The Brood: Visiting friends this weekend in Shanghai made me ponder the universal problem of culture wars, and their thorny roots in information distribution.
Shanghai was the first city in China I ever went to. I imagine that doesn’t make me all that different from other foreigners coming to China. It is to China what New York City is to America. Busy. Thralling. Cosmopolitan. Buzzing with ambition.
When I first came in 2014, I was startled by all the electric bikes. Startled by cars driving and parking on the sidewalk. Startled by the size and scope of the construction. Startled by the volume with which people spoke. Startled by the huge LED displays on skyscrapers. Really just generally startled. It made New York City seem like a village.
It’s connected to the world in more and deeper ways than what I’ve been used to in Wuhan the last year. In Wuhan, seeing another foreigner is an event. In Shanghai, it’s unnervingly normal to hear another American accent on the train. (“Broooo!”) Likewise, native Chinese people are more accustomed to foreigners. For example, a little girl stared at me on the subway into the city when I arrived Friday night. I waved hello and, like so many children do, she ran away, embarrassed. I could hear her mother admonish her in Chinese, “it’s alright, you can say hello. Don’t just stare, that’s not polite.”
That amount of courtesy is usually not afforded to foreigners in places like Wuhan where non-Chinese are more of a rarity. In fact, on the bullet train to Shanghai that same day, another little girl stared at me. She and her mother had boarded the train halfway through my trip while we were stopping in a minor city. When I first made eye contact, the little girl blurted out loudly “这是黑人”, or “this is a black person”. I looked around until I realized she was talking about me. “No,” I told her “I’m a white person.” Everyone around us had a good laugh at the exchange.
The adults on the train surely would never have made such a mistake. But still, the confusion was telling. After all, as a small child in a minor Chinese city where foreigners are rarely seen, why would you need to know the difference between a white and a black person? What might such an environment do to your perception of the world as you graduated into adulthood?
Apply this insight into your own life and perspective. What might you gloss over, given where you came up? What kind of misconceptions? What could be some “unknown unknowns” you have? If, for example, you’d only ever lived your life in a major metropolitan center like Shanghai or New York, what might you be getting wrong about the world outside?
Shanghai, in my very brief time there, has made me think about that a lot. If you were new to China, and only ever saw Shanghai, you might assume the current Chinese experiment in government is a wild success. You might assume the Chinese people have caught up with the developed world, and were every bit as open to new cultures and ideas as the most avid reader of The New Yorker.
But you would not have the full picture. You would be missing a strain of virulent nationalism that I’ve talked about in Wuhan. You would be missing the pollution in places like Ningbo, where, my student told me of her childhood, the ocean would sometimes turn yellow. You would be missing small, rural communities still struggling with subsistence in the countryside, where paved roads are either a novelty, or out of reach. You would be missing an innocent ignorance of the outside world, colored by information curated by a government far more conservative and wary of the world than its own people.
It’s a curious thing about left-wing America that we tend to give foreigners more of a sympathetic pass on these conditions than we do our own right-wing countrymen. Perhaps this is because we think that, somehow, they ought to know better. But it strikes me that the situation in the United States is, in some ways, not all that different. Like the residents of Shanghai, we are more accustomed to seeing different kinds of faces, and different languages. We admonish our children not to be so rude about differences to strangers on trains. We breathe in clean air and drink clean water, and read op-eds by well-educated people that ask how white, small-town America can doubt climate change.
In our multicultural environs, we find it hard to imagine how ignorance can metastasize into bigotry, and how that bigotry can curdle into willful ignorance. But if, like those train passengers from a minor Chinese city, you’ve only ever really known other faces like yours (white faces, in this case), if you’ve never had to really grapple with other cultures, how would you know how to? For that matter, why would you want to, other than for the sake of novelty and entertainment? How much easier it would be, to be wrapped in the comfort of what you know?
