Candlelight Vigil

I went to the candlelight vigil in People’s Square with my wife tonight. It gave me some mixed feelings.

I was happy to reverently hold a candle in memory of the many victims of the earthquake. On the other hand, I really didn’t see the need to wave a Chinese flag when people thrust it in my hands.

When people were chanting, “四川加油!” (Sichuan, hang in there!), I felt good. When they chanted “中国万岁!” (Long live China!) it felt a bit less relevant.

The different types of candle displays reflected the different attitudes of the people in attendance:

People's Square Candlelight Vigil People's Square Candlelight Vigil

I’m glad I went, and it gave me a few things to think about. In any case, “unity through nationalism in the face of adversity” certainly isn’t a Chinese invention.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. This reminds me of the mood after 9/11. Everywhere you went everything was red, white, and blue. The frustrating aspect of nationalism is that it encourages people to brush aside rational questions, for the sake of being a member of a group they were born into by virtue of an imaginary line. In the US, this was very effective, as most people refrained from seriously pondering such ‘unpatriotic’ questions such as “WHY did the terrorists attack us?” and “Was there possibly anything WE did to incite them to wreak violence on our country?” Our nation’s leadership perpetuated this ignorance by reminding us that the attacks of 9/11 were the work of ‘evil-doers’ and people who ‘hate freedom.’ The mainstream seemed to ignore the fact that you don’t just throw rocks at the face of the toughest kid in the schoolyard, unless you have a pretty good reason. This of course, does not excuse the instigator from his act of violence, but should at very least serve as a wake-up call to others to ask WHY it happened.

    Obviously, what is happening in China is a different scenario, as an earthquake occurs (one would hope) independent of the involvement of any government or terrorist organization, foreign or domestic. That being said, I do think the Chinese government is using this tragedy, to rile up nationalism, just as Bush et al used 9/11 to do the same, and as most governments do to greater insure their own future stability.

    Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia! Long Live Big Brother!

  2. Henning Says: May 20, 2008 at 1:24 am

    I agree. Patriotism always gives me cold goose bumps, and not in a particularly positive way.

    I can see the benefits of identifying yourself with a certain set of codified values, but everything beyond that…risky business, if you ask me.

    Patriotism (= Nationalism light) highlights differences, cherishes separation, and thereby implicitly fosters aggression. It might be part of our genes (chimpanzees do that kind of stuff), but can’t we overcome it nevertheless?

    I really liked Ben’s Orwell citation.

  3. Abstract Says: May 20, 2008 at 4:35 am

    On the other hand, if nationalism did not exist – e.g. if other Chinese people did not regard Sichuanese people as their kinspeople – there wouldn’t be as much sympathy.

  4. Hang on a minute, Abstract- if you’re implying that us foreigners sympathise less with the people of Sichuan because we’re not Chinese and therefore can’t be a part of this nationalism, then you’re living in a very strange world indeed.

    Could it be that for many of us the simple fact that the victims are human is all we need?

  5. Abstract Says: May 20, 2008 at 8:01 am

    Well, for instance, in my hometown Vancouver, there is virtually no newspaper coverage of the earthquake.

    Actually, I was very surprised, because the last few times big disasters happened, such as the tsunami, Katrina, and even the cyclone in Myanmar, the media circus was deafening.

    I tested my theory today, that most Canadians don’t know about the earthquake. I asked everyone in my linguistics study group whether they’ve heard of the earthquake. As I expected – no one.

    And I doubt anyone cares either.

    I’m not saying non-Chinese people can’t sympathise with the Chinese people. But you know, familial ties, whether real or mythical, are a real part of life. When disaster strikes, your family is those who stick around.

    Another example – originally, I did not plan to donate any money. But then my mother shamed me into doing so. She said, “You always talk about Chinese solidarity, but now when disaster struck, you sit around and do nothing.”

    So nationalism does work.

  6. One of the oddest things to me is how a natural disaster somehow gets linked to “patriotism.” Maybe it is just a cultural difference, but I don’t remember this issue of “who loves America more” coming up when people were donating money for Katrina. I’ve seen a lot of debates in China, however, over who is more or less patriotic based on how much money they have or haven’t donated. There is just an unquestioned assumption there. I could see it more if this were a Japanese earthquake that attacked China or if a foreign country attacked China, etc.

