of the stories they’ve told me about the nasty looks, the unequal treatment, the outright discrimination they’ve suffered on a daily basis, and it still enrages me. And although I feel I still don’t fully understand it; I can now listen and fume over something that I can, to some level, comprehend, and try to grasp the gravity of their encounters, because I’ve now experienced what being a minority is like myself.

I am a minority here. It’s unfair; it’s such a worthless word, a meaningless word, a word with so much classification and prejudicial power. I cringe as I type it.

Call it character development. ~~Jason Harper

About: Jason Harper is the author of Yellow No. 5, a short novel forthcoming from Another Sky Press. He has worked in several editorial positions, including as an editorial assistant at Passages North during his M.A. at Northern Michigan University, and was the managing editor of Mikrokosmos while earning his Creative Writing M.F.A. at Wichita State University. Harper has also written countless restaurant reviews and is currently compiling a collection of Chinese cuisine recipes while living and teaching academic and research writing at Sias International University in Xinzheng, China. Please see his web site for more information.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.