Another Postscript....Us and Them and the Galaxy Between

(I'm on a roll...yet another postscript:
http://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/09/chinas-war-on-deep-thinking/279384/

I've pasted this here as a ref to the middle of this blog.  China's wanton inability to develop critical thinking just took another hit.  De facto banning Lu Xun in Chinese schools is akin to removing all ref to Benjamin Franklin, or Mark Twain from reading lists in American schools.   As I mentioned below earlier, with critical thinking, there can be no introspection, and thus no impetus to change.  And finally no progress.)





Have you ever set down and tried to have an honest conversation with a Chinese?   No agenda, no time constraints?

How far have you gotten before the person sitting across from you let go with a proverb?  An allusion to Chinese history?    A reference to a Chinese song?   If the conversation is in Mandarin the cultural references come fast and furious.   Speaking Mandarin, unfortunately, just isn’t good enough.   Oh, it will get you in the door.  It will give you access to people who don’t speak English…..and you may feel a tinge of regret as a result.

What do I mean? 

Speaking in a native tongue gives your counterpart the opportunity to freely sprinkle his words with a whole array of references that quite frankly, I didn’t learn in Mandarin class.  Do you often go into a conversation proud of your Mandarin, the ability to converse with a Chinese person on a level most people can only dream about?   Only to walk away twenty minutes later shattered and disillusioned?  Like a moderately talented team that actually thinks it has a chance against the champs?   Confidence will get you through that first quarter.  Experience through part of the 2nd.    Than reality comes crashing down, and you can’t wait til halftime.

How best to combat this? 

I’ve made a lot of effort to learn more about the happenings within China, in order to maintain a conversation.    I guess that’s how it should be.

I’ve also found myself beefing up big time on my proverbs, with a book of proverbs for grade school students.   I’d go down to the local coffee shop and dive right in.  Soon I’d see the inevitable smirks on people’s faces.    I’d practice the proverbs when texting my friends.   Of course the Chinese are always happy when we can slide a proverb into a text!

Than we have the inevitable discussion of current events taking place in America.  (Another mass shooting.  Another dumb, exasperated look on my face)  My Chinese buddies like to rub America’s faults into my psyche.   One reason they do it is because they know I can take it, and we understand that friends can freely disagree.   I’m mature enough to openly accept the many faults of my country when talking with friends.(still not so much with mere acquaintances!) .    

Yet I suspect the main reason they will willingly bring up America’s inadequacies is because they understand they may never have this opportunity again: to only half jokingly bash America in Chinese to an actual, living, breathing American face to face.

As I’d noted in an earlier post, China simply doesn’t place an emphasis on History beyond the Middle Kingdom.  While China’s decision to do this is partially based on the goal of unifying the masses to the sound of one voice, this way of thinking has now become counterproductive.    Post Liberation versions of Chinese history were easy to pass on to an uneducated populace.    

It is here that China missed an opportunity to emphasize  clear headed thinking and introspection.   (The latter being too messy and gray.)  Instead, the CCP took the quickest path to “national unity”, and decided on the theme of victimization.  Either way, the CCP had a willing ear that was ready to march to the step of any march.   A tired populace simply wanted peace.    Thus the invention of the soundbite.  (bet ya didn’t know China invented that, too!)  打打美国佬.     

Everything wrong with China was somebody else’s fault,  all it’s locusts and plagues derived from outside forces.    And that path not taken has “made all the difference”.   This fundamental lack of critical introspection makes this all easier(makes the phrase “you don’t know China” all the more ironic, eh?).    For instance, the British will forever be demonized for bringing opium to China, while the growing corruption and weakness of the Qing that provided Britain with it’s opportunity during that timeframe continues to evade the examination it deserves.

 The version of Chinese history taught today has not really changed, and when challenged reprisal has been swift.   


The downside of this policy of course is that sooner or later, Chinese citizens will come into contact with people from different backgrounds, and well….look silly.    This is especially a problem for Chinese when they go abroad.   China simply does not place much emphasis on learning about the world beyond it’s own borders.   When conversing with Westerners it is only than that their gaps of knowledge show themselves.    This happens more so on an historical level, than the cultural.

Still……

Who is Anne Frank? (my 10 yr old daughter had to fill my wife in on this one)

Who is Elvis? (that’s the “Cat King” baby)

One should not condemn the Chinese for  their lack of knowledge as regards Mick Jagger or John Lennon.  We Westerners are even more pathetic(I am no exception) when challenged to know anyone or anything of cultural significance the last twenty years within China.  (I do know of Tang Wei, for all the wrong reasons)   I still don’t know the proper name of China’s most famous female singer of the past generation(Is it Fei Wang or Wang Fei?)

