Sunday, October 24, 2010

Is it really just foreign curiosity?

This weekend consisted of dinner with the host grandparents for my host brother's birthday (side note: birthdays are not a big deal here. I didn't even know it was his birthday until he came home from a day of studying, and he didn't even stick around very long for dinner despite it being for him - all of this followed by cake minus the song. The end.), a trip with my host mom to a former government official's garden/home (in China, they can almost be synonymous), and a night listening to live Latin jazz music - Spanish mixed with some Caribbean bongos in the middle of China sounded like a good night to me.

But it doesn't quite sound like the weekend before midterms...

Views from the garden

Black swans

Some really large lilly pads

Not to worry. I promise I'm still learning. I'm taking a class on Modern Chinese History that I find really interesting both because my professor is an amusing Chinese man with a fabulous English accent who often comments on where China went wrong. It's great because he'll tell us what the Chinese think about history and then put in his two-sense ("the Chinese really messed up with the Boxer Rebellion, and hell, they still blame the foreigners!")
Looking at the history of the Opium War has given me a lot of insight into why China has had difficulty modernizing. Here's an excerpt from a response paper I wrote for class...

"Ever since China’s initial contact with the West, China has been skeptical toward the West. Western presence threatened what China viewed as their superior culture, one that could gain little from what they viewed as foreign, 'barbaric' nations. Beginning with Lord Macartney’s Amherst mission to expand trading privileges with China, Westerners disrespected Chinese culture (note: Burning of the Summer Palace as one example) and challenged its 'moral superiority.' During the 19th century, foreign success in the treaty ports revealed the weakness of China’s political system, destabilizing Chinese society and causing citizens to reevaluate their nation’s identity. Humiliated by foreign domination, a new nationalism emerged determined to undermine the success of coastal ports by separating them from the 'authentic,' peasant cities of interior China."

When we talked more about this in class a while later, my professor provided a personal story from just a couple of weeks ago. A fellow Chinese guy approached him on the train and their convo went something like this:

Guy: What are you reading? (intrigued that it wasn't in Chinese)

Professor: Chinese History

Guy: But it's in English.

Professor: Yes?

Guy: Written by foreigners.

Professor: Yes.

Guy: How can you read that!? How can you trust what they say?

Professor: He's a distinguished historian. He went to school, got a degree...

Guy: Do you mean to say that someone not from their native country can really write another country's history? Absurd.

Professor (to the class now): Luckily, he had a ticket for a different car and was kicked out just in time or God help me if I was stuck with him for 3 hours...

And later noted: But even after he was gone some people in the car said 'He had reason though, no?' I'm telling you, people really do think this way.

There's still strong animosity toward foreigners, creating this us vs. them phenomenon.

Which is why when people stare at me while I'm walking down the street, I have to wonder if it really is pure curiosity like my host family says, or if it's resentment. To become modern is to Westernize, to so-called "Westernize" is to reject the real Chinese values. Why can't they coexist? Why can't you adopt modern ways and merge them with traditional values?



  1. Probably a little bit. change is scary-especially if you're moving in the direction of past "enemies..." but you say it better!

  2. Why must being western mean being modern? If an alien race similar to humans but more advanced than earth's human beings arrived on earth and forced you into their ways, would you listen?