vendredi 15 juin 2007

Rice Village, East Village, Global Village

(Self-portrait, November 2002. Copyright © by MA Shumin.)

My life is a journey from one village to another.

I was born in a small rice village in Taishan, Guangdong province, China. My parents were rice farmers. My grandparents were rice farmers. The ancestors before them were rice farmers. It looked very likely that my elder brother and I were to also become rice farmers in our village too.

Then fate changed. In 1985, when I was not yet six years old my family left the rice village to come to New York’s Manhattan Chinatown. My surroundings changed from rice fields and vast mountains and giant fields of sugar canes and running pigs and chickens – to giant skyscrapers and honking, speeding cars and all these people who didn’t speak my Taishanese dialect.

Though I left China at a young age to go to America, I still am very Chinese. Growing up in New York’s Chinatown and East Village, I learned American English while upholding my Chinese heritage. I went to ten years of Chinese School on Mott Street from age seven to seventeen, and my family always spoke Chinese at home. The Manhattan Chinatown environment, my family and my childhood Chinese friends all reminded me of my Chinese roots.

When my mother passed her US citizenship exam in 1992, my brother and I automatically became US citizens (and lost our Chinese citizenship) since we were both under 18. Not only did I not have any say in the matter, I did not even realize I became a US citizen. To my parents, it was not a matter of pride and patriotism but about practicality. It is beneficial to have American status.

Despite holding an American passport, I have never felt like a true American. In America I had a minority face and did not speak the perfect American English. But it is when I leave America that I realize I am more American than I am aware of. Living in France, when people detect my American accent they immediately classify me as an American. As I do not speak French with a Chinese accent, they do not see me as a true Chinese from China.

During the many times I returned to visit Taishan with my family in the summer vacations during my childhood, and when I studied abroad in Hong Kong during college, the Chinese in mainland China also viewed me as an outcast too. I am a stranger in my own native land. I am not a pure Chinese. I am different because I have been westernized. I dress differently, I act differently, and I don’t speak Chinese as perfectly. It’s tough. I can’t help but have a case of lost identity. What identity am I? Where do I belong?

I studied in France during college, and made the decision on my own to move to Europe after graduation. I appreciate Europe for its history, its love for the arts, the different cultures, and see it as a ‘home’ that I’ve chosen for myself to live in. I did not choose to be born in China, or to immigrate to America, but as an adult, I have chosen to live in Europe. And it’s a wonderful feeling, to be able to have the freedom to choose where you want to be at. I know that this is one of the most important opportunities that America has given me: the freedom to live anywhere.

And I love being a Chinese-American in Europe.

I am comfortable now being not 100% Chinese, not 100% American, and not 100% European. Perhaps that is a symbol that I am living in a Global village. My brother lives in Shanghai, my parents live in New York and I live in Paris. The world is getting smaller and we are not just restricted to one city, one country as home. I love that I am able to speak Chinese (and all its many dialects), English, French, and other languages I have the chance to learn in the future, all in one location. I have become an international citizen living and working in a global village. The more I travel to work and learn, the more I want to continue learning. And I hope as a filmmaker, I will be able to make films that link China and USA and Europe.

jeudi 14 juin 2007

Malaika Africa

(A Girl and Her Ball, Park Belleville. Copyright © 2007 by MA Shumin.)

I think one of the things I’ll forever be grateful for while living in Paris is in learning more about the people and the continent of Africa. Today I know more about the geography of the Africa continent than I do about the fifty states in the United States of America. It’s no joke that I had to look at a map to find where the state of Rhode Island is (it’s not far from New York City).

Growing up in the big metropolis of New York I was exposed to African Americans very early in life. Though their origin can be traced back to West Africa, their ancestors have been on American soil as early as the first European settlers. They most likely took the same the same Mayflower boat across the Atlantic. Dark in skin, these Americans are as American as what being an American can be. They speak American English just like me, and share the same American culture.

In United States, there is the history of slavery; and in France, there is the history of colonialism. Because of France’s colonial history in Africa, here in Paris you will find various African enclave neighborhoods particularly located in northeast part of the city. The neighborhoods of Barbès, Porte de Clignanourt and Belleville are just a few of these neighborhoods. Here you will find many foyers (residence halls) where the men and women live. They come mostly from the sub-Saharan countries of Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and the list is endless.

