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Helen Gao

Growing Up a Chinese Patriot, Then Heading West in a Changed World

The Chinese says "I love my motherland," a mantra that once glowed

I have hundreds of memories of the ceremony, the earliest of which took place in the playground of my elementary school: A dirt opening ringed with cypresses and gingko trees, a small brick-and-concrete platform, and a shining flag pole. Every Monday morning, the school gathered on the playground after second period, belting out the national anthem while watching the flag climb.

Arise–ye who refuse to be slaves–,” the flag bearer, a member of the Young Pioneers Group, jerked his hands to spread the flag in a swish, his tiny body thrown into an arch, as his partner started pulling the rope. “The people of China–have arrived at the most dangerous time! Everybody must let out a final cry–” the flag rose slowly, bathed in the morning sun, birds chirping in the trees. “March on–march on–march on!” The unison broke toward the end, voices syncopating, as we each adjusted our pace so the last note would coincide with the “Ding” sound when the flag reached the top. 

The flag raising was followed by the “Speech Under the National Flag,” a name given by the students. A speaker was usually a fifth or sixth grader picked by teachers, who took the microphone at the center of the platform and read a political speech prepared by another student writer.

We stood in silence and listened. The words had a unique rhythm, like a troop marching by, breaking into a run, switching to goose step, then to parade step, never missing a beat. They were words both strange and familiar, words printed in bold in our “Ideology and Morality” textbooks, or announced in central television evening news programs. “Love your class, love your school, love your country!” “Building socialism with Chinese characteristics requires the service of each and every one of us!” “Realize the Four Modernizations!” These phrases, their meanings but vague contours, glowed in my mind. Like chants, like mantras that, if mastered, could bring me the life I wanted.

They were also ubiquitous in my daily life: Large characters chalked on the boards outside my classrooms, red banners hanging under city overpasses, the phrases in the pledge to join the Young Pioneers Group, and the lines in the cross talk shows performed at the Chinese New Year gala. As a result, even as a fifth grader, it was difficult for me not to notice in 1999 when all those words seemed to catch fire overnight, burning with anger.

One day that year, Headmaster Wang asked me to come to his office after class.

“Next week, we have a theme for our student speech at the flag-raising ceremony,” he said, leaning back in his chair and looking at me from across his desk. “Your Chinese teacher recommended you, and I want you to write something about what just happened, the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.”

A moment of silence. I tried to digest his request.

“But I don’t know anything about the bombing!” flashed through my mind, but I immediately pushed it aside. Surely I could watch some news. “What should I say about it?” came next, but somehow the answer was already there before I finished asking myself the question. I imagined two thousand students at the flag-raising ceremony, standing in silence and focused on my words. I wiped my wet palms on the back of my pants.

“Sure. When should I hand it in?”

Walking out of Headmaster Wang’s office, I looked out of the hallway window at the flagpole and the small platform on the playground, gleaming slightly in the afternoon sun, and quickened my steps.

Writing the speech didn’t turn out to be an onerous task. It felt more like stacking blocks than making a sculpture—none of the hair-pulling, nail-biting agony in the search for ideas, or the consuming labor involved in creating a work of self-expression. There was a vast pool of resources I could turn to for inspiration: Ledes in the front-page news, phrases in television announcements, words beyond my comprehension but within grasp—“gross encroachment on China’s sovereignty,” “willful trampling on the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” “barbaric atrocity,” “oppose hegemonism.” Pushing these phrases around on paper, I produced my first “Speech Under the National Flag.” 

The following Monday was sunny and cloudless, with a touch of the approaching summer heat. Above the rows of students on the playground, standing straight in their bold white school uniforms, my words echoed, delivered by a firm and ardent voice slightly blurred by microphone feedback. “U.S.-led NATO has committed a crime…it was a serious incident that has shocked the world. It was a serious infringement on Chinese sovereignty and an affront to the feelings of the Chinese people!”

The speaker leaned forward slightly, nodding her head while pronouncing each line as if to an internal drumbeat, the written speech rustling in her hands. “We express our utmost indignation and stern condemnation, and lodge the strongest protest against this barbaric atrocity!” 

