Justin Whitmel Earley

Justin Whitmel Earley is an English Literature graduate of the University of Virginia and now lives, studies, and writes in China. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in publications such as Relief Magazine, Inkstone Magazine, The Foundling Review, and the Orange Room Review. He is married to, his everything, Lauren.

Speaking Each Other’s Language

Of all the things I have learned in Chinese class, one of the first was that the rest of the world is not politically correct — and they’re OK with that.

And I’m becoming OK with that. In fact, in a room of people ranging in origin from Mexico to Japan to Spain to Senegal, I’m beginning to take a pure and unabashed delight in noticing the eccentricities of certain groups and individuals. For anyone who dabbles in the unscrupulous pleasure of people-watching, it’s a veritable paradise. Let’s start with the Germans.

They bring food to class every day. What’s more, they seem to be bringing increasing amounts of food.

The author, a model student. Photo by Rob Jefferson.

At first it was maybe some fried dumplings, a steamed bun, or some other delicious snack from a sidewalk vendor. Now, as they seem to be longing for a taste of home, it’s turning into bags of rolls, whole sacks of chocolates or an entire sub sandwich. A few days ago, one guy spread on his desk a loaf of bread, a jar of jam, a butcher’s knife (ostensibly to spread the jam?), a French press of coffee, and a kitchen mug with a blue floral pattern. Extravagant? Maybe. Delicious? Yes! By the 9:00 am break period I was in the crowd with everyone else throwing elbows for a spare morsel. (It should be noted that eating is “not allowed” in the classroom.)

Though unabashed in public feasting, the Germans are shy when it comes to public performances. And who can blame them? Well known fact: we citizens of the Western world don’t sing in public unless we’re good at singing (or we’re drunk at a karaoke bar). Lesser known fact: this is simply not true in the East. And as both teacher and host country of this class are Chinese, it was only a matter of time.

Recently the teacher stopped a marginally useful lesson on musical vocabulary and proceeded to a completely unproductive exercise of asking each nationality to sing a folk song from their home country. (How is this relevant to learning Chinese?) As the Germans, the French girl, the Australian, the Italian, and I made one silent, collective sink into our chairs, the three Korean girls acted with immediate, silent unity — four, small right hands hanging patiently in the air. “Can we sing first?” I think that was the first time I heard them speak.

The next thing I know our teacher was clapping her hands giddily. The four girls stood swaying slightly with their hands dutifully folded in front of them as they chorused a wistful little tune that came close to convincing me that pure innocence really does exist in the world. Getting the rest of the nationalities to sing took two days worth of class periods punctuated by long periods of silence and desk-staring. The second day I finally soloed a very poor version of “This Land is Your Land.” (Is that considered an American folk song?) The Germans were the last to cave, and I wish they hadn’t. It was a horrendous performance I’ve tried my best to forget.

So while the Korean girls have no problem singing in front of the class, making regular conversation with me during a break is another thing. “What was the song you sang about?” I ask in Chinese, according to the classroom rules. They look at each other and break down into giggles. I know they understood but I ask in English anyway. This leads to mild hilarity. I wait for a minute to see if they’re going to dignify me with an answer. (I’ve never felt more isolated.) They didn’t.

I’ve decided that their song must have been about something very scandalous, or they have a serious social disorder. Vermie, the Filipino-German who sits next to me is bubbly enough, but even she shakes her head and puts it simply, “I don’t understand them.”

Vermie deserves a paragraph of her own, because she’s my desk-mate and has taken on the most character of anybody. This dainty native of the Philippines, who has spent most of her life in Germany, comes to an impressive 5’3″ and maybe 99 lbs. But contrary to her stature and pretty face, she drops some of the most devastating criticisms one can put into a sentence. I can’t tell if it’s a fierce attitude thing or just a German bluntness exacerbated by 2nd-language-style-English. Examples:

-Teacher makes us read the practice paragraphs out loud in class. Vermie drops out about halfway through and (louder than the collective reading volume) says, “This is so stupid.” The class stutters. A few shoulders turn. I cough.

-I point out to Teacher that there’s a mistake in the English translation of a vocabulary word. Vermie affirms my correction. Ten minutes later, the Turk (an ambitious young man of about 20 years who ran uncontested for class monitor) raises his hand and points out the same mistake. Vermie’s verdict? An audible, “Shit, he is always so slow!”

-When one overzealous student from the other side of the room keeps shouting answers to questions addressed to other students, Vermie sighs, “I wish he would shut up.”

