Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Press, China, and Cross-Cultural Communication

Many Americans would be surprised to find out how many Chinese students in the US are not very happy with their host country. I don't know the percentage, and maybe my sample is biased, but I do think most Americans assume the rest of the worlds wants to be American, which is at best a gross exaggeration and over-generalization. One thing I find many Chinese students complain about is the anti-China bias in US media. At first this was hard for me to understand. In part, students who complain that the US focuses too much on Tiananmen Square are a bit biased themselves, since they don't know anything about it so of course think if it as a minor issue. But they do have some points. Here is an article entitled "Westerners are so convinced China is a dystopian hellscape they'll share anything that confirms it" that points out that stories published in Time, CBS News, and Huffington Post that were totally wrong (even absurd) were re-posted as though they were true. Such stories, to a Chinese reader, suggest a hostile intent on the poster, and stupidity on the reader for believing such stories are possible. Who could believe that giant screens show the sunrise to compensate for the heavy pollution in Beijing?!

Unfortunately, cross-cultural understanding is not easy. There is a heart-breaking column by Helen Gao in the NY Times where she describes the rejection she faces from family and friends because she has studied seven years overseas. Even when she says the same criticism about pollution or politics as others, it is seen as inappropriate coming from her who has spent time abroad. At the same time, these same people have unrealistic images of the US:
Like someone gazing out a window but staring only at his own reflection, many Chinese look at America in ways that are colored by their feelings toward China. The United States they see — a nation with a pristine environment, perfect schools, generous welfare and complete political transparency — is a figment of their imagination, custom-made in stark contrast to the reality we live in.
 It has long been the fate of bicultural persons not to be trusted by either side. When the English arrived in North America, they exchanged young boys with the natives so each side would have native speakers of each other's language. This was an early type of AFS intercultural exchange! The boys would then go back to their own cultures to act as language and cultural interpreters. They were not trusted, however; . They would often try to make their countrymen see the situation from "both sides", which, under tense situations, would be perceived as disloyalty. It is the dilemma of cultural exchange and cross-cultural competence: we need to foster it to avoid international conflict, yet those who have these essential skills are often the ones who suffer the most for their competence. They have greater understanding (of both sides), but are often ignored or even rejected for their "deviant" ideas. When Helen Gao notes that she cannot repeat a friend's statement because it will be interpreted differently due to her time in the US, we see that there is really no central, unbiased point or position from which we can look at the world. There is no neutral "objective" space,  though we all try to stand there. But crazy stories about China do not help create that space, or the trust that is necessary for communication.

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