  7. John,
    I think you will always be American no matter how long you live in China. Has to do with your national identity. And has to do with where your allegiance lies. Being an Asian American whom immigrated to US when I was very young, (Lived in US for 25 plus years) When I am in America, I always feel more Chinese. When I am in visiting China, I will feel more American.

  8. Tony,

    So I donated money and went to the candlelight vigil because my allegiance lies with China? Sorry, no.

    It’s not about nationality, it’s about closeness. We tend not to care about things that happen far away from us, because there is no personal impact. Obviously, our compatriots are close to us, so it’s easy to work nationalism into the mix, and that tends to happen a lot.

  9. The wave of nationalism is a responsability of the West. They are to blame for this. Next time, think it twice when wou want to attack something as innocent as the Olympic Games.

  10. Matthew Stinson Says: May 20, 2008 at 11:37 am

    @John: Has 加油! always been used in this way or is this year seeing it used as a general statement of encouragement? (One thinks of “中国加油!” during Olympic torch counter-demonstrations.) Previously I had thought of “加油!” as a kind of friendly cheer for sports teams, friends facing tests, etc.

    @Ben: I don’t see any evidence thus far that the Chinese government is using the earthquake to increase “us against them” nationalism the way they used, say, the Tibet uprisings. Instead, I think they’re learning from past mistakes — and Burma’s mistakes — and trying to be pro-active to keep the public satisfied with their governance.

    @Henning: Patriotism isn’t as bad as you say, even Orwell would tell you that. Orwell’s essay “Notes on Nationalism” makes the distinction between the positive force of patriotism and the negative force of nationalism. There is both a distinction and a difference between the two, rather than patriotism being just a lower-level nationalism. Some people call their nationalism patriotism but so long as they define it as a need to make their country greater than others, or to stifle dissent, it’s not patriotism at all.

    @ChinoChano: The Olympics are always political, and always used to show that the host country is “great” or that the host country is being “embraced” by the world. If the Olympics weren’t political, then China would’ve never boycotted the Olympics in the past. What’s more, the host countries of the Olympics are always under intense political scrutiny, and China in this regard is being held to the same standard as South Korea.

    The reason for the nationalist backlash against the West, I feel, is that the Chinese state and media has created a notion of “the Olympics” for common Chinese that is actually quite different from how it’s been experienced by others. For instance, many Chinese I know get angry when someone says that the Olympics was “given” to China, but this is fact. They also expect all the world’s leaders to go to the Olympics, but reality is that few world leaders go to any Olympics. (When did Deng or Jiang or Hu go to an Olympics?) When Chinese have the belief that the Olympics are about honoring China rather than bringing the world together, they’re bound to get angry at any criticism — so we cannot blame the West entirely for this.

  11. Gotta agree with the general sentiment here – the patriotism is a beautiful thing, and for the most part that seems to be what this tragedy has brought out about all, but nationalism not so much.

    Don’t quite get the different view in the world contained in the trying to fight each other in how much to give, though…

  12. Henning Says: May 20, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    thanks for your answer & the recomendation.
    Here is the essay:
    I will read it as soon as I find the time (quite a mess here at work).

    Meanwhile I stay sceptical. 😉

  13. What’s interesting to me is that my Chinese colleagues are hesitant to give to the Chinese Red Cross (despite matching funds from my company) as they think the money will not make it down to the people on the ground in Sichuan. A couple who have had previous conversations with me about foreign aid (i.e., after the tsunami, they asked why no foreign aid came after the Tangshan earthquake)(they didn’t know the history) have been the most surprised at the foreign coverage and interest.

    Headlines have proven interesting – there was one today that used a character to describe national disaster that I’ve not seen outside of guwen before (but apparently can be used to describe everything from the Nanjing Massacre to Pearl Harbor to the tsunami): 国殇. I loved the Yao Ming quote: 此时此刻我是四川人.

  14. Song Wukong Says: May 20, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    The French minister of Foreign Affairs writing down his condolences at the Chinese embassy in Paris:

    “[…] I wish to thank the dedication and mobilisation of the Chinese people. It is an honor for mankind as a whole, not only for China and the Chinese people”

  15. Didn’t hear anything about this sort of thing in Shenzhen… probably because of the rain.

  16. “此时此刻我是四川人” I can’t help but feel funny about this statement. Don’t get me wrong, I AM from Sichuan actually. Just this statement is not really original. It came from some Chinese saying “今夜我是美国人“ after 911. Ironically, not all agree with them at that time.