The people I meet from less urban, less developed backgrounds in China can sound alarmingly similar to Red America, if you listen close enough. When the government curates information on the outside world, they do their utmost to impose a picture of chaos, to contrast with the stability, harmony and prosperity of Chinese civilization. While Chinese propaganda and censorship can sometimes feel clunky, this picture can feel pervasive, even as more and more Chinese are directly exposed to the West. Here are some snippets from Evan Osnos’ book, Age of Ambition, as he follows a Chinese tour group through Europe:
[Pg. 100] The notes [on travel tips to Europe] concluded with a piece of Confucius-style advice that framed our trip as a test of character: “He who can bear hardship will carry on.”
[Pg. 104] A 2002 guidebook […] warned that, beyond Chinese borders, “foreign intelligence agencies and other enemy forces” wage a “battle for hearts and minds” using “reactionary propoganda to topple the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.”
[Pg. 111] Nearly half of all Chinese tourists in one market survey reported eating no more than one “European-style” meal on a trip the West. […The tour guide] Li warned us that Western food can take too long to serve, and if we ate it too fast, it would give us indigestion. […] In Milan, he reminded us again to be on guard against thieves, but Handy [anoter Chinese man on the tour and a] sanitation specialist was dubious. “Italy is not as chaotic as they made it seem,” he said. “It sounded really terrifying.”
It’s not hard to adapt the language into a FOX News program. There are outside cultural forces trying to destroy or pervert your way of life. The world beyond your home is dangerous, and full of people who want to destroy what you have, because, in the end, “they hate us”.
Like a lot of progressives, I believed, even if I didn’t articulate it to myself aloud, that having such myopic attitudes of other people and cultures was a personal character flaw. Something that showed a hollow moral compass that made me morally outraged. “How could they vote this way? How could they support such things?” It’s an understandable reaction to ideas and practices that produce real, tangible harm to other human beings. Our liberal Chinese equivalents, many of whom live in Shanghai, sometimes ask the same things about their more orthodox, conservative countrymen.
Now that I’ve spent time with people in similar structural binds, however, I can see that browbeating people for ignorant views is sometimes not only unproductive, it smacks of a kind of judgmental arrogance that makes people burrow deeper into their views.
For example, I’ve had multiple, hushed conversations with both male and female students about gender, feminism, and LGBTQ issues. Many students are upbeat and progressive in their social views. Others have made statements that would send a typical campus progressive on an epic Twitter rant. “I think maybe Americans are too free,” said one student, “maybe privately it is okay to be gay, but I think they should not be raising children.” Another student argued to me today that “It’s one thing to argue for gender equality, it’s another to ask the government to pass special laws or programs for you as women. If you work hard, you will be equal.” (Notably, my student from Shanghai reminded this latter student that it’s not all about hard work — even in China, companies avoid investing in women because of childcare related costs.)
If I ever tried to “drag” people with such views, as progressives do constantly in America, I’m not sure that I’d ever get them to budge. Instead, I gently nudged them by telling them the stories of people I knew back home. I may not have converted them in an instant, but I exposed them to new information that they would spend some time digesting.
Therein lies the rub. These conservative communities in both countries share a common structural problem when it comes to getting new information and perspectives. They tend to live in homogenous communities, and are fed information from curated sources (government censorship in China, FOX & conservative media in America) that they may not have the knowledge, experience, or media literacy to critically examine. It’s much harder to understand the benefits of multiculturalism if you’ve never truly lived it. The other side of the coin, for those of us on the liberal side of things, is that it’s also much easier to judge people in homogeneous cultural mindsets if you’ve never experienced the way it can narrow your field of vision.
Any long-term fix to issues like inequality and democratic backsliding growing around the world will have to grapple with these two structural issues that pit traditional monocultures against the bustling urban multicultural communities. It’s much easier to maintain kleptocracies when a large chunk of the people believe you are protecting them from the dreaded other. It’s also easier to maintain kleptocracies when its opponents believe that its supporters are merely suckers beyond saving.