Knowing Me, Knowing You....

As most of you know, I’ve often commented there is no such thing today as a true “China Hand”.   But if there was, John Service, within the context of the times, would have to receive my vote.   (How could someone with the experience of having met Mao one on one to discuss the future of China not be considered as such?)

He and John Davies were perhaps, within the context of the times, America’s greatest China Experts.  (Davies nailed Vietnam, the 50’s…when no one was listening)

But as regards John Service, despite his knowledge of China, he was having much difficulty getting through to Chiang Kai Shek and his cunning, seductress of a wife, Madame Chiang Kai Shek.   Why?

There is something about us.  As individuals, we all hide behind a bit of a facade.   We like to say to others, as if to end a conversation, or debate or argument,

“You don’t know me!”

And so when we hear it ourselves, what do we do?  Of course we work towards the aim of doing just that, ie “knowing  you!”.

After all, the way you stress how limited our knowledge is of you, are you not emphasizing that to “know you” is thus important to you?  That it would be a goal worth pursuing?  That the attainment of this goal would bestow upon us something rare and worthy of adulation from others?

So… what happens when I do KNOW you?  Then what?  How will you respond?  Will you be happy that I have taken the time to know you?  To learn more about where you are coming from? After all, did you not yourself bring this up?  Some would even say throw it in my face.  As if I’m inadequate in some way.  That our relationship cannot progress until I have taken the time to understand where you are coming from?

So keen to your sensibilities, I study your viewpoint, your way of thinking, the logic behind the voice.  Because it is awkward to speak with someone while not understanding who they are, right? 


But something happens, which then takes me aback. Something I was not expecting. 

As soon as a hint of acknowledgement  flashes over your face that I may indeed be closing in on the above, what happens?

You become defensive.

In short, it seems you don’t like it when I know you, after all.  You feel uncomfortable.   Apparently, this wish you have of me to know you, to understand your point of view is all just so much smoke and mirrors.  A ploy if you will, to throw me off any point or line of logic I am trying to develop when communicating with you.   

You are a hypocrite.

Because to know you is knowledge.   However, gaining this knowledge of you only succeeds in making you uncomfortable.    Because for some strange reason when others do develop this understanding of yourself, one finds you seem to squirm a bit.  And well, you can’t stand it.  You want me to know you, so you claim, and you throw it in my face when you claim I do not.  It is the ultimate conversation stopper with you.  There is nothing else to be said, or gained.  But when I do study you, who you are, and where you came from, it only bothers you.  You become both suspicious and paranoid.  It makes you uncomfortable.

Back to John Service.  In a nutshell, he had decided his inability to establish a true working relationship with China’s Paramount Leader and First Lady was simple:

“They were particularly suspicious of me.  The fact that one could speak Chinese, read Chinese, was something that made them suspicious…”  

Of course I’m talking about China.   But on a granular level I am also talking about the Chinese People.   And what I’m referring to is their relationship with other people.    And despite their loud proclaiming of “you don’t know China”, my opinion is China doesn’t want to really deal with people that KNOW China.  

When I’m in large, public gatherings there will of course be many Chinese present.   We know each other.   But we never say “hi”.  We never “catch up”.    I’ve long since stopped being effected by the aura of exotic curiosity so many others rightfully have of China.  As such, they have no interest speaking with me.   

But without exception I am almost certainly the only laowai they know who has not only been to China, but can speak Mandarin, etc.  One would think they would clamor to hang out more with me, right?


Not at all.

Because in my view some Chinese don’t feel comfortable having a conversation with someone that knows them.

Why is that?

Because the Chinese cannot bring into play the two biggest weapons in their arsenal;  charm and mystery.   I’m immune to this.  They know it.  They move along, advantage lost.   They sit somewhere else.  We have nothing to talk about.    

I see it all the time.  When a laowai meets a Chinese for the first time, regardless of the situation, the laowai always comes away with the “The Chinese are so friendly” look on his face.   Along with a sense of fascination(since they are so different).  The Chinese have done their job.  Yet another laowai has been swept away by the Chinese Aura. (and there are many, many Chinese who have been so good to me in my past.  Helped me with my career and socially….)

Now…in contrast…I’ve never ever met a person who is not American walk away with either of these impressions, upon meeting an American.

No one has ever thought that Americans are “mysterious”.    “Friendly”, perhaps.   That’s about it.
But the laowai’s first meeting with a Chinese always leaves them wanting more.  Most Westerners, however, understand it is not proper to simply corner a Chinese and pepper them with questions.   

That is such bad form.

Want to see a Chinese get uncomfortable?   Sometimes I will find myself at the same table with a Chinese I know along with a stranger.  Inevitably, in front of the Chinese, the stranger will ask me the question the nearby Chinese does not want answered…

“So tell me of your impressions regarding China?”

Because once that question is asked to me, the nearby Chinese loses the power to control the narrative.  To control the story.   And it is not a story they wish to have a laowai answer.

You see, Chinese themselves wish to have the sole power to decide how China is viewed by the outside world.   And that is a natural thing to want.   But I find this desire more neurotic than with other nationalities.  It is than one realizes all his or her efforts to “learn” China have been for naught.    And it is really a true window into the Chinese Mentality.

Let me digress for a moment:

All countries, all Peoples, wish “to tell the story” of their Country to an outsider.  It is only natural.  When I was younger, I was probably defensive as well, when hearing a German explain to a Chinese about America.   But now, I can simply care less.  Because I’m comfortable with America’s place in the world, vis a vis other nations.  Because I’ve travelled….and lived…and of course read many differing points of view about My Nation.    And therein perhaps lays the rub.   Chinese in China are simply not able to hear much on how others beyond The Wall perceive of them.    

