A View From Abroad
Every election year I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a Chinese colleague.
“When you vote, think of us,” he pleaded.
At first I mis-interpreted his plea. It was the 2000 Presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The Chinese like Gore because he shares their belief that the U.S. should stay out of China’s internal affairs. I thought my friend was asking me to vote for Gore.
“I can’t vote on your behalf,” I said trying to be diplomatic. “I can only vote for who I believe will be good for my country.”
I was wrong to assume that. I now believe what he meant was to vote for a president who will do good for the entire world because what the U.S. government does – and I’m including the president’s role – will affect us all.
What made my friend say what he did?
In May of 1999 U.S.-China relations were at their lowest point since 1949 when the Chinese communists took over the country. NATO war planes, led by the U.S., accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia. The Chinese government demanded an explanation as well as an apology. They got an apology from President Clinton. But they were still not convinced that the bombing, which killed three Chinese journalists, was an accident. As a result, all of China protested. In major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, people took to the streets and protested in front of places like KFC and Starbucks. Foreign embassies and consulates, including the British Consulate in Shanghai were attacked by protesters. They would force their way into the consulate by climbing over the gates and overwhelm security, causing staff to ask for more police protection from the Chinese government.
I was in Anji, a rural town about an hours drive west from Hangzhou, the provincial capital of Zhejiang Province. This area is famous for its bamboo forest where the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was filmed. It is mountainous and isolated. There were no KFCs or any foreign enterprises when I was there.
At the time I was working as a foreign English teacher at a private middle school. It was so isolated that the school itself sat in the middle of farmland with a nearby forest and stream running behind the school.
But it was not so isolated for international news to get through. I remember on that fateful morning I was home sitting at my desk listening to a Voice of America (VOA) broadcast on my shortwave radio when I heard the news. At first, I didn’t think anything of it until I opened my door and saw that every classroom had their T.V.s on and that every student was watching.
“Protests are springing up all over China,” the VOA broadcaster went on.
Oh my God! I thought.
I mentally prepared for my classes that day. I grappled with the fact that the U.S. government is not one that readily admits to wrongdoing and does not like apologizing to countries it has offended. I was not aware that President Clinton did issue an apology until a few days ago when I looked up the bombing online for this blog. I decided that I was going to apologize to my students because I am a good will ambassador and I am a guest in their country.
But I needed to practice first. Before going to my first class I went to the teacher’s office where Chinese English teachers hung out and where I had a desk to put my things. They were all there on break along with other Chinese staff from other departments.
“I’m so sorry,” I said in English.
“Don’t worry,” they said. “We are not angry at you or the American people. It’s the American government we are mad at.”
Whew! I thought. That went well.
The bell rings and I head off to my first class. The students were watching the protests happening in their country when I arrived. After one of them turned off the T.V. and after collecting my thoughts and taking several deep breaths I apologized to the whole class. I stood up in front of them behind the lectern and apologized.
“I’m so sorry for what my country has done to you.”
“Don’t worry, Miss Tan,” they replied. “We like you. We love the American people. You are safe here. We are mad at your government. That’s all. Don’t worry.”
I was relieved to hear that and went on teaching all of my classes that day without incident.
However, I still took some precautions. I was the only westerner in Anji and I was feeling vulnerable. Although there were no protests in Anji, I still felt it was better to be safe than sorry so I called the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai and asked what precautions I should take.
“Stay away from places where foreigners hang out and places that are foreign owned,” the lady said.
After I hung up I started assessing my situation. There were no KFCs or McDonalds at the time and I have not been targeted because I look Asian. I could blend in with the crowd and I was able to conduct my affairs as usual.
However, some of my fellow foreigners in Hangzhou and other cities around the province were not as lucky as I was. While visiting some African friends I was told that they were advised to stay home and that church services were cancelled because of the protests.
And the U.S. Consulate had contacted all Americans living in Zhejiang Province. They wanted to meet with us and assess our different situations. I had colleagues in Ningbo, another city in Zhejiang, whose family barricaded themselves in their apartment compound because students were protesting.
I told our group that I “missed all the action” because there were no protests in Anji and that I was safe and sound.
“You should be so lucky,” a fellow American said.
Then in the summer of 2000 I moved to Anting, a small town about an hour away from Shanghai. Anting is located in Jiangsu Province, the province north of Zhejiang. It is known as China’s Detroit because Ford, Chrysler, and Volkswagen all have manufacturing plants there.
This time I was teaching at a new private university where I had several North American colleagues.
One morning I was getting ready for class. I had the T.V. on. CCTV had shown a still photo of a U.S. plane on the ground in Hainan. Since it was April Fool’s Day I thought it was a joke.
