Hello Uncle Foreigner

Higher Brothers

Mar 1, 2018

Hip hop is banned in China, kind of

Be careful where you get your news, also the Internet used to be better

Fat Shady performs at New Little Bar in Chengdu in 2014
Fat Shady (black T and cap) and friends performed at New Little Bar in Chengdu in 2014.

Our latest video (you can find it below) was inspired by the news in late January that a Chinese government body issued a ban on hip hop culture and tattoos on state TV. For a really good summary and analysis of just-the-facts before you dive into what I think, Feichang Fresh has a great video.

Current events aren’t usually our deal, but Peter and I have been seeking out new music – hip hop and otherwise – in China since we landed. We were proud to discover that Chengdu has been an incubator of China’s rap scene for many years. I even interviewed the scene’s breakout stars, Higher Brothers, for a magazine article this summer. So the Time.com headline “’Tasteless, Vulgar and Obscene.’ China Just Banned Hip-Hop Culture and Tattoos From Television” definitely caught our eye.

But our video was also inspired by our own experiences of keeping in touch with America through the distorted lens that is the Web 2.0: a meme-ified news stream that features kids eating soap just alongside your cousin graduating college and the U.S. president giving all schoolteachers guns, whether they want them or not.

(“What is eating a Tide pod supposed to do?” Peter asked me, baffled that this generation’s experiments with household cleaners has nothing to do with trying to get high.)

China bans hip hop. China bans Winnie the Pooh. China bans time travel. You can state these facts – they’re all essentially true. But what does any of that really mean?

(Tide pods look like cake, right? That’s why kids are eating them?)

Peter and I, with our video, hope that we can share some context about the Chinese ban-hammer and what that means for free expression in China.

In the video, I end on a somewhat 没办法 (Eh, what can you do?) note. It’s a struggle in this global existence. What can one person do against the entrenched systems of the world?

However, because I do read more than my Facebook feed, I know that that’s not reality. Incredible activists all over the world are stepping up and making change. Black Lives Matter, the Parkland students. But it’s a frustratingly slow process. And one that’s prone to misinterpretation and oversimplification in the retelling.

In a story on “#metoo in China,” published just after news of the “hip hop ban” broke, The Elephant Room blog looked at some of the people fighting for women’s equality over here. It does not look the same as it does in western countries, but nevertheless, they persist. But, as ER notes, most coverage in the U.S. focused more on the “censorship in Big, Bad China” angle than the activism against sexual harassment. “‘Censorships[sic]? Of course,’ Qiqi [one of the movement’s activists] laughs, ‘but so? By now we all know that’s inevitable for any social movement in China. For us, censorship is part of progress, not the end of the story.’”

That’s the story I want to read. How do you keep at it and effect change – and people do – when mainstream avenues of communication are closed to you? What a powerful idea! But it’s not easily meme-able (and it’s logistically challenging for western reporters to access), so it doesn’t get as much press.

So let’s fix the media.

Back when I worked at a newspaper, in the mid-2000s, we published a columnist whom the media insiders looked down upon as a graspy, fame-seeking hack. It was a dating column, post-“Sex and the City,” so … . There were daily updates about her behavior on Gawker (this was way back, when Gawker was still somewhat devoted to actual intra-media coverage). And within our newsroom, there was constant discussion of how terrible she was. There was even, for a time, a lay person’s website devoted to anonymously hating on her every public move.

The column was not great, but it was super popular. In fact, rather than letting her go because she wasn’t up to our standards, she left us for bigger and better pastures. She’s now … not so famous that you’ve heard of her, but she’s been on cable TV. A lot.

Honestly, I think this woman worked hard to get where she is. If our paper had passed on her, she would have found opportunity somewhere else. But we disrespected her writing and we published her anyway. Because the readers ate it up.

Stupid readers. Let’s fix you.

You’re a citizen of the Internet, the training is out there: Read more than the headline. Check your sources. Open your mind to narratives that challenge your worldview. Consider that the push structure of social media is manipulated and not reflective of the world as it actually is.

