Dorri Olds interviews Yael Farjun about feminism, the firewall and being a Jewish woman from Israel who lives and works in government-controlled China.
TheBlot Magazine’s Dorri Olds landed an interview with Yael Farjun, 31, an Israeli woman who possesses encyclopedic knowledge of Mandarin and 5,000 years of Chinese history. Her studies and ability to speak Mandarin resulted in an amazing opportunity to work at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.
Once there, Farjun fell in love with the city. After months at the Expo, she decided to stay in Shanghai and put her experience, skills and knowledge to good use by giving guided tours. That soon led to starting her own travel company, China: Click and Go. It offers unusual and exotic tours that are off the beaten path (fun pun intended).
For TheBlot, what began as a fascination with her company led to a curiosity about what it’s like for an outsider to live and work in government-controlled China.
(Photo courtesy of Yael Farjun)
Dorri Olds: Why did you and I have such a hard time connecting on Facebook?
Yael Farjun: It’s because of the firewall. Most of the outside is blocked here in China. Chinese authorities and government control everything very tightly; in part, it’s because it makes it easier for them to manage content and what Chinese people are exposed to, and on the other side, because it helps them to help local brands promote themselves. Everything that is Google-based you cannot use in China, so we have a problem with Gmail, Google maps, Google search. If I want to download something on my Android phone from Google Play, it’s almost impossible. I have to turn on the app VPN (virtual private network). Facebook is blocked, Twitter, Instagram, and a lot of blogs are blocked to the outside world so we cannot use them, but you learn how to use the local things.
Is that to manipulate and control the Chinese people?
I wouldn’t call it manipulate. This is the question I get asked a lot from people in the outside world. Many of the words we use in the West are not correct to use here. Government is controlling everything; that is known and agreed on by the people here. No one is protesting, or at least not on a great scale. So, to call it manipulating is not how I would explain it. Yes, Chinese authorities care a lot about what their people are reading and hearing, and they hold it tight.
Is it to care for the good of the people or to control them?
I would say more to control, but it doesn’t go against the good of the people. China is still learning and adapting and developing in many areas. Sometimes to impose new ideas take longer. You can’t just put new ideas into a country that doesn’t understand them. You need to teach things slowly. I try not to judge it.
(Photo courtesy of Yael Farjun)
What about feminism? How are women treated?
The concept of feminism is not as labeled here. You can see that there is close to equality. In many ways, it’s very equal how they treat both genders. Chairman Mao Zedong was the first to say that women hold half of the sky. That did a lot here on one hand; on the other, you wouldn’t see many women in politics or in high positions within companies. You do see them more and more. They do receive respect; they’re not oppressed. They are very welcomed in academia and as entrepreneurs. Women are empowered in China. I think that’s because they don’t have that concept of feminism. They just opened up the opportunities for women, and you don’t have the debate going on.
Is there anti-Semitism in China?
No, on the contrary, there is a lot of love towards Jewish people — no matter who you ask here. If you say you’re Jewish in China, the first thing they will say is, “You are very smart.” They admire it. They talk about Israel with admiration like, “You’re strong, your economy is strong, you have the highest number of high-tech entrepreneurs in the world, you’re so successful, there’s so many Jewish people who won the Nobel Prize for so many great discoveries. For such a small number of people in the world, it is amazing what you’ve done.”
Chinese people love to compare that we survived with our traditions for about 5,000 years just like they did, that we share similar ideas, like we respect the family a lot. We respect studies and our elders, so they look at those things and say, “We are so much alike, and we admire what you do.” I’m not afraid to walk around here and say I’m from Israel or that I’m Jewish because I know that I will receive a lot of respect here.
How is the LGBT community treated?
From things I’ve read, I don’t think they understand the phenomenon of homosexuality. You can see homosexual couples, but you don’t see them out walking in the streets too much. But the Chinese at large don’t show much affection in public, so you won’t see any couples walking hand-in-hand very often. In the big cities, there are bars and other gathering places for homosexuals, but [for] many Chinese, I think, it’s still in a developing phase here in China. There doesn’t seem to be any homophobia, but it’s also not widely talked about.
What about same-sex marriage? Is that legal?
No, that’s still not possible in China. I do know that recently there was a Hong Kong company that helped 20 same-sex couples to go outside of China to get married in the States and then they came back here, but China doesn’t recognize the marriages. Not yet.