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A micro-study of ‘the new international’

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Meng Zhang is nearly 25 years old and comes from the city of Jinan in China. I am much older and I recently characterised myself as ‘the old international.’ The name Meng, means ‘bud’ and therefore ‘vitality’; I often think that the name suits her. We are separated not only by years but also by culture and personality. I first met Meng in late September 2019. For two weeks, as part of our MA at UCA, we worked together on an art project; its title was the ‘Animal in us’; in essence, our work developed as a type of extended conversation. It was an unusual but positive collaboration. And, it was fascinating getting to know Meng.

She completed her BA in oil-painting in the Chinese city of Dalian. She’s artistically and technically very accomplished. Inevitably the distinct cultures of the two nations have presented her with challenges: she has had to work hard to adjust to the open-ended nature of studying and practising Fine Art in the UK.

Over the months and little by little I began to understand Meng’s character and to appreciate the deep anthropological differences between us. A number of episodes combined to show this – but two are particularly illustrative.

On one occasion Meng had invited me to join her and her fellow students for a specially-prepared Chinese meal. She did this because she wanted to show her thanks for the fact that she had made use of parts of my house in order to make a short film about herself. (The film was about a psychological transformation.) When I arrived for the meal I found myself seated amongst five young women from China. I could not but feel my age; it was all rather daunting. Moreover, I did not want them to have to make allowances for me by speaking in English. (But in general they did speak in English!) However, in no time at all four different dishes were placed on the table and the meal began. But, throughout our time together, the conversation was made strange because each of the young women would regularly consult their iPhones; they would either read or watch the content on their respective screens or would rapidly use their phones to type in information and respond to the stimuli that they were receiving, On top of this, a computer, that had been placed on the dining table, was showing a contemporary Chinese film. (I think the film was an odd melange of imagery – perhaps featuring a kind of fanciful romantic gangster motif.)

I enjoyed the delicious food but I was never quite sure as to whether or not I should develop a conversation or try to catch a glimpse of the content of the phones. I even wondered if I was supposed to watch the film!

It struck me that the new norm of social interaction (perhaps even of social being) is cast in a multi-stimulus digitally-mediated fragmented and episodic ethos and it compares strikingly with my older-style media-free ‘conversational’ mode. In fact, there is nothing remarkable about this: the young Chinese women are perfectly happy to engage with ‘life’ – and those around them – in this way. It is a new international norm. (But it is not mine!)

On another occasion Meng learned that my wife was travelling in northern Italy. Meng wondered if she would be able to see a certain kind of bag – a ‘Pinko’ bag. (I had never heard of Pinko. It turns out that Pinko is an Italian women’s fashion brand founded in the early 1980s. They even have a shop in the Brompton Road, London.) Meng was hoping that Jo, my wife, might be able to bring such a bag back from Italy. In fact, Jo has always been interested in fashion – its history and its current manifestations – so she was not averse to looking for a Pinko bag. But, in the meantime, Meng herself found and bought the bag in question. I had seen an image of it online. She playfully asked me how much I thought it had cost. I underestimated the amount by 500%. She was amused by my error. And then something struck me: it was to do with a ubiquitous shared imagery – or iconography: I realised that there is a ‘Vogue, China’. The covers feature models or celebrities that might just as easily be seen in Europe or the USA. There is also a new edition of ‘Dazed’ – one that is specially crafted for China. (It has the ambiguous strap line ‘Declare Independence.’) And the result is that a shared international fashion is plainly apparent. A shared international style is ‘abroad.’ Pinko goes with Meng, as does Zara or Chanel, Random Event or Yeezy.

These and a number of other experiences have led me to describe Meng as ‘the new international.’ I think this is a good thing. It seems that nationalism always carries with it a worrying tribal ‘charge.’ It includes and it excludes. By contrast the ‘new international’ is a far safer prospect for the future of humanity.

Footnote: The photo above features a still blue lake. The blue of the lake is made possible by the natural presence of copper sulphate. It is a beautiful lake for all to see.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Well done Rob An interesting social commentary. There are rules on internet etiquette, I gather, but they do not cover the generational difference. I suspect that all or even most young people (and certainly the Chinese) feel the need, which is now almost instinctive, to reply to any received message immediately, whatever their then social setting. The message must get through! Do they then share the message in their physical context? No. So they (we) are simultaneously part of two (and in fact many) conversational circles which overlap – A, our physical neighbours, and B, our electronic communications. To answer B is not, apparently, to be rude or even discourteous to A, and in fact the concept of rudeness itself has little meaning. No wonder mobile phones are banned in schools! And no wonder that it is impossible to enforce such a ban! No doubt new rules could be devised, but would be unenforceable, for who is the victim? Do we feel a sense of hurt pride, if an electronic message is preferred to our own scintillating conversation? Will all this resolve itself naturally? Who knows? Best wishes Peter Electronically yours…

    March 9, 2020

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