I looked around. The student in front of me turned back half way, sticking out his arm low and erecting his thumb. I managed to stifle a smile as the angry speech rolled on.

After writing my first speech, I seemed to have boarded a fast-moving train that carried me along on an exhilarating and dizzy ride full of praise and recognition. More speechwriting tasks started coming my way: For National Day, for Anti-Japanese War Memorial Day, for the school’s opening ceremony, for commencement. Before each event, I handed my speech to Headmaster Wang, who read my early efforts while rubbing his temples, but later took only a glance before returning them to me with a smile. After each speech, more classmates began to recognize me, walking up to me in the hallway of our school building, addressing me as “the speechwriter.”

The task seemed to become almost effortless over time. While I initially had to scour piles of newspapers to collect popular buzzwords and catchphrases, as I moved on to middle school and high school I developed a mental reservoir for these words. I learned to pick and arrange them for different themes; from China joining the WTO in 2000 to the 2004 Athens Olympics to the 2005 anti-Japanese protests, I could rattle off relevant terminologies as if I were reciting the periodic table. 

The meanings of these words, however, had always remained elusive to me. Why are the “Four Modernizations” important? What exactly does xiaokang—“fairly well-off”—entail? What does a “harmonious society” mean? But I didn’t dwell on these questions, nor did I attempt to explore them in the speeches, for the teachers who proofread my drafts always smiled approvingly, and the students listened without commenting.

In my high school junior year political science class, we learned to define some of this vocabulary: “people’s democratic dictatorship,” “initial stage of socialism,” “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” words that sounded no more relevant to our lives than when we first heard them in elementary school. We made jokes about the political science teacher, mimicking his heavy provincial accent, while still duly copying his words onto our notebooks and memorizing them for exams. It was important to remember the “inherent contradictions in the capitalist mode of production” and the difference between “the Chinese People’s Congress system” and “the Western Parliamentary system,” for they had provided answers for two multiple choice questions in the previous year’s gaokao, the national college entrance exam.

As the years passed, the flag-raising ceremonies seemed to grow longer. Sleep-deprived high school juniors mumbled the lyrics of the national anthem between yawns as the flag climbed the pole, and listened, heads drooping, as the speeches droned on. Speechwriting, too, seemed to have lost its exciting punch. These words, now ubiquitous in our lives, had lost their grandeur, and become a currency only valuable when converted into scores on our school report card. For the next exam, and for the one after that, I did not mind repeating them.

Deerfield Academy beckoned from the front of a glossy brochure

By 2005, something was changing. More than a few of my peers started to consider applying to high schools and universities abroad. The legends of the “Harvard Girls” and “Yale Boys,” Chinese who had successfully made it into the best universities in the world, were tickling the minds of thousands of others in China. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge–the school names, appearing in history textbooks next to pictures of Nobel Prize winners, assumed the same vague but glowing contours in my mind as patriotic vocabulary once did in elementary school. Terms like “liberal arts education” and “critical thinking” on the school websites felt as elusive as the “Four Modernizations” and the “Eight Honors and Eight Shames.” But maybe no one would ask me to define those, either. The game had changed, and new rules needed to be mastered. Perhaps the English application essays would prove scarcely harder to write than the “Under the Flag speeches” after all. 

Over one weekend, I filled out an application to a private high school in the United States, then dove back into to my school textbooks. After all, before any alternative destination came into view, it was risky to deviate too far from the well-trodden path.

Three months later, a package from Massachusetts arrived in the mail. I tore it open, and a thick bundle of envelopes and booklets fell into my lap. The top one was a brochure that had a cover photo of a majestic-looking building with red bricks and white pillars behind well-manicured grass. It was the campus of Deerfield Academy, glowing in the sun.

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Helen Gao

Helen hails from Beijing, where she spent the first 17 years of her life before heading to the US for high school and college. After a one-year stint at The Atlantic magazine, she is currently back to her home city and working as a freelancer. She constantly craves for hot pot while in the US, and for New Haven pizza while in China.
  • Godfrey789

    Great article. You make an interesting point about shared cultural characteristics. Example: vagueness of phrases like “critical thinking.”
    In American schools, we likewise grew up reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance” to the flag and signing “Fifty Nifty United States.”

