On Second Thought

Version 5

This project is an exploration into the orientalism that continues to haunt me on a daily basis. Let me start with a confession: part of the pleasure of living in Beijing is that it feels so exotic to me. Beijing is lovely because it is just so different, different in my case from Amsterdam. At times, the sky turns yellow from pollution and transforms the city into an apocalyptic filmset that makes me run out with my camera. At other moments I am pleased to see people walking around in their pyjama’s – a theme I have written on before [here]. At other moments I marvel in witnessing how a barber cuts someone’s hair outside in the street when it is minus 5 degrees Celcius.

This exoticism brings to mind the work of Edward Said, who explored how the knowledge of and about the Orient was deeply enmeshed into colonial power relationships. By stating that “they” are spiritual and despotic, “we” are in fact claiming to be secular and democratic. While romanticising the former, the latter is time and again validated as the better, more modern and more enlightened mode of running society. Since Said a belief in, and commitment to, cultural difference has become much less innocent. In my own work I have thus always tried to debunk any monolithic idea of “China” and have done my best to deconstruct notions of Chineseness. A whole body of postcolonial theory assisted me in this desire to move beyond this tiring dichotomy of the West versus the East. I am still deeply committed to this line of thinking, and highly allergic to essentialising claims invoking, for example, “Dutch values that stress tolerance and emancipation” or “5000 years of Chinese history.”

And yet – I am haunted by this desire for the exotic, for otherness, for difference. Despite decade long attempts of deconstruction, the desire is still there, and, more so, it makes me move, literally, to other places, and it continues to move me, in an affective way. But then, after this short flash of exotic amazement – look at that migrant that is dressed as a bohemian chique! – a few seconds later, my mistrust in exoticism comes to mind. On second thought, I feel a sense of shame, of confusion, aside from that sense of bewilderment: who am I to frame this as exotic, as different, as weird, as illogical, as bizarre?

In this project I want to explore both moments, I want to take a picture of the scene that pushed me in such a moment of bewilderment, and subsequently briefly probe into my second thoughts, my attempts to question that bewilderment. In the end, I am sure to remain puzzled, as I am not convinced which moment – bewilderment or reflection – is better, or whether we should at all aspire to make a priority here. While I am committed to the critique of Orientalism, I am equally attracted to the idea that stereotypes can be productive, can facilitate human contact across cultures, and can be, simply, very very funny. And national stereotypes may well be one of my favourites here (as ‘the East’ is a bit too big a category for me). Of course, my fascination for stereotypes can and has also been theorized, my favourite piece here is by Rey Chow who explains how Derrida’s orientalist – and blatantly wrong – ideas about Chinese language being primarily ideographic did help him produce his theory of deconstruction. Indeed, stereotypes can be not only funny, but also productive in terms of generating new ideas.

This project in fact started with a discussion with a Dutch friend who works and lives in Beijing for around 20 years now. We sometimes meet with some other Dutch ‘expats’ who work and live in Beijing, generally longer than the normal expat cycle of five years. My friend is thinking of moving away, as Beijing has lost its appeal to him. Too much of the old has disappeared, too much of the new is dominating the skyline. The meetings themselves prompt me already to this moment of othering: at the start I feel out of place, I must get used to the strong articulation of opinions, the ease with which they are expressed, the convictions, this hardly happens when I am together with my Chinese friends. But wait – and here the seconds that it takes to reflect come in – isn’t Beijing culture famous for exactly this: the arguing, the articulation of opinions, the fights, the ease of talking, of expressing? So is it really Dutch?  But then, why does this group feel so strikingly different from the groups of Chinese friends I also dine and talk with here?

My friend expressed his desire to move away, and, in the argumentative spirit of the group, I tried to counter him. Beijing has never really been beautiful, I claimed, but still: at least once a day there is a moment of amazement, of surprise – try to have that in Amsterdam! For this project, I changed target to once a week, but it may still well be my way to convince my friend to stay.

In this project I am not looking for answers, instead, I want to simply investigate these moments of, say, orientalistic disjuncture, and the state of puzzlement they leave me with. I want to explore the affective moments of being amazed or bewildered, and the second thoughts that are bound to dovetail to that. For this, I asked myself to take one picture a week over a period of 4 months in Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei, starting with the year of the Monkey – in the second week of February 2016. Each image inspires me to reflect upon the second thoughts I had. In the knowledge that, indeed, Orientalism will continue to haunt me.

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