tom bh
#Digital Nomad

A Year In China

In the short comedy sketch by British comedians Mitchell and Webb entitled, “Are We The Baddies?”, two WWII German soldiers wonder whether the skulls on their uniforms might mean that they are in fact, the baddies. They literally use the word, ‘baddies’, no doubt intentionally attempting to evoke those harmless playground games of our youth, where there are usually also some ‘goodies’. Of course nothing could be further from the unfathomable violence of the Second World War than the innocence of childhood games. It’s this stark contradiction that provides one of the ingredients giving this sketch its humour. We can laugh, partly because so much time has passed since the actual historical events, but also because the juxtaposition is so absurd that there is no doubt as to its intended purpose of comedy.

However, there’s another interesting factor to consider: David Mitchell has a degree from Cambridge University in modern history. Apart from this particular comedy sketch, I’ve been a long time fan of Mitchell, his comedic bent is marked by an unapologetic progressive outlook, backed up by a clearly well educated world view. There is no doubt that he is the furthest one can be from the infantile attitude that splits the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. He more than most will know that history is rarely that simple. So I think there is another comedic ingredient at play, one that pokes fun at that simplistic explanation of the Nazi’s behaviour as stemming merely from the motivations of pure evil. The sober realities are that German citizens from the first half of the 20th century were normal people, they were neither under the effects of malicious magic nor psychological pathologies. In fact the seeds of Nazi Germany can be all too easily found in various forms, both local and national, around the world today. As the proverb says, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Mitchell and Web are right, it is comical, tragically so, to think that the Nazis perceived themselves as bad, or belonging to the wrong side. If history has taught us anything, it’s the conviction of being a ‘goodie’ that we should watch out for.

What if Germany had won? So that you were now most likely reading this blog post in German. And that the influence of the Third Reich was felt over the entire world from America to Europe and from Africa to Asia. It sounds impossible doesn’t it? Surely the resistance would eventually rise from the ashes victorious? OK, maybe Nazi victory is just too hard to fathom, then what about an equal but opposite thought experiment: what if Europe hadn’t colonised the world? At first this seems unrelated because, I would argue, Europeans are perennially seen as the ‘goodies’, protecting the world from harm. Speaking as a British-educated European, there’s just a deeply ingrained reluctance to map anything of what the wrong side of WWII stood for onto any of what the good side of my sea-faring ancestors stood for. As it was so unambiguously made clear to me at school, the Germans committed the Holocaust. It’s not that European colonialisation was ignored, but rather that any wrongs resulting from it had now either been righted or forgotten. So to pose the hypothetical scenario of Europeans not colonising the world as an equal but opposite parallel to Germany winning (the world) seems, at first glance, an unfair comparison. Surely if European colonialisation was even remotely equivalent to the atrocities of the Germans then it would be equivalently ingrained into European education, culture and consciousness?

Are we the baddies? If it were as caricatured as a comedy sketch then yes, ‘we’, the Europeans, absolutely are the baddies. The abominable acts that humans have committed can not and should not be compared, but nor should they be isolated as disconnected abnormalities. As much as European technological and economic development is profound it is also horrifying. The resources required to progress so far and so rapidly fundamentally depended, and still do depend, on profound exploitation of land and human labour. The wiping out of the indigenous populations of the Americas and Australia. The theft of African resources and the slave trade. The exploitation of India and South East Asia. Many millions of humans died and millions more suffered in the wake of Europe’s thirst for development.

The more common name for this hegemony of technology, culture and power is the West. It originated in Europe but has spread either directly, with the likes of the USA, Brazil and Australia, and indirectly via the mediums of the internet, the English language, medicine and the United Nations, to the whole world. Being a traveller I’ve become so use to this that I take it for granted. Especially being British, I forget that I enjoy an unparalleled level of respect and protection, because ultimately, if it comes down to it, I have the entire weight of the West on my side. So it is a particularly curious and jarring experience to be in a country characterised by its desire and ability to distance itself from Western influence.

