Thursday, 13 July 2017

Class in America, Ireland, England, France and China

These three pieces are all worth a read for various reasons but I have put them together because they are touch upon class. Each country has its own quirks as far as class is concerned, but there are interesting universal features.

First, When is a Sandwich not a Sandwich? by Rod Dreher. It starts with David Brooks' story about the sandwich ("Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican") and moves onto Dreher's own life: "I’m really sensitive to this stuff because for years I had to live with the disdain of some members of my Louisiana family for my allegedly fancypants and inauthentic tastes." It's not everyone in Louisiana who converts to Eastern Orthodoxy: "I guess I’m one of those odd-duck conservatives who is open to a relatively wide range of experience, even as I manage to fold exotic experiences into a conservative outlook". Quite. He's not quite the only one, but "odd-duck" might be the right term.

I linked to a profile of Dreher not long ago which pointed out, I thought rather perceptively, that his life story looks a lot like many gay people's life stories: escaping from/rebelling against a small-c conservative provincial life, moving to the city, having experiences that take you away from your family and so becoming distant from them, feeling conflicted about that development, and so on. Which brings me on to Colm Toíbín, here with an account of French gay class traitors. (The article is good although the books themselves don't sound like much fun.)

Toíbín has his own story too: "More than thirty years ago, when I was in Egypt, I met a cultivated English couple who invited me to stay in their house in London on my way back to Ireland. They could not have been more charming. // The only problem was that they had an Irish maid who, as soon as I arrived as their guest, began to talk to me in the unvarnished accent of home, as though she had known me all of her life. Since she was from a town near mine, we spoke of people we knew in common or knew by name or reputation. It was all very relaxed and friendly. // Later, after supper, my two English friends asked me if I minded them raising a subject that troubled them. Did I know, they asked, that my accent and tone, indeed my entire body language, had changed when I met their maid? I was almost a different person. Was I aware that I had, in turn, changed back to the person they had met in Egypt once I was alone with them again?" Quite a different story from Dreher's: would Dreher have been able to fall back into the old ways in a similar situation? One assumes not.

(On a different note, how about this: a young gay Irishman staying with a "cultivated English couple" who have an Irish maid? There's the premise for a play, or a murder mystery, or a serious literary novel or an episode of Inside No 9 at least.)

Finally, back to America, but this time through Chinese eyes. Rich Chinese students and poor American ones do not, in Iowa City at least, constitute a class structure (or so it seems from this piece), but the Chinese class system plays an important part in how Chinese students experience their time in American universities. "When Sophie was at high school in Jiaxing, getting ready to make the leap to America, she improved her English by binge-watching the TV show “Gossip Girl”. Her family is decidedly middle-class; her parents both work at the state telephone company, and they scrimped and saved to send their only child to America. When Sophie gorged on the show’s portrayal of fabulously wealthy American prep-schoolers misbehaving on Manhattan’s Upper East Side – and occasionally sneering at the merely middle-class – she took it not as soap opera but as documentary: “I thought, ‘Ah, so this is how Americans live!’” // It wasn’t long before she realised that the script did not fit a state university in the American plains. But as a journalism major, she started observing her own compatriots carefully: the Balenciaga heels in class, the Maseratis on the street, the cliques of the wealthy and well-connected. “I realised that we were living a Chinese version of ‘Gossip Girl’,” she says."

The article is interesting in other respects too, e.g. Christian attitudes to welcoming Chinese students, Chinese attitudes to politics and the intersection of class and national loyalties: "Several Chinese told me of a system by which wealthy Chinese students pay middle-class compatriots to write their papers. A Chinese first-year student said she walked in on a roommate last fall getting help on a test from another student. “You can’t do that!” she told them, to which her housemate replied: “Yes, but she’s Chinese, I’m Chinese, we’re all Chinese. We have to help each other out.”" Not exactly Workers of the World Unite!, is it?

No comments:

Post a Comment