Build a New Route to China If They’ll Have You

Nanjing, People’s Republic of China, where the author lived from Jan 2014 — Dec 2015.

In Gil Scott Heron’s 1970 spoken word poem, “Comment #1,” Heron berates white middle-class student movements for being “four year revolutionaries” who only pay lip service to Black suffering. In the song’s last lines, he suggests that these so-called radicals “leave Malcolm alone,” and instead collapse onto their infatuation with Maoism. “Build a New Route to China, if they’ll have you,” Heron says.

I thought of this lyric in February of 2014 when, after receiving my Ph.D. in Seattle, I moved to the People’s Republic of China to take a post as an Assistant Professor in Nanjing. I was nervous, not because of the censorship and pollution, but because, as a mixed race Filipino American, I was unsure how my Americanness would fly as a humanities and creative writing professor. As a traveler in many countries in Asia, my body was often read as that of an “inauthentic American,” and I was often seen as a “half-American,” wannabe, fake (once, I heard someone introduce me from afar as “that guy who pretends he’s American”).

Before working in the PRC, I had traveled to mainland China three times, and I had taken Mandarin courses for two years, so I had some idea of what I was getting into. Yet I was afraid that my presence as an American professor would cause some cognitive dissonance. I was someone who could teach American literature, culture, and writing, but I was not the “type of American” they were really looking for (later job interviews established that this was, in fact, a common attitude). I also feared that my background in organization, activism, and somewhat subversive creative writing would make the trip short lived.

The good news was, as a professor living in Nanjing, I was no longer under suspicion as a fake American. Hell, I was teaching American literature and culture at an American University with a doctorate from a top 20 University in America. My cred was undeniable — I might as well have taped my passport to my chest. But now, as an American who came to live in China, a whole different set of stereotypes emerged. Now, I was a symbol of the failure of American multiculturalism, or better yet, the success of Chinese social harmony. To many of my students, I was like those middle-class students of the late 1960's, infatuated with the promise of rising Asia.

My lessons on ethnic literature exposed histories of slavery, Native genocide, and other forms of racism, that to my students seemed typically American. To them, I had voted with my feet — abandoned the racist, religiously fundamentalist and uber-capitalist country, to live in a world of social harmony, a place where all Chinese descendants (I’m part Chinese, as well) would eventually return (or, as the propaganda leaflets in my local coffeeshop read in Chinese: “Taiwanese and huaren [Chinese diasporas], mother has cooked a great meal for you, please come home”).

By teaching the darker truths of American history and culture, I was unintentionally heralding the harmony and socialism of the PRC. It would be like telling someone who worked at Burger King that McDonald’s employees spiked their soft drinks with urine. The hard truths of one’s national competitor can automatically register as a form patriotism. So, I quietly changed my teaching style to focus on broader topics. I encouraged students to write essays and creative writing about their own experiences in China. Instead of prompting them to write about old dead Americans, now they wrote about mainstream Chinese politicians, artists, and the everyday folk they interacted with.

This was a risky venture — how risky, I would soon found out. Hearing of my teaching style, my dean warned me that every classroom had secret party monitors meant to spy and report on the professors. She said that I could be reported for saying anything critical of China or Chinese policies, but that I would definitely be reported for so much as mentioning any of the “three T’s:” Tiananmen Square, Tibet, or Taiwan. So, in a fashion that my local friends called “typically American,” I immediately tested the limits of these warnings. My students seemed to like me — why would they report me? Wasn’t this all just American propaganda and fear of communism, hardened since the Cold War?

I kept going. My students wrote critiques of their national news media, critiques of the PRC’s censorship regime. I lectured on the riots of 1989 — not the Tiananmen Square riots, but the anti-Black/anti-African riots that occurred in the same year in Nanjing. We analyzed queer literature, and I had them discuss the Occupy Movement in Hong Kong, as well as the state’s oppression of Muslim communities in Xinjiang.

Within one week I was reported. It happened during the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, when one of my students brought “a new friend” to class. She was a stunning young woman in high heels and a cottony pink dress, who spent the entire lecture smiling and winking at me. Afterward, she introduced herself with an Anglo name (let’s call her “Mary”). And Mary was a military informant for the Communist Party. How do I know? She told me. Directly, straight-faced. As if it were a common thing. And then, she invited me to tea.

