“So what do Americans think about Taiwan?” she asked, and four of her classmates stared at me intently alongside her. No more than two minutes since Professor Ciorciari had opened up the class to a brief discussion regarding China’s increased role in international policing.
The question threw me for a loop—we had been on-topic up until that point, and Taiwan was decidedly not a part of the lecture material. After shaking off my surprise, I responded with the best answer I could—that most average Americans don’t think much of Taiwan, and if they do they either think it’s a city in China or its own country without realizing that it’s still hotly contested. I felt compelled to include a caveat that all of us on the trip were more aware of the China-Taiwan tensions. They followed with questions about Tibet, which I acknowledged that more “average” Americans might be aware is a controversial issue (if only for a Brad Pitt movie).
While that particular exchange stuck with me for the weeks that followed, I found it was replicated in various forms throughout our trip, and on both sides. Any opportunity we had to talk directly with a young-ish Chinese person, questions flew back and forth about the newsworthy concerns of people, from the US election to Tibet. For us Fordies, few of whom speak any Chinese, these brief moments in which we talked with regular Chinese folks were treasured opportunities to fill in the gaps of what we knew about the lived experience in China and how the ever-present State we found everywhere really felt to these individuals. But even these moments were fleeting and unsatisfactory, limited by language barriers and time limits.
More than anything, we took implicit glimpses of how people “truly” felt about their government and its policies in their questions or responses to our presentations. I wonder if the setting were different (backpacking through the country) and the language barriers weren’t there (or minimally so), what kinds of conversations we might have. Would we be able to bridge our mutual understandings of everyday life in the other country?
In so many ways, China is this giant mystery and is presented through the news as some scary boogie monster. From my understanding, the US is treated in the same way much of the time in China. Having one-on-one conversations with “real” Chinese or Americans turns the lights on, allowing some insight into impenetrable places and cultures. After two weeks in China, I’m still left with most of the questions I began with, if not more. But at least I started to fill in some of the gaps.