It was on a train between Wuhan and Xi’an that I did the most illegal thing in my life. I criticized the government.
Jing–a regular student at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law–had spoken about the argument over Weibo, China’s online news blog, about whether or not to give independence to Tibet and Xinjiang and their ethnic minorities. But it was while our classmates—Stony Brook students like me—slept in their overnight train bunks that she and I sat down to talk about the divide between China and the United States.
She was a polite, soft-spoken girl studying French to become an international businesswoman. I had thought French was a useless language until I met fellow foreign students from Africa and France in our dormitories—which is rich coming from me, a German minor.
“How do Americans portray China?” she asked me. Outside, the Chinese countryside, in all its familiar unkempt greenness, dashed across the window. The countryside in eastern and central China is nothing like the US countryside; it is more wild. “Because,” she added, “in China, they always portray America badly.”
I should not have been surprised, but I was. I had never heard anyone speak so plainly of the media relationship. I followed several news sources on Chinese policy, but as I explained, I realized myself that there was a pattern in US media—a prevalent focus on the human rights abuses and advances, including the one-child policy, only reluctantly reminding Americans that President Xi Jinping was cracking down on corrupt officials.
This past year, like other years, Time and CNN analyzed the military parades in Beijing’s national day as a display of power and connected the marches alone to recent disputes with Japan—a relevant but overdone story.
Jing replied that the consistent focus on the negative was true in Chinese media too. What difference does it make if the news anchor is from a state-controlled press or a free press if all he tells us is select facts?
The conductor interrupted our conversation to suggest that I put my backpack on the overhead rack. Having not heard, I stared blankly.
“She’s American,” said Jing as he grew frustrated. “Her parents did not teach her Chinese growing up.”
“Well,” said the conductor gruffly, “you’re Chinese, and you’re in China now. And since you’re in China, you should speak Chinese.”
I hesitated, trying to trigger my mind into Mandarin. Bilingualism is like a mechanism with a switch—you need to flick it to change modes, and one side has gone rusty.
“If I don’t learn Chinese,” I said carefully, “then what is the point of me coming here?”
Like all over-patriotic grandpas would, he beamed at me. “That’s good. You still have some patriotism,” he said. “You’re still young. Take your time learning,” he added, perhaps the nicest way any Chinese person can tell you to do your best.
Jing continued on to Asia’s favorite topic, Japan.
“We don’t like the government,” she said, and I agreed heartily, thinking of the conservative Japanese prime minister, Abe Shinzo. “But we know that there is a difference between the government and the people. Especially the younger generation.”
In 2012, anti-Japanese sentiment grew so strong that rioters across the country smashed Japanese-themed businesses. The recent dispute over a Japanese claim on the Diaoyu islands, which China also claims, had added insult to an injury of the Abe administration’s defense of World War II atrocities.
Compared to the myriad of Koreans, West Africans, Frenchmen, Pakistanis and Laotians I lived with, I had only seen three Japanese students around campus.
“Hey, foreigner!” The conductor had come back. I blinked at him innocently. “Do you know what today is? It’s Duanwu Jie,” he continued without waiting for my answer. I was still confused. In New York, we celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival in August. “Have you ever had zongzi? I’ll get you some.” And he hurried to the next car.
Of course I ate zongzi, the sticky rice meal wrapped in leaves. Usually it had peanuts and different kinds of meat in the center. I grew up eating Chinese and western dishes; I have a tongue for northern food, like stringbeans and duck, and I handle pepper better than my Cantonese father. But the people I met in China, including my own relatives and people I met at a wedding, worried about my ability to eat Chinese food, always pointing at a McDonald’s “just in case.” I also had to explain that, no, I am American but not all Americans are Christian. And to the grandma I rented bikes from outside of campus—no, you don’t have to be blonde to be American.
The conductor came back and dropped off two zongzi. “Happy Duanwu Jie,” he said.
It was at a sushi café by the University of Bonn that my friend and I discussed Hitler and Putin.
Victoria, the daughter of Polish immigrants—her father is from Silesia, the southern province passed through German and Polish hands throughout history—said “Danke” to the Korean owner, a strange experience for me, who often had friends translate on Flushing’s Korean-dominated Northern Boulevard. She would later enroll in the University of Bonn, which was once federal property of the Kingdom of Prussia—a detail that compliments her Prussian heritage and fixation on its famous king, Friedrich II.