Yes, Chinese are travelling more, but how does one learn about other cultures when one travels to Bangkok in a tour group, eats Chinese food everyday, and are with each other all the time?   Isn’t travelling abroad a great way to mingle and perhaps understand more of how others see you?   Isn’t this the most enlightened route to “Know Thyself”?

Visiting Youtube, there are plenty of videos illustrating where the Chinese have completely failed in this attempt.  Because at home they are not encouraged to reflect, or ponder.   If they were, would there really be so many slogans and banners all over the place?   Surrounded with such an atmosphere, how can the Chinese develop a sense of self-awareness?  A sense of reflection?   Pretty hard to develop such intuitive capabilities when one everyday sees banners on the wall reading

 I remember watching a very well written and produced Chinese documentary, “Under the Dome”.    But what caught my eye in this banned documentary was how the hostess briefly mentioned Chinatown in London.   She may not be a 1 percenter in China in terms of wealth, but without question she is in terms of cultural experience.    And yet the impression given was the first thing she did upon arriving in England was make a beeline for Chinatown.  (which isn’t very big….two long streets, that’s it, only a handful of decent restaurants。。。hard to find)
Getting good British grub never seemed to cross her mind.

One of the larger problems I’m having at home right now is the penchant of China Mother in Law to proclaim in a loud voice for me to hear about how 辛苦 her daughter is.   Oh fucking spare me.  Just spare me.  

But why does she say that?

Because China Wife upon coming home has to immediately step into the kitchen and cook dinner!

Well that sucks!  That is indeed without question neither cool nor fair.  Her Laowai Husband can after all cook, can’t he?  Have the table prepared, dishes ready to go……

No wait my bad…. he can’t.

Because China Wife doesn’t want Laowai Husband’s food.  She wants her food, and she wants it cooked her way.  Got it?

Ok than.  Fair enough.  Just let me step aside here.  And I’ll let you cook.  And you’ll have no one to bitch at, and nothing to bitch about. 

And if you are still tired, sorry dear, but….tough shit. 

China Mother in Law doesn’t see it that way of course.  (Imagine that)

The Chinese grow up with one narrative of course, that offers no competing point of view.    And this is represented from the Government down to the Mother in Law. This is black and that is white.  That is good and this bad….well because it is.   Remember, within China there can be no “gray”.  There can be no ambivalence.   Only clarity.  No ambiguity.   Because like my China Mother in Law, China itself cannot handle either of the above.

Priceless: Watching the expression on a Chinese’ face when I talk about China in front of them to a foreign audience.    Sometimes their face is filled with apprehension.   You can see they want to gag me. Because their inability to control the narrative very much puts them at a disadvantage.   And it perhaps…just maybe makes them a little uncomfortable to have the narrative of what China is today?” presented to a new audience without first going through the self-censorship filter.  

Despite all the negative publicity China has, one must not forget how deeply patriotic the Chinese Nation is, as a whole.   One assumes the Chinese living in the West are more Westernized, and thus more willing to see the “gray” around us.   Perhaps more willing to accept more of a Westernized view of things.  Not at all.  As such, I freely admit to having been startled when perfectly rational, highly intelligent and very capable local Chinese in my community react without hesitation to questions about China’s stance in the South China Sea.

“Of course it is ours,” they say.

China has done a fantastic job controlling the narrative.  Not so much beyond its borders, but masterly so within its borders.  And that narrative travels well.

And what of anything colliding with that narrative?  Well it becomes in danger of being labelled Anti-China.

But the folks gathered around the table at the local chess tournament all still want to hear my impression of China. 

And I’m polite enough.

“China has come a long way over the past 25 years….”

Let’s leave it at that.


  1. For China Hands while both were good, I think I would take Davies over Service. Service was too naive about Mao and the Communists. Davies was a realist and just saw CKS and the Nationalists for what they were, and understood that the CCP was going to win the Civil War.

    In terms of knowing China, I think this is one of the main reasons that China has such dislike for Vietnam, South Korea, and particular Japan. They see China for what is really is, and harbor no romantic notions for China like Westerns very often do. This really annoys the Chinese since it keeps them from controlling the narrative.

    The language part is also interesting. While most countries don't really care that much if foreigners try to learn their language or not. Two camps have very strong views. US/UK/France/Russia are places where they expect the foreigner to learn the language and embrace the culture. East Asia is the exact opposite. Chinese/Japanese/Korean much prefer laowai/gaijin/waygookin to stay in their little boxes and not learn too much about the locals. Thus, the expat who learns the local lingo is often viewed with suspicion in East Asia and not embraced accordingly as you have experienced.

  2. Excellent comment!
    I'm not up to speed on who might be the more informed China Expert, Service or Davies, but Davies does have the publicity behind him. He was also spot on as regards Vietnam. Halberstam does quote Davies in his Best and Brightest tome to that effect.

    The East Asians can't stand one another. They simply do a good job keeping it below the surface. Making money together has helped to unify them all the same. If one really wants to learn more about Chinese history from a non Chinese pt of view, I highly recommend talking to any Korean or Vietnamese friends about China.

    Finally, I think you've accurately described the paradox of East Asia. That is "We look down upon you because you don't understand us, and if you try to, we'll simply become suspicious as to WHY you are trying to know us and as such as avoid you like the plague"


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