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Christopher, I’m Afraid of the Chinese

Monday, August 29, 2011

By Chris Eberhardt

TACOMA– “Christopher, I’m afraid of the Chinese.” My cousin said this to me as I was about to leave my Grandma’s after a Christmas meal. She looked to me to offer some sort of consolation as the closest thing to a resident expert on China, having spent the past ten months in China. My response was limited, so limited that I faintly remember what I said to her other than commenting on the population of China, that 1 in 5 people in the world are Chinese.

I thought of this conversation again as I made a visit to San Francisco to get another Chinese visa, my lucky eighth in the past three years.

After making time for the Chinese Consulate and the beach, I made my way to the University of San Francisco to explore the job market. I met with a few individuals, all under the auspices of the Center for the Pacific Rim. The short and sweet was that job prospects are nil, and the interest of the media and elites in China is not matched by undergraduate student interest. Among graduate students, there are the Chinese nationals who want to learn from a different perspective, and my kindred spirits, Americans who have drunk the elixir of China and are trying to make sense of it.

How I have tried to make sense of China, is trying to see how Chinese and Americans can learn from each other as they tackle common problems like climate change, unemployment, and racial/ethnic tensions and inequalities.

It may be flawed, but as I hope that China and the United States can learn from each other, I think of parents whose children are classmates, who compare notes, or college students new to school. Both groups are trying to tackle a common problem. Yet with our built-in prejudices, we are going to ask that parent or that classmate who looks like us, dresses like us, sounds like us, or at least in some way makes us comfortable. I think that China is prone to violate that sense of comfort.

For those who haven’t been to China, like my cousin, China is scary, because it doesn’t correspond with the world we know, and is dominated by one of the hardest languages for English-speakers to learn. To overcome those language barriers are stories in the media, like the NY Times or the BBC, among those stories I see at least three strains.

The first strain is articles about piracy, corruption, executions, etc. that violate one’s sense of justice or human rights as defined in North America or Western Europe. The second strain is coverage of protests, activists and their Twitter feeds, seemingly driven by an inherent hope that a political system more recognizable as a democracy will emerge. The third strain is of an economic juggernaut that is growing while simultaneously leaving Joe Six-pack out of the job in Ohio or Pennsylvania.

None of these strains of coverage presents a China that might lead one to feel comfortable.

I must admit that prior to first visiting China, China did not make me feel very comfortable, based on media coverage and congressional testimony about its inevitable rise to domination. When a classmate from Shanghai argued with me that China is just one country, I found a way to go to China for free. Quite a few people will not go to China free or otherwise, but will rely on their comfortable sources of information like media and friends and family; just as my cousin did.

When my cousin sought answers, I was almost speechless because I do not contest the accounts in the media, nor would many of the Chinese who have left China with no intention of going back. Yet at the same time I know that there are hundreds of millions in China just struggling to make it from day to day in a capitalist society arguably less socialist than the United States; that should not automatically lead one to fear Chinese.

I would remind my cousin, that when she studied abroad she probably encountered those that did not like the United States government, but liked American people. I don’t think it’s so easy to separate the two. Similarly in China, I don’t think it’s so easy to separate the two, nor do I think it’s that easy to summarize China. For someone who majored in marketing and psychology, this should be easy, but if nothing else I would tell my cousin to be afraid not of Chinese, but of sound bites about Chinese. I would tell her to listen, use your brain, and follow sources of information that you trust most.

Learning from China's One Child Policy我爱北京 (I Love Beijing)

Chris Eberhardt, originally from Tacoma, Washington, holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from The New School for Social Research. He was a 2008 India China Institute Student Fellow.