    • Archie

      I’m not sure critical thinking is vague. It simply means possessing an ability to be critical of new information, and to question things that others typically would not question.

      In Australia, we sang the national anthem once a year perhaps. Most barely knew the whole song. We’re nowhere near as visibly patriotic as you yanks. Though, a few years ago they did bring in a law to say that all public schools should begin to fly the flag.

      • Godfrey789

        Critical thinking does not lend itself to any “simple” definition — one can debate the precise meaning and scope.
        Also, interesting insight about the Australian scene.

  • Godfrey789

    Great article. You make an interesting point about shared cultural characteristics. Example: vagueness of phrases like “critical thinking.”
    In American schools, we likewise grew up reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance” to the flag and signing “Fifty Nifty United States.”

    • Archie

      I’m not sure critical thinking is vague. It simply means possessing an ability to be critical of new information, and to question things that others typically would not question.

      In Australia, we sang the national anthem once a year perhaps. Most barely knew the whole song. We’re nowhere near as visibly patriotic as you yanks. Though, a few years ago they did bring in a law to say that all public schools should begin to fly the flag.

      • Godfrey789

        Critical thinking does not lend itself to any “simple” definition — one can debate the precise meaning and scope.
        Also, interesting insight about the Australian scene.

  • Archie

    You clearly have a talent for writing, as shown in this well articulated recount of your past. A good read, exceptional for someone’s second language. I wish you all the best, and hope you can put your writing to good use.

  • Archie

    You clearly have a talent for writing, as shown in this well articulated recount of your past. A good read, exceptional for someone’s second language. I wish you all the best, and hope you can put your writing to good use.

  • Swiss Dave

    Will there be a Part Two (wherein the author finds herself shocked at the fact no US student has apparently heard of the 1999 Belgrade bombing or the Four Modernizations, and instead mostly cares about keg parties and such; she consequently undergoes a radical self-criticism/re-examination period) followed by a Part Three (reconciliation between admiring the flawed charms of the West and the charmed flaws of the PRC; realizes the motherland is run by less-than-maternal types etc etc, becomes foreign journalist, comes to grips with the inherent contradictions/agonies of being a patriot and a strident critic)? I’d like to read them

    • Helen__Gao

      haha there you told it better than I could.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chieh-Ting-Yeh/7977 Chieh-Ting Yeh

        Yeah this definitely deserves a Part 2!

      • Susan

        Helen, you need to write more on this topic. It’s a good story, but only the first chapter.

  • Swiss Dave

    Will there be a Part Two (wherein the author finds herself shocked at the fact no US student has apparently heard of the 1999 Belgrade bombing or the Four Modernizations, and instead mostly cares about keg parties and such; she consequently undergoes a radical self-criticism/re-examination period) followed by a Part Three (reconciliation between admiring the flawed charms of the West and the charmed flaws of the PRC; realizes the motherland is run by less-than-maternal types etc etc, becomes foreign journalist, comes to grips with the inherent contradictions/agonies of being a patriot and a strident critic)? I’d like to read them

    • Helen__Gao

      haha there you told it better than I could.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chieh-Ting-Yeh/7977 Chieh-Ting Yeh

        Yeah this definitely deserves a Part 2!

      • Susan

        Helen, you need to write more on this topic. It’s a good story, but only the first chapter.

  • Guess

    If you are interested in knowing more about critical thinking then you will find Socrates’ dialogue ‘Meno’ very interesting. Otherwise you can also find out more on Confucious’ teaching method. Confucious never feed all the answers to his students, but instead he carefully guide his students’ thinking with a series of questions meant to help him to arrive at the right answer. This is how these two philosophers/teachers promote critical thinking among his students. By giving definitive answers to students, you would have killed off the joy of learning and growing insight. Hope this may help.

  • Guess

    If you are interested in knowing more about critical thinking then you will find Socrates’ dialogue ‘Meno’ very interesting. Otherwise you can also find out more on Confucious’ teaching method. Confucious never feed all the answers to his students, but instead he carefully guide his students’ thinking with a series of questions meant to help him to arrive at the right answer. This is how these two philosophers/teachers promote critical thinking among his students. By giving definitive answers to students, you would have killed off the joy of learning and growing insight. Hope this may help.