Now — let’s pause to talk about being invited to tea. As multiple news sites have reported, in mainland China being invited to tea (hē chá, 喝茶) has become a euphemism for being questioned by the authorities. The saying emerged after 1989 to put a face onto the Party. Being invited to tea is no joke. My own colleagues had told me stories of at least two American professors at different Universities who were “asked to tea” after breaking the “Three T’s” policy. Both were promptly deported. One, the authorities learned, was actually trying to get deported to get a free ticket to America. So the authorities sent him to Pakistan. Without his belongings.

As Mary walked next to me on the school’s gravel path, rocking about in those heels that were clearly a nuisance for her, I thought of all the things I could be leaving in China, should I get deported. My friends and students, who had helped me move and shown so much kindness. My job, which allowed me to live and travel all over the country, and was helping pay back $40,000 of my student loans. My computer, which just got a mega expensive upgrade. By just being asked to tea, my mind was racing through all the fears they wanted me to — fear of harassment, fear of financial insecurity. There were plenty of things I loved about mainland China, and I did not want to leave.

I was questioned in a cafe in that mall.

Mary took me to an empty tea house, where we ordered lunch (no actual tea), and she began the interrogation. “I’m going to ask you a list of questions,” she said. First off, she asked me about Taiwan, claiming that she “had heard” that I said in class that Taiwan was a country, not a province, and that I was publishing research and organizing meetings on Taiwanese independence. I parlayed her interrogations by interrogating her right back. “How did you get this information?” I asked. “Why would you even ask me such a thing?” Then she shifted course: “Well,” she said, “I heard that you told other professors that Taiwan was a country.” Again, I asked where she could possibly hear of something like that.

Perhaps I was playing dumb — it was obvious how she had heard of it (informants, surveillance). But she also couldn’t say so, and risk breaking our trust. I was, after all, that American who had “voted with my feet,” and abandoned the racist enterprise of America to live in the social harmony of China (so the ideology goes). We had a long verbal bout, exchanged with a mixture of smiles and more than an ounce of flirtation, until she seemed satisfied that she had at least confused me. In the end, she gave me her WeChat number (mainland China’s Facebook) and began confiding that she did not really like the Communist Party, but had joined it for her parents. What she really wanted to do was to travel and attend a Justin Bieber concert (seriously). She showed me pictures of herself with her last boyfriend — American, white. “He helped me learn English,” she told me.

The next day, as I reeled from the confusion of that encounter, I received the first of many texts messages from Mary. “I’ve never seen the inside of a professor’s house,” one text message read. Others came, which I cannot recall exactly through memory (because WeChat deletes all conversations after a time), but they vacillated between asking me out on a date to complaining about how rigid the Communist Party was, and how much she longed to travel outside China (military personnel cannot travel unless on assignment).

I wish there was a lesson to this story, or some satisfying ending, but I’ve got nothing. I do wonder why I had gotten off so lightly, and what Mary’s real motivations were. I had many students in the Communist Party, and about half, I would say, frequently expressed criticisms in their essays and creative works, either political grievances (about the environment, Tibet) or cultural ones (the anti-queer crusades). What was ironic to me about this incident, was that in the same class where I was reported, I was not teaching about China at all, but about American slavery, the racist prison system, the appropriation of Civil Rights. But none of these histories seemed threatening to my audience or to the monitor who had reported me.

In 2011, Kanye West took Gil Scott Heron’s 1970 song, “Comment #1,” and abridged it for a contemporary audience by rephrasing Heron’s line to say: “All I want is a good home and a wife, and children, and some food to feed them every night. After all is said and done, build a new route to China if they’ll have you.” Here, West remixes Heron’s line to invert its intention from calling out white activists towards suggesting somewhat candidly that minority communities themselves, who, in the face of police violence, the prison industrial complex, poverty, and the War on Terror, could survive by “Build[ing] a new route to China.” Perhaps that’s why I was not deported that day. Most of my lectures only assured my students of the sanctity of China’s own system of multicultural social harmony. Even when my classes discussed China’s involvement in Xinjiang, or Tibet, or Hong Kong, the very Filipino mixed-race body that I occupied symbolized the success of the PRC. Because in the end, I still built a route to China. Though I never really appreciated its tea.