Thursday, October 28, 2004

Returning To The Globe, For A Moment

So here's the weird little item that pulled together most of my thoughts about The Globe & Mail's China Rising issue: a book review. The Books section (not available online, alas) was similarly devoted to the paper's theme, covering new fiction by Ha Jin and Gish Jen. One novel, Jin's War Trash, recounts the trials and torments of soldiers from the Chinese People's Liberation Army as they flee from defeat at the hands of North Koreans; the other, Jen's The Love Wife, probes the swamps of emotional confusion that surround the American acculturation of an immigrant Chinese family. To my mind, these two reviews provided the bedrock for the one review that took hold of the larger question (crisis?) of North American identity: Julie Crysler's review of Hello, I'm Special: How Individuality Became The New Conformity, by Hal Niedzviecki.

Hello, I'm Special begins with Niedzviecki receiving nothing less than a Hallmark birthday card, which reads, "Happy Birthday To A Non-Conformist." From there, Niedzviecki wonders at the free market's ability to co-opt the public urge for "Non-conformity" in order to achieve massive sales figures. In Crysler's words, the two questions behind Niedzviecki's book are: If everyone's a rebel, what are we rebelling against? And: If everyone is special, how special am I really?

Flash back to the modernist revolution currently in mid-swing in China. A great deal of artistic energy is now devoted to a legitimate howl against generations of Communist oppression. Hand-in-hand with that enterprise is the exploration of all things previously taboo to this society, some of which are a joy to discover, some of which are quite tragic, with plenty of giddy oddities occupying a vast middle ground. All of this activity is generated, or at the very least aided, by the novelty of wealth and public consumption. These traits also just happen to bear resemblance to characteristics we've come to associate, in the last five decades, with Western adolescence.

Moralists more strident than I have declared/lamented that North America is caught in a perpetual state of adolescence. I'm not entirely convinced, but when I first read the review, I wondered if Niedzviecki had kids. Granted, this is the smug sort of platitude that justifiably earns universal scorn toward Soccer Moms (and let's just admit it: we are all Soccer Moms), but the act of becoming a family unit can quickly inject a little clarity into issues such as non-conformity and specialness. No sane parent encourages their adolescent to pursue celebrity stardom. Instead, what you hope for, work towards, encourage at every turn is diligence, strength of character, perseverance, and a generous recognition of one's place in the local, to say nothing of the global, village: nurture these within your children, alongside a sense of joy and wonder, and you have a list of characteristics we hopefully spend a lifetime nurturing within ourselves.

I would say if the North American sensibility is chiefly held in thrall with adolescence, it still contains communities and voices beckoning it toward maturity. A measure of reason, self-censure, sanity, and a capacity to appeal and to listen - these are characteristics of maturity I wish were more evident in myself, as well as in my home and native land. And these are characteristics that would be a blessing to encounter in turn, when we are finally made to hear the voice of China Rising.

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