alternative reality

Diamond Hill in Kowloon, Hong Kong

The following essay appears as part of the month-long series “Post-Truth Politics and the Creative Craft” on the blog, curated by guest editor Natalie Wee.

This is only temporarily, they said. Things will blow over soon. But just in case, we should pack the valuables—leave nothing behind for that upstart government to pick over. We should take the records, the books, the gold ornaments. Anything we can’t take, we’ll need to sell—the country house, the factories, the trucks, the remaining merchandise. Who knows who we might have to bribe to leave, and who knows what that deserted outpost, that undeveloped island will be like.

Perhaps the “they” who plotted their escape were your grandparents. Perhaps they were mine. I picture my grandmother, my Nai-nai, having already been separated from her parents and her home village to find a rich husband, now folding her silk scarves in anticipation of leaving her adopted city. My grandpa would’ve sat in backroom offices with his Shanghainese cronies, debating what the defeat of the Nationalist forces would mean to their cotton mills, their dye vats, and their suppliers.

“They always thought we’d return,” my dad explains. “They” were the Shanghainese families who set up enclaves in Kowloon’s Diamond Hill area and on the slope of Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. He tells me about the feeling of suspension, of waiting. They weren’t careful with their savings because of their misplaced hopes that Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party would regroup their forces and topple the Mao’s new government. “Your granddad didn’t even bother to learn Cantonese because he thought he’d be back soon.”

In the pause between this telling, both of us contemplate the weighted dice of history that tossed lives so casually into limbo. China after the Second World War was a divided country, having emerged from a long civil war; Hong Kong was under British Crown Rule and Taiwan newly under control of the Nationalist Party. I was being given a history lesson in situational irony and this history was my own heritage. My father’s family, loosely put, was in exile in their own country, yet the mass exodus of Shanghainese entrepreneurs would give rise to Hong Kong’s economic growth and industrialization.

My father witnessed the danger of believing that the version of history you are living in is the false one and that there’s another version of events where the “rightful” government is in power, people are not displaced, and property remains in the hands of the inheritors. Living in denial is a kind of luxury, and while in China his father was a wealthy and educated professor, in Hong Kong each year of waiting eroded his prospects. If my grandparents felt stalled or futile, the present needs of keeping the household together dragged them from their paralysis. They adapted, even thrived, as one by one my dad’s five stepsisters married well and emigrated. I wondered if their experience of upheaval made my father and his siblings disposed to, or at least not averse to, packing up and uprooting their lives to find a better situation.

Like China, the United States is an imperial power that contains deep cultural and class divides within its borders. It is not only divided along party lines but also demographically, between urban and rural, and geographically, between coastal areas and the interior states.

‘Your granddad didn’t even bother to learn Cantonese because he thought he’d be back soon.’

In the days and weeks following Trump’s presidential win, the phrases “alternative reality,” “alternative universe,” and “parallel universe” were widely used by the media, the Trump administration, leading liberal Democrats, and even Clinton herself. However, these phrases were used in contrasting ways that were telling of how each party viewed their relation to the facts and their “rightful” place in history.

The election results were so surprising that the idea of having slipped into an alternative or parallel universe became pervasive from Democratic supporters on social media as well as mainstream media outlets. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, issued a statement to debunk the trending idea that particle physics experiments had caused the world to shift into an alternate reality. The notion of an alternative reality is familiar from science fiction and dystopian novels, where authors imagine the possibility of other timelines. In this imagined version of events, the lawful rights and freedoms of first world citizens in democratic systems have been stripped away or removed. Thinking that there exists an alternative reality where Clinton did win the election does not necessarily mean that version of events is the “rightful” one, or that US citizens would not have their freedoms and rights infringed upon.

