文玩: Cultured Playthings
文玩: Cultured Playthings
walnuts, glitter, plaster, English textbooks, photos of Beijing-based foreign teachers, jars, audio collected during the exhibit of walnut sounds. 2018.
Amalya Megerman | 文玩: Cultured Playthings
June 27 – July 4, 2018
六月27号 – 7月4号, 2018
No.206, Gulou East St, Dongcheng District, Beijing
As a little girl, I hated pink and I hated glitter. It stood for all the weakness, all the traditional femininity, all the stereotypes that could be expected of me as a girl. To this day, I still find glitter revolting, and I wanted to explore that discomfort.
In 2017, I began collecting walnut shells while living in Xinjiang, China’s second-largest walnut production region.
In China, polished or hewn out walnuts are a type of 文玩 (wénwán) - plaything, curio, object for enjoyment and appreciation. In imperial times, emperors, officials, and other elites used them to promote circulation in their hands. Between 2008 and 2014, a walnut “bubble” emerged and burst as China’s newly wealthy looked to them as an investment commodity, re-enlivening walnuts’ role as a status symbol. At one time, they could be even more expensive by weight than gold.
Men, from young to old, can be seen rotating a pair in their hands while walking down the street, wearing them as bracelets, or hanging strings of them from their rearview mirrors. While I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a woman in China revolving a pair of walnut shells in her hand (though I’m sure there are those who do), I’ve certainly seen hundreds, if not thousands, of men do so. In this way (aside, of course, from the none-too-subtle innuendo of rotating a pair of balls in one’s hand), I see walnuts as having accrued a certain masculinization here. But when split open, I see the shells as ample metaphors for a set of expectations and stereotypes around femininity that contrasts sharply with the metaphors that glitter holds.
Since the 1600s, foreigners have been coming to China to teach English. However, it wasn’t until the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s that a strong fervor for learning English began to develop. Today, English is an over 30 billion yuan (approximately $4.5 million USD) industry. For many people, learning English represents access to better education, career opportunities, economic mobility, and ascension into the elite, as well as the ability to make not only oneself, but China as a whole, more globally competitive, particularly within the global north. However, in addition to aims of competing with these countries, the desire for English fluency also speaks to the cultural capital that emulating European-ness or whiteness holds.
What is that tone, that eye-roll, the quiet but audible judgement when someone hears another say they are an English teacher in Beijing? What discomforts are they speaking to
This show has many facets for me, but one important element is that I hope for it to be a jumping off point for conversations about race and foreigners’ daily engagement in China. While conversations about white privilege are much a part of discussions of life in the US, it is my experiences teaching and living in China that have made me most tangibly aware of the privileges my skin carries and asserts. Particularly in a city like Beijing, with the wealth and privilege it is home to, I feel there is often an unspoken hope that my classes will not only provide a space in which to learn English, but a space in which to learn whiteness as well, a space in which to absorb by osmosis my mannerisms, my privilege, to make students’ paths to success a bit more tenable.
These hopes and others often allow for situations in which any white body, regardless of credentials, will do, and abuses of these circumstances inevitably result, to the detriment of students, parents, teachers of color, and beyond – the consequences ramify. When women, both foreign and Chinese, constitute the majority of teachers at the primary and secondary level in China, we must also think of how these women are particularly impacted by this imbalance. As a white foreign English teacher, this show is a way for me to think more critically about my participation in this system, the choices I make as I engage with life here on a daily basis, and both of their impacts on others. I recognize that in doing this work, in the words I write here, and my engagement beyond, it is near inevitable that I have and will speak or act in ways that may be problematic. But I’m working through it, and hope you will share your thoughts and reactions with me.
Perhaps the foreign teaching industry is yet another bubble that will burst, an explosion of textbooks and glitter.
(Much thanks to Shi Tongmei for editing the Chinese version of this statement.)