Voices From China #2: 'The Chewiness Is What People Desire'

Earlier this month I quoted the views of Shi Hongshen, a young friend in Shanghai who explained some of the ambitions and curious nostalgia of members of his "post-80s" generation in China. A number of reactions, from Chinese and Americans alike, have come in, which I'll (try to) quote from in the next few days.

For the moment, the views of one of Shi Hongshen's contemporaries, a Chinese-born woman who did much of her growing up in the United States. She wrote to take angry exception to an item in which I discussed the current security crackdown inside China and asked whether it showed the Chinese government's over-confidence -- or its paranoid insecurity. In that item I quoted "The Peking Duck," Richard Burger, on the same insecure-arrogant paradox of the Chinese government's behavior. The reader disagrees with us both.

I present very long excerpts from of her even longer dissent as a sample of the kind of conversation I sometimes had in China, with people who felt they had tried harder to understand Western perspectives than most Westerners were trying to understand theirs. Obviously I don't see things just the way the writer does -- but in a sense that is precisely her point. If you have wondered what it is like to have a late-night talk in the Haidian university district of Beijing with a Westernized Chinese who feels comfortable with but also aggrieved about the United States, this is one very good illustration:

>>Even though I've lived in the US most of my life, as a half-generation Chinese American, I've had to deal with a lot of these issues. I think a lot of times Americans understand 'the China issue' from a very much American perspective, and similarly, Chinese people understand their issue from a very much Chinese perspective...

To be honest, I've always felt somewhat defensive towards China which I understand to be a part of my up bringing. I've seen many many half generation Chinese American kids struggle with this part of their identity....

We were kids who came to the US in the late 80s to early 90s, kids of parents who grew up during Mao, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, kids of the first generation of parents who graduated from an University. Some are kids of parents who have strong nostalgia towards the Mao-era, others, not so much. Not only that, many of us lived a number of years in China and have palpable memories of those days. Lastly, we are kids who grew up in an America that was hostile to China and still is. I say all this to point out an identity issue, an issue that White Americans rarely think about in their adolescence or in their adulthood.

Thumbnail image for Chinese Corn.jpgA few years ago, I was watching one of those competitive cooking shows on TV. They had a Korean American on who decided to cook a fairly traditional Korean beef dish for the final contest. The judges all thought that the beef was too tough, she explained that is how the dish is suppose to be made. That the chewiness is what people desire. Of course, none of the [American] judges desired this, and she did not win the competition.

A similar thing happened on a blog I read about a White American who brought his in-laws to visit the US. He thought for sure that if the in-laws just tasted the sweet, succulent American corn, they would never go back to the dry, chewy corn that you buy in China. [As roasted by a street vendor, above, photo from flickr.] They didn't [behave the way he expected]. My mom doesn't either, she hasn't in the 20 years she lived here.

My point here is not our taste buds, but a point about a perspective. From the one point of view, some of these things are unquestionable, of course they would automatically like the sweet corn only if they had it. Or why would anyone want to eat this chewy beef? In the case of the corn it doesn't matter so much. In the case of the beef, it did. She didn't win because the panel of judges were all Americans (if not all white Americans) who had a more westernized palette. But in front of this panel of judges, how would one explained that this dish is cooked to perfection? How would one explain to a whole lot of people out there, it is a dish that is strongly desired? After all, it's not a test on identity, it's a test on who can cook the best - based on a westernized sense of what food should taste like.
To be honest, I rarely had the chance (the nerve?) to explain any of these issues. Even in classes that centered around China, which most frequently are taught by Taiwanese Americans (I'll let you work out where they stand on that one). I felt like I was on the defense, the only people who understood me were people similar to me, half generational Chinese Americans. Even then, someone of them have bought some of the American slogans (dare I say propaganda?) towards China.

It wasn't until I met my very white, very mid-western American boyfriend that I really had to explain any of this. I didn't do a very good job. Most of the time, I felt too offended, insulted by his western-centric views to explain my self well other times, the concept was just really difficult to explain.

One of the most poignant discussions we had was on the pinyin system. He's learning Chinese and he found the pinyin system to be tedious and contradictory to the pronunciation for letters in English. He, then, went on to say that he could devise a way to romanize Chinese characters so that it's not so hard to learn. Well, only if China just decided to create a romanization that would cater to -every- single language in the world, but I doubt that's what he had in mind at the time. Of course, to him, the reason that pinyin exists is so that Americans can learn Chinese easily...

