I try to only let myself indulge in jubilant patriotism once a year on this blog, and the 4th of July is that occasion (last year’s entry). This afternoon I’m bringing pulled pork sandwiches in to the office, where I plan on chatting with co-workers about how America threw off the chains of imperial oppression and built a nation based on the rights of individuals instead of the whims of monarchs (sentences like this come from listening to Fanfare for The Common Man on a steady loop). I will acknowledge that it took nearly 200 years to even begin to make the idea that “All men are created equal” a reality in our laws, but that for those centuries, it was this founding principal that pushed Americans to extend rights to all citizens.
In my five years in China, opinion of America has swung back and forth like a pendulum. With President Bush in office, the follow-up question after discovering my homeland was often “Why does your country like war so much?” On bus rides I would receive lengthy lectures about how America is always invading other countries, and for the most part I agreed with them.
The first few years of the Obama administration were slightly more positive. Students were memorizing Obama’s speeches, and together we sat through the debates. Even though most of the comments since then have revolved around whether or not I thought it was O.K. to have a black President – being ruled by a minority is something most Chinese see as detestable given the Qing and Yuan dynasties (and a steady dose of Mao Zedong Thought) – Chinese people weren’t quite sure why, but they liked Obama. My co-workers describe him as handsome and strong and think that he has a great smile. Seeing his wife and children with him, or playing an occasional basketball game make him far more of a person than the Chinese leaders, and I think many of them long for leaders that appear as approachable (given discussions of Obama and Locke).
That positive view of America largely changed again about 15 months ago when America (and several other countries who were virtually never mentioned in the Chinese press), decided to intervene in Libya and China’s economy began to falter. The questions quickly shifted back to America’s love of war. No matter how I tried to explain China’s massive oil projects in the country, I was assured that it was only the Western countries who meddled in other countries’ internal affairs for oil. Since the Arab Uprising, America’s image has been bashed with increasing fervor in Chinese Op-Eds; it is both that we’ve slipped as a nation and the Party is trying to distract from domestic problems. The recent crackdown on foreigners seems to be an extension of this decline in relations. It’s common again to hear people ask, “Why does America want to destroy China?”
Each year though, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a Party loyalist about Independence Day. He had only ever read about it, and assumed that for the most part it was like China’s National Day – the local gov’t puts up decorations, our work units gather us to sing patriotic songs, and most of the actual events only take place on TV. His mouth fell open when I told him that in the U.S. our celebrations are spontaneous, and that no one had any idea what a “work unit” was, and our “Party branches” largely left us alone so that we could barbecue (God have mercy on the politician that gets between an American and barbecue). Even though he disagreed with virtually every American policy, he was genuinely moved by our enthusiasm for our country.
Last night as I sat chatting with my African friends about their home countries, I saw in them a passion that has been lacking from chats with my Chinese co-workers. My friends see problems in their countries, but are resolved to see those challenges over come; in China though the attitude that appears is one of hopelessness. They say “…but what can be done?” or respond to new ideas about governance with a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive, “It’s no use.” So this 4th of July as I celebrate the land that I passionately love despite its numerous flaws, I hope some of that enthusiasm rubs off on my Chinese friends and that they say, “China could be better, and because I love my country, I will work for change.”
Update: Just got back from my lunch, which was delicious and included a side of the history of the Revolutionary War. My co-workers seemed completely confused by the idea of block parties and spontaneous celebrations, they said, “The gov’t would never allow such a thing. They don’t want us to take to the streets, even in celebration.” They also enjoyed the irony that we celebrate our freedom with Chinese fireworks and joked that Americans should reflect on how much China helps us love our country.