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National Education: UK vs USA

18 Sep

Sharon Takao’s recent post on National Education: China vs Japan struck an unexpected chord with me. My thoughts on multi-culturalism and how to balance different national perspectives tend to focus on our life in Asia and the experience of being Westerners immersed, to varying degrees, in Chinese culture and society. But Sharon’s post reminded me of the subtler multi-culturalism within my own family. I am British and my husband Ethan is American and although we share a language and broad cultural background, the phrase “divided by a common language” can sometimes seem uncomfortably accurate.

Sharon’s story reminded me of one day earlier this summer, when I was making dinner and listening to my husband talking to our two sons about family history.  Ethan is a direct descendent of Paul Revere, hero of the American War of Independence, famous for his midnight ride to Lexington and Concord to warn patriots that “the British are coming.” You can probably guess where this is heading. Paul Revere is our son’s 7 times great-grandfather so it’s right that they should know his story and feel proud of his accomplishments. But as I listened to Ethan’s stories about the brave, clever American patriots outsmarting stupid, bullying “lobsterbacks” so they could gain freedom from the injustice of British rule, I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable. I understood that he was telling them simplified stories they could relate to, but I also didn’t want them growing up believing only one side of a complex story.  So I spoke up and pointed out that the country was divided at the time, with many Americans still considering themselves to be British subjects, that many had in fact been born in Britain, and that the story was not a simple one of good guys and bad guys. It was not as if the Americans were fighting for independence from a colonial power who had come in and occupied their country. They themselves had been part of the occupying force who had taken the country from its native inhabitants, then as they settled down decided they no longer wanted to pay taxes to the home country.

Maybe that’s another gross over-simplification, but it comes down to what Sharon pointed out, that each country teaches its own version of history, casting its own actions in the most positive light. And if you are married to someone who grew up with a different version of history than your own, you need to find some accommodation between the two. In fact the American War of Independence does not play a major role in history as taught in British schools. It is one in a series of narratives of countries colonised and lost, of Empire created and dissolved. In seven years of secondary school history courses, the only time I can remember it mentioned is as a contributory factor to the French revolution! By contract, in America it is of course a compulsory part of every child’s education and an important source of beliefs and discourses about what the nation stands for and represents.

The first time the subjectivity of history really came home to me I was already 20 (which means I had lived that long more or less accepting what I had learned in school), when the Battle of Agincourt came up in conversation with a French friend and we realised he had never heard of it. What is taught in British schools as a glorious victory is quietly ignored in France. Fortunately passing centuries take the sting out of defeat and the further away these events are, the more they become of purely academic interest. On the day in question I realised that 200 plus years aren’t quite enough to erase national loyalties within my family. Hearing my concerned tone as I tried to bring another perspective to his history lesson, Ethan did modify his story, somewhat, and acknowledge the uncertainties and divided loyalties of that period of history. We laughed about it later and I said it was a good thing I wasn’t German or Japanese, from a country that America has fought a war with in living memory, or Iraqi for that matter!

Chinese-Japanese marriages must contain similar tensions, not to mention Anglo-French ones, with centuries of conflict to draw on. Sometimes the tensions are greatest closest to home: Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Irish marriages must have plenty of fodder for diverging perspectives. I would be interested to hear other’s thoughts and experiences on this subject, it may be that I am over-sensitive. Maybe some people are good at rising above their own versions of history, allowing their children to absorb one side of the story only, but I have realised that within my family we need to find room for both sides, or at least the acknowledgement that history is complex and multi-faceted.

About me: originally from the UK, I first came to China as a student in the 1980s and my life has intersected with China one way and another ever since. For the past 8 years I have been based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province China with my American husband and our two sons aged 6 and 11. I work freelance for non-profit organisations and on my own writing, editing and translation projects.

White Ghosts

12 Jan

One day about twelve years ago I was walking across an overpass in downtown Chengdu, when a small child saw me and shouted out “lao wai!” (old foreigner) His father looked at me and I expected him to correct the child, as parents often do, and tell him to call me “ayi” (aunty). Instead he leaned down, pointed at me, and said, “yes, that’s right, look at the lao wai’s big nose!”

I haven’t been called a big nose for a long time and I am no longer surrounded by crowds of curious onlookers as I used to be when I first travelled in China in the 1980s, but I still hear the word “foreigner” at least once a day, especially from children. And when I am out with my own children, people of all ages call out “xiao lao wai!” (little old foreigner) or “yang wawa!” (foreign baby). They all agree that the yang wawa are extremely cute. One woman stood next to us in the wet market and puzzled aloud how it is that foreign babies can be so cute, but all grow up to be so ugly.

I often wonder if I feel more foreign here than a Chinese person feels in a western country. I wonder if Chinese visitors to London feel unwelcome when no-one asks them friendly questions about how they like the food or tells them how well they speak English. London and New York, the western cities I am most familiar with, are thronged with people from every part of the world, and no-one comments on your race or even your language ability. People might ask where you come from, but no-one would ever call you a foreigner. The US and Canada, Australia, the UK and many European countries have such diverse populations that being British or American or whatever nationality is not generally associated with the colour of your skin, at least not in urban centres.