Another example that has be written about countless times in US news is about the imbalance of boy to girl ratio in China, particularly in the country side. When it comes to countries like India and Korea where similar issues exist, the conclusion is always because of cultural attitude. However, when it comes [to China], it's always the one-child policy. I have no doubt that the one-child policy extrabated the situation, but would the attitudes of those villagers change [without it]? I hardly doubt it.

Another story that I've never seen in American news sources is the number of female Chinese graduate student that comes to the US to study hard-science and engineering. Pick any American graduate school, and pick a hard science, let it be physics or mechanical engineering, there is an over representation of female Chinese graduate students in any of them. That means nothing to almost any American journalist. That somehow a country where there's such preference for boys not only send their kids to school, but encourage their girls to study in fields like engineering and science. Look a similarly overly represented Korean and Indian graduated student population, how many of them are female? How many of them study in these fields? I bet the number you come up with will be extremely disappointing.

Of course, this would involve thinking really critically about China's one-child policy, perhaps even come up with something positive, would a newspaper even publish that?

I'm sorry I come off sounding angry in this email, but to be honest, I am angry.... People of the western world can't understand that someone was not born just like them, they handle things differently let alone this transition is.

My boyfriend and I have this conversation, my thought process has changed dramatically over the years I've lived in the US. How far has his thought process come to the Chinese way of thinking? Not so much.

As with any relationship, two people need to work together to come to an understanding. How much easier would be for me to move my way of thought to his considering my understanding of the American way of thought as compared to his Chinese way of thought? Is this fair? I hope you get a sense that asking someone to come to understand my way without understanding their way is slightly off-balanced.

Burger's point is, as well as more or less every other person's point is, if only China will behave the western way. If only instead of "sabre-rattling and always sounding like a misunderstood and petulant child" and "why not throw the West a bone and let him go, declare an amnesty and then explain why he was detained in the first place." These statements speak more of the American arrogance than the Chinese arrogance and/or insecurities. I don't understand how referring to someone as "wailing" and a "petulant child" is not insulting. How that is not the same as calling your self a rational adult who understands the rules and plays by them.

I don't understand how Americans can't see that is how almost all of them view China. I don't understand how Americans can't see that China might view them selves the same way (after all, I feel like most Americans think China is pretty insecure). Wouldn't this be a good time to throw China a bone? So that they don't have to -feel- that way?... Of course "no one in the outside world would take it as a sign of "weakness" or "humiliation" for the Chinese government to let Ai Weiwei go -- or not to have arrested him in the first place. " Everyone can just give themselves a self congratulatory pat on the back for being right.

Shame is a very strong feeling, that in this case, most Americans will scoff at. Not doing something over having shame to many Americans is a sense of "weakness", something one should be "humiliated" over. What is "courageous" and "commendable" is admitting wrong and righting the right, if you don't, we will become hostile because you don't deserve it. Having to deal with shame, and not having "courage" therefore not "commendable" makes it more difficult to change.

I don't know many chinese children who weren't brought up using shaming techniques, and the fears are palpable to us. I don't know many chinese children who don't do things so they don't have to feel the shame. And it's something people in the US do not respect.

In "Diary of a Madman", Lu Xun wrote,
"I can't bear to think of it.
 

I have only just realized that I have been living all these years in a place where for four thousand years they have been eating human flesh. My brother had just taken over the charge of the house when our sister died, and he may well have used her flesh in our rice and dishes, making us eat it unwittingly.

It is possible that I ate several pieces of my sister's flesh unwittingly, and now it is my turn, . . .


How can a man like myself, after four thousand years of man-caring history--even though I knew nothing about it at first--ever hope to face real men?


Perhaps there are still children who have not eaten men? Save the children. . . ."

What is wrong with eating human flesh? Have I eaten flesh without my knowing? Who are these "real men"? Will I become one of them if I've never eaten flesh? Why do the children need to be saved? What if they are not? And who are these children's parents who would let them eat flesh? This was April 1918, now it's April 2011, I hope you can garner some understanding from Lu Xun's mind set here.<<
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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