With his doctoral in Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Assistant Professor Christian Sorace is the most recent addition to Colorado College’s Political Science Department.
This week, Sorace sat down with The Catalyst to discuss his concentration in the politics of East Asia, his daily linguistic code switching between Chinese at home and English on campus, and what it means to be an American, both at home and abroad, if there is ever a true answer to that.
The Catalyst: Fluent in both Mandarin Chinese and receptively fluent in Sichuan Dialect, as well as in the process of learning Mongolian, do you also consider yourself culturally fluent in these languages, as well?
Christian Sorace: With China especially, as much as possible, I try to spend time integrating myself with the local culture. And I remember when I was doing field work, some of my happiest moments were when people would say like, [Chinese phrase], which means “you are culturally Chinese,” and often times my wife will joke that even though I’m white… [laughs] that I eat anything. So a lot of times, in China, things that she won’t eat and finds kind of repulsive, I have no problem with. So, like in Sichuan, one of the delicacies is Mala, which is a kind of numbing spice, or rabbit head, that you put on little white plastic gloves that you have to take the flesh off the rabbit—which is so cute—and then you pull apart the jaw bone. Well, scratch that, it’s not a delicacy; it’s actually a very common dish.
Anyway, my wife finds it to be cruel and barbaric, and people joke that I eat anything as a way of blending in. But it’s really good, though.
So [in terms of] cultural fluency, like when I was learning language in China and in Taiwan, I’ve always tried as much as possible to spend time talking to local people, rather than hanging with friends and going to the same ex-pat bars or other places because, to me and my work, part of it is understanding how people think, and how they talk, and trying to get inside their view the world.
Mongolia is more difficult. To me, the language is much harder than Chinese, and I don’t have the same background, but I’m steadily learning it. One of the reasons I like going there so much is precisely because it’s something I’m extraordinarily curious about.
TC: Have you seen the way you hear, speak, interact, and think in English change over the course of your developing relationship with Asian languages?
CS: Yeah, I think so. I clearly think differently in Chinese than I do in English, and my attitudes are different. And in some level, which is really perplexing to me, is that my wife mainly understands me through Chinese, and so I’m actually wondering how our relationship would be different if we spoke English together.
And also, so a huge part of that aspect of how I think and how I express myself in English is entirely different and cut off from her, and one thing I think is really beautiful is I think that having a certain poetic relationship with English can be a charming quality, and even though my wife doesn’t have access to that part of who I am, she still loves me, and I find that amazing.
[…] We can hide in language, disappear inside it, justify ourselves, build all sorts of beautiful things as well with language, and so even with my crude Chinese, she still manages to see something worthwhile in me, which I find to be actually a wonderful sign of love.
TC: Beginning your education with a B.A. in Philosophy and Film Studies, how did you come to specialize in the politics of Asia?
CS: I was trained as a political theorist. For my B.A., I went to a small liberal arts school—Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. —which is one of that things that really drew me to Colorado College and the liberal arts environment, because the best thing about my undergraduate: we were reading philosophy texts, watching film—at that time smoking was still cool—smoking and watching films and talking. It was ridiculous in a sort of way: the imaginary, romanticized relationship you can have with yourself. But, I just remember the fact that these ideas can be so exciting, and you can actually look at the world around you through films and just have the relationship where you engage them and deal critically with them, and that we’re always doing it, but we’re never really admitting that we’re doing it, and we’re kind of explicitly saying, “Hey, I’m critically engaging this. So to create that kind of atmosphere and generate those discussions was always the most joyful activity in college.
So from there, I did all sorts of things. I moved to Texas because I needed to get away from the east coast, and I heard that Austin was cool… I worked at a liquor store; I worked at a law firm. I remember when I worked at the liquor store I actually sold alcohol to Jenna Bush. She was over age, at that point. I remember too, when she came into the liquor store, thinking— this was at the height of the Iraq invasion and everything—I was gonna say something nasty, and then I was like “No, it’s not her fault. The sins of the father don’t need to pass on, so just be cool.”
So I did all sorts of jobs. I did canvas for one summer as well, which I found horrifying going door to door in Texas talking about environmental pollution. I wasn’t that good at it.
I then got my M.A. at The University of Chicago […] and I went into my Ph.D. wanting to work on political theory, but also feeling a kind of limitation of only dealing with these questions in abstract terms, but I wanted to do field work. So at this time in particular—I started my Ph.D. in 2008, right after the Sichuan earthquake happened—I kind of thought that China is so fascinating. It’s so vast and heterogeneous that you can never get tired or bored of studying anything.
At the time, actually, what I wanted to study philosophically was how anxiety is not just an individual physiological condition but also is part of our political and social reality. So, when people’s socioeconomic conditions change, or there are large crises to how their world is organized, people feel anxiety as a way of responding to how the world somehow no longer becomes legible.
