Looking for a Better Class of Angry- Letter Writer

By James Fallows

(Updated below.) At item from the mailbox, from someone with a Chinese family name (but who now says he lives in does not seem to have been to China), offers a "teachable moment." It is in response to this item about the "Chinese Professor" ad and is greatly wroth:

>> "their skin and teeth are different from what you'd see in a big Chinese lecture hall"? Maybe if Americans actually spent time abroad they could avoid making such ugly and racist comments. And maybe the Chinese would not be eating our lunch.<<

I had said, when first mentioning the ad, that although it appeared to be narrated by a genuine Mandarin-speaker, I guessed it wasn't filmed in China.* That was because the ethnically Asian students in the audience (below) overall looked different from those you would see in real Chinese universities, or ones I'd seen at the many universities I've visited. Different how? I didn't put it this way, but what I meant was, different richer.

StudentSmile.pngHere are quick proxies for looking as if you grew up in a richer society: straighter, brighter, more glamorous looking teeth, displayed more often in big toothy smiles (a sign of orthodontia, early dentistry, fluoridated water, etc - this is especially a US marker); clearer skin (a sign of better nutrition early on); and more expensive looking haircuts (a sign of more disposable income -- plus there are national fashions in hair styling). It's like knowing, on sight, which are the casually-dressed vacationers in a resort town and which are the inexpensively-dressed locals: there are a hundred little signals of income and class standing. These aren't all-or-nothing indicators, but I bet that anyone who has spent time in big Chinese universities, especially those outside the Beijing/Shanghai elite tier, would instantly sense that the students in the ad looked not quite like their contemporaries on Chinese campuses. And as it turns out, they would be sensing something real. The ad was shot in Northern Virginia, and the students were Asian-Americans and others from the greater Washington DC area. I haven't yet found out whether they knew the tone the ad would take and how their round of laughter would be portrayed.

As I also noted, by 2030 -- the year of the ad's supposed setting -- China and Chinese students might well be rich enough to look this way. So maybe having a rich-looking student body, rather than a verisimilitude flaw, was a sign of the producers' sophistication about how the imagined future China would look.

Here is the teachable moment: noting economic differences among people of a similar racial background might be "inaccurate" or "misleading" or perhaps even "ugly," but it is not "racist." There are enough built-in cultural, ethnic, and other tensions between China and the U.S. to be very careful about unleashing the big "racist" charge. Especially when it's important to use Chinese competition as a spur to American improvement, and to understand the realities of each country toward the end of their getting along.
One other style point. Last week I mentioned people who were in a lather because Barack Obama had "failed" to call on China to release his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo. These people had taken the minutes required to compose angry notes to me, but they hadn't taken the two seconds required to figure out on Google that Obama had already called for Liu's release. Something similar is true in this case. How long would it have taken the writer to figure out that, of all the ways he might attack me for my bias, saying "if only you'd ever left the country, you wouldn't think this way" was not his strongest avenue of attack?

On the other hand: for sensible (IMHO) discussion of "Chinese Professor" and other China-menace ads, by a Chinese official and an American academic, check out the "Chinalogue" session yesterday, here, on Blue Ocean Network.

UPDATE: A European friend who has lived in China for a long time adds this detail:

>>I think, much like a reader of yours, it wasn't filmed in China. Not (only) for the attire of the fictional students in the audience, but for the gesticulation of the professor which seem a tad out of place. I'm sure you've noted how sensitive people in China are when being pointed at with an extended, wiggling index finger. I've seen many a long and loud discussion that seem to be on the verge of a physical confrontation, but they go on indefinitely until when one of the two parties starts the finger pointing thing.<<

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