Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"American students don’t know a lot about the outside world, mostly just what they see here."

The New York Times has a nice article about a Chinese teacher in America who is teaching Chinese as part of a government-sponsored project. Much of it looks at the differences in culture between Chinese and American high schools, with the former overly rigid and the latter overly lax. The superintendent gushes, without a trace of irony, that “part of them coming here is us indoctrinating them about our great country and our freedoms”. The Chinese teacher, meanwhile, grouses that "this country doesn’t value teachers, and that upsets me. Teachers don’t earn much, and this country worships making money."

More interesting are the misconceptions American students had about China:

- Hong Kong is the capital
- the Chinese government would kill one baby if a couple had twins, with respect to the one-child policy
- China does not have cell phones

Combined with a debate over whether France was in Europe or not, Zheng concluded that "American students don’t know a lot about the outside world, mostly just what they see here." Considering the Americans I've met, who have asked if Canada has a soccer team, what language is spoken in Austria, who think that Amsterdam is a country and so on, it's probably true.

At the same time, China is not exactly a bastion of worldly knowledge. I spent a few days in Taiwan with a black friend, who was given celebrity status by Chinese tourists. A group of tourists from Shanxi (or possibly Shaanxi) crowded around to pose for pictures with him, as did a group from Hunan later, and those were just the ones brave enough to turn their slack-jawed stares into something more. I met others in China who had never heard of Europe, never mind debate whether France is located there or not.

Similarly, Canadians and Koreans don't fare much better. In high school, I talked to fellow students and a few teachers on the topics of Elbonia, Bolividesh, Fasir Al-Haj's handling of the Beirut Crisis, the Muslim festival of Masa-al-Hamam and so on. An astonishing number can't remember whether it's North or South Korea that's the scary one. Koreans have asked me just where exactly Canada is located, thinking its located in Europe. A room full of 11-year-olds guessed that Mexicans speak either English, French or Chinese.

In short, the West's caricature of the East, with gongs, mandolins and martial arts, is reflected in the East's caricature of the West as a homogenous land of people who all look the same, eat the same sticky food known as bread, and all come from America.

A better understanding of all parts of the world is called for. Generally, thanks to immigration, the West is probably better able to consider all parts of the world than the East, which sees the world as consisting generally of themselves and foreigners. The characters 外 (outside) 国 (country) and 人 (person) make up the Korean, Chinese and Japanese words for foreigner, more insular still than our practice of labeling any East Asian as Chinese. This is not to say that the East is less informed necessarily, but that multiculturalism allows us (those of us not in Tea Parties or the BNP, at least) to consider multiple regions in the world.

We saw stereotypical Indian views of America in the Bollywood movie My Name is Khan. That America is racist towards blacks and Indians, reactionary after violence and very violent. China is not an otherworldly Other of bound feet, summary executions and chicken fried rice any more than America is a place where everyone is promiscuous, carries a gun and more or less resembles the trash that's emitted into the airwaves by television.

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