I Should Have Paid Attention in Chinese School

When I taught in China a few years ago, I went to a unique school founded by the most prestigious university in that nation to train lawyers. It was an extraordinary institution because it followed the American Juris Doctor program and was taught entirely in English. The Chinese were doing what we have urged them to do, which is to adopt the rule of law (which we take for granted means Anglo-American common law). An American adoption of a comparable Chinese institution would be difficult to imagine.

At the end of the term, my students organized a trip to the local beach with us professors as special guests. Once we were there, after the barbecue, they wanted to build a fire near the water and gather to play games and sing songs.

But although they knew an assortment of Western pop tunes and were mourning the passing of Michael Jackson, what they wanted the group to belt out under the stars were patriotic Chinese Communist Party songs. Needless to say, I did not know even a single line.

I gave them several reasons for why I would have to pass up their invitation, but first and foremost, I’m from Detroit. That’s the wrong part of the world to be learning patriotic Chinese songs.

And my family was on the other side of the Communist Revolution. If I knew any patriotic Chinese songs, they probably would not be Communist Party songs.

In the weeks I spent with them, my students overcame their curiosity—and their confusion. One of them eventually said, “You’re American. You just look Chinese.”

In their conception, you had to be one or the other. Unlike in Taiwan or Hong Kong, where everyone has a cousin or two in the United States, Australia or Canada, most mainland Chinese have not encountered someone who claims to be both Chinese and American.

In their newfound nationalism, that is an absurd assertion. There is no distinction between culture and politics. To be Chinese is to be Chinese through and through.

Sometimes my friends who are not of Asian descent say to me, “If China beats the United States, you’ll be all set.”

It’s just the opposite.

If China becomes the dominant superpower and the United States is relegated to secondary status, then it means every decision my family has made for three generations turns out to be wrong. My grandparents fled China for Taiwan, my parents emigrated from Taiwan to America and I assimilated as best as I could. I’ve placed almost all of my bets on my homeland.

I’d have a slight advantage, I suppose, in recognizing what to order at dim sum.

Otherwise, an ascendant China means I would have to scramble to undo the choices I made when I was a child. They could hardly be called “choices.”

Whenever I visit China, I realize my mother was right: I should have paid attention in Chinese school. Saturday mornings would have been better spent practicing the stroke order of complex ideograms, not watching cartoons on television, though I still remember the theme song of Hong Kong Phoeey, the crime fighting dog.

Despite what I might like to think, I have the same prejudices as anyone else. When I meet an Asian American from Texas or the Deep South who has a twang or a drawl, I too am dumbfounded for a moment. I want to ask them how they ended up that way. They of course are perfectly normal from their own perspective. It’s not as if they wanted to be unusual to the rest of the world.

They sound exactly like the people they grew up around even if they don’t quite look like them.

The common observation is that the Chinese know much more about us than we know about them. As the stereotype would have it, my students in fact worked extraordinarily hard by our standards. One was reading economist Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, in English, for fun.

But they also were like their peers here. Late into the night they watched the television show Prison Break, on what I assume were pirated DVDs, and they were astonished at my lack of interest in the show. They did not believe my assurances that life in the States did not resemble any of the shows of which they had become fans.

I finally asked one of them if he could fly through the air.

He replied, not sure of my intention, “No...”

I then explained that many of us on this side of the Pacific Ocean grow up watching kung fu movies depicting Asians flying through the air. Then he understood my point.

Nonetheless, whether through great thinkers of the past or prime time hits, the Chinese are becoming multicultural in spite of their nationalism. We should not be surprised when they expect to contribute as equals to the development of “rule of law.”

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.

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