A few weeks ago, we had a comment on the blog that got me thinking. Here is the bit that got me:
“I hate when people go to China and get all gaga about it. Breathe it in and then hawk it out on the sidewalk.”
Not only did I disagree with this as an assessment of our blog and our outlook, I was surprised by the accusation of sinophilia.
I have never had an academic or personal interest in China. We came because the opportunity arose, it was a good time in our lives, we thought it would be great for our young children to acquire a second language and have a cross-cultural experience and we are always up for an adventure.
None of this is to suggest that I was neutral to China. On the contrary, I regarded the PRC with significant disdain. It was only Jason’s excitement and my enthusiasm for a year abroad that allowed me to bracket the drawbacks of the location and agree to the trip. In the weeks leading up to our departure, I sought to “get educated” about China. Scurrying to finish my dissertation, I had little time for language or in-depth cultural study. Instead, I ordered academic books on Chinese ethnic minorities, a concise history and a host of popular press books dealing with contemporary China. In addition we followed the summer riots in Xinjiang and other current events.
The more I read, the more I began to regret our decision to spend the year in the PRC. Let’s face it, you don’t have to work very hard to dislike China. Falun Gong, Taiwan, Tibet, man-eat-man economic development, minority policies that freeze ethnic groups in the pre-development past, abuses of power by the party elite, the one child policy and forced abortions/sterilizations – my disdain was replaced by active hostility directed at the government establishment and the Chinese who, through their complicity if not participation, maintain the status quo. I shared my misgivings with Jason. He suggested that we could scrap the plan – I suspect he was also having second thoughts.
When faced with the option of staying home, I balked. Wouldn’t a year in China be a valuable experience despite (or even because of) my aversions to the place? Wasn’t I the kind of person that seizes opportunities? Didn’t we always say that it is better to try something new and decide you don’t like it or it is too difficult than to spend your time wondering how it would have been and if you could do it? Wouldn’t the experience be wonderful for the kids? We decided that we would go to China. My challenge would be opening myself up to the country and its people despite my aversions and disdain.
With only 3 weeks left in China, I can say that I have learned enough about this place and myself to overcome my hostility. My vision does not always include an implicit value judgment based upon the assumption of cultural and political superiority. Instead of being blinded by hostility, I can sometimes see why the Chinese approach is as it is. In other words, I know a little bit about the culture and values underlying political and economic conditions. This is certainly not to say that I agree with policies on minority groups, religion, censorship, international relations, environmental management, class inequality and economic development. Furthermore, I, unlike most Chinese citizens, feel that my voice should (must) be heard and believe that I am free to express my disagreement without putting myself and family in jeopardy.
I am neither a sinophile nor an apologist, but a multicultural pragmatist. Sometimes China feels like home or just like it and sometimes I feel myself an alien life form on a distant planet. But in the end I think that China and the Chinese, like everyone and everywhere, demonstrate the best and the worst, the old and the new, the promise and limitations of our wacky species – all that and everything in between.