They are the ones who came to France to rebuild the country after the war. They are the construction workers who built the famous Stade de France (stadium). They are the cleaning ladies in law offices. They are the garbage truck workers who pass by my window and every other residents’ every single day exactly at 8pm. They are the nannies pushing the baby carriages in the streets and in parks. They are such a big part of Paris that I can’t imagine how the middle class French Parisians can function without them.

I had an especially in-depth study of Africa in 2006 when I attended the European Social Documentary workshop in Italy and Hungary. This EU Media Plus funded training initiative brought together 22 filmmakers/NGOs from over 17 old and new EU countries, from West and East Europe. The 6 month experience was quite an eye and mind opening experience for me, both intellectually as a filmmaker and emotionally as a person.

We saw a documentary film, “AFRICA LIVE: The Roll Back Malaria Concert” by Mick Csáky. It was both a raising awareness and fundraising effort to improve the health situation in Africa. In the opening of the film was an old Swahili song from Tanzania sung in a powerful voice without any instruments. The name of the song is called “Malaika” (Angel), this version is by the popular Benin singer, Angelique Kidjo.

A continent dominated by famine, disease, exploitation of natural resources, poverty, tribal conflicts, and manmade or natural misfortunes, I always find hope in music from Africa. It is uplifting to hear music, and I am especially touched by the power of the human voice as an instrument. It is not something that money and resources can buy. It’s a talent, a gift that is in the person. And that is precious.

Coming to live in Paris, meeting Africans and learning about their culture gave me a glimpse to what life can be like in Africa. It is an introduction to a very diverse continent that I would like to see for myself one day.

Listen to: Malaika

vendredi 1 juin 2007

La Vie En Rose

(A painting of Edith Piaf, 72 rue de Belleville. Copyright © by MA Shumin.)


It is that ever timeless subject that we ordinary beings seek in all our lives, perhaps ever more diligently than fame and fortune. It is something that writers, artists, filmmakers and singers have been spending eons dwelling on. Though what are shown in movies, described in books and sung in songs do not begin to represent the diverse authentic forms of expressions of love amongst couples, some artistic endeavors do come close. Edith Piaf’s song, “La Vie en Rose” (1946), one of the most memorable and endearing love song of all time relates to the sincere feelings of being in that moment of love. The life of this great legendary iconic French singer began in Belleville.

The legend is that Edith Piaf was born on a cold winter day of December 1915 on the pavement of 72 of rue Belleville in the heart of the working class immigrant neighborhood. Whether it is true or not, today on the door along side a painting of her, there are the words: “Sur les marches de cette maison naquit le 19 Décembre 1915 dans le plus grand dénuement Edith Piaf dont la voix, plus tard, devait bouleverser le monde. “

Edith Piaf’s life is that of real legendary singers, actors and artists. She came from what is known as ‘the slums of Paris’ and went as far as the world-renowned concert hall of New York City. At the mere height of 4 feet 8 inch, it was not the height that stood out for Edith Piaf, but her voice. Though she was raised in poverty in Belleville, Edith’s unique voice, at times touching, heartbreaking but altogether undeniably powerful brought her out to the world. Through her romances as well as friendships with the great names of her time, Yves Montand, Jean Cocteau, Marlene Dietrich, etc, Edith Piaf became a star.

And like all great stars, Edith Piaf’s life was to sing and survive, to live and love. It was all or nothing, and finally she died in 1963 at the tragic age of forty-seven. Today Edith Piaf is remembered well and thought to be one of the greatest singers France has ever produced. Her signature song "La vie en rose" was voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998 and while the award may mean nothing or everything to her listeners, which woman does not want to be held in the arms of her love and feel these sentiments:

“ Des yeux qui font baisser les miens,
Un rire qui se perd sur sa bouche,
Voilà le portrait sans retouche
De l'homme auquel j'appartiens

Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas,
Je vois la vie en rose.

Il me dit des mots d'amour,
Des mots de tous les jours,
Et ça me fait quelque chose.

Il est entré dans mon coeur
Une part de bonheur
Dont je connais la cause.

C'est lui pour moi. Moi pour lui
Dans la vie,
Il me l'a dit, l'a juré pour la vie.

Et dès que je l'aperçois
Alors je sens en moi
Mon coeur qui bat “