Professor Moore, Professor Wei, Jennifer Jokl, and I went on a trip to China which started from May 16th and lasted until June 23rd. Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, and Chongqing were the cities visited. The original intent of my project was to compare and contrast the language of Chinese youth to the language of Chinese media. However, because of conversation with Chinese peers and deliberation with Dr. Moore, the course of my study shifted to the youth’s use of slang and their conception of it. This topic, however, was certainly not the only thing I learned during the trip.
One of the most important lessons I learned on the trip is that it is never good to have a crystal clear starting point and a strict path to follow while starting anthropology research. Making assumptions and having too many expectations before a study is conducted greatly weakens observation and insight. For example, before I started interviewing the youth about their opinions on government media, I already expected them to answer in a certain way. Thus, many questions in my interviews were skewed and not open-ended. I would ask them questions such as “so what kind of news do you think government media censors?” Dr. Moore’s presence and suggestions were incredibly helpful to me. He taught me how to ask more open-ended questions which would help participants to “paint their culture” for me. After all, the point of researching is not so that I can ask leading questions and have the conversation be guided by my assumptions. Learning good ethnography skills is crucial if I am to become an anthropology researcher. By the end of the trip, I could conduct a successful unstructured interview on my own and even completed some discussions without the presence of Dr. Moore.
An interesting point came up while questioning the youth about current political and environmental problems: where they get their media. We have learned that China’s youth live a very fast-paced life. When we asked the youth in Shanghai where they got their news, they responded with sites such as Weibo, microblogs, mobile news, and even subway news. Young people seem to get their news in short bursts without any in depth coverage. Many say that they frequent such sites simply because they are too busy to sit down and spend an hour or two getting caught up on current events. While the youth are like Americans in that they follow their favorite celebrities on Chinese Twitter (Weibo) and watch Entertainment shows, they are also interested in financial, environmental, local, and international stories. When questioned about some Chinese stations such as CCTV and China Daily, we were confronted with some very negative opinions. A girl named Grace told us that the phrase “You’re so CCTV” is synonymous with “You’re so hypocritical.” In addition, a boy at Jiaotong University says that “the government tries to say that everything is fine and CCTV only shows what is good with China and they never show problems that they are not solving.” We were also surprised to learn that the youth have discovered many different and clever measures to be able to access blocked websites and news on the internet. Clever ways to get around the “Great Firewall of China” are sometimes as easy as changing text files to pdf files and changing the location of one’s computer, or as complex as getting proxies, and VPNs.
As previously stated, in starting anthropological research, it is never good to have highly specified objectives, questions, and assumptions. Thus, the more spontaneous and casual interviews led us to the interesting topic of Chinese slang. This became the main focus of our research.
In China, “liyu” (俚语) is the term for “slang.” “Liyu,” in the old days was typically associated with a location and a social class. There are still words that are considered “Beijing liyu” and “Shanghai Liyu.” However, when we asked the youth for examples of “liyu,” many of the words did not differ from city to city. For example, some words that almost all youths gave us were: “gaofushuai (高富帅),” “baifumei (白富美),” and “diaosi (屌丝)”—new words that emerged in 2011. One thing that Professor Moore and I tried to figure out was what constitutes as Chinese “liyu” or slang to the youth. As previously mentioned, in the past, “liyu” was agreed as being informal language specific to a region and usually connoting a lower social class. With the world getting smaller and smaller due to the internet and faster traveling options, what constitutes as “liyu” is being debated. Now many young Chinese no longer associate slang terms with regions or even a social class. Rather, it is associated with an age group and those with access to the World Wide Web. It is fascinating to see that as the world gets smaller with technology, the concept and feel of slang is changing.
As with all journeys, much unintended learning took place. Because Mandarin is not my strongest language, I have to pay attention to all of the nuances. For example, I noticed that if one wants to say “you annoy me,” one must place the subject of the verb first. In other words, there is no saying for “you annoy me,” but only “I am annoyed by you.” This leads me to believe the act “to annoy” is more so felt by the subject as he observes another person rather than the direct object initiating the “annoying” action. In Chinese culture then, the responsibility of being annoyed is placed on the individual experiencing the feeling. This is very different from English which often places the blame, at least syntactically, on the object causing the feeling (i.e. You annoy me). Another interesting part of Chinese language is in its characters. Like the Roman and Greek roots that can be found in the English language, Chinese characters hide a bit of their history as well. I noticed for example that the word “chuan (全)” has a “people (人)” character at the top and an “emperor (王)” character on the bottom. From this I can guess that whoever created this word (most likely an intellectual with high rank) must have believed that everything is not complete until people have a king. So this one word gives a glimpse into the belief of Chinese elites long ago. Along with linguistic nuances, Jennifer and I learned how to travel around Shanghai and Beijing on subways and can now easily navigate through both cities without being scammed by bad taxi meters.
I am so thankful for the Maeching and Kao fund which allowed me to even go on this trip. I am grateful to Dr. Moore and Professor Wei for amazing teachers outside of the classroom. I am most in debt to the youth of China and their openness to being questioned. During the trip I was able to see my family who resides in Beijing. From them, I have realized the necessity mastering Mandarin if I ever want to communicate effectively with them. This trip has shown me that becoming a global citizen will take hard work, but I am excited to get started.