[Note: The following is a Tea Leaf Nation op-ed, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors.]
During her TED talk, “Building US-China Relations…by Banjo,” after singing a song called “Taiyang Chulai Xiyangyang”(太阳出来喜洋洋) in Chinese, American clawhammer banjo player-singer Abigail Washburn discussed how the audience at a Blue Grass Festival in Virginia had reacted to the performance: “I see the power of music to connect cultures…They all came to me with a story! They’re like, you know, ‘my aunt’s sister’s babysitter’s dog’s chicken went to China and adopted a girl…’ I’ll tell you what, it’s like everybody’s got a story.”
As one journalism professor recently mentioned to this author, “During the Beijing Olympic Games of 2008, all the major Western news media, including the New York Times, constantly took a negative perspective on what’s happening China, such as air pollution. And you can tell their opinions from the metaphors they use and their framing of these issues.”
It’s an important litmus test that says a lot about one’s knowledge of the Middle Kingdom: What do you talk about when you talk about China?
Americans used to ask me if I knew Kungfu, just like the movie stars. Now, many Americans are savvier. They know of “the Chinese Twitter,” the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and the dramatic story of the politician and Chinese heir-apparent Xi Jinping. They know how to say “ni hao” and can more or less manage to eat with chopsticks. They read about China in the news every day and often meet people with connections to this country. People like Abigail Washburn can even sing a Chinese traditional folk song in Mandarin.
But can they really build U.S.-China relations by singing a song to American folks and listening to their stories of how someone’s babysitter (or chicken) adopted a girl from China? How much “culture” does this action truly call upon?
The New York Times and certain other major American news outlets often seem more willing to reveal the dark side of China, especially its politics. One major, and justifiable, reason is that criticisms and “truth-revealing” stories are usually more newsworthy. But ideology is another.
Examples abound. A 2009 article in The New York Times describes an accident that happened to Mr. Ai when attending an art exhibition in Munich this way: “In 2009, he said he was beaten by officers who crashed though the door of his hotel room in the middle of the night … A month later, while attending an art exhibition in Munich, he was rushed to a hospital, where surgeons drained a pool of blood from his brain.” There’s no obvious causal connection between Mr. Ai claiming that he was beaten by officers in China and his experiencing a brain injury in Germany. But readers are easily led to a vague conclusion that Chinese officers beat “a pool of blood” out of Mr. Ai.
While some may tend to see everything a little too darkly and too politically, others look at us as a friendly yet funny people. A Times article about an author’s personal experience jogging through Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games describes the local cyclers as following: “Every single cyclist that I have seen has the bike seat too low. I have not seen any road bikes, no clipless pedals, no cycling clothes. Although I must have seen hundreds of cyclists by now, I saw only one person wearing a helmet — and even he had his seat too low.”
While author Gina Kolata (who noted in that very article, “I do not speak Chinese”) points out that cyclers in Beijing have been doing it wrong all the time, I cannot help but want to tell her that she is too easily satisfied with what she has seen without asking why. Most of these cyclers only use their bikes as a form of transportation. Why would someone wear cycling clothes and ride a road bike to work?
While Kolata’s article unfortunately offered a slightly biased perspective, author Jonathan Levine’s January 2012 New York Times op-ed “Go East, Young Man” was just flat-out wrong. Mr. Levine, who found himself stuck in “a dead-end job” after getting degrees from New York University and Columbia, nonetheless managed to land a gig teaching American culture and English at China’s elite Tsinghua University. Levine called young Times readers to go find a job in China, because “the effects of the Great Recession of 2008…barely scratched China.” It looks like Mr. Levine failed to notice that Chinese had been discussing an impending economic slowdown since as early as 2009. In fact, Chinese (in contrast to Mr. Levine) are well aware that China, the world’s second largest economy, is not isolated from other countries around the globe.
One reason for this obvious oversight is that Mr. Levine doesn’t speak or read Mandarin. If he did, he would have noticed that the world economic crisis and its influence on the Chinese economy were already discussed in Beijing’s local news on a daily basis. The fact that a native English speaker who just graduated from elite American universities can easily find an English-teaching job in China doesn’t mean that the Chinese job market is insulated from the world economy. Levine’s mistake was to jump from his very limited personal experience to a broad, macroeconomic conclusion he was unqualified to make. And it was the New York Times’ mistake to give such ill-informed views a platform.
Misrepresentations and misunderstandings of “China” is a complicated issue that won’t disappear overnight. The news media you have trusted doesn’t always give you an unbiased perspective, even though they have been trying their best. Even visiting the country personally won’t suddenly make you a China expert. The dream of building a healthy U.S.-China relationship by simply singing a song in Chinese to the American audience is probably too naïve; seeing or hearing “what” without knowing “why” can hardly help people from two countries with completely different cultures understand each other.
Recent data give cause for concern. A survey from the Committee of 100, a well-regarded community of Chinese-Americans, shows that two-thirds of Americans now see China as a serious or potential military threat to the United States, while a recent Gallup-China Daily USA poll showed just 42 percent of Americans with a favorable view of China, with 44 percent unfavorable.
The lack of trust between the people of both countries is obvious, but not inevitable. There is more you can do. Start looking for the reason behind the “funny” or “strange” things people do; stop believing that reading China-related news, having a relative adopting a baby girl with Chinese heritage, or singing a song in Mandarin all equate to being a China expert. But keep talking about, listening to, and trying to understand and trust the country and its people. That’s the best and most lasting way to build a better U.S.-China relationship.