To put it another way: if we only click and share the Times’ shock-jock op-ed denying climate change – in outrage or in support – that’s all anyone is going to publish. And we’ve done the Russians’ job for them.

(So, let’s fix the Russians?)

We’re all weary of the hegemony of outrage, but someone keeps clicking on it. Stop it. And maybe make something yourself. After all, it’s easier to replace a bad habit than to quit cold turkey!

I really think this might be something: Make stuff. Make anything you truly care about. Write it, paint it, dance it – whatever gets what’s in your heart out in to the world. The stuff that is meaningful to you is going to be compelling, even if it’s not objectively good. This will have three effects.

As creators, people will engage on their own terms with media literacy. You can scroll past countless NPR articles on how to tell the difference between real and fake news, but if you’re telling stories yourself, you’ll have a real stake in how narratives are created. You’ll be able to tell an out-of-context quote from a mile away.

Additionally, maybe we can drown out the fakers and liars and fear-mongers and put something good out in the world. I’m not going to lie; it takes a lot of effort to fight the incredible pessimism I feel every day. There’s a lot happening in the world right now that I feel powerless to affect. But what got me here was getting out of bed anyway and writing something that made me laugh. Filming something that felt true to me. And maybe some bored millennial will choose my silly video instead of one with the “hot take” that maybe racism is natural after all.

Thirdly, if we’re all creating our weird little projects and putting them online, maybe we can make the Internet interesting again. Maybe the real inspiration for all these one thousand words is that in the past few years, all of my favorite sites have shut down. The Toast doesn’t even have archives up anymore. There have been a lot of factors making me really feel my age these days (seeing your face blown up in HD will do that), so I’m just going to say it: When I was a kid, the Internet was way cooler. ’Cause it was just a bunch of random crap that people were passionate about.

So make something, darn it. And I will, too. If the rappers in Chengdu can do it …

Dec 12, 2017

Big changes

You may have noticed some changes around here. A new facelift, and Hello Uncle Foreigner is now responsive and mobile-friendly. We are ready for the future!

And the changes are not just cosmetic. We know that the in past few years posting had slowed to slightly more than nothing. Since mid-2015, we were busy moving across the country — twice! — but more than that, Hello Uncle Foreigner entered into a period of rumination. After four years of regular blogging about our daily life, travel, and hot pots, we had reached the end of what we wanted to say on those fronts. We went dormant. And then Peter got sick.

But that doesn’t mean we had given up. During our two-year time out we still worked and traveled and ate hot pot, and refilled our creative reserves. Now, I’m excited to say that Peter is well on the mend, and … we’re back! We’ve got so many new stories to share, and so many different ways in which we want to share them.

First up, we are extremely proud to present, “Hello Uncle Foreigner: America.” Peter and I spent a month of summer 2016 back in the U.S., and basically eating everything in sight. “What’s it like to be back?” was the main question people had for us, and at the time, we struggled with a good answer. More than a year later, I think we can explain how that felt …

We’re very grateful to all of our friends and family who hosted us, partied with us, and just generally showed us a good time. To those who didn’t make the final cut (there was a 45-minute version, but even we were bored by it), just know that you’re too much fun for Peter to waste his time with you behind a camera. And, uh, to those who did make the cut … you’re just too telegenic to leave out!

Our other big news, you’ll have to go elsewhere to find. This summer I spoke with Chengdu rap group Higher Brothers, and you can find my article in the September issue of NYLON magazine. It was great fun to exercise those muscles again: chasing leads, contacting strangers, asking invasive personal questions, and writing and rewriting on deadline. The guys are really talented artists. I don’t know if they’ll successfully cross over to the American market, but I do know that they deserve some attention.

So, keep an eye on this space! There will be many new movies and other projects coming down the pike in the next few months. It’s our goal to join the greater discussion going on about China and Chinese culture, as well as share the fantastic stories that Luzhou (and beyond) has to offer. But mostly we’re just excited to keep pushing ourselves to the limit of what two people, a blog, and some a/v equipment can do.