In the summer of 2009, the 16-year-old me was confronted with the big decision to pick university major for higher education application (yes, you are required to settle with a major before even stepping into college, that's how the UK system works). Having absolutely zero idea about what I want to do/capable of doing, I was confused, yet quickly decided on International Relations because of two reasons: 1)It sounds cool (everything with "international" in it just sounds much cooler, don't you think so?) 2)I was curious about this whole "national identity" thing, aka how do other people perceive me as a Chinese? At that time, out of all the listed major options on the application form, IR, according to my instinct, sounded the most likely to help me figuring out an answer. So IR it is.
7 years later, after getting a bachelor degree in International Relations and a master in World History, I now could assure you two things: 1) International Relations as a academic pursue did not help at all, 2)If anything, I've only become more curious about the question that 16-year-old me had, despite realizing it would lead me a life-long quest of self-exploration, a lot of hassling around, a determination to build something on my own in order to start more conversations with those who care about similar issues, and those, as I believe, might discover joy by caring more.
Growing up, I've always been a sensitive kid that self-trapped pretty hard. I know other peoples' opinions/judgements shouldn't matter, but it mattered, and continue to matter so much to me. Over the years however, instead of obsessing over specific comments from individuals, I became increasingly drawn to the concept of judgement itself, especially the idea of judging as a cultural behavior. National boundaries might be set static (at least temporarily), but cultures are fluid, flexible and ever changing. What make a person feel belonged to certain culture, and how do our own sense of cultural belongings shape the ways we interact? my curiosity for these questions only grew in scale and depth as I travelled, experienced, and lived more.
Of course, one of the key motives for me to explore these questions is to understand my own being. Having spent a decent amount of times in China, England and the U.S, I attribute my multiculturalness not to the number of places I lived, but the high frequency of flying back and forth between places, usually in every 2-3 months. I simply love having conversations about "the other place I came back from", be that London, New York or San Francisco; the random questions people have would always push me to think a step further, and to reflect a layer wider, about my own perspectives in this big, wide, mysterious world.
And then there is China.
China is not just "the other place" I came back from. China is home, the soft spot on my heart, the stubborn pimple on my nose, the one and only place I'd have an unresolvable love-and-hate relationship with for a life time. So you see, as much as I enjoy those conversations about "the other place" in a foreign circumstance, things just get kinda complicated when the questions I get are on China, this place I call home. My tongue would become some more twisted. My brain ran some what faster. My words would hold up, joggling to find the right expression. Be it one of my university seminars to discuss "China's threat"(remember? that was the way it was talked about some five years ago) , or a random coffee-room chitchat with colleagues about China's recent tech boom, or a small talk with Uber driver regarding the Beijing Olympics, in every one of those situations, I'd start by trying to provide an objective narrative without personal judgements, and always end up realizing the impossibility of doing so half way through.
You see the problem here? China is my home, its pollution makes me cringe and certain aspects of its development gets me overwhelmed, (you see, I did spend the whole of high school and higher educations in the western world...) but in the end, my deep, conflicted emotional attachment with China would always be the anchor that grounds me down, makes me think, and keeps me move.
When I shared with people my plan to start Elephant Room, an English media project about China, I got a lot of positive feedback but also a decent amount of worries that "not a lot people would care". This totally makes sense, since the only reason I care so much about other people's perceptions towards China is because, well, I am Chinese. People are naturally the most drawn to issues that they could relate to at a personal level, this is the ultimate philosophical and marketing doctrine that proved and proved to be true. Elephant Room by no means aims to challenge such truth, but what it could and aims to do is to let those who care about China to feel more personal, and make those don't care to feel at least relatable. The subject of discussions in Elephant Room starts would start with China, but it is also not about China at all; by constructing a corner to share our cultural biases with each other, I hope everyone inside this cozy little room would see ourselves and those around us in a way that we hadn't seen before, and be comforted, have fun in seeing so.
Because I certainly did. Those seminar discussions about China's rise/threat. Those East Asian History classes about China's gender history discourse. Those random chatters with friends, colleagues, strangers and Uber drivers, each of them opened up new threshold for me to rethink China as a nation, and Chinese as my personal identity. (and most fortunately, I was accompanied by a groups of similar-minded friends who are now also the Elephant Room team. More on that later...) It's been a truly fulfilling and exciting journey, and I welcome you to join along.