So after this huge disaster, I thought, well, this is a perfect opportunity to see how, in China, this sense of reality is rebuilt on the ground, how people live and come to terms with their experience, and what the government’s top-down vision of reconstruction was. […] So at that point…, my answer to everything was to throw myself into work and to throw all of the shitty feelings into work, so I learned Chinese, did my Ph.D. courses, I did my research design, I went to Taiwan to study—so it was basically a lot of intense training. I do not recommend to anybody to do Ph.D. and language training at the same time. It’s really masochistic in a certain way. But it was also fun.
TC: How do you feel, as an American, you are able to shed light on another continent’s—another country’s, specifically— issues?
CS: This might be a disingenuous answer, but I try not to think of myself in terms of being an American, but at the same time the ability to not have to think of myself in terms of be in an American might be a product of the privilege of being an American, because I’m not marked in a certain way. Well, you are in China. You have to defend your identity, as I obviously stand out in the countryside, and what not. […] It becomes almost unbearable to watch the news in the U.S. Because, at least to me, when you’re here and surrounded by it every day, it at least has a hold or grip on your imagination because you’re inside of the debates or the arguments. But when you take a step back for a while and also talk to other people about how they look at us and how they look at … the debates we are having, what are the fundamental debates that are even up for debate, it has this alienating effect, where you just kind of feel a bit sad and withdrawn.
So one thing that is being abroad… is a good way to have a healthy distance and negotiation with the question of what it means to be American here, to have political debates with a different set of ears as much as possible. But then, of course, sometimes in China I would get into arguments with people, and I try as much as possible to blend in but sometimes my friends in China would say, “Oh, you’re acting like such an American, you’re acting so individualistic or not thinking about how your actions would have some repercussions for the group,” or something. Which is not to say China is still in this close, collectivist mentality, but which is to say there are different ways to negotiate this kind of social field.
In other times, something of being American kind of surprises you. Certain characteristics of my American-ness surprise me. An interesting thing that has happened to me in China, was I was once asked to be a discussant on a round table about American politics, and I was just blown away by the questions being, “what kinds of guns do you own,” which indicates the way Americans are seen abroad, and I had trouble navigating, and basically said we are all internally diverse and heterogeneous with different political beliefs. So I’m not really clear on what it would mean to be an American in this particular way.
TC: Tell me about your tattoos.
CS: So, the question is do I tell you the stories that make me sound cool and smart, or do I tell you the dumb stories?
So this tattoo here [pointing to a colorful eye crying into an anatomical heart inside of a ribcage] was done in Italy on my honeymoon, and it’s actually of a visual representation by my favorite Italian author and director Pierre Paolo Pasolini, and in the poem, he basically writes, his love is naked love, love without future.
So I sent the poem to this tattoo artist I followed for a while—by followed, I mean on Instagram—and he lives on the coast in Cattolica, Italy, and I wrote him a letter—I had a friend translate it—saying, “I am coming to Italy with my wife. I love your kind of aesthetic. Would you do some abstract visual representation of this Pasolini poem?”
So this would be the ribcage, the eye, and the heart. This is basically a kind of almost presentist, imminent love that faces the world without necessarily hiding in a future, without necessarily dressing itself up as anything else other than it is. So, he did this, and I had to give two lectures on Chinese labor this summer, and so every time I’m in Italy, I use the excuse to go and see him […]
Can you tell what this is? This is from the end of “Planet of the Apes” when the Statue of Liberty collapses. So I actually had this tattoo done right around the post 9-11 patriotic “we need to invade Iraq to reclaim our freedom” moment of mass-delusion of the U.S. It was, to me, actually, my way of working through ambivalence that I actually do find lots of political values in America to be clearly something I believe in and feel worth defending, but at the same time, the way in which we are defending them destroys them and kind of tramples on them. So it was in that ambivalent way to preserve freedom, so to speak. We have to go kill other people and destroy our freedoms at the same time.
Once, in Beijing, I had a meeting with probably the most famous activist-artist Ai Weiwei—and he is hugely famous. He did some art on the Sichuan earthquake and the schoolchildren that died, and it was only after his involvement in these projects (with) the schoolchildren that he really started to foul with the government. Before then he helped design the Bird’s Nest for the Olympics. Anyway, one day—I think in 2011—he was detained and held for over 90 days, and that also attracted lots of attention. So I got to meet him because I wanted to talk to him about his art and what his experiences were in Sichuan, ad he was the only person who has immediately recognized the tattoo image. And he said to me in Chinese, [Chinese phrase], “that’s my girlfriend.” And I was like, “oh really?” And he was like, “the Statue of Liberty, that’s my love, that’s my mistress, that’s my girlfriend,” and it really turned the conversation south. And I said to him, “Of course, doesn’t that play into looking into how bad China is by looking into how good America is?” But anyway, Ai Weiwei’s point was that he kind of had this dedication and attachment to this Statue of Liberty, and I tried to problematize and contextualize it a little bit, but he didn’t take kindly to that gesture.
TC: Describe your favorite day you’ve taught since coming to CC.
