The Irish and the Chinese

I have just finished rereading Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis, which I last read in early teenage years. I see now how then I could not begin to appreciate what is so astounding about this series — that is, everything. It is hilarious and tragic and I laughed and cried the whole way through, when I wasn’t busy guffawing at the incredible voice distinct only as McCourt’s. In short, I recommend this series a hundred times over to everyone in the world. There you have it.

The reason I write about it on my China blog is to point out the striking similarities between McCourt’s Ireland and 20th century China. As the reader, I could glean enough thought out of the story itself to make the connection, but not a very deep one. It was this interview with McCourt that had me clapping my hand on my forehead (starting at 4:00-5:40):

The public lavatories constitute McCourt’s “juicy slum”, and I am reminded of Baochao Hutong in Beijing, what I consider to be the heart of Beijing, at the center of which is a public lavatory. Meanwhile, next to the hutong is the gradiose military building; not dissimilar to the ornate, gold-lief church of McCourt’s neighborhood. For as McCourt points out, his Ireland was permeated with an atmosphere of bewilderment, not in small part because of the forces of the Church. How could the Church ask for money from poverty-stricken families when its own eaves were laden with gold? Chinese netizens pose a similar question when weibo-ing pictures of their local governments’ hulking offices. Bewilderment to the point that, as McCourt says, one knows not whether to laugh or cry. 哭笑不得,神马都是浮云。

McCourt also talks about reserved displays of emotion being part of the “Irish character,” that is, refusal to show too much warmth to a family member. Teasing is a “family activity,” and you learn quickly to hide any signs of weakness. He had to restrain himself as a teacher in America, at which point highlighting another’s weakness was second nature. Here, I’m reminded of my many Chinese teachers with whom I had to learn patience. Irish teachers (as McCourt points out in another interview) take it personally if a student does not know the answer to a question; having had about 40 different Chinese teachers in the past six years, I can say that, as far as teaching methods go, the sentiment and style is just about the same.

Most interesting of all is the inferiority complex that has birthed great works of literature and art in both countries. McCourt asks, “What would the Irish be if the English had never invaded?” In his early school years, the lessons of England’s ruthlessness were practically beaten into them; it was not until seventh grade that a teacher mentioned any battle in which both sides suffered (and not just the Irish). And yet from this long-standing suffering came many great poems and ballads, Yeats included. As a China scholar I cannot help but think of how Chinese history is taught, what with the bullying Western forces and of course ruthless, cruel Japan. 

And finally, the organization. McCourt says that when the Irish came to America, they were told to “organize, organize, organize” and organize they did, with great political results. But why could they never do that back in England? The Church. They were being pulled apart by the forces of the church and politics, and here I cannot help but think of the Party. The Party that casts a wary eye on organizations of any kind, the Party that calls labor strikes “disruptions of a harmonious society” and locks them away, the Party that created the atmosphere which has made it impossible to have a “club” at my school (a grad school in China), but rather the nebulously labelled “interest groups.”

The comparison of course can only go so far. When making any grand comparison such as this, it is easy to cherry-pick. What I hope to suggest with these thoughts is that things considered characteristically Irish or Chinese [or whatever] may be less of an independent case than said nationalities would want you to believe. So what constitutes identity? I am not interested in addressing this question here, but hope that above thoughts suggest a more nuanced construction of nationality than what is easy to accept.

This entry was published on April 30, 2012 at 8:34 pm. It’s filed under China, 中国特色 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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