Celebrating and Avoiding Groundhog Day

Happy Groundhog Day to everyone. As a graduate student doing fieldwork and writing up my dissertation, I relate far too well to the circumstances of Bill Murray in that movie (although my piano playing has not improved).

A week or so ago I stumbled into a revealing anecdote about China. In order to extend my visa so that I can stay here legally, I needed to have a couple of passport photos taken. The Kodak shop is not far away from my apartment – although traveling anywhere outdoors in Beijing in the winter is not pleasant. After the pictures had been taken and copies of my passport had been made, I waited as the photographer used an undoubtedly illegal copy of Adobe Photoshop to get the shape and coloring to match government regulations. Next to his computer was another one, where a customer was sitting down and looking intently at her photo – an ultrasound of a fetus.

Chinese traditional culture – like many if not most around the world – tends to place emphasis on male children. The imposition of the one child policy has led to distortions in the population’s gender ratio. Official statistics for 2005 show that there were 118 boys born for every 100 girls. [There are reasons to doubt this number as individuals have an incentive to hide the birth of a girl if they want to try again to have a boy, but no one doubts that there is a serious gap.] By 2033, men between 20 and 45 will outnumber women of that age group by an estimated 30 million. Proposals to ban ultrasounds that could be used for ‘non-medical purposes,’ i.e. determining gender and sex-selective abortions, have been put forward but are not yet the law of the land.

The woman that was looking at the ultrasound as I waited did not appear pregnant, but then again the fetus did not seem particularly developed either. I do not know what her actual situation was and did not think that asking would be appropriate. Seeing her and the ultrasound reminded me again that keeping my eyes open in China can be incredibly rewarding. The vast majority of my time is and should be spent in the monotonous company of statistical yearbooks and propaganda-filled government work reports, but incidents like these remind me that no matter how similar my days might seem I am not stuck on Groundhog Day.

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