CS: To be honest, I mean this very earnestly, so far, for the most part, all of the classes have been very enjoyable. The students are doing all the reading, discussing it, engaging with the material. Maybe just because it’s fresh on my mind, today’s class [we were] reading a book about industrialized slaughter, and two of my students were getting into a debate that touched on an entirely ethical, epistemological considerations on how to understand basically eating animals and laughter, and I could basically step back and nudge and guide or re-contextualize the conversation, but let them hash it out and other students jump in the fray. To me, it doesn’t get better than that, but you know, like any other narcissistic academic, I need to learn how to shut up and withdraw myself because we like to hear our own voice.
TC: This year, if you could leave one impression on your students, what would you wish for that to be?
CS: The absolute joy and pleasure of learning. A lot of the time, we – not our department, our department is fantastic – politics can be made so boring and so life-negating and suffocating, and I don’t understand how that’s possible because when we start to think about how the world around us is made and unmade and continually in flux… There’s a creative joy in thinking that can sometimes be lost in the approach in the classroom, like the grade you’re going to get […] or when you approach the classroom as a kind of obligation. You realize how much our thinking can actually open up spaces of freedom for us. I mean freedom in a very practical sense, not that abstract American sense.
TC: Do you feel as though, from a scholar’s perspective of Chinese politics, there is something missing in the way the US media reports on and people talk about the current conflict between the U.S. and North Korea?
CS: I’m not an expert on North Korea, that’s my disclaimer. But one thing that I think is missing—that’s typically missing, not just in this kind of discussion—is awareness of history or the ability to be self critical and reflexive on our own role in the world. These aren’t my arguments that I’ve read and find compelling, and so I guess I endorse because I am retelling them to a certain degree… So I turned on the news the other day to “Kim Jong-Un is a madman blah blah blah…” Nor am I endorsing [North Korea], by the way; a lot of things Kim Jong-Un does are actually rational responses to a form of menace or aggression.
Take, for one example, Muammar Gadaffi in Libya signed an agreement to not pursue nuclear weapons under the conditions that that agreement would kind of give him the space to do whatever.
From the perspective of Kim Jong-Un, there’s a historical record and precedent of not pursuing the development of nuclear weapons and later deposed. And then also right now which is just completely bone-chilling and preposterous to me, is the idea that Trump might tamper with the Iranian negotiations. So if on one hand you’re taking one of the historically unprecedented treaties that’s working and that’s being a rigorously enforced, what signal are you sending to North Korea?
And so, at the same time, for instance, North Korea launches a missile into the Sea of Japan. So the U.S. media shows, “There’s a missile, Kim Jong-Un is crazy and is sending missiles everywhere.” He sent a missile there because days before, the U.S. military was engaging simulation of leadership decapitation in that particular area. Right? So in this power logic, he can’t just leave it unmarked, so its actually just this pathetic, symbolic gesture of Kim Jong-Un: “You can’t come in here and stage a simulation of how you’d invade North Korea and decapitate my leadership.”
So without any comment on Kim Jong-Un, the U.S. media lacks more this critical nuance of sensitivity in which our actions […] and our role and our military presence on this continent, and all of these other things, might influence the actions of North Korea. But instead, we always remove ourselves from the big picture, which is a mechanism of making ourselves almost innocent outside of history, and then we can intervene in history to pull things back together.
TC: You’re hosting a dinner party. Invite three people, living or dead.
CS: Marx, Lenin, Mao.
TC: Your recent book, “Shaken Authority”, argues that reconstruction post-earthquake had subversive Communist Party intentions to showcase strengt—both economically and figuratively –—political legitimacy, and state unity. Have you seen any ways in which these political tactics in the wake of disaster have existed in the U.S.?
CS: One of the claims that I make, especially in the conclusion that I think differentiates the Chinese response from the U.S. response, is their relationship between the state and society. Chinese society isn’t state-phobic, like the U.S. is. There’s an expectation for the state to play a more intrusive—and the word intrusive is more of a prerogative term—but the expectation for the state to play the bigger role involved. The problem, in the Chinese context, isn’t that the state was interfering, but it was how the state was involved, and it was whether or not the state’s involvement was actually responsive to people’s needs or implementing its own visions. It was more like a negotiation between what the people themselves wanted or whether or not they were incorporated in this top-down process or reconstruction.
And so, often times, frictions and tensions were around those kinds of issues; whereas in the US, there is, to me, this unhealthy fear of the state as encroaching on our freedom, on markets. But also there is, in China on the Sichuan country side, no developed insurance markets, so the state really had to step in and subsidize most of the reconstruction, otherwise it would have been unimaginable for the people living there.
But so here, I give the example I give in the conclusion of my book, which maybe needs to be updated to new disasters and things changing so rapidly, that after Hurricane Sandy, on the east coast—where most of my family is from—most of the debates were “how do we update the power grid” or “how do we upgrade technological issues,” whereas in China, the issues become … “Who is going to step up?” and “What is the state’s role?”
But here, it’s much more displaced. So what I mean by state-phobia is here, people simultaneously rely on the state and want to convince themselves that the state and politics play no role in their lives.