Update November 9, 2016: Since we posted the article last year, we learned about perspectives from Africans who work in China or work for Chinese companies in Africa (many would very much like Chinese citizenship). We were also scoffed at by an American English teacher in Taiwan and Taiwanese who didn’t get the joke. We also found the lead image used in a lecture at the London School of Economics as a reflection of China’s bright future. With the election of Donald Trump in the US Presidential election, the message takes on new relevance for Americans as some consider leaving the United States.
In the past few months, in crowded New York subway stations and on the busy streets of Manhattan, I am probably not the only person who has spotted quite a few young Chinese women carrying tote bags that simply reads “Marry Me for Chinese Citizenship.” The visual and emotional effects of this statement are both amusing and intriguing to passersby, triggering curious conversations with the women and about the meaning behind the text.
The mastermind behind the bag is Li Shuang, a recent graduate from New York University, who introduced this socially engaged art project at Welcome to the Republic of Extraordinary Ability, a book release party hosted by playwright Zhu Yi and curator Gu Qianfan in the Lower East Side in May. “Alien of extraordinary ability” is a classification used by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency with the authority to grant international artists non-immigrant visas to permit them to stay in this country legally. For so-called aliens in the creative field, such as Li Shuang and Zhu Yi, obtaining this type of visa can be difficult. Their vulnerable positions may not be well known by their American peers, but Shuang seeing an opportunity, turned her struggle into a source of inspiration.
“I never consider myself as a full time artist,” Li commented on her own identity. With a BA in English Literature and a MA in Media Studies, this young Chinese woman is eager to bring awareness to social issues that are usually overlooked by the public. Realizing that she has limited methods to achieve her goal through academics, Li Shuang engages in social and political art projects to make a bigger noise, which includes “Marry Me for Chinese Citizenship”. At the party, I approached Li Shuang to buy a tote bag and followed up with an interview, in which she generously shared with me her thoughts about this project and her life in New York.
What inspired you to make this tote bag? Tell us about the project and the stories behind it.
Initially it was my performance in Times Square on Valentine’s Day, when I made a big placard sign that I read “Marry Me For Chinese Citizenship” and walked around for 6 hours in the snow. People had various reactions towards it– some laughed and walked away or took a picture, which was totally expected and welcomed.
However what was surprising, yet amazing, was that 80% of people read the sign wrong. When people saw keywords #marry #Chinese #citizenship, what registered with them was the green card marriage stereotype. So, they would come up to me and tell me without any conversation beforehand, “Give me $10,000, and I will marry you.” My dear friend Zhang Hanlu was with me throughout the performance, and she said she wanted to wear a sign that said “Me too”. Performance artist Miao Jiaxin also gave me the advice of having multiple girls wearing the sign at the same time. It is the unexpected reaction combined with my friends’ wonderful advice that inspired me to expand it from my personal one time performance to a socially engaged project.
Does putting this slogan on a bag make it different from it being on a sign?
Medium is not only the message but also the massage (Medium is the Massage is a book [co-created by media analyst Marshall McLuhan and graphic designer] Quentin Fiore where the term “massage” is appropriated by McLuhan to denote the effect each medium has on the human sensorium). According to the 2011 New York Times article “A Message on Every Arm”, the tote bag is very common in New York and a certain level of humor is expected. So, it would require less for the people to carry out the message.
You sell these bags and expect the buyers to participate in this project and give you feedback. What do you expect as these bags reach a larger audience? Do you think others will receive different reactions than you?
I’m selling the bags at a relatively cheap price, not intending to make money out of it. At the same time, I can’t give it away for free; so, I want to ask for a small level of dedication.
The reactions they’ve received are similar yet different — as I said, humor and sarcasm are usually expected [in the text of] tote bags. So, there’s a smaller chance for people to read the sign wrong. A friend told me that when she saw the performance in Times Square, she was struck by a sense of doomsday, as if the sign was saying, “This is the end of the world.” Tote bags are more subtle and get the message through efficiently.
