Travel

How do you judge a nation?

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With my friend and mentor in China

This question has been weighing on me for the last year. When COVID-19 broke out, China was in the spotlight and everything I was seeing was negative. COVID-19 was referred to as “the Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” and there were reports throughout the U.S. of Chinese American businesses closing, Chinese Americans being spit on, verbally harassed, and physically assaulted. The video evidence is horrible; old people being shoved, even killed, when they were only walking down the street or standing in their own driveway. These were residents of the United States who had lived here for years and made incredibly positive contributions to our society, yet suddenly they were afraid to go to the grocery store because they were being accused of bringing a virus they had no control over. One group reported over 3,000 incidents of discrimination against Asian Americans just since the pandemic started. 3,000. And if we are honest, there are a lot of people who don’t know the difference between Chinese Americans and other Asian groups, and there was enough discrimination to go around for them all. Discrimination against Asian Americans isn’t new. Think back to the “yellow peril” days and murders of Chinese American workers in the 1870’s and 1880’s. White railroad workers felt threatened by the presence of Chinese workers and opened fire on all 600 of them in Wyoming in 1885. 28 Chinese were killed and 15 wounded (Au et al. 52).

In the 1850’s, Chinese Americans were denied admittance to public schools in the U.S. even though they were required to pay a public school tax so they were paying for a service they couldn’t even access. In 1858, the San Francisco School Board wanted Chinese Americans to attend the segregated African American school to keep the public schools filled with white students “free from the intrusion of inferior races” saying “let us preserve our Caucasian blood pure” (Au et al. 54). We know that Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps by the federal government during WWII, and many people wanted to remove their U.S. citizenship and thereby take away any land that they owned (Au at al. 69). These are a few examples, among many, of the racism and xenophobia Asian Americans have historically experienced in the U.S.

I wondered why this weighed on me so much. I have a few Chinese American friends and students. My mother in law lives in the Philippines and my husband was born there, so my girls are also Asian American even though sometimes people don’t realize it. We love our Filipino family and want our girls to be proud of who they are. Although all of these points added to the weight, my mind kept taking me back to when I visited China.

My memories are wonderful from that trip. I had the opportunity to walk on the Great Wall with my students and wonderful friends, and tour all the other major attractions including Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace, Temple of Heaven Park, Olympic Park, the Yonghe Lamasery, and the 798 Art Zone. I remember turning a corner on the way to dinner and seeing a huge tree in a natural scene that was so beautiful it was like something I was seeing in a dream. It took my breath away. I watched people bow and burn incense to Buddha at the temple in Beijing. There were so many new things to discover in China that I had never seen before. I’ll never forget a student asking, “Where are the fortune cookies?” And the guide responded, “What are fortune cookies?” When we went to a park there were lots of people sitting around having a snack, but they weren’t eating chips or funnel cakes or candy apples or cotton candy. Everyone had a corn on the cob. The Chinese food was nothing like what we expected.

I remember finding out what split plants were and seeing them in action, if you know what I mean, even on the Great Wall in the middle of a lot of people. I had no idea. I remember learning about how license plates were issued for driving only on certain days because if everyone tried to drive at the same time it would never work. I remember following a new rule for the first time in my life; throwing the toilet paper into the trash can, and not into the toilet. I remember watching the pandas eat bamboo at the zoo, and going to the bathroom to find it was a hole in the ground. I remember learning that big items are not bargained for when shopping, and small items are – not at all my favorite part of the journey! I remember being welcomed into an elementary school, touring the classrooms, and joining the kids at recess. As long as I live, I’ll remember discovering that massages in China were unlike any I’d ever had before and oh, the songs and fun we had on the bus!

Our tour guide prepared us so that we wouldn’t be shocked when we went out in public. She told us that Chinese people would approach us and take our pictures because so many of them had never seen a white person before. Almost immediately, we found this to be the case. One second we were walking, and the next second strangers were linking arms with us and pictures were being snapped before we even knew what happened. We invited our guide to come visit us in our hometowns but she replied that she wasn’t allowed to leave the country; what a different reality for us.

Our tour guide was amazingly kind and she talked to me about my daughter and bought a beautiful little dress for my daughter as a gift when we left. I only had one daughter at the time and she was just a toddler. This was during the one child policy in China, and my tour guide said that although her and her husband wanted to have another child, it would cost them the equivalent of two years of his salary in order for them to be granted the permission. When questioned by one of my students about what happens to the babies when a family has more than one child, she fell silent. As we rode around on cycle rickshaws touring hutongs, we learned about whole neighborhoods the Chinese government bulldozed to the ground in order to prepare for the Olympics. After international outrage, the homes were being rebuilt and we saw the foundations and walls going up.

You have probably heard the reports about the 380 suspected internment camps the Chinese government has built in Xinjiang. First, there was denial, and then the camps were labeled as “re-education” programs that some say actually include forced labor, torture, separation of parents and their children, sterilization, and even murder. Disney has been criticized for filming Mulan in Xinjiang, not just because they filmed there but because they also give thanks in credits to different government organizations in China, several of which are believed to be directly involved with what is happening in the camps.

So I know that there are major issues with China, both concerning COVID-19 and horrific reports of human rights violations, but there are good people there too y’all. A whole nation can’t be judged as one…can it? How do we judge a nation?

Recently in conversation, I learned that videos of Muslim American women being attacked in the U.S. while they were minding their own business and not causing harm to anyone, went viral in the Middle East. The purpose of the attacks were to forcefully remove hijabs and often occurred by white feminists who thought they were saving, or freeing, the other women from oppression. I expressed my worry that the image of Americans – the image of me – would be that all of us would do such things. I literally don’t know anyone who would do something like this, but I’m sure there are people across oceans who now think that we all would.

Just as I don’t want my country, that I dearly love, to be judged by the awful acts of a few, I also don’t want to pass judgement on the entire nation of China, or the entire Middle East, or any other place when I know that good people can be found in all corners of the world. I have had a few bad experiences while traveling, in a couple of different countries, but I don’t judge the entire country by the acts of a few residents. China remains one of the most beautiful and unique places I have ever traveled, and the people there, as well as the Chinese Americans I have met in the United States, are kind and compassionate and my life is better as a result of meeting them.

I don’t know how to judge a nation, or an entire group of people based solely on their race. No way I juggle it will settle. Government leaders, all of them, make decisions that ordinary citizens like me often have zero knowledge of or really any capacity to control. What I can control are my own actions, daily, that speak life to others and affirm my own values of what is right and wrong, and kind and good. And in the mix of the controlling and the controlled and those somewhere in the middle, I hope we get it right. I hope we don’t judge unfairly, place blame, and become hateful and bitter toward the wrong people. When we do, we turn the good people away from us; the ones who wanted America to be their home and were more committed to it than some of us ever were.

Au, Wayne, et al. Reclaiming The Multicultural Roots of U.S. Curriculum. Edited by James A. Banks, Teachers College Press, 2016.

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