Friday, November 27, 2009

Some Thoughts, Courtesy of Nicholas Kristof

I've been having some conflicting thoughts lately, about the Chinese people and repression and government and the private thoughts of everyone around me. I asked my students whether they considered American cities to be safe or dangerous, and they all shouted in unison, "DANGEROUS!" My instinct was to disagree, to tell them that they've been swayed by the media, but then I thought: well, in comparison to many Chinese cities, they're right. Some American cities are much more dangerous. So whose perspective do we privilege here?

Luckily I'm reading a book now that articulates my thoughts better than I can. Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn wrote "China Wakes" in the early 90's, but I think a lot of it still applies. It's a great book, very smart, and has Kristof's trademark sense of childlike wonder, combined with some fairly scathing criticism. Today at lunch I was reading a chapter that seemed to glorify capitalism too much for my liking (a free market is not the answer to all of life's problems!) when then I came across a passage that really resonated with me:

"I couldn't help thinking what would happen if a Chinese journalist roamed the United States reporting about crime. He would travel around, visiting the urban slums, entering the crack dens, interviewing the rape victims, consoling the children of the slain. No doubt he would be indignant at the senselessness of the crime, at the government's failure to control guns, at society's inability to confront the drug problem. And his passion would come through in his articles. His material would be accurate, and it would leave his Chinese readers feeling that America is a violent, dangerous, uncivilized country. Talking all the time to crime victims, he might well conclude that the United States is a society reverting to the jungle. The government would seem fundamentally immoral for looking the other way as people are gunned down in the schools and the streets.

But when this reporter dropped by ordinary middle-class homes - like those of the Kristofs in Yamhill, Oregon or of the WuDunns in New York City - he would find conversations a bit puzzling. The Kristofs and the WuDunns would certainly agree that crime is terrible, but then they would cheerfully move on to other topics. The reporter would single-mindedly bring the conversation back to crime, asking how they could live with the knowledge that they might be shot down any time they walked on a public street. The Kristofs and WuDunns would shake their heads soberly and grumble that the streets really are awful, and then they would move on to discuss the day's news or some recent book or film. The reporter would ask about rape and burglary and bank robbery, and a few awkward silences would result. If the Chinese reporter asked whether the United States government would collapse in the next few years from the crime problem, he would get funny looks. And when he left, the Kristofs and the WuDunns would say to each other, "This guy may know his crime statistics, but he sure doesn't know America."

As I flew back to Beijing from my interview with Boss Zhang, I wondered if that was the kind of role I was playing. Was I so obsessed with human rights violations that I missed the rest of the tableau of China and the buds of a civil society? Was my writing so focused that, however accurate, it was misleading? Was I deceiving myself?"

While there are some fundamental problems with China, for sure, I sometimes wonder how much of a double standard I have about my own country. Anyway, "China Wakes" is great food for thought. (Oh, and Freya, I plan on reading River Town very soon! Thanks for the recommendation!)

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