Dr. Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian-born Caucasian scholar who has lived and worked in China since 2004, speaks Mandarin, embraces Chinese culture, and is married to a Chinese woman, recently wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal lamenting the fact that his Chinese friends and colleagues, despite all of these facts, do not consider him to be Chinese. In the eyes of the Chinese, he concludes, “… to be Chinese is to belong to a race.”
The over-riding point of the article is that China would benefit by embracing a leadership meritocracy without regard to ethnicity in all arenas, including politics, science, academia, business, and medicine. It’s a valid point, of course, that applies to virtually every country, including the US and Canada. And, as he insightfully notes, China has done just that at certain high points in its long and storied history.
It is his lament over remaining a foreigner in the eyes of the Chinese that appears to have received the most attention, however. And, not surprisingly, many commentators have taken him to task for confusing, in their opinion, race and ethnicity with identity. He might appreciate Chinese culture, they argue, but he can’t fully appreciate the historical Chinese identity because his own historical identity is one of white European privilege.
Having lived and worked in China for almost a decade I understand Dr. Bell’s sense of eternal foreignness. I’ve written about it many times in this blog and in my books. I don’t, however, share his pain. I, too, have a Chinese wife and have a great appreciation for Chinese culture. In her eyes, however, she is married to a foreigner and that will be her perspective until the day she dies. To my Chinese friends I am likewise a friend, but a foreign friend nonetheless.
I am more than accepting of that reality—I actually applaud it—because I don’t believe the perspective has anything to do with race, ethnicity, OR identity. I think it comes down to the fundamental difference between Western and Eastern culture.
Western culture is based on a linear world view and the deductive logic that is at the heart of both science and monotheistic religion. More than anything else, Westerners believe in the linear and singular linkage of cause and effect, which is why a Westerner like Dr. Bell might lament non-assimilation. To our way of interpreting reality there has to be a reason for it, and in the case of cultural non-assimilation, it has to be a prejudicial one.
The same is true in reverse. There are many Americans who believe that foreign assimilation is the cornerstone of American greatness. If only the foreigners spoke our language and adopted our customs, their thinking goes. If only they were more like us everything would be fine.
The Chinese, quite simply, don’t have that perspective, but not for the reasons Dr. Bell suggests. They don’t understand the question. Their model of logic is much more circular. They do not put so much emphasis on the singular and direct linkage of cause and effect. I have a big Gallic nose and round eyes and was born in the US of Caucasian parents of French and Irish descent. Of course I am a foreigner. What else would I be?
The good news is that while a foreigner will always be a foreigner in the eyes of a Chinese person, that is a statement of reality, not a judgment of character or worth. It is no more pejorative than my observation that a dog is a dog.
There have surely been Chinese over the course of history that held foreigners in low esteem. There are some still. I’m not sure that came from our facial features or our language and place of birth, however. The fact that a colonial foreign power flooded their country with opium in the 19th Century, and even went to war to insure a trade their own country had outlawed, or that foreigners have repeatedly invaded their country, pillaged their land, and treated their people in sub-human ways, surely has something to do with it.
Frankly, I would question my wife’s mental health if she started to refer to me as her Chinese husband or herself as my American wife. I certainly wouldn’t cheer it as a victory for American assimilation. American greatness is a mindset and a set of shared values. It is neither ethnicity nor identity.
We should classify people in the ways that really matter. The way you look, the color of your skin, and even your historical or cultural identity don’t really define who you are. Identity politics doesn’t promote identity issues in the end. It takes identity off the table of public discourse. The lines of identity are hardened, not erased.
There is much about American history, including slavery, Vietnam, the McCarthy hearings, Japanese internment, and many of our historical attitudes about race and gender, that I don’t identify with. That doesn’t make me any less American any more than my shared identity with much of Chinese culture makes me Chinese.
I hope my wife and Chinese friends never judge me by how I dress, or the language I speak, or even my admiration for China and its rich history. I would much rather be the foreigner with the big nose who is a person with strong personal values of integrity and compassion that they are proud to call friend and husband.
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