I began studying Chinese my first year in college because I wanted a challenge. I can’t say I ever liked Chinese culture in a conventional sense, but that was the easy answer to give when people asked why I wanted to live in China: “Yes, I like Chinese culture, it’s interesting.”
And yet for all the moments of prescribed cultural events – the language groups, tea ceremonies, and volunteer work – I was proportionately underwhelmed by Chinese culture. What I saw day in and day out, even into my grad school years in Nanjing, was a society deeply troubled by an identity crisis.
This crisis revealed itself most glaringly in daily conversations: my Chinese friends’ disinterest in politics (“That idea sounds a little extreme.”), my professors’ condescension (“If you don’t understand the subject, ask a Chinese classmate.”), and my classmates’ defensiveness (“China is a collectivist society – we are not selfish like Americans!”).
As I perceived China’s identity crisis with increasing clarity and mounting aggravation, my own crisis was also coalescing. For someone whose adult identity was being formed around her alleged “liking of” and “interest in” China’s culture, it was a troubling position to be in. How could I continue to justify loving a beast that threatened to devour me?
As many people do when gripped by an identity crisis, I found solutions in drinking and writing. Not an alcoholic by any means – that is to say, alcohol was the reliable lubricant used to slicken cross-cultural occasions. The most meaningful experiences I had with Chinese friends and classmates always seemed to be when baijiu had liberated us of our self-possessions. And for these experiences, there were blog posts to be had.
Had I stopped my exploration there, China would forever seem to me a deranged and confounding society plagued by an inferiority complex. My role as a budding China scholar was to observe, engage, and analyze, but all the while accept that I would always be a sulky outsider.
My salvation eventually came not from any life experience, but in a book.
It was The 70s 《70年代》by Bei Dao and Li Tuo. It is not published in English and the original is only available in traditional characters. It is a compilation of stories that China’s prominent writers, artists, and academics share about their lives in the 1970s. It’s not analytical or accusatory – it is simply people’s stories.
Bei Dao is now an internationally acclaimed poet, but during the Cultural Revolution, he was a worker like everyone else. In those youthful years, he and his buddies were budding writers who swapped poems and stories underground. When Mao died, there arrived suddenly a societal-wide moment of, “What now?” and his cohort stood up and shouted, “Let’s write!” Thus came into being the first unofficial, above-ground literary periodical, Today!
In the book, Bei Dao shares the story of that moment for him and these Beijing youth. The story ends with him and his buddies celebrating their first publication over a raucous baijiu dinner. He rides his bike home in the half-lit streets of Beijing, wavering in his drunkenness, but spirited by the possibilities – the friends, the publishing, the massively changing society.
I dare say I’ve had a few nights like that in China. The parallelism of his story to my own had me penciling stars and exclamation points in the margins, and finally, when finished reading, sitting in total silence.
The 70s was the first Chinese book I read in its original form (not translated, paraphrased, or footnoted), and the effect was sensational – like riding a bike without training wheels, or hiking through the woods without a trail or map. No trophies or certificates of accomplishment; I was not reading for a test or to learn new phrases “for better communication.”
A funny thing happened then. In that moment, how intimate my connection with that writer suddenly became. He could not see me, and I could not talk back to him. There was no forum through which I could agree or disagree with him. There was only his story, elegantly crafted in his native tongue, existing with or without my approval.
For the first time, I felt I was engaged by something real and uncompromised about Chinese culture. It was a voice of honest expression vociferating from the depths of an historical chapter. And it left me speechless.
I urge any American who wishes to forge a meaningful relationship with China and its culture to not rely exclusively on human interaction. Crucial as face-to-face interaction is, it is only one level of engagement. For all the praise lathered on cross-cultural dialogues, they always leave one wondering, to what extent was that interaction shaped by prejudices?
Art, literature, cinema – these are entry points that, in their greatest and most honest form, are not tainted with intent. They are the products of individuals whose greatest desire – greatest need – is to crystallize their stories in their most perfect forms. These are the stories we should be seeking and listening to.
And who knows what you’ll realize about yourself then?