Critics of Trump’s administration have found it more effective to apply the notion of alternative reality to Trump himself, possibly because Clinton has argued this on several occasions during town halls and on talk shows: “I’ve adopted a New Year’s resolution,” Clinton said in Iowa in early 2016, “I’m going to let him live in his alternate reality. I’m not going to respond.” Clinton’s dismissive tone could have been because she knew that Trump would not be convinced even if the facts were presented to him, or more likely, because Trump knew his campaign was propagating misinformation and it was a part of his strategy.

Yet it’s not possible to dismiss the millions of Trump voters who were misinformed and who live in a fact-free or made-up-fact environment, as Rachel Maddow on NBC argues:

What Trump voters believe about the world is distinctively different from what the rest of the country believe and from what is true. And this is an alternate reality that they are in—it is weird enough and specific enough that you can’t say it just springs from broader misunderstandings or from a broader ignorance on issues that afflict the country. And this is a specific alternate reality that was created by the Trump movement for a political purpose. And it worked for that political purpose. And now as the Trump administration takes shape, they have to know that they are in power thanks to their voter base that has these false beliefs about the country.

Trump and many other charismatic leaders who come to power through creating what Maddow calls a “fantasy life for his supporters” rely on a time-tested dynamic. These leaders distort facts, make grandiose promises, and disseminate myths to fortify an ideological position. In the case of Chairman Mao, those promises and myths were of a peasant revolution, rapid modernization at any cost, the “re-education” of the intellectual and ruling elites, and the rejection of the Western powers that had caused China’s “century of humiliation.” These leaders would be powerless without their ability to make believe. Critics of Trump and his administration parse his speeches like stories, analyzing their patterns and persuasive style.

Trump’s supporters themselves must be willing to be persuaded, and therein lies their complicity in upholding this fantasy and alternative reality. If they truly believe Trump’s promises, then it may mean that millions are unable or unwilling to separate fantasy from reality. They refuse to “read” Trump’s discourse as a construction, because his promises to “make American great again” are preferable to the reality they are living in.

In this imagined version of events, the lawful rights and freedoms of first world citizens in democratic systems have been stripped away or removed.

At last, there are the liberal-minded progressive voters and organizations who, if they take their cue from Clinton, might choose to dismiss and not respond to Trump’s alternative reality. This dismissal is a kind of intellectual flight—a packing up of one’s emotional labour, a self-exile from someone else’s version of events. This too is a kind of complicity, because for “alternative facts” to take hold, there needs to be a three-part dynamic between those who create the fantasy, those who choose to believe it, and those who choose not to respond.

Over the years, my perspective on my father’s side of the family has shifted. What if they, and not the Communist Party, were in fact the enemies of the state? If not enemies, then maybe merely self-interested businessmen and bureaucrats, teachers and intellectuals, “elites” who looked down on the peasant class. Were they, in fact, anti-Chinese? One of the reasons the Shanghainese felt as though they were in exile is because China contains deep cultural and linguistic divides. Northern and Southern Chinese are barely intelligible to each other if speaking in their local dialects, which contain unique idioms and expressions. Traditionally, until the rise of the Communist party, Chinese people rarely married outside their own province and, most of the time, had marriages arranged for them within their own village or district.

My mother, who had grown up on one of Hong Kong’s many outlying islands and whose family had lived in Guangdong for centuries, would not have customarily married my father, a Northerner. There is another parallel reality where my father’s family stayed in Shanghai and did not grow up two blocks away from the factory where my 14-year-old mother attached transistors to a circuit board. There is another version of events where none of my family were uprooted, and if it were the only version told to me, I might believe it to be true.

Pheobe Wang’s first chapbook, Occasional Emergencies, was published in 2013 and her second, Hanging Exhibits, in 2016. In 2015, she won the Prism International poetry contest. Her work has also appeared in many journals such as Arc PoetryCanadian LiteratureDescant, and The Malahat Review, as well as the anthology TOK 6: Writing the New Toronto. Her debut poetry collection, Admission Requirements, is out from McClelland and Stewart in 2017.

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