Uncle Tom-ism among expats?

An often scathing review on Shanghaiist of the book American Shaolin focuses on what the reviewer calls “the mind of the Uncle Tom Laowai.”

Some questions for possible discussion: How much of this have you seen in Asia? Where is it worst? Where is this found least? Is the situation getting better or worse? Or is this something that there’s really very little of?

Here’s part of the review:

[quote]The book details [author Matthew] Polly’s trip to China in 1992. Told as a series of anecdotes, he flies in to Beijing without a plan, makes his way to the Shaolin Temple and stays there for 18 months to learn kung fu. At the time, Polly was a highly motivated and intelligent Princeton student who’d studied Mandarin to a decent level before leaving for China. The story covers his first year, which ended with him being entered into a tournament in Zhengzhou City…

Within the first two months he finds out that Shaolin as it was ended in 1912 and attempts to restart it were literally bombed through the warlords period, pacific war, civil war and revolutions. The ‘kung fu’ he is learning is stylized dance taken from Modern Wushu and the iron body skills are individually trained circus routines. Yet he decides to stay and join the town’s kick boxing club.

Thereafter he learns kickboxing in rural Henan for USD1400 per month. That’s right. One anecdote has him proudly negotiate it down to USD600 per month. Still twenty times over the average family income in that area at the time and at least double that again over what other students pay. Everyone calls him laowai to his face and constantly refer to his ‘tall nose’. He is used as a punch bag for most of his training. “Why are laowai so bad at kungfu?” He takes bullies out for banquets and kowtows in the old style to a master who will never teach him – because he ‘understands’ guanxi.

By the time other “laowai” start turning up in Shaolin, Polly laughs at their strangeness and prides himself on being more ‘in’ than them. Oh, those crazy laowai. The most brutal picture of this is when he helps fellow American John Lee get attention at the hospital by reprising his “crazy [monkey] foreigner kung fu” routine that amused his Chinese friends so much. As for the kung fu itself, Polly is painfully naïve. He spends a whole chapter befriending a mysterious caretaker who eventually relents and teaches him “Iron Arm” kung fu. This turns out to be bashing your forearms into a tree in a pattern, then using Chinese medicine to treat it. This is a common warm up/conditioning routine found openly in all traditional kung fu classes from Hong Kong to American Chinatowns.

Finally, when facing his first skilled opponent he is beaten to a pulp while the crowd chant ‘kill the foreigner’. If only he’d taken good advice to go to Taiwan or Hong Kong in the first place…[/quote]

More and more cringe-worthy examples are given. It’s worth reading the whole thing.
shanghaiist.com/2008/01/30/book_review_ame.php

You just don’t uderstan…oh, never mind.

[quote]
chant ‘kill the foreigner’.[/quote]

The Sand Pebbles is a good movie reflecting Chinese emotions back in the 20’s and 30’s. Not too much seems to have changed in the hinterland! :laughing:

so that’s what Uncle Tom was about. I thought it was about some holiday cabin in the woods.

The starry-eyed ‘China is the world’ newcomer working for a pittance to gain some must-have China CV space is a fairly constant theme from the more jaded of our longer-term bretheren in China.

I mean you can just imagine how grating that must be: clawing your way for a taxi, fighting off beggars, pimps and heavy metals each day only to front some punk in a pub telling you you’re really living in paradise. “This here’s the future, man. One day the whole wide world will be China, I’m getting in early. You should too.”

HG

Well it is and it isnt. Uncle Tom’s cabin was about the irony of treating slaves badly in one reagrd, and then having sex with them and making babies with them. I.E. I hate you, but I’ll still f~ck you. In the Kung Fu article it just seems to be straight out racism with nothing under the surface…

Mandingo anyone?

Sand pebbles is a top class film, by the way.

Good post. I especially like the “Comments” section.
Looks like a ‘mini-Forumosa’ thread…hey!..wasn’t/isn’t there a book under review and discussion here?