Would the reactions and effect be different in different parts of New York City? Different cities? What if it were seen in China?
I’m still collecting feedback in terms of different regions (I actually have a lot to say but however I put it it will be so politically incorrect), I’m assuming people would react differently in other parts of the world. I’m really excited to bring them back and see the reactions of all the Caucasian English teachers and DJs in Beijing and Shanghai.
Is this part of a larger art project? Tell us about your next art plan.
It is. But I’m not sure about the next step, I’m expecting to be inspired by the feedback from the participants.
Can you briefly talk about what it means to be Chinese here in the US, according to your opinion and experience?
Being a Chinese in US means constantly being expected to speak bad English, among other things. I listened to way too much American punk rock when I was an angry teenager so I happened to not have any Chinese accent. I got “You speak really good English” a lot which is not really a compliment for me. I’m way better at other things than “speaking English”. But, I know it’s difficult for Americans as well to adapt to this changing landscape.
But, being in New York is different. It can be a narcissistic shithole or an open water. Once a person stops learning, he would be inevitably sucked into the swirl of the city. So the only way to survive is to keep learning.
Nations are imagined communities anyway. The whole point of the project has nothing to do with being Chinese. The fact that so many people from other countries have supported me have proved my intention.
Since the interview, I too have been carrying this unique tote bag with me frequently. Some who see the tote laugh; complete strangers take pictures — sometimes asking permission and other times furtively at a distance — and tell me “I have many Chinese friends”. An art professor on the train started a serious discussion about the bag with me. I later ran into him in a Chelsea gallery, and he recognized me because of the bag. We became friends.
I also asked several Chinese people, both male and female, who bought this tote bag and carried it around about their experiences:
Ara (New York, recent graduate from NYU): “Brought it with me to San Francisco and ran into a homeless guy on the street around midnight. He saw my bag and yelled ‘I will, I will!’, and I ran away!”
Jess (New York, art professional): “Went to Guggenheim carrying the tote bag and many people asked for a picture (with the bag)!”
Linus (Austin, software developer): “I was hoping to go grocery shopping with this bag, but it seems to be a bit small.”
Finally, here comes the real question: can you get a Chinese citizenship by marrying a Chinese? The answer is no. In the States, it seems that the easiest way for a foreigner to get a green card is to marry an American citizen, a route allowed by American immigration policy.
However, the Chinese “green card”, or the Permanent Residence of Foreigners in China, is the hardest to get in the world. Only a few hundred green cards are issued to foreigners annually since 2004, compared to one million that United States issues every year. Apparently, “Marry me for Chinese Citizenship” is a lie, but that is exactly where its power lies.
Li Shuang shows the persistence of the green card marriage stereotype. Many people read her message wrong, automatically perceiving with certain assumptions about her. Li’s performance in Times Square forced her audience to confront this stereotype in person and stirred up conversation.
Now, she has already bid farewell to this country since her visa has expired, but she leaves behind her bags — emblazoned with a little bit sense of humor, sarcasm, and most importantly, a Chinese person’s genuine concern about all those who struggle in a foreign land.
A popular English instructor in Taiwan posted the lead photo on his Facebook page without knowing its origin and asked in the caption “妳知道你袋子上面是寫什麼嗎， 小姐” (“Miss, do you know what your bag says?”)
The instructor and the majority of commenters in the post (which we shared before we were blocked) missed its humorous message. A couple of people posted articles about the art project but were drowned out by the many who interpreted the words with the vitriol and suspicion towards Mainland Chinese that strain cross-strait relations.
It’s probably not surprising that the different context changed how and why the bag was provactive, but we’re disgusted that the original poster fomented animosity by blessing many of the comments instead of highlighting the issues that led to the project — issues that could affect the commenters.
Lead photo courtesy of the author.
The article was updated to correct the author in the byline and to add coverage by SinoVision.