But in China you cannot be Chinese unless you are 100 percent Chinese. Recently I had a conversation with a taxi driver on this subject. He said he had noticed there are a lot more mixed marriages between Chinese and foreigners these days, and he asked me whether the children of these marriages are Chinese or not. I said it depends on many factors, such as where they grow up, where they go to school, what language they speak. He shook his head,

“No that’s not it. Are they Chinese or do they have the nationality of their other parent?”

I said that depends on what passport their parents get for them. Because the Chinese government won’t allow duel nationality, their parents have to choose whether they have a Chinese passport, or the other one. He shook his head again.

“No, I don’t mean language or passport or any of that. I mean, are they Chinese or are they not?”

Finally I got it. It was a rhetorical question, with only one possible answer.

“They are not Chinese,” I said.

He nodded. “Right. They are not. They are hun-xuer (mixed blood). They cannot be Chinese.”

This is a concept I struggle with. Sometimes it feels like the elephant in the room of our peaceful, happy-go-lucky life here; an elephant that could potentially turn nasty. I know there are some fascinating anthropological studies about the construction of race and nationhood in China, but as I haven’t read them I am left puzzling over the tiny patches of the elephant that I can see. What I do know is that a random global event, such as the bombing of a Chinese embassy or the reaction of a London crowd to China’s Olympic torch, can ignite powerful nationalistic emotions across China, emotions that see me and my family as part of the problem because we are foreigners.

Once at Chengdu airport a man behind us in the queue touched my son’s hair. When my son turned around and saw it was a stranger touching him, he backed away and pulled a face. The man made a comment in Sichuan dialect that I didn’t understand, so the friend who was with me translated.

“He said, you westerners have humiliated us for hundreds of years and now your children are still humiliating us.” I must have looked shocked because my friend rushed to reassure me.

“Oh don’t worry, we don’t hate you. It’s the Japanese we really hate.”

It could take hundreds of pages to unpack that particular exchange.

No matter how long I live here, how well I learn to speak Chinese or eat with chopsticks or enjoy spicy food, no matter how many good friends I make, no matter if I marry a Chinese man and have hun-xuer children (too late for me to do this now, but I know many people who have), I will always be a lao-wai, a white ghost, a foreigner. A Chinese person living in the UK or the US must feel foreign too, must struggle with homesickness and cultural displacement and must often wonder if it’s worth it and why not just go home. But at least they know that if they choose to stay, their child will grow up to belong in their new country. My children won’t, not even my son who has never lived anywhere else and speaks Chinese with perfect tones. They’re not even hun-xuer, they’re just plain lao-wai. I worry about the impact it has on them, to be living in a world where they are outsiders. My older son is already clear in his mind that he would prefer to live in England or the USA where everyone speaks English and no-one stares at him on the street, or runs up to take his photo and tell him how cute he is. He has heard so many times what an advantage it will be for him later in life to speak Chinese, that he just ignores it now, and it does nothing to motivate him to study the language.

But perhaps being called foreign doesn’t have to be negative. After all it is a fact of life, akin to how Chinese people call a fat person a fat person, in an upfront way that western cultures avoid. We call someone fat behind their back but not to their faces. Similarly we don’t call people foreign to their faces but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the same feelings about outsiders. London and New York, Sydney and Paris welcome people of all races. Anyone can walk the streets of those cities without being noticed or commented on, as I suppose they can these days in Beijing and Shanghai. But once they move out into the smaller towns and the countryside, there people will start to notice and comment on their being foreign. Not to their face of course, but behind their back. Jackie Kay writes movingly about growing up 100% Scottish of Nigerian extraction in her memoir Red Dust Road. A Chinese friend told me that he loved New York because no-one paid any attention to him there, whereas in the Ohio town where he studied, shop-keepers struggled to understand him and he felt like a foreigner.

In multi-cultural western societies, ethnicity, nationality and cultural identity are of course also vast and complex issues, but we deal with them differently. In the west we are shy of calling people foreign to their faces, even as we struggle openly day by day with issues thrown up by the cultural melting-pot, in the press, in schools and in communities. Whereas in China, foreigners are openly labeled as such, with a prevailing attitude of friendly welcome, but with clear boundaries attached: no messy questions of integration and multi-culturalism. In both cases, when questions of national pride emerge, sinister undercurrents rise to the surface and play out in ways that are hard to fathom. For me, they are harder to fathom here than they are at home.

I wrestle with the choice I have made, to live in a country where I will always be a foreigner, but after all it is my choice. Some days I’m OK with it and others I’m not, but surprisingly I don’t mind being called a big nose. It reminds me of the time I went rafting with a group of my students in Taiwan shortly after a typhoon, and our raft capsized in the rapids and catapulted us all into the churning water. I heard the lifeguards shouting in Taiwanese, “get the big nose!” and I was the first to be hauled out of the water and dumped back on the boat. My students teased me that I was the easiest to find because my nose stuck so far out of the water. They also told me that I spoke in perfect Chinese for at least an hour afterwards. Apparently the cold and shock activated some dormant neurons in my brain and, huddling on the plastic raft with my friends, I experienced a brief period of total fluency, the closest I will ever come to being Chinese.

About me: originally from the UK, I first came to China as a student in the 1980s and my life has intersected with China one way and another ever since. For the past 7 years I have been based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province China with my American husband and our two sons aged 6 and 11. I work freelance for non-profit organisations and on my own writing, editing and translation projects.

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