Yeah…good comments.

In China two years ago, I ran into this major from the US military who imparted that he was in China on a bit of sanctioned spying. He thought China was wonderful and that it ought to blow Taiwan to smithereens if it should formally make a break. During our chat, he kept dropping Chinese words into the conversation in order to illustrate his scholastic leanings. He mangled every word, yet he claimed to be fluent in both speaking and reading - after two years of study. He also ordered me, as it were, not to refer to Taiwan as a country. When I asked him why, he said, “'Cause people 'round here don’t like it. That’s why.” When I asked him what he thought about all the missiles China had aimed at this place or the (whatever it is; 45 to 100 billion) that China is spending on its military every year, he claimed he didn’t really know about either. He had this air, you know? One that said, ‘You don’t know China and Chinese people, boy. Not like I do. I’ve seen the future and the East shall be red once more.’ He was a thoroughly bizarre combination of ignorance and snobbery.

I haven’t met too many people in Taiwan like that. Perhaps it’s because Taiwan lacks the patriotic fervour or the showy cultural pride that China does.

I don’t get your post Ed. You said the guy was American? How does that connect with your question at the end about Taiwanese not being as jingoistic and culturally chauvinistic as the Chinese?

Good points Ed. Bits of that type of attitude everywhere among those following their dreams of greener pastures.

If its any consolation, I doubt that the person you ran into was actually what he claimed to be. If he indeed was, it sounds like someone sent to the ‘hinterlands’ to get him out of the office and away from people. Its something thats done to people who just seem to p*ss everyone off all the time.

All I meant MM was that there’s a current of patriotic zeal in China and this sense that the country is on the move (although where it’s moving to, no one seems to know) that’s hard to escape (Zhongguo dao le! is a common refrain) so it would be a lot easier - I imagine - for a Western person to sort of jump on the bandwagon from which, if he so desired, he could look down at his fellow foreigners; those who haven’t seen the light. In Taiwan, that ‘we’re (soon to be) number one’ element doesn’t exist.’ There’s no “current” to latch on to. Sorry. Does that make any sense? I’ve been in the sun all day and those cocktails didn’t help.

TC: I think that guy was on holiday. Sure, he was probably bullshitting to some extent, but I believed that he was who he said he was. He told me a lot more than I wrote in that post. In a way, you’re right, though. So I read in a book called Hegemon by Steven B. Mosher, in such exchanges the Chinese get the better end of the deal, e.g. sitting in on classes at West Point, riding atop an aircraft carrier (or was that a journalist?), while Americans are shown empty bases and parades. The Americans spend a lot of their time studying language and traveling to different regions, especially places of CCP historical interest. I suppose after a couple of years, this guy thought he was Mr. China and wanted people to know it. Or maybe you’re right. Maybe he’s like Norton from the Naked Gun movies. “Here, Norton. Go solve this jigsaw puzzle.” “OK Chief!”

Well it is and it isnt. Uncle Tom’s cabin was about the irony of treating slaves badly in one reagrd, and then having sex with them and making babies with them. I.E. I hate you, but I’ll still f~ck you. In the Kung Fu article it just seems to be straight out racism with nothing under the surface…

Mandingo anyone?

Sand pebbles is a top class film, by the way.[/quote]

Um, it doesn’t seem like you’re clear on what exactly an Uncle Tom is.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncle_Tom

Anyhow, once I clicked on the link and saw that God-awful front picture (monk walking with a bag of Burger King), I want to hurl. That is THE lamest cliche in travel photography, the juxtaposition of the ancient immutable Orient and the modern west. I swear, if I ever go back home, I’ll do a whole photography project of Catholic priests or Iowan farmers talking on cell phones and frame it as some sort of exotic travel photography.

Well it is and it isnt. Uncle Tom’s cabin was about the irony of treating slaves badly in one reagrd, and then having sex with them and making babies with them. I.E. I hate you, but I’ll still f~ck you. In the Kung Fu article it just seems to be straight out racism with nothing under the surface…

Mandingo anyone?

