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Faces of Beijing – Meet Ming Yao and Chen Jiao

  • Written by Akulka
  • October 27th, 2008
  • 11 min read


“If your neighbour was a child abuser, and came to you every evening asking to trade a dozen of eggs for a bottle of cheap liquor, would you do it if you needed the eggs, but also knew he might use the bottle to get drunk and abuse his children more?”

Meet Ming Yao:

I was born in Changchun, Jilin province, but spent most of my childhood in Guangzhou. My parents took me there when I was little as my father found a good job in a manufacturing plant in the city. My mum is a teacher.

Later I came to Beijing to study at Peking University. After Tsinghua University it’s the country’s best! I studied there for five years until I earned my Master’s degree. Throughout all this time I shared a room with five other girls. There were three bunk beds to each room, just one small table by the window, and a small drawer that could be locked to keep our personal belongings. At the beginning of each semester every student received a number of tickets to access the communal showers. Usually we only got about 40 tickets each for a period of five months. Having grown up in the south I had been used to taking a shower at least once per day, so this was really horrible for me. Fortunately I managed to persuade some of boys to trade or sell me their tickets so I could take a shower more frequently.

There was not much privacy so I spent most of my free time outdoors or in the library. On balmy summer days I sometimes stayed out by the lake on campus for the whole night. I really liked it there and even had a few secret spots I didn’t share with anyone. In winter it was especially fun when the lake froze over and we could go ice-skating on it. There is a lot of history to this site. During the Cultural Revolution many of the university’s professors drowned themselves in the waters. When I told this story to one of our foreign exchange students once he was very shocked and didn’t understand how I could be so – as he put it – indifferent about it…

“If the government suddenly decided to kill you for the mere reason that you are wearing glasses, how would that make you feel?” he asked with an incredulous look on his face.

“If it’s only me I’d feel bad” I explained. “But if everyone else with glasses was killed too and this served a greater purpose, then it would be okay I suppose.”

He didn’t get what I was saying, and avoided talking to me from then on. He simply didn’t want to understand that nobody can tell what would have become of China if those things hadn’t happened back then.

When I was 21 I travelled to Europe for a few weeks. That was the only time I left China. One of our tutors from university accompanied us. Before we left he briefed me and my fellow students on cultural norms and mannerisms in the countries we would be visiting.

“Don’t ever talk politics with Europeans! It’s considered very rude! Politics are a very private matter and should only be discussed amongst close friends and family!”

Even though I have been working with foreigners for many years now, I only recently found out that this isn’t true. Before I had always remembered my tutor’s strict words, accepted them as the truth, and never even thought of addressing the matter of politics with anyone.

Now I am interested in hearing what foreigners have to say about China and its politics, even though most of the time I find their opinions quite different to my own and also my friends’.

I am not happy with the Chinese government. I know how it works as I have business dealings with government agencies every day. Fortunately, now under Wen Jiabao, things are improving, but the process is a slow one.

Foreigners always believe that in China everything happens so incredibly fast now, but I can tell you this is not true at all. All this rush, all this development, it’s just on the surface. The reality is that in China the fundamentals change only slowly, especially when it comes to the people and their attitudes.

It’s not for outsiders to judge what’s going on inside China, or any other country for that matter. Foreigners always like to talk about Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights, but why is it any of their business? What do they know anyway?

Our country has gone through very hard times, but now the future is a brighter one. Sometimes people and even entire nations have to weather through dark times in order to reap rich benefits. The struggle must come from within. Some people at the office curse China for doing business with North Korea, Myanmar, and Sudan. They say China is unscrupulous, only interested in generating profit at any cost, and doesn’t care about the consequences, the blood on its hands. What they don’t understand is that it’s none of China’s business what’s going on in those countries. The people of those countries have to find their own way, and rise to the challenge, just as the Chinese people have.

Now we don’t shop at Carrefour as the French gave money to the Tibetan rebels. Serves them right I say! I know that our newspapers and TV don’t always tell us everything, but our government works hard every day to keep the country together. They must run a tight ship! There is only one China, right?

The Chinese people is a proud one. There is so much it can achieve. Just look at the Olympics. China excelled. It even led the gold medal count, way before the USA and Russia. And now Chinese people have even gone to outer space! Why should we not enjoy the same prosperity as the West has? China certainly deserves it!

“Haha, do you want to know what people on the streets have kept saying!?” Yao suddenly asks as we are riding the elevator up to her small flat in a dilapidated and dusty apartment building, located in a small backstreet opposite a Chinese massage parlor.

“You are way too tall for me”

She chuckles.

Meet Chen Jiao:

“Sa Wah Di Kah”: Three bowls of pigs feet (Taiwanese dialect)

I was born and grew up in Kunming, Yunnan province. At the age of 17 I moved to Beijing after I had received a scholarship from Beijing Film Academy. Studying film at this school had been my dream since childhood. My father is an artist and my mother a writer. They always encouraged me in taking this step and I have never regretted it.

