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After: You’re not a fish, how do you know fish are happy?

By 29 June 2009 No Comment

Finally, this trip is going to end. Before coming to China, I was totally prejudiced. I was paranoid about food safety, for example – and I did get sick on the fourth day of the trip, but I was fine for the rest of the time. I was worried about meeting the nationalistic people. Well, they really are nationalistic. But I didn’t have serious argument with any of them. China is not as scary as I imagined, but now it seems more exotic to me than before.

During our month-long tour, I think I did a very good job in skirting the sensitive issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty. Of course it was impossible to avoid completely once people found out that I’m from Taiwan. And I found that Chinese really do like to begin a conversation in a challenging way: “You’re from Taiwan,” they would often say. “Then why don’t you want to be unified with China?”

If the individual was middle aged, I usually answered, “Because I love traditional Chinese characters more than simplified ones” – the latter being the ones in common use on the mainland. Sometimes the person would laugh, because they’ve learned traditional Chinese characters before. Sometimes they would retort: “Traditional Chinese characters are too complicated.”

“Well,” I’d say, “I think Chinese are smart enough to deal with it.” None of the people I met refused this compliment.

In dealing with younger people, I expected them to be more open-minded, so I would say I liked Taiwan the way it was “because the Internet in China is censored so that I can’t access Youtube.” Some people became defensive but at the same time they understood Internet censorship does indeed exist. And they don’t like that either.

But occasionally, the answer I received was unpredictable. “What is Youtube?” Yen Kaiwen, the daughter of a source, asked me.

“Uh…. it’s a… a very popular video-sharing Web site launched in 2002. A lot of people share…uh… interesting videos on it.”

“Oh, then what’s the big deal not being able to access Youtube?”

I’ve been a heavy user of Youtube since 2003, and making access has become a necessity in my life. I upload my video on to it, watch Taiwanese TV drama on it, and listen to the songs my choir is going to perform. Youtube has become a proper noun that I would expect everybody knows. For a heavy user, not being able to access Youtube is a disaster, but for people who have never known it, it’s nothing important.

It was at moments like this that I felt that the life of the Chinese in China was very far from my own.

The same feeling came to me when standing in front of the Tiananmen Square. Mao Zedong’s picture is so unfamiliar. I know my parents were taught that Mao was a jerk, and people here treat him as a hero. But I didn’t feel any connection with his photo. No hate. No excitement. Nothing. I was staring at the most influential political figure in Chinese history, who embodied the major difference between democratic Taiwan and communist China, but I felt as if I were watching a man in somebody else’s history, not mine.

Unlike my parents’ generation, people of my age didn’t receive much brainwashing education, or propaganda, from the government. Now textbooks don’t go to such great lengths to describe Mao as before. In bookstores, books about Mao are available for those who are interested. Learning about Mao outside regular school textbooks enables us to think more independently and objectively about him. We probably know more facts than our parents do with the benefit of Internet and today’s open-minded society. However, we’re also more lukewarm. Okay, we know who Mao is, but why should we care about him?

And then I realized China is a totally different country. The people here live a life so different from the Taiwanese. Even though we all use chopsticks, speak Mandarin, and love dumplings, our thoughts are completely different.

This put me in a weird situation. Just like some people don’t know what Youtube is, I have no idea about communism either. Sometimes the questions our group asked made individuals very defensive, and then they began to pour out what they’ve learned for their whole life. The Communist Party is doing a good job. Internet censorship is necessary. Harmony of the society has top priority. The list can go on and on and on.

I think what I learned from this trip is to respect this defensive attitude. A lot of people would just say, “See, they’re totally brainwashed.” Some of my friends in the group thought they don’t have as much information as we do. Some thought they are not as critical as we are.

Such speculations were even more annoying to me than the defensive attitude. I know it’s frustrating when we can’t get the real answer. But for them, this is the real answer. Throughout the entire trip, I couldn’t help but feel that there was an assumption among our group that being skeptical is necessary. For us, it should be, because that’s what we’ve been taught in our education. For the Chinese grew up under Communism or Maoism, maybe not. Sometimes they don’t even have the context to understand what we’re asking. How can we expect them to answer critically or candidly?

There is a huge gap between the U.S. and China and I’m not talking about the Pacific Ocean – the gap lies in cultural differences. If we always hold the idea that we have more access to information than you do, that we are more critical, that we know how to challenge our government and you don’t, how can we ever really understand another culture? Don’t we have to be conscious too about how often we fail to generate good reporting or be critical enough of our own system, and be willing to share that with others too?

Just because we happened to be born and grew up in democratic countries doesn’t make us any superior to these defensive Chinese. They may not challenge their government, but that doesn’t mean they are idiots.

In fact, they do have some reasons to trust their government beyond brainwashing. Most people we met in China were born after the PRC was founded in 1949. Therefore many Chinese alive today experienced the extremes of Communism in its early period and the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. China was poor, weak, and chaotic. Many people only remember or have heard their parents talk about how painful life was back at that time, so they’re satisfied with their life now. They have seen how China’s fortunes have risen under the CCP’s lead.

I’m not trying to justify the CCP. The problems we read about in the news or books are real. Pollution is terrible in China. Human rights are probably the most vulnerable value here. But the people here are also real. It might be ridiculous to us that they are so positive about the government but that is in significant measure their experience.

I have no idea that if I were in their situation, I would be any more critical. One afternoon I was wandering around Beijing. The scene in Houhai Lake was incredibly beautiful under the bright sun. When I got back to our hotel, my room had  been cleaned. In this cozy situation, I almost forgot how much I had once hated this country. Falungong, AIDS, human rights, black-market trade in human organs, Internet censorship – all those disagreeable things seemed, at least for the moment, suddenly so far away.

I even believe that if I lived here longer, I’d get used to the pollution, the unsafe food, or the terrible Internet, just like my Taiwanese friend Yei Yi who just came to Shanghai this February for a new job.

“Now, whether to go back to Taiwan has become something I need to ponder,” he said.

Before he left Taiwan, he thought he would only be staying here for one year before he goes to the U.S. for graduate studies. Now, he likes living in this prosperous city. He thinks he can have more opportunities here than in Taiwan. He has even tried to ask his girlfriend to move to Shanghai with him.

It’s easier for outsiders to look at the dark side of China, because it’s nothing painful for them. In the end, it’s not their life. But if someone lives in China, it’s natural that he or she needs to believe there are brighter sides. Life needs to go on. In some sense, I think believing the government is an important psychological support for most Chinese. Maybe that’s because they have few other choices, and maybe they do feel better to trust the government when there is no option.

In Zhuang Zi, a work of traditional Chinese literature, Zhuang Zi mentioned that one day he and his friend Huizi were looking at minnows swimming in a pond. Zhuang Zi said, “The fish are really happy.” Huizi said, “You’re not a fish, how do you know they are happy?” I think this story applies to us: we will never really understand the Chinese culture because we will never have the chance to experience their life, from their point of view. Before judging them, we really need to think twice about how ignorant we might be.

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