-Yesterday, when Teacher begins to announce a laborious, and of course, unhelpful homework assignment, Vermie says, “Damn.” Pause. Then quickly, “Damn, damn, damn.”

I want to tell her that I agree and add that she might keep her voice down, but I’m interrupted by a rattling classroom door. After a small battle with the knob, in stumbles our beloved Mongolian. Always late. Always enormously late. This time ten minutes before our two-hour class ends.

And it’s not that one can just sneak in the classroom, because our door handle is very broken. When you push down on the lever, the latch is still caught in the door. For the in-classroom observer, every late entrance has a defined sequence:

-Furtive click comes from the door and sound of a small shove. Door bangs against frame.

-The class takes notice while Teacher pretends she doesn’t.

-Noticeable rattling begins.

-Long pause. (At this point the late-comer on the other side is staring in confusion at the handle.)

-Begin second set of rattling. (Rarely successful.)

-A face is pressed against the narrow pane of glass, mouthing “Is it locked?”

-Rattling resumes. Teacher stops talking and all turn to vibrating door frame.

-Teacher and the Mexican who sits near the door simultaneously move for the knob.

-During the three or four false starts where both are confused over who is actually going to get the door, the late-comer finally gets the knob and falls through the door only to bump into Carlos or the teacher.

Of the non-native speakers (and I’m the only native speaker) Carlos has by far the best English in the class. He’s head and shoulders above the others, and this gives him the edge in wit and charm with the ladies. He may or may not be overusing this wit and charm on the young Russian woman who sits next to him. His signature move (I know because I sit right behind him) is to crack a joke and then in a “Ha! That was funny” manner leans over and rubs her shoulder or back, as if some touch was needed to diffuse the humor. Sometimes if he’s really trying to get a response, he’ll snake his arm all the way around her and give her a little shake. Charming.

Vermie doesn’t think so. She scowls at her book. But before she can raise her voice to the usual insensitive volume and sentence Carlos to eternal insignificance in the world, she is called on by teacher to describe the seasons in Germany.

Vermie manages the task, and now each nationality must contribute by electing one poor sap to narrate the seasonal climate of their home country. I start preparing my vocabulary when I run into a bit of unexpected nostalgia . . .

How to describe that the autumn isn’t the same here without the smoky smell of pine and blaze of red leaves? What’s the word for pumpkins? Football? And how to describe the way a whole nation’s mood tilts and shifts its weight into the coming holidays? Suddenly I’m stolen from my reverie by the class bursting into applause.

Sanba, the student from Senegal is explaining the rainy and the dry seasons in eastern Africa. Teacher is utterly stunned.

“Wow!” Teacher says. “How fun! Only two seasons? Everyone come and clap for Africa.”

Faith in the Useless: Art as a Space for Reconciliation

“After raping them we would also kill them . . . they would flee once we let them go. Then we would ‘bang!’ shoot them in the back to finish them up . . . perhaps when we were raping her, we looked at her as a woman . . . but when we killed her, we just thought of her as something like a pig.”

Japanese soldier testimony from Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking

Ever since I first came to China in 2006, I’ve been afraid of Nanjing — not the city itself, but what happened there in December of 1937. So when I was invited last month to accompany artist Makoto Fujimura on his trip to lecture in Nanjing, I was terribly confused.

I neither wanted to confront the open wound of this event myself, nor did I think art had anything to do with its healing. I’ve always felt that government reparations are what were needed, not art. Art seemed useless.

However, through the comments of three friends, I’ve realized something much deeper than political relations is at stake in Nanjing. And in the end, not only did I go — but I now have a sense of faith in the useless.

The first comment came from my Chinese friend Xiao Bei.

“I don’t hate the Japanese for what they did in Nanjing,” he said. “I hate that they don’t admit the extent of it, that they write their children’s textbooks to downplay it. I just want to see that they’re human, too — that they can acknowledge the evil.”

For a long time, what’s been keeping me from reading about and going to Nanjing — one of the most historically important cities in China — is a simple fear of confronting evil. I knew vaguely of the six-week reign of horror when the Japanese army entered the city on December 13th of 1937, but that’s all. And I’ve always been intimidated by the story of Iris Chang, who after researching and publishing her seminal text, The Rape of Nanjing, for seven years committed suicide.

In a way it has always seemed to me that, following Chang’s example, to go further into the knowledge of such darkness is to venture out into evil itself. Thus I was never willing to go near it. But that’s exactly what Xiao Bei wanted the Japanese to do. I felt maybe that’s what I needed to do, too.

The second comment that pushed me closer to faith in the useless was from Mako on the first night of his trip to China.