We shudder to think of landing in a Chinese airport and seeing all the signs helpfully translated into German. Indeed, my actual response to China’s use of English in public contexts has been frustration as to its lack of quality; poor spelling, punctuation, grammar and even meaning. It is clear from the moment you arrive that China has a uniquely distinct relationship with the dominant culture of our modern world. That this is a surprise is more a symptom of the West’s hegemony than it is of China’s status. China is less a country than it is a civilisation. Not only is it numerically massive in terms of population, geography, resources and wealth, but it is culturally and historically significant in terms of its own contributions to the world. Since civilisations first arose, it is China that has by far seen the most number of years, indeed millennia, as the world’s prevailing power and influencer.

For me, a year in China has been more about being unprecedentedly outside my own culture, than it has been about being inside a new and different culture. Most significantly, and to my embarrassment, this has revealed how what I thought were features of the world were in fact features of the West. Good use of English is just one of them. In fact, the most notable has simply been the lack of collective amnesia about European history. It’s not that the average Chinese person knows about the West’s dark past and even less that they like to frequently remind you. It is simply the unnerving sense that those around you are not in the same ‘cult’. It would now seem an obvious —but all too easy and salacious— step, to criticise Chinese propaganda. But as serious as that topic is, I believe there is a more serious one. The world did not forgive Europe — the West, who does not even have the power to do so, forgave Europe. As much as Chinese communist authoritarianism disturbs me, the sobering revelation that the West’s self-perceived virtue is not a feature of Mother Earth herself, but rather the convenient kind of story that dominant, unchecked powers like to tell themselves, disturbs me more.

The West has not answered for its crimes. There is no one that has the power to require that of the West. Not even China, who are blindly chasing their own unchecked powers and who would, given the opportunity, sign up to powers equivalent to the West’s in a heartbeat. Of course, I need not worry about the West’s debts to humanity right? Why burden myself with problems that are neither mine to take responsibility, nor apologise, for? But I know this is not how it works. Whether you call it karma or psychological repression, actions have consequences and they will play out whether an external superior power asks us to or not. Mother Nature has a way of dealing with these things. The West is suffering, seemingly uncontrollably, by nothing less than its own hands. Poverty, mental health, physical health, addictions, violence and so on. I should know, these are all problems I have either directly suffered myself or seen in family and friends. The reason I was even motivated and able to spend so much time in China was the fundamental discontentment I felt with my life back in the UK. It is not a coincidence that the West so intractably suffers from seemingly solvable problems whilst at the same time not being able to fully acknowledge and grieve its past.

Even though I was born in England, whenever someone from a foreign country asks me where I’m from I try to tell them I’m Welsh, after all, I lived most of my life there. I don’t want to be seen as yet another arrogant white tourist. Maybe somehow, knowing that I’m not English might lead onto questions about how that might be different from the common perceptions of the West; about how I grew up in one of the poorest regions of Europe, that I suffered years of unemployment and depression, that I, my family and friends suffered drug addictions and in more than one case died from such substance abuses. Am I travelling thinking I might find another home, another identity I might feel pride associating with? But where can I possibly go, other than to a tribal culture, where I am at the very least, not tacitly enjoying the spoils of the West? Medicine, computing technology, cheap Chinese goods and so on. Somewhat ironically, my time in China has made me feel a greater urgency about openly and unambiguously identifying myself as English, British and Western — simply because the responsibility has to start somewhere. I can’t single-handedly redress the wrongs of the West, but I have the power, intelligence and courage to understand my heritage. If I don’t want to face the fact I’m a baddy, then who will?

Of course this isn’t a comedy sketch, matters as serious as these cannot be resolved with names as simplistic as ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Indeed the very factors that led to the West’s power, such as academic rigour and transportation technology are also the ones leading to this new existential position in my life. An open mind and a willingness to experience foreign cultures is not actually something particularly exceptional in English and Western culture. Also I don’t need to flagellate myself, as I already mentioned, nature has ways of ensuring that our lessons get learnt eventually, one way or another. What I can do, is fully participate in the sober realities of the history that brought me to where I am right now. If the world is going to survive, then one way or another the work will have to be done. There will have to be people who take responsibility for actions not directly conducted by themselves.

Of course there are so many other not-so-serious aspects to my time in China; the food, the scenery and the hospitality for example. I hope to share those another time. This blog post is something I’ve been thinking about and trying to find a way to express for many months, I’m hoping it helps me digest this new understanding I have of myself and the world. Even though it’s not my favourite country, I will certainly be returning to China, hopefully for similar periods of time. I’ve made genuine friends there and I know that I’ve only just began to have a glimpse into the true extent of its culture.