The Power of Perceptions: How Chinese See America, and Vice Versa

Much of the conflict between America and China is caused by misunderstanding. It is false conflict that can be resolved easily enough with meaningful interaction. Some of the clash, as with any relationship, is undisputedly a dispute, even deliberately instigated by those with their own agendas. Yet so much progress can be made by clearing away the superficial disagreements, establishing dialogue, which by definition proceeds among equals. It is an ongoing process. Chinese Americans can play a role. We can use language, culture, our lineage on one side and assimilation on another side, to serve as interpreters and translators, literal and figurative.

Here is an everyday example, perhaps funny, from a decade ago, as China was beginning an economic boom of a scale unprecedented in global history. The trivial is telling. I happened to teach law for a semester in China when the television program Prison Break was popular, as it turns out everywhere. My students were binge watching it when that concept of viewing episode after episode in marathon sessions had just been given the name. They were surprised that I was not a fan of the show. They also were skeptical when I stated that the depiction of America was not accurate.

So I dissuaded them that Americans were all the same, even if I reduced my own authority as a reporter of the American scene. They were eager to talk, and I was happy to as well. Most of them had not encountered someone who looked like them but sounded like any other American. A Chinese American was foreign. They accepted me as a distant cousin who could inform them about life on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. They taught me much too. My Mandarin became passable enough to get around the city on my own if awkwardly. I had to listen before I could speak. That is the most important lesson.

As we discussed their impression of my country, formed from representations that were as ubiquitous as they were deceptive, I realized that it was impossible for me, a human being with what I would like to believe are authentic accounts of real life, to contend against Hollywood, especially with the advent of “reality” TV. The futility of the effort was not unique to Chinese people.

If anything, they should be credited: the average Chinese knows much more about America than the average American knows about China. I experienced the same frustration with American laypeople who were sure that American lawyers behaved as their screen versions did. They saw people pick up a case on Monday to try it on Friday, with no research into precedent and no writing of briefs, even as everyone in the firm had affairs with everybody else. Many Chinese had the same prejudice as many Americans about African Americans and blacks in general and ideas about gender and sexuality that, being as objective an observer as I could be, I would infer could have come only from the media, since they had never interacted with an African American or a blonde woman. That is to credit them not criticize them. The Chinese consumers of American cliches are no more culpable than the American consumers of it. The content producers are the ones responsible if even they are conscious of what they have internalized.

Finally, it occurred to me that an analogy might be useful. That is a law professor's stock in trade. I asked if everyone in China was able to fly through the air, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, while engaging in martial arts combat. They laughed at the preposterous notion. I then explained that some Americans held stereotypes along those lines, that Chinese all were kung fu masters, because they watched Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and others in performances of karate and kung fu. A kid in the States might challenge you jokingly to fight on the street. My students nodded. That comparison clicked for them.

Such mirror image bias is invisible. It is a frame and a lens through which perceptions are formed. Each of us is always looking out at the world from a particular perspective. But we cannot see the vantage point from itself. Psychologists have figured out that is why we don’t accept accurate photographs of ourselves as such. We are accustomed to a likeness that has been flipped by the reflection. You have to move elsewhere — as by traveling to another society, becoming immersed within it — to have the needed distance. An anchor is necessary; none of us can comprehend a subject in the abstract, as if we were disembodied and floating in space. The same applies to me. I like to think I have an advantage as an Asian American, recognizing how Asia and America influence one another, but no doubt I also suffer a disadvantage, and I should be humble.

The virtual affects the actual. There are the bits of truth in Prison Break, as there are in the latest Asian counterpart. They are exaggerated and distorted, through artistic license, for the comedic or dramatic effect. There is a tradition of martial arts in China. The wuxia literary genre continues to be revered. That does not mean, however, that breaking your brother out of the penitentiary is a dominant theme of American life, nor that every passerby with straight black hair, almond eyes, and yellow skin was trained at the Shaolin Temple.

The more we engage, without the filter of social media, in real time, the better we will advance understanding. Contact among those who share mutual respect is crucial. But it takes thought and effort to create the conditions for meetings and dialogue.

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