“I’m excited about going to Nanjing,” he began, “because putting a problem in the open is an act of creation. When that doesn’t happen, the soul hardens. And there’s been so much silence about Nanjing.”

That night I felt for the first time that I had words to describe what was happening inside of me — a hardening of the soul. I knew confronting Nanjing would demand something of me; I would be implicated simply by being human. It would ask me to mourn and weep, to be soft and to be hurt. In fear of being overtaken by emotions that I couldn’t control, I was hardening a part of myself that’s essential to being human — empathy.

While Mako’s words gave me the first hint that art, creation itself, might have something fundamentally powerful to contribute towards reconciliation, I wouldn’t say I was convinced yet. Just curious. However, the next day I did buy Chang’s book and begin reading.

Days later when we arrived in Nanjing, I spoke with an organizer of the event, Jeremy. He explained “We didn’t invite Mako here as an advertisement or propaganda, but rather because [we] wanted to create a certain kind of space.”

In Nanjing, Jeremy and his associates live day to day with its ethos, the racism against the Japanese, the pain of the local people; it’s like white noise, always there, muting the rest of life. But he’s not interested in formal political apologies.

By the time I sat down in the auditorium of about 400 people, mostly Chinese students from the Nanjing Arts Institute, I was nervous with anticipation. Would Mako apologize on behalf of his ancestors? How would it tie into his art?

What happened was not what I expected, not at all.

Mako just talked about his art like he always does. The only thing specific to Nanjing was that when talking about his personal experience with 9/11 and the need for art to come to terms with true evil, he mentioned Nanjing as a parallel example of “pure darkness.”

“Yes,” I thought, “more on that. Tell them how sorry the Japanese are . . . ”

But he didn’t. He talked about how good art claims that both evil and beauty exist. It was all about art, and it felt useless.

As Mako ended his lecture and asked the audience for questions, I thought the whole thing had missed the point. But then the most curious thing happened: people began asking questions.

They didn’t mention the Rape of Nanjing either, but every comment danced around the shadow of it. One girl spoke up saying that she disagreed with Mako’s claim that true beauty requires implicit sacrifice. She said she would like it better the other way.

Another disagreed that vulnerability was required for communication, and said that the way to communicate was to make yourself strong enough to participate in dialogue, not weaker. Then the event ended.

It’s taken me weeks since then to think over what exactly happened that night. Something had been exchanged, I just wasn’t sure what. Mostly I kept reflecting on the words of Xiao Bei, Mako, and Jeremy — “I just want to see that they are human,” “what’s needed is an act of creation,” “we’re making a certain type of space.”

Slowly I’ve begun to realize that something more fundamental than an apology was being exchanged that night. We had gone farther, deeper, and to more places than a specific apology on Nanjing could go. We talked about evil, beauty, sacrifice, and true communication — all components of human-ness.

I think it’s possible that people like me, who are interested in Nanjing and the reconciliation of the Japanese and Chinese, could have called Mako’s lecture and the entire event useless. And in a sense that’s true. The event wasn’t utilitarian; like good art, it wasn’t employed for some function.

But the event really was a creation of space where things essential to being human were discussed, and it has since dawned on me that perhaps it’s in just this kind of space where seeds of reconciliation might actually be planted.

And this is where faith in the useless is required, because what’s at stake is the conviction that something happens in the space that art creates.

The effects of art are by no means measurable. But what about empathy? What about the capacity to communicate? Isn’t a lot at stake when we behold beauty? Isn’t it useful for becoming human?

What was wrong with the Rape of Nanjing was not simply one country’s aggression towards another, but that for six weeks evil and darkness reigned. Beauty was not allowed to exist, and thus humanity wasn’t either. But art confronts exactly that situation because by its existence it asserts that beauty does exists, and that creation of something new is possible.

The essence of good art is the same essence at work in Oskar Schindler’s factory, John Rabe’s safety zone, and Iris Chang’s truth-telling — an act of hope in a disintegrating world. The glory of these stories is that people do something, even when that something is small and seems useless in the face of overwhelming evil. But that takes faith — faith that something bigger is happening than the little you are contributing.

So art might seem useless. The body can survive without it. Politics and economies could go on, and relations between Japan and China will continue. But the soul won’t survive — and neither will our human-ness unless beauty exists. The six weeks of Nanjing are a continual reminder of that.

By putting faith in the useless, Mako’s event challenged the Japanese/Nanjing loss of humanity. It was one step in rehumanizing the exchange between two cultures, it was one person of Japanese descent asserting his humanity, and even if not measurably useful, it’s invaluable. It’s certainly beautiful.