Sand pebbles is a top class film, by the way.[/quote]

Um, it doesn’t seem like you’re clear on what exactly an Uncle Tom is.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncle_Tom

Anyhow, once I clicked on the link and saw that God-awful front picture (monk walking with a bag of Burger King), I want to hurl. That is THE lamest cliche in travel photography, the juxtaposition of the ancient immutable Orient and the modern west. I swear, if I ever go back home, I’ll do a whole photography project of Catholic priests or Iowan farmers talking on cell phones and frame it as some sort of exotic travel photography.[/quote]

Urodacus asked what the book was about, not how the term ‘uncle tom,’ is used today. The guy in the story quoted by the op was about a clueless man. Stowe’s work portrayed Tom as a man who was clued up but unable to effect a change.

I thought an “Uncle Tom” meant a sell-out who betrays his race and toadies up to the (differently-ethnicitied) boss.

Granting that the character in the book (yes, I’ve read it) was a devout Christian who submitted to slavery out of loyalty to his well-intentioned young master, then withstood torture rather than betray his fellow slaves.

How to distinguish toadying / brown-nosing from ordinary etiquette / culture? For example, I dislike bowing to people, but this is de rigeur among kung-fu people as well as students of Taoism. (On the other hand, bowing to an audience after one has performed doesn’t bother me.) If one pays more than the locals, is that an injustice, or just how things work? Perhaps it is a matter of degree.

I have seen very little of this in Asia, and I’ve been around a bit. I suppose that if I did encounter such behavior, I’d just laugh it off as ridiculous and childish.

Most of the long-term foreign residents I’ve met in various Asian countries are generous with their knowledge and don’t lord it over others.

Having said that, expats that slam other expats who manage to write and publish a book are, in the end, usually just people who didn’t write their own books.

[quote=“Tomas”]

Having said that, expats that slam other expats who manage to write and publish a book are, in the end, usually just people who didn’t write their own books.[/quote]

Yip. I think anyone who has the “chutzpah” to write a travel book shouldn’t have it slammed unless it is truly a horrible piece of writing. This book was amusing, well written, and entertaining. I think the reviewer with the times was brownnosing his superiors by writing such a “love it or leave it” review.

You might have found this 8 years ago when the DPP won the presidency. People then expected Taiwan to make great strides in human rights, rule of law, democracy, etc. Sadly it didn’t happen and so the most people here can expect now is to have a good economy.

It’s sad because I’ll take getting excited about democratic progress over “national greatness” any day of the week.

The long-term foreign residents usually are – it’s the mid-term ones that you have to watch out for in terms of lording it over others. The ones who have been there just long enough to have seen some things but not yet to have figured out what’s really going on.

We see eye to eye there, MM. Nationalism scares the bejesus out of me. About the only time I feel patriotic is during international (ice) hockey games. Even then, it’s difficult to feel any ill will toward the opposing team, what with the fall of the evil Soviet Empire and all.

I remember how excited people were when A-bian came into power.

But getting back to the thread, I remember I worked with a guy who didn’t really engage in Uncle Tom-ism, but thought he was a Chinese culture guru. In reality, he was the most culturally insensitrive person I’ve met. He used to get upset when locals would communicate with him in English (I came here to practice Mandarin dammit!). Anyway, he got a doctorate in cross cultural communications and in addition to lecturing he gives seminars of the $10,000 per head variety to corporate types and their worried wives explaining how they shouldn’t tip at restaurants unless the service is exceptional, and so on, or so I like to imagine.

Actually, I have seen Uncle Tom-ism, as it were, in buxibans here and on more than one occasion; foreigners who tell you they are on your side but would sell you out to nefarious local management in the blink of an eye - very slippery types who resort to deception and duplicity and treat underlings like commoners. In Taiwan, I’m willing to bet that’s where you will see this phenomenon most often.

Cheers

Ed