However, when a State Department official explained why that plane was in China, I realized it was serious.
What is known is that a U.S. reconnaissance plane was in the South China Sea when they encountered a Chinese fighter jet.
Here’s where it gets foggy. The Chinese say they had ordered the U.S. plane to leave the area. The U.S. refused so the Chinese sent a fighter jet to warn them.
However, the twenty-one U.S. pilots on the spy plane said no such request was made by the Chinese. They also claim they were in international waters and were there legally. They also argued that the Chinese pilot clipped their plane and that is what caused him to crash and lose his life. The twenty-one pilots ended up landing their plane on Lingshui Airfield in Hainan, the provincial capital of Hainan.
When I heard that story I feared the backlash. I remembered the protests of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy and feared the same thing could happen in this latest incident.
“Thanks Bush for making my life easier,” I said to my T.V.
Little did I know that four years later my sister and I would be driving by Lingshui Airfield on a tour bus filled with Chinese tourists on our way to Sanya.
“This is where the American spy plane was grounded,” our tour guide announced as he pointed out the tip of the airfield from our bus.
Then he gave a very typical communist party spiel.
“China is a peace loving country. The U.S. is not. They still haven’t apologized to the Chinese people.”
We sat in the back of the bus trying to blend in with our seats. We didn’t want to singled out by our guide. Only he knew that we were Americans.
“However we have two American friends on board with us.” He pointed us out to the crowd. “Please welcome them.”
Then everyone turned around to face us and started clapping.
I also get feedback when the U.S. government does something right in the eyes of the Chinese.
In my book Banana Girl, I talk about a Chinese Muslim restaurant owner named Mr. Mu. I also mention him in an earlier blog titled Two Peeves in a Blog. Mr. Mu seemed fascinated with – back then – Senator Barack Obama’s rise to become a candidate for the U.S. presidency, and then eventually the presidency itself.
“Aobama. Black man,” he would say in broken English before flashing a big smile.
Why would this man be so fascinated with Obama?
Mr. Mu is of the Salar minority from Qinghai Province in Central China. His wife, Mrs. Mu is also a minority from the same area as her husband. She is of the Tu minority. The Mus are minorities in China just like Obama is a minority in the U.S.
This is huge in a country where there are fifty-five ethnic minorities.
When Obama became president Mr. Mu would say, “Aobama di yi ge meiguo hei zong tong.” Obama is the first African American president.
Then he would signal thumbs up and say, “good,” in English.
My students were also fascinated with Obama’s rise to power. They would read articles about him and his family in their English readers. They were just as fascinated like Mr. Mu that an African American could be president of the most powerful country on the planet.
This is how Chinese view our foreign policy. They look at how we treat other countries including theirs, and form their own opinions.
I’ve also had the good fortune of working with other foreigners who are not Americans while working in China. Many of them would also freely share their opinions about U.S. foreign policy. Some of them even stated that if they could vote they would vote for so-and-so because this candidate shared my friend’s values.
“I’d vote for Bush,” said one Filipino friend, “because he is a Christian and he holds the same values I hold.”
We just had an election in which a man who pokes fun at people with disabilities, alienates immigrants especially Muslims, degrades women, and picks fights with people who simply disagree with him.
This scares me. As someone who has lived overseas and has seen and heard how non-Americans perceive America this really scares me.
I’m not alone. Our allies are scared and our enemies are gloating.
Just recently there was a story on the BBC about a Chinese woman who is under house arrest. She is in the running for her village’s county seat.
The Chinese constitution does state that one a person reaches eighteen years of age they are eligible to vote. It also states that citizens can stand for election.
The catch is that the Communist Party chooses who is on the ballot. This woman is running as an independent. Therefore she has been put under house arrest. The BBC tried to interview this woman but thugs forced the woman’s door closed even though she did invite the BBC team into her home. When the woman opened her window to try and answer the reporter’s questions, they forced a barrier between the reporter and the woman. Eventually the reporter was forced to leave. The story ends by saying that the Chinese government is using the U.S. election as an example of a democratic election gone awry and that socialism with Chinese characteristics is the ideal way for leaders to be chosen.
I’ve also heard that some of our allies are nervous. Two of our world leaders are a part of NATO.
And they are women.
Will our new president treat them the same way as he does with male world leaders? Or will they be groped?
As I was casting my ballot I did think of others who may be looking at my country as a beacon for democracy and basic human rights. I took my Chinese colleague’s words to heart as I made my choice.
But alas, some of my fellow Americans disagreed with me.
May they be at peace with their choice because I am not.