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?


Joyce Hor-Chung Lau said...

Hi Loafer -- Nice post!
Every country has negative stereotypes. And while they might not be 100% true, many are mostly true.
Fat Americans -- Walk down a street in the mid-West and they really are fatter than they are in Tokyo.
Rude Chinese -- Walk down a street in China and people really are more likely to push, shout and spit than they are in say, Oxford, England.
The average Paris waiter really is ruder than a waitress in a small-town American diner.
That's not the say that 1.3 billion Chinese are rude, or all Americans are fat. (Though, possibly, all French waiters are rude!)
If we limit ourselves to being so careful that we only say things that are 100% true -- well, that would be a boring world.
On the flip side, Chinese have a whole range of negative stereotypes for Americans. The one that amuses me most is that Westerners "don't love their parents."
Obviously, I'm not advocating that people cling to negative stereotypes. And the more people travel (like you) the more you let go of them.
But I also think the Chinese can be overly sensitive to what other people say.
Americans are used to mocking, dramatizng, laughing at, insulting and criticizing everything -- including themselves. The Chinese shouldn't take it too seriously.
And, yeah. I love NPR, but too much can make you lose your mind.
Maybe buy an iPod for your road trips? :)

Beijing Loafer said...

Hmm... Bush-country Americans are not that used to be mocked or laughed at. Or shouldn't it be Palin country now?

In casual conversation, sweeping generalization is what sometimes makes it fun. However, to have "serious" writers or pundits commenting on China or any other subject based on cliche stereotypes is tiring.

Guess I'm just too used to scholarly analysis, dissecting, contrasting, questioning, and hoping to close in on the right answer after navigating in ambiguities.

Joyce Hor-Chung Lau said...

The Republican base might hate the NYT, CNN, Saturday Night Live, and the many left-leaning and highly critical media that make fun of them.

But they live in a country where joking and insults are heard all the time. Even the most conservative red-state American would balk if you said the government would censor the media from doing that.

Plus, I think Bush supporters are plenty used to being made fun of. :)

I think maybe your expectations of U.S. media are a bit high, maybe a little idealistic. (I saw this as someone who works for a big Western media company myself).

You know how a free society works. There will be smart comments, dumb comments, and everything in between. Some of it is "reported" and backed up, but alot is from personal experience. It's not like everyone has to live in China for decades, speak perfect Mandarin, become an expert, and come up with a scholarly analysis just to pop up on the radio.

This lady thinks Tibetens are friendly and the Chinese police are mean. Why not? You don't have to agree. Like the Americans love to say -- endlessly -- it's a free country.

P.S. I revisited this post because I saw a Doonsbury cartoon that made me think of you. An radio DJ complains about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Then the cartoon cuts to the White House and a voice says, "What? We lost NPR too?!"

P.P.S. I hope you have a wonderful trip in the States, and a great Christmas. I really do enjoy your blog, and I hope you don't mind me playing the devil's advocate!

Beijing Loafer said...

Not at all Joyce. Your comment is wonderful, though do reserve my rights to harp on those who harp on topics that to my mind are dumb (stereotypes, condescension, etc.). :)

Beijing Loafer said...

(posting for another commenter b/c he had his personal contact info in his comment)

Hi, agree with what you have to say abou NPR though i'd further it with saying that is basically what ALL media outlets do regardless of country or conviction. Audiences are largely ingnorant and hold preconceived stereotypes of just about everything and media play to their chosen audiences by giving them what they want in return for the advertising revenue generated by high audience ratings. PRI [Public Radio International],NPR [National Public Radio], and APM [American Public Media] are corporations, even if they are legally not-for-profit organizations, and still rely on audience for revenue both directly in campaign drives for funding from their audiences and also in seeking public money from the government (why would they get funded if they can't show an audience?) So public radio must cater to the prejudice and predominating preconceptions of their target audience just as much as FOX or CNN otherwise their audience will go looking elsewhere to hear what they want to hear. People -audiences- aren't interested in being informed by realities but rather to be comforted in their self-convinved righteousness regarding their beliefs and attitudes towards the world. How ironic that the "liberal intellectual educated" listeners are actually simply responding to validation of US anti-communist propaganda agendas dating back to the post-WWII schism between the US and China following the defeat of the Guomindang at the hands of the communists and especially regarding the manipulation of the history of Tibet which up through the 50's was a brutal aristocratic theocratic slave society in which 100% of the Tibetan population who were not Tibetan Buddhist monks or inherited familial aristocracies were owned property and literal slaves with absolutely no rights of any kind. in fact the Tibetan "government"- the combination of the familial aristocracies and monastic members-were granted special exclusion from the UN declaration of universal human rights banning all forms of slavery in the 1950's. Wouldn't those facts about Shangrila be hard to rationalize againt the propanda over the last 60 years? "News" isn't about information, rather it is about shaping perception (and market shares and money even if its "not-for-profit").

Joyce Hor-Chung Lau said...

LOL. Oh dear. Sorry to harp. I am accused of doing.
Have a lovely holiday. I hope Santa brings you an iPod, or a car with a CD player!

vivian said...

I understand and support your sentiment of distastte at NPR allowing the fake Chinese expert behaving like experts; but exactly as you said, the Chinese media also employed lot of unqualified people to talk about American culture. This reveals the challenge and ever importance of true communications and understanding between cultures.

The person who is giving opinion in this interview does not seem to be highly intellectual or reflective individual, as all people who made sterotypical comment are. As you said and we all know since we deal with that circle, for the Exp circle in China or any country, not all of them are there to appreciate the culture they are in, or have the capability to appreciate and truly embrace a culture whose language they don't master and whose heritage proves overwhelming. But that is not to say there are not people who always tend to provide a more intimate and deeper perspective of the adopted culture they live in. I truly enjoy the writing about China (both positive and negative) by this journalist from Atlantic Monthly.
That being said, NPR should raise their standard.
I hope you enjoyed your road trip otherwise.

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