Insights about China I Gained as an American Journalist
Why should any of us look behind the next hill, or across the border, or across the ocean, into the warm living rooms of people who don’t look or think or talk as we do? In this time of pandemic, especially, it makes more sense to stay home and deal with pressing issues inside our families, our towns, our borders.
But what if we all—at some point in our lives—crossed those thresholds and really listened to people we too often misunderstand? What if we opened our minds and tried to see the world through their eyes?
Time For a New Understanding
This is a central theme of my new book, When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China’s Reawakening. It’s a clarion call for cross-cultural understanding—a cause that’s well understood by those who have traveled outside their own country, who have learned to speak another language, or who have simply sat down for a meal with people from another country and listened to their point of view.
For eight years I had my dream job: BusinessWeek’s correspondent in Hong Kong, covering China. While there I met and married a Chinese man, Paul Yang, who introduced me to his family and friends. As an American, I appreciated the perspectives they gave me into China—insights I never would have fathomed on my own—even though I already spoke Mandarin.
Just a month after I met Paul, he took me to Taipei to have dinner with his parents. The conversation wasn’t profound. They just talked about their health and Paul’s, about their house and neighborhood, about the outdoor market where they bought their food. They spoke in Mandarin at a normal pace and—miracle!—I could understand them.
As the evening progressed, my sense of foreignness slipped away. I had already fallen in love with Paul. But that night I fell in love again—with the heady feeling of being inside China. I was inside a Chinese family, accepted as one of them, communicating smoothly. It felt like magic—as if I had stepped into some fantasy world. I had sipped the elixir of this feeling and wanted more.
A few months later, in Hong Kong, Paul took me to see a Chinese movie set in 1839 that showed angry farmers with pitchforks attacking well-armed British merchants who were peddling illegal opium in their country. Frankly, as a white woman, I was quaking as I heard moviegoers around me cheering at those who attacked the “foreigners.” Although I never felt unsafe, I realized how my understanding of proper Victorian British ethics was warped when seen through Chinese eyes.
Later, Paul explained to me how China’s humiliation by European attackers colored China’s sense of the importance of resuming what it sees as its rightful place in the world. It’s not trying to usurp the United States as the world’s top dog; it’s trying to regain enough power to prevent others from kicking it around.
A few years later, Paul and I visited his older sister, who was left behind in the hometown when the rest of his family fled to Taiwan in 1949. Because of a political campaign, her two children, as teenagers, had been forced to go labor in the countryside and leave her living alone, in a cramped single room. They were denied a high-school education and any chance for advancement. It wasn’t until Paul reconnected with her after thirty-two years of separation that her son was allowed to move back and take care of her.
Once during our visit, I took a nap in Paul’s sister’s bed, literally seeing the world from her perspective. I could view her life not by American standards but against the way she had lived before. She now had her own house, a garden, running water, and family nearby, and her son had a decent job.
Suddenly, it mattered to me, all this stuff I had been writing about Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Life in China then was nowhere near as modern as it is now, but people were starting to have choices and opportunities. The hope Deng unleashed in the 1980s was magnified when measured against the terrible treatment so many ordinary Chinese had suffered for decades.
Sometimes, during my eight years as a correspondent, deep in a discussion in Mandarin about the future of China, I forgot that I wasn’t Chinese. I would never be a true insider. I would always be a waiguoren—an “outside-country person.” But because of Paul, I could see what China looked like from the inside out, without the filter of American assumptions.
Things Are Rarely As We Imagine
Today, when I hear ordinary Americans expressing fear or disdain about China, I tell them something I learned from my years as a foreign correspondent. By definition, the news is what’s new, so often it is startling and negative. When we hear news about our own country, we see it in perspective, so bad news, like school shootings, does not necessarily affect our view about whether our country is basically good. But when we read disturbing news about decisions that foreign leaders make, some are quick to label that whole country as “evil.” This is as true about Chinese looking at America as it is about Americans regarding China. Only when you live inside the walls of someone else’s home for a while can you understand the world from their viewpoint.
“China” is not just the Chinese government. Cutting off a whole nation because of its government’s policies is also cutting off all its people. China-bashing arouses fear and hatred, which can lead to violence and war. What’s needed is more listening and communicating, less waving of fists. War would be terrible for the people of both countries.
This guest post was authored by Dori Jones Yang
Dori, based in the Seattle area, is a former journalist and author of eight books. Her new book, “When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China’s Reawakening,” tells her personal story of covering China as a reporter for BusinessWeek. It will be published by She Writes Press in September 2020. To learn more about Dori Jones Yang’s life and work, visit her website, https://dorijonesyang.com/.