East and West

8 Nov

During my time in Tianjin, I saw quite a lot of Arabic script. Not only on the Yuan bills – Arabic script is used by a few minority languages represented on the Chinese currency – but also on the front of the many Muslim restaurants. Islam is very present in China – with Japanese- and Korean-ness, it may be the most visible sign of contemporary China’s multiculturalism.

From Aaron and my students, I gathered that there is a variety of Chinese muslims: Hui people and Hans who practice Islam (I could never really understand how these two were distinguished), but also Xinjiang ethnic minorities, with distinctive Central Asian features. These were painted as dangerous by most of the people I talked with (the discourse reminded me of how Europeans talk about Roms). Yet Aaron took me to a XinJiang restaurant once for lunch. It was a strikingly exotic experience. For my host, the place was Chinese as much as, to me, a basque, Alsatian or Breton restaurant are French. But the taste of the food and the decoration corresponded much more to my idea of the Middle East. It brought up images of people riding camels across the desert and organising ram-mechouis on the go, before reaching the next oasis.

When I migrated to Australia, Philip and I decided we should somehow connect Paris to Melbourne, and so decided to travel overland all the way to Singapore, last stop on the Eurasian continent before the big southern island. There were three possible roads. The Southern road went via Turkey, Iran, India, and Bangladesh, avoiding China altogether – but the war in Irak made it highly impractical. The Northern one, which we ended up taking for convenience, ran along the Transsiberian, entering China from Harbin or Oulan Bator, then heading south from Beijing. But there was a third one, the ‘silk road’, which from Moscow would take us through Kazhakstan and Xinjiang, before turning south via Lanzhou and ChongChing to Vietnam. The central stretch of this road crossed a zone in-between, in-between Europe and Asia, in-between Islam and Buddhism, in-between what for me then where distinct cultural areas, where China touches the confines of the Islamic world.

‘Oriental’, in English, refers to people from East Asia, somewhat indiscriminately, and derogativly. In French, the word has a different meaning, and is more likely to conjure up images of a Lebanese merchant eating loukoums in front of an Egyptian belly dancer. On my migration trip, I felt I was passing through successive ‘Doorways to the East’ untill, in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, I found myself at a cross-over of the Chinese, Indian and Arabic worlds. But somehow, I became aware of that layering of the Orients as early as Berlin, and throughout my time in China.

The East itself has its Orients. I remember, when I first read the 1001 nights as a kid, feeling a strange fascination for India as imagined from Bagdad. Later, that interest for the ‘East of the East’ took the form of a certain fascination for films featuring travels across Asian countries. But on that migration trip, as I was radically moving myself from Europe to the Antipodes, I became more able to mentally shift across Eurasia, and start thinking of different Wests. As a Mediterranean, of course, I kept repeating how Americans, North Europeans and South Europeans have different spontaneous ways of relating to China, and how this should be articulated more. When I visited the Asian Museum in Singapore, I was confronted with something more radical. The place I’d always known as ‘Middle East’ labelled ‘West Asia’ on a map. The word ‘West’ resonated as much as the word ‘Asia’. That label asserted a unity between what I was now calling ‘the three Orients’ of East, South and ‘West’ Asia. It also, somehow, conflated Europe, America and the Arab world as ‘Western’.

Among Europeans, it’s commonplace to talk of China as ‘the big other’. Yet I remember, from a very early age, how I thought differently. I had a Chinese baby-sitter, DanHan, when I was sevent. She was finishing a PhD in Strasbourg and, during the holidays, she would take a bus back to China. That bus trip had a clear meaning for me then – and still does now. If China’s at the other end of a bus line, no matter how long the trip, it can’t be that radically different from Europe. Riding overland from Paris to Singapore, and exploring aspects of cosmopolitanism in Tianjin and Beijing on this blog were means for me to pursue that arbitrary childhood intuition – the result on my parents choosing a Chinese woman to baby-sit me. I’m not sure, therefore, if I uncovered something real, or only used all my rheorical tools to confirm an hypothesis. The fact is, I am now convinced, there is no radical essence of China to be found, along the coast, or inland. It’s just a big, fascinating country, across Eurasia, this side of the mountains.

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