When I first came to China in 2004, I came alone. In the small town to which I moved to teach English, I would often eat out alone, poke around the streets alone, and wander through the nearby fields and villages alone. Except I wasn’t really alone; there was usually someone tagging along just behind me, or hanging around my dinner table, or moving through the grocery store aisle by my side. They were usually under the age of 30, and often came in pairs. They wanted to ask me where I was from, try out their few words of English, see what I was buying, or just generally observe my strangeness as I went about my business. People approached me often to take my photo.
When I came back to live in China again in 2009, I came with RP – and hardly anybody approached me anymore. China changed so much in the first decade of the new millennium that I simply assumed that people had become more sophisticated in the 5 years since I had last resided there. The Olympics had happened; a flood of foreigners had come to China to do business, teach English, and study Mandarin; average people were well-acquainted with American pop culture and Western products. I figured that people were just too cool now to be interested in foreigners, or at least too cool to appear interested.
It turns out that it was simply a case of being too intimidated to come up and speak to two foreigners walking down the street or eating dinner together. China’s general public may well be more sophisticated now than they were in 2004, but as soon as I was traveling alone this fall, the interest from strangers started up again with a vengeance.
This time, however, my Chinese was much improved. Since it was slightly off-season for tourists, I was often the only foreigner in the endless string of 8-to-a-room hostels I occupied – and unless you’re feeling really tough, it’s hard to keep up the ruse that you don’t understand when your bunk mates are all talking about you two feet away.
So I would introduce myself, and that would begin the two-hour conversation about life in America, life in China as an American, superficial analyses of China’s grand economic and political strategies, and so on. Occupy Wall Street activities were just hitting the Chinese news (and were uncensored, at least initially, I’m sure because the Chinese government took pleasure in the sight of what appeared to be massive anti-capitalist protests in the world’s richest nation).
The people staying in these hostels were usually university students traveling on their school break, and I found the prevailing attitude about the OWS protests to be fascinating: that it indicated the end of the United States. I had several people ask me, in all seriousness, when Obama would be resigning.
A common sentiment expressed to me by Chinese acquaintances in all walks of life has been that the worst attribute society can have is luan: disorder, or even chaos. But because of the heavy censorship of the press, I’m not sure most Chinese people know how luan society there already is; the huge protests in Wukan, Guangdong this fall and winter were only the most explosive of an increasing number of incidents of “social unrest” happening in China every year (some 180,000 in 2010 alone, according to Tsinghua University Professor of Sociology Sun Liping). Without access to that knowledge, you can see why people would look at images like the following being blasted all over the internet, and assume that the end is nigh:
I tried to explain that these were protests about economic inequality and outrageous corporate power in the US political process, and that if the US were going to crumble it probably wouldn’t be because of these incidents, but I’m not sure they believed me.
At any rate, I found these conversations refreshing for their (relative – very relative) depth. I don’t know if it’s because I spend a lot of time hanging out in the Chinese boondocks, but the average conversation someone strikes up with me about America go no further than this (verbatim, no joke):
Shop Keeper: Oh, you’re American! America is great.
Me: Why do you say that?
Shop Keeper: America is developed. (“美国的发展好.”)
While these conversations are usually painfully uninformed, they’re always very friendly. It’s certainly pretty unusual to hear a Chinese person say that they hate America. Much more typical is having someone inform you, completely unsolicited, that they hate hate HATE the Japanese, but that they think America is just terrific. So while I was getting used to having random people approach me for a quick chat again, I was unprepared for the following scene that occurred on my last afternoon in Hangzhou.
Scene: Bird sits in an anonymous restaurant eating braised tofu with rice. Mid-bite, a Random Old Man (ROM) plops himself down in the empty seat across from her.
ROM: Hey, are you Russian?
Bird: No, I’m not Russian. I’m American.
ROM: Not Russian, huh?
ROM: China has good relations with Russia, you know. And Germany. And France.
Bird: You don’t say.
ROM: But you’re American. (Beat) I hate America.
Bird: Why would that be?
ROM: You guys are messing with our economy!
Bird: We’re messing with your economy? Are you aware of the fact that the Chinese government owns over a trillion dollars of US debt? And that China has protectionist policies about its own industries while flooding the US with cheap, low-quality goods – goods whose price is only so low because the Chinese government controls the value of the renminbi?!
ROM: Hey, don’t get mad.
Bird: Sure, why should I be mad? You only interrupted my lunch to tell me that you hate my country.
ROM: It’s just that I hate Obama, that black guy.
Bird: Really – and why is that?
ROM: He’s made a really bad impression on average Chinese people.
Bird: Exactly which of Obama’s policies are you against?
ROM: Why is America involved in so many wars, like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan? Iraqis are people too, you know.
Bird: I’m sure most Americans would agree with you there. Actually, many Americans are against those wars. We have protested in the streets, but our government doesn’t listen to us. It’s important to remember that people are different from their governments – that governments make decisions without consulting their people, policies that often contradict the people’s wishes.
ROM: That’s because you Americans have too many political parties.
Bird: Actually we only really have two.
ROM: Well, that’s too many. We Chinese only have one. The Communist Party.
Bird: Yes I know that. Everyone knows that.
ROM: China’s a peaceful place, you know! We’re don’t go around starting wars with everybody!
Bird: My understanding is that China has so many internal conflicts that it doesn’t really need to wage war with anyone else.
Bird: Forget it.
ROM: I think the Communist Party is really great. Particularly what they’re doing in places like Tibet. Tibet’s a better place now than it’s ever been before, wouldn’t you agree?
Bird: Check please!
ROM: Nah, come on – have some more rice!
Bird: CHECK PLEASE RIGHT NOW!