Am I more “Chinese” now that I have just lived in China for three months?
I boarded the plane in Hong Kong in a Chinese-style suit while holding an er hu, a traditional Chinese instrument most often called the “two-stringed violin.” That’s leaving Asia in style, if I must say so myself. The U.S. immigration officer couldn’t help but comment upon the arrival of my flight back in San Francisco:
“Do you know how to play that thing [pointing to the instrument]?” he said.
“Do you play the violin?”
“Do you know what the interval is between the two strings?”
“Are you going to learn how to play it?”
“Maybe. I am actually a singer.”
“Oh, I knew there was something creative about you. I love those blue glasses.”
He stamped my papers, and I proceeded to enter my home country.
My father stated it frankly: “You’ve been over there [in China] for so long. You’d think you’d come back a chinaman.” My first reaction was that maybe I have come back more “Chinese” or at least in touch with my Chinese half. There is no denying that I have learned a great deal. But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that my adventures have actually taught me more about America.
On a personal level, my Chinese language skills are only slightly better since I was not intensively studying the language nor intensively practicing it since rehearsals were conducted in English. Culturally, I came into China with a relatively high level of understanding of traditional practices and moral principles.
What I really saw was a modern China through the eyes of the next generation of leadership. After all, it’s these university students that will become the country’s premier diplomats, thinkers, artists, managers, and innovators. Instead of finding a country looking onto its glorious past to find its way in the future, these students are looking toward something entirely different: America and “the west.”
As an aside, I noticed that just as “Asia” is a popular term to group an entire region of the world into a vague term that has no value added except for geographical location, “the west” is used just as often on the reverse end with the same fundamental word-choice issue.
China, as all the pundit books say (but perhaps not forcefully enough), is looking to America. It is amazing to see a society try so hard to be a reflection of another. And therein lies my newfound understanding of America and what it means to be American.
Being American means you are always in the spotlight. You’re always being watched, analyzed, squeezed for every last decision you make. You are the marker. Others are looking to take what you do and do it better.
In many ways, I was at Shantou University to teach a course not in the arts but in America. As any good teacher knows, one only understands something once you’ve taught it.