China-focused Satire, Social Commentary, Comics and More

Questioning China’s Q.E.D.s: The Promising Youth

They stared at us with apprehension and doubt – contorted brows and sagging mouths. We had just dropped the great, ever-troublesome three-letter word, the word that, from our experience, invariably draws a confused response:

“Why?”

The handful of students muttered quickly in Chinese. They knew the word, of course, and it was not our native English pronunciation that confused them; it was that we had used it to question something unquestionable.

“Why are they important?” we asked, to clarify. Finally, one student took the initiative.

“You mean, you want to know my… opinion?”

“Yes!”

The girl, a high school student, sported a scattering of China paraphernalia – including a red circular button with yellow stars and a red heart sticker on her arm. The Olympic torch would be paraded through their city in a few days, so national pride was ubiquitously displayed in all its most genuine, meaningful forms: pins, stickers, T-shirts, and cheap plastic flags. Most of our students had added at least one sticker to their uniforms.

The girl paused in thought, collected herself, before launching into “her” opinion.

“It is because… well, my parents tell me, that Olympic Games are very important for China.” A slight sigh indicated she was finished.

“But why?” we prodded.

The girl, having offered what she could, looked to her classmates for assistance.

“They say that Olympic Games is a… symbol,” a boy next to her said hesitantly, hoping he had used the last word correctly. “A symbol for China is a developed nation and it has made a great effort. Now it will be strong country.”

It was pointless to persist with our questioning. But we had encouraged the topic, another student began, “In France and England, some terrorists try to put down the fire -“

“Terrorists?!” We coughed to conceal our outburst of surprise.

“What do you think of this?” she continued, her face wrought with absolute bafflement.

It was our turn to be unresponsive. They had already been told what was fact and no answer could change that.

She clarified her question for us: “But why do they want to ruin China?”

Perhaps she meant to ask, “why do they want to disrupt China’s Olympic Games?” or something less incendiary, but, judging by how many students have asked us this same or similar questions, a mistake in translation seems doubtful. At first we suspected that our students’ comments were skewed as a result of inadequate English vocabulary, but as the questions are repeated it seems that the level of misinformation and strength of acquired opinion actually grow proportionally with the students’ skill level. The more they are able to say, the crazier and more unnerving it is. And China’s stance on protesters is no secret to the rest of the world, so such a question wasn’t really a surprise. We did our best to assure the students that the torch protests did not reflect the views of the entire world, and that all large, publicized, international events attract some opposition, and even tried to recall the pipe-bomb incident from the Atlanta games, but at the end of our explanation they appeared anything but convinced.

“Some person on CNN said the people of China are…” a student asked, pausing to quickly look up a word on her cellphone, “… ruffians.”

Ruffians! Only a non-native speaker could use that word with any seriousness. She wanted to know if all Americans thought this – that all Chinese people are ruffians.

To these students, what is said on television is truth. Being used to state-run news agencies, they have no understanding of private or public media. They don’t know the difference between an objective reporter and a mouthy pundit. They know nothing of freedom of speech, a right that allows – aside from the spreading of truth – the solitary opinions of ignorant buffoons to be heard across the country. In their minds, what the media says is the national opinion – not because the media thoroughly polls the citizenry for their beliefs, but because the media is the great loudspeaker used to form those beliefs; it is a tool for the government to spread the “official” position on matters (although these days, with the proliferation of internet usage, there are different sources for information). By the time the CNN pundit’s comments reached our students, the context was long forgotten – they had no idea that it had supposedly been in reference to the Chinese government’s policies; in fact, the government had made a great effort to avoid that point. Thus, an isolated (though perhaps tactless and ignorant) comment was blatantly misinterpreted and used to stoke up nationalistic and anti-foreigner fervor.

However, were we to rely solely on conversations with our high school students in order to gauge the mood of the public, we would not sense anger so much as a great deal of self-pity and adolescent indignation – the feeling that the world is being outrageously unfair to China (One student actually said, “It is unfair that the bad economy in America harms China”). They wonder why anyone would say anything bad about China. It seems to defy all logic and reality, by our students’ accounts, that it is actually possible not to love China unconditionally.

Their views, however immature, are a reflection of the official viewpoint. For example, by taking offense and demanding the apology of the aforementioned CNN pundit, China sent a message to its people and to the world that it is anything but strong. It is childish. Public actions of that sort tell the people that no criticism of China is tolerable. And so its citizens embody that attitude by lamenting over the unfair treatment their nation has received, while never once doubting its righteousness and perfection. It seems especially clear that, for the time being, they will never question the importance of the Olympic Games. The Olympics will be great – what more explanation could one possibly need?

We often wonder what our students, and all of China, think will happen after the Olympics. Do they believe that the world will suddenly kowtow at their feet because people ran in circles on their soil? From student responses, the general notion seems to be that the Olympics will somehow bring peace to the world and vault China into some much-deserved position of power and glory.

As foreigners, we can do little but try to ignore all the hype. When the torch came to the city we were asked to give a television interview, but politely declined.

“We have nothing to say,” we told them. “We don’t know anything about the Olympics.”

“You can say something about Olympics in your country,” was the suggestion.

“But we didn’t watch them. No one cared,” we said.

“You can say anything!”

But we have nothing to say!”

We didn’t want to lie and tell them what they wanted to hear – that the Olympic Games are a wonderful opportunity for all of China.

Likewise, when our students ask us our opinion of the Olympic Games, we do our best not to know anything, and instead turn the questioning on them. But it is troubling to listen to their practiced and impersonal responses, which never change and never vary from student to student. There is something unsettling about such uncontested contentment in youth; and while we don’t wish for them to sink into apathy, or resort to blind anger, we wonder about the legitimacy of the cliche, “The Youth Are the Future,” when the youth are perfectly fine with the present.

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