It is ok to be ignorant of each other’s cultural history.  It is actually fun to learn it!   Indeed, I think cultural understanding between us is more attainable than historical understanding.    I’d never heard of Lady Gaga until I came to China.  (Nor the Black Eyed Peas).  Western Culture has a foothold in China.  It’s a bridge for communication.   I find myself now using the knowledge of Western Culture I do have and leveraging that more and more in my conversations with Chinese, hoping I’ll strike gold.  Hoping I can continue to hide my ignorance of theirs.  We’ll sit at the bar and drink Western whiskey on the rocks.  We’ll talk abt the movies.  We become more comfortable with each other.

Culture has become a salve.

But when gaps of knowledge exist between China and the West as regards generally accepted historical events, conversations turn awkward at best.   Harmony between China and the West simply cannot improve while such large gaps in historical understanding continue to exist. 

Did you notice China sceened Django Unchained?  A nice, violent movie depicting the underbelly of American society from a foregone era.   Did you notice they did not screen Lincoln?   Those movies could’ve run together back to back and taught China a hell of a lot abt the positive benefits of introspection.   

Thus, despite the openness of Chinese society today, is it any wonder why it’s historical knowledge of the West hasn’t really increased in any dramatic fashion?   Rather, the powers that be have decided it’s more beneficial to continue demonizing it’s perceived rival rather than seeking historical understanding.

Going abroad doesn’t solve anything either.  Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that despite the nearly  200,000 Chinese students in America today, half of whom are spies(just kidding!!), even their understanding of America is still dreadfully inadequate.  ( Yet another reason to disdainfully kick this current generation of non assimilating kids to the curb.  Feel free to attack me.  Feel free to say I am out of line.  And of course feel free to say I am painting with an entirely too broad of a brush.   But you get my point. ) 

Yes, the Chinese are very familiar with the mighty President of the United States.  They know his family.  Their knowledge of the American leader on the most basic level dwarfs that of the American public of the Chinese leader.    Yet China is an island.  A country increasingly familiar with itself, happy to wallow in it’s own culture.  Willfully uncaring of what lies beyond the bridge at Luohu, or beyond the Exit Customs at airports in Pudong and Beijing.    

While uncomfortable with what it sees, the courage to analyze what it sees remains inadequate.    When there is no introspection there can be no critical thinking.   So how can there be progress?    In many ways it is the old man that just doesn’t want to take that physical, for fear of what he will find.   Of all the talk of all the progress China has made, it is without question the greatest underachieving nation today.   Has this become the price of stability?  Or is this the challenge of meeting increased expectations?

At times, despite my increasing disdain for the political, I’ve found myself while in China asking out of curiosity if nothing else for an opinion on Liu Xiaobo? (who’s he?)

What do you think of that blind man, Chen?(never heard of him)

When getting such blank responses I don’t know if I should curse the ignorance of the people for not knowing what “is supposed to be important”, or grudgingly nod in amazement at the governments ability to decide what is worth knowing?    While being ignorant of such issues of the day may do one well in China, once a Chinese goes abroad and has the same inevitable exchange with a non Chinese one runs the risk of looking rather silly.

This inability to communicate with what the West regards as “common knowledge” only drives the Chinese away from further social discourse.    The young people think “all we want to do is talk about human rights”.    It’s no wonder they prefer hanging out with their fellow Chinese.  

The gap in knowledge between China and the West goes beyond current events.   History takes a hit as well.   This can be looked at in terms of Chinese and Western History.   Most Chinese I’ve spoken to honestly feel South Korea invaded the North.  No one in China knows of the Great Famine of the early 60’s.

While everyone knows abt the Atomic Bomb in 1945, no one seems to understand the reasoning that led to such a cataclysmic event.   (“you dropped the bomb because you had it”).

To this day everyone thinks the 1990 Gulf War was abt OIL, ie America grabbing all it can.   (Did you know we invaded Iraq years later for the same reason? )

Do you think the average Chinese knows 90,000 people have died in Syria?  Yet you better believe he knows we’re licking our chops and we just can’t wait to send the Marines in again.
I’ve decided  my own steeped ignorance in Chinese history keeps me from calling out the Chinese’ ignorance of Western History as nothing short of appalling.   So I’ve given up the comparison.      

I have come to the conclusion that dangerous the consequences may be,  China and the West both being on the same page we call historical understanding is nothing but a pipe dream.    Common historical understanding will not come in my time.   It will continue to divide us, and cause crisis after crisis.

So now I put my faith in Lady Gaga.   


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