A final day in Guangzhou was rounded off by a banquet to celebrate the end of the exchange. In this way, our last day at Sun-Yat Sen was typical of so many we had experienced here in China, combining arresting reflections on the sharp contrasts of modern life in China at the same time as offering the joys of friendship.
Slavoj Zizek has written of the loss of what he terms collective truth. Zizek suggests that while we have personal, individual narratives of truth, with each person having their own story and emotions, we have lost a sense of a collective truth which we all experience politically. The other side of comfortism and individualism lies in the denial and deceit of other truths, often other truths that support one’s comfortable position in the world. There is something about the will of collective protest that feels truthful. While protest and politically engaged lives seem stressful, there is perhaps a sense of peace that can come from acknowledging collective forms of truth.
We discuss protests in Guangzhou that took place last year, when women occupied men's toilets in the city to protest the lack of public facilities for women in Chinese cities. The "Occupy Men's Toilet" group was largely made up of students and working women in cities such as Guang Zhou and Beijing. The groups often occupied men's toilets at train stations, holding the men's toilet for a few minutes at a time for women who were desperate to use the loo. Gender neutral washrooms are also rare, particularly in city run spaces such as metro stations, train stations, and governmental buildings.
The actions were practical while also making a comment on the lack of proportional public spaces for women in urban cities as opposed to those for men. Someone once remarked that "The city air makes men free....". I suppose it makes women stand in long cues for the toilet. The actions of the groups were funny, disruptive, and successful. Following these toilet occupations, cities such as Guangzhou have started to build more female toilets, with the environmental minister publicly stating that this is an issue that urban China should prioritize.
Women in Indian cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore were inspired by these actions and started similar campaigns regarding the lack of proper female toilets in India, particularly in lower income neighbourhoods and rural areas.
We tell jokes about toilets and share in a collective optimism regarding the possibility of transnational feminist and academic solidarities, across borders. In its simplest translation, it is a new friend, like so many we have found here.
The sending off banquet hosted by Sun Yat-Sen University was quite different from the usual formal dinners we know in UK universities. Here, everybody who participates in the banquet is expected to present a little performance to show their various talents. It took us quite a while trying to find a talent worth presenting to our hosts and in the end we opted for a song by The Beatles 'with a little help from my friends'. I don't think our singing performance impressed anybody, but the laughter, clapping, smiles and continued rounds of individual performances more than made up for it!
Talents are traditionally associated with virtues. 'A respectable woman should be able to play an instrument, and sing' one of our grandmothers used to say, echoing a certain Victorian ideal. Now, when asked to perform, we think about having to fit that role and cannot help feeling uncomfortable. On the other hand, last night the spirit animating the last act of sharing, through sharing talents (or the a lack of them!), was totally different. Singing was a channel of communication that transcended language. Ironically our rehearsed performance did not make an impact, but when each of us sang a song that meant something to them the atmosphere changed. Stories, memories and semi-forgotten bits of our lives filled the room where previously language seemed to be a barrier and suddenly, we were all tuned up. Nostalgia, sadness, joy, love and loss did not need translation.
- The Oecumene Team, 21 June 2013