Vladimir Putin had annexed Crimea earlier that year, and as aspiring historians we of course tied his rise to President to that of Adolf Hitler.
“He earned the love of the peasants,” Victoria said. “And he also climbed through the ranks in government.”
And since I was fresh out of Beijing, she asked me a familiar question. “What is China really like? Because in Germany, we always portray it negatively.”
I replied the way I had to Jing, but this time we talked about the Chinese diplomatic attitude towards the United States. It’s defiance, I explained. It’s a passive-aggressive, yes-we-can-work-together-but-don’t-try-to-push-us-around attitude. Because of the prevalent international image of the United States as the try-hard “world police,” which drops bombs on civilians in Syria but preaches human rights towards China, a culture it does not understand.
“Like Russia,” she replied.
Like Putin’s attitude towards the rest of Europe and the United States, regarding Ukraine.
By the time I had left Germany, what I understood was that while China and the United States never looked eye to eye, they were just the same.
We met again in Berlin.
The stories are in the news.
Syrian refugees had flooded into Germany. If I saw the effects in Berlin, I did not notice. Seeing people in niqabs and hijabs crossing the street to go shopping is nothing to me, who grew up in Queens, and, I thought, nothing to those who live in German cities. This is a country with a high count of Turkish immigrants.
But since the flood, the cultural issue of so many Syrians going into Germany at once has prompted frustrated screaming over social media about non-assimilating migrants, pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel and an Arabic-language broadcast series, “Marhaba,” by German reporter Constantin Schreiber.
But Berlin is the alternative city, the city that Victoria noted to be much more friendly than the rest of Germany after a shopkeeper fussed over me with paper towels after I spilled soda outside his store. Germans are usually more stern and blunt, she said.
A German man who wore his pants low like a New York thug and spoke no English had spent at least 20 minutes guiding me to my hotel through a storm in Cologne, a western city, instead of jumping me, so I was not really feeling the stereotype.
We had made our way through Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s shopping district, when she mentioned her father.
German education divides primary education by skill level, and her father teaches the “special education” classes—including children from Syria. “They don’t listen to some of the teachers because they’re women,” Victoria told me. They’re the most disruptive students, the “ghetto kids”—something I experienced in New York City public education and am not keen on experiencing again.
But, we agreed, it is not the children’s fault, not at first, that they were raised by conservative families. Assimilation and feminist progression—cultural diffusion—comes over time. It comes with generations, the same way New York City, known in “The Godfather” and Disney World’s Hollywood Studios sets for Italian influence, has given to Asian culture beyond Chinatown within 50 years.
Culture is a fluid, evolving thing. German culture may change with the inflow of migrants, but naturally. At its heart, it will remain quintessentially German. If the states that used to make up the region resisted and united to make modern Germany during the Franco-Prussian war, then withstood the split of the Iron Curtain that makes the culture of Berlin so kind and the economy of once-Soviet East Germany so worrying today, then this is the next chapter.
It is only the struggle in between that faraway generation and this one that is the problem.
It is easy to lose sight of the lessons you learned while travelling.
Between China and Germany, two cultures I can somewhat claim to understand, I have looked past American exceptionalism—whether it is that of a liberal college student or a conservative worker, I have peeked at the world though lens other than my own.
People are the same the world over; and yet each nation is diverse. After all, I look nothing like President Obama—the face of my nation—or anyone in Congress.
Understand that a nation is several cultures made into one. Understand that a Chinese American is no less an American than a Creole American or a German-Italian American. But also understand that a Chinese American can celebrate both the Dragon Boat Festival and Fourth of July in one breath.
And also understand that whatever you are thinking—that whether you see your country as a notorious former imperialist or a superpower morally forced to “save” the people of other countries, your rival across the water is thinking the same of his own country.
I cannot emphasize enough how I see the change of New York in the change of Germany and its neighbors. I cannot emphasize enough how similar the “liberal millennials” and nationalists of China are to those in the United States.
Despite the media, despite politics and human clannishness, we are the same the world over.
And the rest is history.