This will probably make some people angry, or at least get people’s emotions fired up. But that’s not what I’m trying to do. This is a totally honest Western perspective from a Westerner who is usually very positive toward China (we are learning Chinese in China and want our kids to grow up here). I’m writing this hoping we can have a real conversation and understand one another better.
Obviously, I still have a lot to learn about both China and my own culture. I don’t mind if you disagree with some of this stuff… some of it’s probably wrong anyway! 😉
If you just want to “defend China” and point out how America is hypocritical, or “defend America” and “bash China,” then please go away. However, if you want to help explain why many Mainlanders (or Americans) see things and feel the way they do, or how they perceive the others’ actions and why, then please comment.
I like living in China. I like living in an all-Chinese neighbourhood and being part of a Chinese community. I like learning Mandarin. I like reading piles of geeky Chinese culture and history books. I like interviewing locals and writing their stories. I’m trying to understand and respect China. It’s just that some days, China doesn’t help very much.
What’s hurting China’s image
Right now “China” is making it hard for people like me to “look up to China.” In my personal experience, there are two main ways that this happens (first with the laobaixing, second with the rulers — two distinct groups).
First, in my personal relationships with Mainlanders, people are often so hyper-sensitive about how foreigners see China that we can’t actually have “real” conversations about the Olympics. Anything that could possibly be considered remotely negative is seen as anti-China, and people suspect me of either trying to bash China or of being too stupid to know what I should and shouldn’t say or write. So we just avoid talking about it. This attitude (from teachers and co-workers) is getting very tiresome. It’s sad and disappointing. We try to overlook it and ignore it, but after a while it influences our impression of China and the Chinese people. However this is actually not as big a deal. It’s annoying but I know I’ll get over it, just like I know that Chinese people have lots of different opinions (they don’t all think the same). It’s the second factor (below) that’s much more damaging to foreigners’ opinions of China as a nation.
Second, the way the Olympics have played out, with the broken Olympic-related promises (the protest zones/traps, red-handed cheating, fake minorities, and patronizing statements from Olympic officials at press conferences, for example), really make it impossible for many Westerners to increase their respect of China – even Westerners like me who want to be positive toward China. This factor is the big one, I think, that is killing China’s image in the West.
The effect on China-friendly foreigners
When the Olympics started I was totally going for China, and so were a lot of my foreigner friends. We had the t-shirts, the stickers, the flags, the head bands, everything. There are even Fuwa stickers in our apartment and on my bike. We’re the kind of foreigners who usually criticize Western portrayals of China to our Western friends and families back home. We know that – like every nation – China isn’t perfect, and we don’t expect perfection.
Now, near the end of the Olympics, I’ve actually been cheering for the USA against China and hoping the U.S. would win more medals. Why? (This is especially strange because I’m a Canadian, and we usually cheer for whoever is playing against the USA!) I was totally “中国加油！” before the Olympics, and I didn’t even have very high expectations, but I’ve become disappointed and a little negative (I’m not negative toward the Chinese people – Westerners can easily and naturally make this ruler/people distinction). But I still cheered for China last night against Holland in field hockey.
A key cultural difference?
I’m afraid this may generally be true for many in the West: China looks less worthy of genuine respect after the Olympics. Underneath all the controversy and blaming, I think there’s an important cultural difference that many Mainlanders might not realize about Westerners, and it’s causing a massive miscommunication:
The methods and actions that China’s rulers use to create and protect their glorious national “image” are making a much bigger impression on the world than the constructed image itself ever will.
When it comes to giving genuine respect or “looking up” to people, Westerners typically care more about actions, and less about image and status (obviously there’s plenty obsession over image and status in popular Western media, but there’s also very little genuine respect given in those instances). We don’t use, need, or understand “face.” It doesn’t matter that much to Westerners what Chinese officials say, or what they build, or how extravagant the Opening Ceremony is. Sure, we’ll say “Oh wow that was amazing!” and we really mean it. But what matters most is what the rulers do and what kind of real changes actually happen – not how prettily they paint their face.
I’m not saying America is better or more moral; that’s not the point. I’m just describing one typical Western perspective.
China has poured billions into trying to paint a picture of itself – an image – that looks perfect. But to us it’s just an image, like a commercial, so we naturally and automatically look past it to see if there is any real difference. We don’t “hate China”; we just naturally don’t take commercials very seriously or care about “face” (pride works differently in the West). Culturally, in these kinds of instances, we put less meaning in the “image” and more on actual action (obviously Americans care a lot about image in certain instances – here I’m specifically talking about what influences respect of a nation). But judging from the rulers’ actions and statements during the Olympics, it’s like they expect us to completely ignore their actions and just pretend that the image is reality. Westerners simply can’t accept this; it not only feels insulting and patronizing, it is considered dangerous and stupid to take any powerful entity (government, major corporation) at its word, especially unaccountable powerful entities.
The protest zones are a great example. The government (and many regular Mainlanders?) can’t stand the sight (the image) that actually allowing protests would create. But Westerners don’t care if it looks a little ugly because they think it would be ultimately better for society and people’s actual lives (the reality). That’s why they allow such spectacles in their own countries every day.
Questions for the readers:
I don’t care about having a “who’s nation is better than who” argument. This is about differences in cultural perception, not who’s nation is the greatest. Here’s the main point:
“The methods and actions that China’s rulers use to create and protect their glorious national “image” are making a much bigger impression on the world than the constructed image itself ever will.”
What do you think about the way foreigners see these things? How is a typical Mainland perspective different, and why? What do you think are the most common Mainland perspectives regarding these things? If Mainlanders weren’t so sensitive about their nation’s “face”, do you think they could agree with this Western way of looking at things?