Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Chinese, Americans and shame

One of the worst parts of being an American in China is what I call “the interrogation.” A Chinese person, almost always a middle-aged, lower-middle class man will approach me and, upon learning that I can speak Chinese, aggressively question me about all the bad things about the US does. This isn’t some attempt to hold a discussion or voice opinions; on the contrary, any attempt to refute what the Chinese man says will be brushed aside, or he will give up that line of attack and then start on some other thing he feels you should feel ashamed about. That’s what it’s really about: inducing shame. The experience is so frustrating and irritating that one Chinese-speaking American friend of mine cites it as a reason not to live in China. I haven’t gone through enough “interrogations” to make me want to give up on China yet; in fact I’ve found people’s attitude toward Americans to be a bit better now than back in 2004. However, it is still an experience I dread.
My last “interrogation” was toward the end of my second week in Lhasa. Jared and Jasmine had already left, so I spent most of my time hanging out with Zoë. One day Zoë wanted to have hotpot, and we asked the Xinjiangese man to come along. We wanted to invite Kamal but he wasn’t around.
The conversation quickly turned to politics. The Xinjiangese man was, like many Chinese people, very critical of the Chinese government and convinced it was corrupt. He felt very strongly that the central government was cheating Xinjiang by taking its oil without compensating it. “If the Chinese government wanted, Xinjiang could be as wealthy as Shenzhen,” he said, voicing a common perception among Chinese people that it is the government rather than economics that determines what places are wealthy. He was also surprisingly frank about China’s ethnic policies: he said that in both Tibet and Xinjiang, the government was trying to Sinify the local non-Chinese people. (He was, by the way, a Han Chinese himself, and therefore not a “native” Xinjiangese.)
Eventually the conversation turned to Iraq. I should have known what was coming, and should have been more cautious. The Xinjiangese man was just the kind of person who would pull an “interrogation,” and Zoë had shown a tendency to be nationalistic. For example, when we were still on the road to Lhasa and I was telling her, Jasmine and Jared why I wanted to get through Bayi as fast as possible I showed them the part of my travel guide that warned foreigners in Eastern Tibet illegally that Bayi's police were particularly hostile to foreigners. Zoe was a bit upset and thought it was wrong for them to write such a thing. Another time I pointed an English sign that would appear to someone who only spoke Chinese or English to be a translation of a Chinese sign that said “please check your valuables in at the front desk.” The English sign said “gambling, drugs and the use of prostitutes is forbidden.” I thought it was amusing, but Zoë thought it was justified: “But it’s true that foreigners use prostitutes, gamble and use drugs!” Basically, she was sensitive to any comment with even the suggestion of criticism of China.
When the Xinjiangese man first brought up the Iraq war, I told them that I opposed it and that I thought it was a bad war, but I also tried to explain why Americans were willing to support it, namely because of paranoia after 9/11 and the belief that there was nothing wrong with toppling one of the world’s cruelest dictators. Basically I just wanted to point out that American people were not bad people, and wouldn’t support just any war that the government wanted to carry out. For example, the Bush couldn’t order an invasion of Iran or North Korea just because he felt like it. After a debacle like Iraq American people would want some pretty good reasons to support another war.
Zoë and the Xinjiangese man brushed my explanations aside before I finished speaking. Whether or not Saddam was oppressed Iraqis was internal Iraqi matter, they said, and Iraq’s invasions of Iran and Kuwait were a “Muslim affair.” At this point I started getting upset. Whether or not Saddam’s cruelty was an Iraqi or Muslim affair was for my argument beside the point, and anyway all I was trying to do was say that Americans were not bad. Zoe and this guy seemed set on saying we were.
Now, I have met many people from many countries who oppose the war in Iraq and think Americans are brainwashed and so on, but they have all been able to tell me as much in such a way that did not offend me. For example, in 2004 I met a Muslim man on a bus in Qinghai. He had gone to school in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and was definitely not a big fan of US foreign policy, and he told me as much. But he also added that he was sure that Americans opposed Bush, and would vote for Kerry in the election. Similarly, the Czech woman I met in Ganzi thought 9/11 was a big conspiracy, but said she felt sorry for Americans who were being tricked. As a general rule I don’t say anything critical of someone’s country to their face unless I know they won’t be insulted or they are being unbearably obnoxious, but I appreciate it if someone who does criticize my own country makes clear that they are not blaming me or saying that Americans are bad people.

The conversation went downhill from there. America’s invasion of Iraq was compared to Japan’s invasion of China, which should be absurd to anyone who reads the news. The US might be doing a lot of bad things in Iraq, but there is simply no comparison to the wanton, shameless cruelty that marked Japan’s invasion of China. The Xinjiangese man went on by saying that he thought Bush was helping Americans with the war, because, he said, he was making American oil companies sell oil in America for below-market prices. I tried to explain why this was also absurd but my arguments were again dismissed. I asked how he knew Bush was doing that. “Because the Chinese government told me he was, that’s how!” he said, in a what-you-gonna-do-about-it tone of voice. I figured that if he was going to rely on the same government that he thought was cheating him for information, I might as well try having a discussion with a brick wall.
Aside from Iraq, the Xinjiangese man also said the US was mistreating China by imposing tariffs, which is for the record not true. America’s treatment of Native Americans was then brought up, as well as its treatment of African-Americans. My lack of African-American friends was apparently taken as proof that I am racist. I was also told that I was too poorly informed to make an argument about current affairs because I didn’t know the name of a Taiwanese legislator in the Democratic Progressive Part who supported efforts to oust Taiwan’s president. Aside from not enjoying being told to my face that I am an ignorant, racist imperialist I was also disturbed by how they viewed morality. In the minds of most Americans the world has gotten better as time has gone on. Things that were possible a hundred years ago, like invading other countries for no reason but to take their territory and blatantly racist laws, are not possible today, even if racism still exists and more ambiguous wars like Vietnam and Iraq can still happen. That’s why Bush’s use of torture is so disturbing, because torture is something that should have become unacceptable two hundred years ago- around when the Constitution banned “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Zoe and the Xinjiangese man did not feel that there had been an improvement, which they “proved” with their comparison of America’s cruelty in Iraq to Japan’s in China. They acknowledged that it was bad that China was trying to passively eliminate Uyghurs and Tibetans as ethnically distinct people, but since America did the same thing to Native Americans it was OK. In fact, they argued, since ever country does bad things and is restricted only by its power rather than by morality, China also has the right to do all the bad things other countries do. To me this is particularly disturbing. Just because other people do bad things does not mean that you, too, could do bad things. I have yet to meet an American that thinks the US should use its power to purposely harm other countries, unless it is necessary for the US to defend itself- that last qualification is where all the problems lie. Even many people who support wars like Iraq and Vietnam honestly believe the US is promoting democracy and, in the long run, doing good. What would China be willing to do if it became the world’s most powerful country and felt even less bound by morality than the US does now?

To be fair, not all Chinese people would make such arguments, and many still have favorable views of the US. It’s hard to say how seriously I should take everything Chinese people say when they are in “interrogation” mode. Emotion seems to be the main factor in what they say, rather than reason. Even the one person who “interrogated” me and would actually listen to my arguments would come up with something else to be angry about every time I refuted one of his arguments. For some reason people who do this have to feel angry at America (and Americans), and have to make sure some American feels as ashamed as possible for being American. The Xinjiangese man kept telling me “Don’t worry, I like Americans,” with a big smile- it was as though he was “forgiving” us for all the bad things we ought to be ashamed about.

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