When I was 19 I spent one year in Mumbai as a foreign exchange student. I didn’t enjoy the Indian food much and thought the people were very pushy, but I definitely valued the experience of living in another country for some time. It was my first time outside of China.

At the end of my studies I had the opportunity to go to Sweden for three months and shoot a movie there with local actors. The project was sponsored by the Swedish Film Institute and provided me with a unique chance to test my skills in an unfamiliar setting. I was very excited at the idea and worked very hard to make most of this opportunity.

My film was meant to be shown at the Beijing Student Film Festival in the same year, but the day before its first screening it was banned by the censors because of what they considered inappropriate content. Just like great Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” that was banned from the cinemas for its explicit display of sex, yet in my movie there was far less of that. I can’t even begin to describe how devastated I was at the news. It felt like the whole world caved in around me!

Before I left for Sweden I had been very patriotic. I felt that China was great and life here better than anywhere else. While staying in India I had not been exposed to many alternative viewpoints, probably also because I mostly hung out with other Chinese students, but the people I met in Stockholm really opened my eyes. I couldn’t help but become disappointed with the way China works. Disillusionment set in, and I realized how limited my knowledge and how lopsided my understanding with regard to many issues really had been.

You know, Chinese people generally believe everyone should mind their own business, and that includes foreign relations. I used to strongly agree with this, but not anymore.

The truth is that most Chinese don’t really know what to make of foreigners. Sometimes people try to listen in on my conversations on the subway which makes me very uncomfortable. I then talk extra fast English so they cannot follow what I’m saying. When I ride in the taxi with one of my non-Chinese male friends the drivers often ask me if that is my husband. If I say no they often talk me down so usually I ignore them now and don’t answer their nosey questions in the first place. Just yesterday a cleaning lady at McDonald’s approached the table where I was sitting and chatting with two British friends and asked me with a suspicious undertone what my business was talking to foreigners. Things like that happen to me all the time and annoy me tremendously.

The government encourages nationalism and uses it to manipulate people more and more. You can see people walking on the streets waving those little Chinese flags everywhere now. There must be success at any cost. Just look at the Olympics. They don’t stop at anything, even if it means cramming 700 performers in diapers below the stage many hours before the opening ceremony, waiting for their moment. Magazine vendors on the streets were encouraged to display copies of Time and Newsweek magazines, even if nobody would buy them, as long as this gave visitors the impression that the Chinese people are educated and worldly. It’s as if the whole nation was suffering from a huge inherent insecurity and inferiority complex.

At the same time people here are being manipulated in other more or less subtle ways. There’s only ever one side of the story you get to hear. CCTV reported that all of Europe was boycotting the Olympics in support of the Tibetan rebels. That made some people furious here, I tell you!

The same holds true for Taiwan. People recognize that Taiwan is doing very well economically, but many also believe this is only the case because the followers of Chiang Kai-Shek took with them all the riches in the past. They also believe China has been poor because it was too proud to accept reparations from Japan after the war.

For the longest time I was under the impression that the Japanese people were inherently bad, treacherous, even cruel. This is still the stereotype that is covertly established in films, books, and the general media. It was only after I met Japanese exchange students in Mumbai that I realized how unfair and blunt this characterization is.

Globalization will change China! More and more people will learn and see through these things. At least that’s what I am hoping for! Who knows, in ten years China might already be like Taiwan, yet the political system will not change all that much probably. Some people I talked to think that with China’s growth the result will eventually be that China takes over the whole world. I don’t share this view though as I don’t expect the world to take to Chinese values in the same way as it has taken to Western ones in the past.

I feel so detached from my people here as I feel hardly anyone can relate to my thoughts now. It’s as if I found the key to my own cage or burst the bubble I had been sitting in. Even my best friend doesn’t understand what has changed within me. Sometimes I feel like such a coward. I won’t fight to make people see but draw the consequences and leave, and I know many others are going to follow as more information is seeping in and more clarity is gradually gained.

I record my thoughts and feelings now by writing a blog in Mandarin. It’s only accessible to my close friends, as I fear I might get in trouble if I went public with it. I download movies and international news programs from the internet. They are like a breath of fresh air.

I have a few friends from abroad here in Beijing, but generally I prefer to stay away from foreigners. It’s actually not so easy to find genuine ones, at least not in my generation. Many guys come here for the girls, the attention they get, and the easy life. I have become weary of them, and don’t want their company.

Jiao suddenly stops in her tracks, her intelligent eyes nervously twitching from left to right.

“I’m sorry, sometimes when I talk I just totally lose my orientation!”

“That’s okay!” I say. “Sometimes, when you are talking, I totally lose myself in your words!”

Stickman's thoughts:

God help the world if China becomes the dominant power…