Monday, December 14, 2009

Acceptable Stereotype

The later years of my stay in the US, I was an indoctrinated listener of National Public Radio. Every liberal intellectual type seemed to have the local NPR station preset on their radios, so I followed suit.

But lately, every time I visited the US, NPR increasingly annoyed me. China is becoming an ever popular topic, and every other day, some China expert would be talking about what this “China” is, or what those “Chinese” are. It always shocks me that the commentators could so comfortably and so confidently lecture on China on radio after just a few years living in Beijing or Shanghai. So I gradually weaned myself off NPR.

Yet there is just so much dance music one can listen to on commercial radio while driving on the expansive American highway system. A few days ago I found myself searching for local public radio station again in my rented car in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, I heard a long interview of a Chinese American writer who had lived in Beijing and in Dharamsala for many years and had just published a book on a topic related to China and Tibet.

The writer bantered jokes and anecdotes with the interviewer on radio. Because I am ethnically Chinese, she said, I can speak candidly about the Chinese. Chinese are “rude,” “cynical,” and “jaded.” It’s an “autocratic” state over there, and people can be thrown in jail at whim. Oh yes, she brushed with jail intimately once. She was riding a bike in the street and police stopped her and wanted to arrest her. She said she could get by with her Chinese but couldn’t understand what her arrester-wanna-be was yelling about – it made a big scene and crowd formed around them. She might have been biking in the wrong direction on a one-way street.

Tibetans on the other hand, she described enthusiastically, are warm, kind and welcoming – the antithesis of the Chinese.

The interview annoyed me as much as when I read the first couple of chapters of a Chinese best-seller written by Chinese who had never lived overseas and criticizing American culture based on Hollywood films. Not that “Chinese” are not “rude,” “cynical” or “jaded,” but the Chinese American writer’s intellectual sloppiness in making those sweeping generalization made me head spin – how many Chinese in China did she intimately know with her barely-getting-by Chinese? Beijing alone has 17 million people and it is very easy to spot rude behavior committed by a few in jammed buses and shopping malls; but then to call 1.3 billion Chinese rude? Cynicism and jadedness may mark the majority of older generations, but the young I know are much less affected. Her almost arrest incident was also likely just a cheng guan, traffic guard hired by the municipal government and not the official police, stopping her on a one-way street and wanting to fine her for going the wrong direction.

There seems to exist a persistent stereotype about China and the Chinese that strangely finds comfortable acceptance in mainstream American media in today’s otherwise politically correct world. Liberals and conservatives alike enjoy seeing things black and white – good vs evil, China vs Tibet, China vs the free world… China is materialistic, totalitarian and repressed, while Tibet is all peace loving Shangri-la (watch my friend Jocelyn’s video on a Tibetan woman’s struggle between tradition and modernity, a more complex picture of “Shangri-la”). Sometimes it is the language issue – how many expats living in Beijing, Shanghai and Tibet can truly converse with either local Chinese or Tibetans and understand the intimate details of their lives? Other times old stereotype may be too convenient for us to abandon, for realities are sometimes too complex to summarize.

Sidney Rittenberg, an American who had suffered much along with the birth of communist China, including two solitary imprisonments totaling 16 years, recently came back to China for a visit. At one of his speeches in Beijing, he spoke about what he likes and dislikes about China, the challenges China faces and his confidence that China will ride through these challenges.

Do we all have to experience jail term to learn to discard old stereotypes and see the whole picture?