Among the first questions encountered by foreigners in China or studying Chinese is the deceptively simple "Why?" There is an infinity of potentially good reasons to study Chinese and travel to China, and it was to my own disadvantage that after I had decided to start on this course, I rarely if ever considered why I had done so. Because it was cool? Because it was hard? I found a vacuum of justification in my own mind, and being slightly neurotic about the whys and hows of things, I began a long struggle to fill it.
When I first began studying Chinese, the reasons were obvious:
- China is a rising power in the world and its influence will create more job opportunities for those who speak Mandarin.
- China has a diverse and lengthy history worth studying.
- Chinese girls are cute. The food is also quite tasty.
- Chinese is hard and I should do things that are challenging.
- China is located as far away from Ohio as I can reasonably go.
All well and good, but my simplistic logic (STATUS + MONEY + INTEREST (+GIRLS?) = WORTHY GOAL) could be applied to anything that is challenging and far away. What is it that eventually snags 'China hands', afficionados of Chinese culture, history, et al and draws them back again and again in what usually becomes a lifelong quest? I don't think it's a simple question of taste, because all but the purest fetishists (oxymoron?) can enjoy life and prosper in a variety of foreign locales. Myself, I remain greatly interested in German history, grown out of an interest in my own German heritage and, well, those intangibles...but China is something different.
How many times do we hear that, though? China is special, China is unique, China is whatever...it's the world's exception to whatever rule you happen to be quoting. Surely every place on earth has its bucolic countryside, its gritty urban wastelands, its dark chapters in history and its shining moments of achievement and glory. The new image for China in the international eye is the contradiction, the donkey cart hauling Dell computers, the impoverished coal miner making a call on his Motorola razr, and so forth - these images have become almost canonized along with the old Orientalist subset of bearded dragons, pointed hats, pagodas, dainty women with fans, and kung fu acrobatics to create a new China stereotype. And it is, unequivocally, complete and utter bullshit. None of it fits right, none of it is always or even consistently true, and you cannot rely on any previous experience to guide future decision making. Everything is evolving, everything is growing, being torn down, or exploding unexpectedly. China doesn't know what to do with itself, and it doesn't quite fit its own conceptions of itself. Even the scholarly community has devolved into infighting on the nature of China's evolution. China is a misfit in an already chaotic world.
Enter the foreigner. Greeted by the tremendous 热闹 (liveliness) of Beijing, he could be forgiven for interpreting it as 吵闹 (noise) and seeking to get as far away from it as he can. But given time, the false stereotypes, both old and new, fall by the wayside, new ones arise and are equally foolish, but that's life and eventually certain concrete realities become clear. I've always felt that the ability to understand another's desires is the foundation of empathy, which in turn is the starting-point for cross-cultural understanding. As a misfit myself in a confused culture, I've found that not only do the shouts of LAOWAI LAOWAI eventually become more amusing than strange, but the very fact that I unequivocally do not 'belong' in China is somewhat nullified by the current historical moment, when one can make a case for nearly anything not 'belonging' in China. This moment of profound transformation will not last forever, and there is much to experience and enjoy while it lasts.
There's more to it than that, certainly, and living abroad is not a nonstop joyride. But in the midst of all these changes, living in Beijing, struggling for gainful employment, and really believing that a better understanding between China and the US could have incalcuably huge benefits for all concerned, even some random kid from the Midwest can find that China, for him and for so many others, just fits.