Who’s Who Interview with SACS Member: Mary Ann O’Donnell

Q. How long have you been in Asia? Shenzhen?
A.  About seventeen years, total; in the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, and thirteen years in Shenzhen.

Q. What changes have you seen in Shenzhen over the years?
A.  Shenzhen was established to initiate changes nationwide; the city defines itself through constant change.  For thirty years, Shenzhen has been both a symbol of the post Mao transformation of Chinese society and a site where transformation is played out. In this sense, Shenzhen has changed everyday since I’ve been here.

Generally speaking, the most fundamental change has been replacing farming and fishing villages with an increasingly centralized city.  This has entailed replacing a more or less homogeneous agricultural population of Cantonese speakers (in the West) and Hakka speakers (in the east) with a heterogeneous urban population of Mandarin speakers including migrant and white-collar workers, real estate and digital technology tycoons… and, of course, young people who have grown up identifying with the city.

Ten years ago, most people identified with their hometowns. When I first came, Shanghai migrants said they were from Shanghai even if they had lived in the city for over ten years. Today, their children say they are from Shenzhen. Ten years ago, local people considered themselves to be uneducated farmers. Today, their children have studied university abroad and run urban businesses. Ten years ago, people still used the vocabulary of Maoism to explain why they were in Shenzhen. Today, most describe their lives in terms of globalization and economic necessity.  Thus, although I missed the initial changes, I have witnessed the consolidation of a specifically Shenzhen cultural identity, urban environment, political-economy and history.

Q. You work inside the Chinese educational system. How is it different from schools in the West?
A.  My sense is that the US system leaves education up to the initiative of students; if a student wants to learn, the system provides amazing opportunities. In contrast, the Chinese system, especially in elementary and middle school operates on the understanding that every child can and should learn academic subjects.

The upside to the American system is that it cultivates individual talents and has the space to adjust for individual learning  styles. The upside to the Chinese system is that most students leave middle school with solid fundamentals in Chinese, math  and science.

The downside of the American system is that students who don’t want or don’t know how to learn are easily tracked by interests in sports, the arts, or just hanging out. They often graduate without solid fundamentals and are therefore socially disadvantaged.  In China, those who are unable to compete academically are socially marginalized through a series of examinations. Those who do graduate, often have no clear idea of what they are interested in.

Q. What do Chinese kids learn that Western kids  don’t? How about in reverse? What do Western kids learn that the Chinese kids miss out on?
A.  See above.

Q. Tell me about your Theatre Project, Fat Bird. Why “Fat Bird”? What’s in the name?

A.  The classic “Strange Tales from Liaozhai” tells stories of ghosts, talking animals, and magical occurrences, including foxes who turn into beautiful women.  In 2003 a group of us were developing “Fox Tales” out of one of the Liaozhai stories. During a workshop for “Fox Tales”, Yang Qian improvised a fat bird.  The bird was far outside the eventual play, but everyone agreed the character was too great to abandon, and so named the troupe “Fat Bird”.

Q. What play is currently being produced?

A.  We have just finished “I Have You Once a Year”. We are looking for sponsors to do another run in the early Fall. It is loosely based on the play “Same Time, Next Year”. It tells the story of two lovers who meet once a year over the course of 25 years. Social changes shape and enhance their relationship. The Fat Bird version uses language and rhetoric from China, from the mid 1950′s through 70′s, to tell this story.

Audience response to the first run was interesting because although based on a loosely “American” story, everyone saw contemporary “China” in the story. The radical social changes that took place in the United States through the 50′s, the 60′s and 70′s resonate in a place like Shenzhen, which has, in many senses, seen even greater changes in the decades from the 70′s through the millennium.  In the play, the two main characters grapple with the question, how do you maintain marriages, communities and friendships despite fundamental social transformation?  Many in Shenzhen have grappled with, and continue to grapple, with this question.

Q. I often hear people say Shenzhen is lacking in culture. Do you agree? Where do you go when you need a culture fix?

A.  There’s more high culture than there was. If I want more, I go to Guangzhou or Hong Kong.  That said, I think that as a photographer, I’m more interested in cultural production than I am in cultural products. What I like about the Shenzhen culture scene is that artists here are forced to work across a range of disciplines and jobs.  So there are designers who make documentary films and bar tenders who produce alternative music.  I find this willingness to branch out, rather than specialize, both provocative and interesting.

Mary Ann O’Donnell is a photographer and an anthropologist whose knowledge of anthropology influences the pictures she takes. She generously provided some of those photos for the viewing enjoyment of SACS readers.  —   Glass Shards

Mary Ann O’Donnell, Ph.D.,
Vice Principal

Green Oasis School, Shenzhen Branch
Millennium Oasis, Tianmian
Shennan Middle Road
Shenzhen, PR China 518026

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