There are more than a dozen Chinese women in my college studying Chinese history and Politics, which have become a more and more popular subjects among Chinese overseas students. Once, I thought it absurd to study one’s national politics or literature in a foreign country, but my views has long been challenged since I came to the United States.
The prestigious Chinese scholar Qian Zhongshu once satirized the situation of Chinese people studying Chinese in American universities in his well-known novel Fortress Besieged (Wei Cheng/围城). Yet, the era of Dr. Qian’s bias on “American-wrought” Asian Studies majors is over: prominent studies have been done in the U.S. on Chinese literature, history, and politics. The college education offered in these subjects are very attractive to many Chinese students, who may be said to have advantage in their background, but who long for a new perspective of looking at their own cultures.
In my Chinese Politics course, there were twenty people in the class, with four from China. The professor had asked each person to introduce him/herself and speak about why they were interested in studying Chinese politics. The American women, many of whom were taking Chinese language classes concurrently, talked about their passion in Eastern culture and their researching interests in the Chinese political environment. The Chinese women were the last to speak, partly due to shyness and partly due to “saving the best for last”.
Their opening sentences often were, “I was born and grew up in China, so I know a lot about…”, or “As a Chinese student, I’m very familiar with…” Their introductions were mini-lessons in themselves, overshadowing what was said a few minutes ago. They continued to speak about their interests – all very complicated, all very professional.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not knocking or judging these Chinese students. They’re all smart and well-accomplished, and they’ve added many great topics to the discussion that we could never think of, otherwise. But, I didn’t end up talking at the end; suddenly, I felt like I didn’t have the confidence to talk about my interest in Chinese politics as a Chinese national. I don’t know as much as I’d thought.
Last week, I interviewed a professor studying African social history. She learned I was from China; she became excited and said, “I’ve just come back from a trip to Beijing!”
I grinned. “How was the air pollution there?”
“Actually, not as terrible as they’ve reported in the newspapers.”
(Yes; New York Times always selects the most striking pictures for the front page, so to attract views. It’s an old trick, but why don’t I question it so much when these photographs are about China?)
“Also,” the professor continued, “the subway wasn’t as bad as what I’ve read. And I don’t understand why they never mention that people in Beijing are so nice? American newspapers will criticize a foreign culture as long as it’s different from theirs, but they forget there are so many differences in the world.”
“What do you see in these differences?” I asked.
“I see similarities. I see that longing for a just society is a human trait.”
I was quiet for a while: I’ve been so judgmental to my own culture, paying so much attention to the negatives of China. Wasn’t I judging it by an “American standard”? What my professors, classmates, and friends have impressed me on was not just their knowledge about China, but their inclusive views. Compared to me, they hold such an optimistic opinion on Chinese democracy and enthusiasm for the culture. Their views may be a little idealized, but are more critical – daring to demand more, press for better – and less cynical then mine.
That day, I learned a new way to study Chinese politics and culture.