By Yaxue Cao
Yaxue Cao is short story writer who grew up in Northern China during the cultural revolution.
I met a young man a few years ago while working with a law firm on a case involving China. We were among a few Chinese who had been hired to translate documents. All of us were working more or less honestly in our respective capacities, but every day he sat in front of his computer, chatted with anyone who would answer him, or mostly got online to do whatever he was doing. Now and then, he would say to the rest of us, “Why rush? Slow down so we will log more hours!” Or, twirling in his office chair, “The Americans are dumb! They don’t have any idea how much we can do!” So disgusted was I to hear this and so enraged that he dared to include me with him in the same breath. For days on, I was haunted by that smug look he wore on his face. How I know that look, how I know such crookedness, by heart! What was more appalling to me was that he was a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, he had come to the US in his teenage years to join one of his parents, and, in other words, he had spent a significant portion of his formative years in the US. But instead of shaping his values, America was this wonderful place filled with dumb people for him to take advantage of! And he is by no means a singularity among Chinese living in America.
To many Chinese, Americans don’t have xin-yan (心眼, meaning, literally, eyes of the mind; or figuratively, calculating, wily), they trust what you say, and they believe you are doing what you say you are doing. For that, they are dumb.
I know a writer from my hometown who writes with unusual perception and style. But I remember how surprised I was reading an essay of his a few years back. He mused on this distant place called America, how it was such a young country and, in mentality, like an imprudent teenage boy showing no consideration for things, how naïve Americans seem to him with no depth and no appreciation for subtler things. I know exactly from what corner these thoughts arose and why he perceived America and Americans the way he did. In some ways, it was not unlike de Tocqueville, the old-worlder, but through the unique filter of Chinese wisdom. For him (again, he is not a singularity), to speak your mind straightforwardly, to defend your position forcefully, and to uphold what you believe without compromise, are all signs of childishness. A lot of Americans, alas, fill that bill.
I once told him, “You are an exceptional writer with discerning eyes and a superb sense of style, but I find your writing wanting, because, ultimately, you cannot write from a morally compromised position. At the most crucial junctures in your writing, you tend to hide even if you have to lie, obscure it or stop halfway, and you fail to snap it into its right place.” He didn’t want to hear any of this. He probably thinks I am stupid, not knowing the so-called art of the unspoken.
A college friend of mine organized a reunion party in her house last time I visited Beijing. Over the course of the conversation, one of the “girls” (well, we are not girls anymore, but…) stopped abruptly, commenting to the party, “Don’t you feel refreshed when you hear Yaxue talk?” It would be a nice compliment that I didn’t deserve but would enjoy anyway, if she didn’t turn to me and look at me in such an ambiguous way that, for a while, I couldn’t decide what she really meant. “Doesn’t she sound earnest and pure?” She pursued the others for agreement. The girl sitting next to me said, “She has lived too long in America.” She might have patted on my back. By now I had heard all the undertones and was positively annoyed: To her ear, I sounded naïve and simplistic. The problem was, I had no idea how she had reached that conclusion. I had made no big speech; in fact, I had hardly talked at all. I had not seen them for years, didn’t know what to say, and for most of the part I just asked what they did and where they lived, etc. as they themselves talked about all sorts of subjects: job, house, children, society, news of other classmates, etc.
To many Chinese, the guilelessness on a face, the heartiness of a voice, or/and the confidence with which a person carries herself/himself can all seem rather sha (傻，foolish, simple-minded).
Whenever I hear a fellow Chinese say or hint that the Chinese are “smart” and the Americans are “simple,” I would quickly point out that wisdom is not universal. Instead, it is relative and product of a particular society. The Chinese “wisdom” they cherish so much and feel so smart about is really just habits they have developed in a totalitarian, oppressive, and in many ways odious society. It’s nothing but the mold that grows in a dark and wet place.
When I told my brother that a lot of Chinese thought Americans were dumb, he said, “That’s a dumb thing to say. If they are so smart, why aren’t they doing anything better than the Americans?” This is the question, I bet, those Chinese who believe that the Americans are dumb have not asked themselves.