When I was first introduced to my co-blogger, Mary Anne, who is also the owner of this blog, she looked at me dubiously and said, “You’re not a panda”.
We were in a tea house in North Shanghai, surrounded by hundreds of Chinese students and teachers and wait staff. On the ceiling were red lanterns and on the table were plates and bowls full of assorted tongues, tails and testicles. There was flower tea, Coke and Sprite on the tables. The primary language being spoken was Mandarin, with an undercurrent of Shanghainese.
We were introduced in English, however, as her Chinese is still pretty appalling despite having lived here for nearly two years. Her students had decided we would get along well, as we had much in common politically and philosophically, and I speak quite decent English. However, our relationship got off to a somewhat rocky start. As I said, I’m not a panda.
Why is my taxonomic classification of any relevance here? Well, let me explain.
This is all about authenticity. Authenticity seems to be a buzz word these days, especially on the internet and in particular on those innumerable travel blogs she insists I read in preparation for writing here.
“Know your competition, Gerald!” she tells me every morning over coffee. “Know what we are up against! We need to be able to show people the REAL China, the off-the-beaten-path China! We need to talk to Locals and to write about their wisdom and insights! We need to make lists about these insights! We need to show people what is real here!”
Having been designed, stuffed and sewn in China myself, I thought I knew all there was to know about being Authentically Chinese. Hell, even my laundry-care tags vouch for me. Made in China. That’s me. But apparently I’m not the right kind of bear to be convincingly Chinese. I saw the disappointment in her expression when we first met. I knew she was wondering why her students had thought to introduce her to a bear who was so obviously not a Chinese bear.
And how do I know I am not a Chinese bear?
Think about it. If I say the words to you, Chinese Bear, what comes to your mind first?
Panda. Like Kevin. Kevin is a Chinese bear in her eyes.
What do Chinese bears eat?
Obviously, bamboo. This is the traditional Chinese bear cuisine.
Now, as I had noted earlier, I am Chinese, both in pattern-design and in stitching. My stuffing comes from Guangzhou, my seams were sewn in Taiyuan. I was raised in a factory and sold off a tricycle-driven street cart.
Am I not a Chinese bear?
Am I not black and white enough? Does my diet of honey and grubs and black coffee fill you with doubt? Does the fact that I wear a kicky tartan bow tie throw you off?
I am certain it does.
You see, I am not authentic enough in people’s eyes to be a Chinese bear. Authentic as defined by post cards and guidebooks and a lifetime of expectations about what a Chinese bear ought to be. I will never be seen on a post card and no tourist will ever take the time to pose for a picture with me. I do not evoke images of Karst hills or of winding rivers.
However, I am a Chinese bear and slowly my co-blogger has come to accept the fact that although I am not black and white with a penchant for bamboo shoots and a painfully low sex drive, I am indeed as real a Chinese bear as there can be. I can tell you about what I know of my nation and my people and my fellow bears.
If you have any questions about what it means to be a non-traditional bear in China, do feel free to ask me. If there are enough questions, I may turn this into a regular Ask Gerald About Authenticity column.