  17. @Song Wukong, That wasn’t the French minister of Foreign Affairs but the French president Nicolas Sarkozy himself. Here is what he wrote and said at the chinese ambassy :
    “Nous sommes solidaires du peuple chinois si durement éprouvé”. “Je voulais dire la grande tristesse du peuple français après la catastrophe qui s’est abattue sur la Chine. J’ai voulu me déplacer à votre ambassade pour dire combien nous nous sentons proches de vous les Chinois (…) combien nous nous sentons proches de la douleur des familles. La Chine sait qu’elle peut compter sur la france. Nous sommes prêts à aider les Chinois en envoyant nos équipes et en envoyant notre matériel.”

  18. —–“When they chanted “中国万岁!” (Long live China!) it felt a bit less relevant.”

    Of course you felt this way, because you are not Chinese.
    I don’t care and feel nothing at all when I hear American says” God bless Amerca” just because I’m not American.

  19. Abstract Says: May 21, 2008 at 3:07 am


    I don’t know if this will offend you, but I actually agree with Tony. I think you might have misunderstood his statement.

    The reason many expatriates are bothered by Chinese nationalism is not because expatriates are committed universalists. There is nationalism everywhere, even in Canada. (For instance, I have many Canadian-nationalist friends, who advocate aggressive foreign policies such as to invade the Middle East to secure “national interest.”)

    The real reason why many expatriates are bothered by Chinese nationalism is because it confronts them with the question – how far are willing to go to fit in?

    After an expatriate has stayed in China for a while, presumably he will have some Chinese friends. He has Chinese co-workers and Chinese family members. At this point, he likes to think that he is a trusted and intimate member of his Chinese community.

    But then as soon as the spectre of nationalism is raised, a invisible wall is erected between the exptriate and his Chinese community. All of his Chinese friends are Chinese, and will always be Chinese. At the bottom of their souls, they are Chinese, whether they are cynical businessmen or naive young women, earnest scholars or carefree bohemians.

    But what is this expatriate? He realises, even if subconsciously, that he will never be one of them, unless he becomes Chinese.

    Some expatriates say, “I only make friends with non-nationalists.” But they are perpetually surprised when a friend, whom they imagined they knew well, expresses nationalist sentiments.

    Let me tell you a secret. Virtually all Chinese people are nationalists. This is a matter of upbringing. It is a part of the culture. In any debate, the nationalist always has overwhelming moral advantage over the non-nationalist.

    (In the same way, in Islamic societies, the more pious a muslim, the greater his moral advantage. Or in the bible belt, the more devout a Christian, the greater his moral advantage.)

    For any topic you can imagine – such as democracy, free speech, human rights, economics, the environment, traditionalism, religion, etc. – if you associate it with nationalism, then people are willing to listen to you.

    I’ve discovered this to my advantage. Most Chinese people today are sceptical of Western democracy and human rights. I, on the other hand, see many good things in them. Therefore, whenever I discuss these things with other Chinese people, I always frame my views in nationalist terms.

    I myself formerly did not believe in democracy. But then a pamphlet converted me. I paid attention to it, because it had a passionately nationalist preface. Then after I read it, I digested and accepted the message.

    The same with the government. If you criticise the government as a universalist, e.g. from the perspective of universal values – you won’t get anywhere. If you criticise the government from a Chinese perspective, e.g. as a Chinese patriot, then people will listen to you.

    In the West, the ethical thief does not rob poor people. In China, the ethical thief is nationalist.

    You can actually make a girl cry by berating her lack of nationalism. I’ve done so. “You’re a traitor to your people” – there is no reply to that.

    Notice that I don’t say that the expatriate cannot become Chinese. In fact, he can. Chinese society practises cultural nationalism, like the French and the Americans. Anyone can become Chinese. The problem is, what does this expatriate want?

    You see, he is confronted by an existential question.

    Let’s digress a little.

    I grew up in Vancouver. In some of my old neighbourhoods, I know every tree and every water. (I’m not exaggerating – as a child, I was obsessed with combining imaginary landscapes with real landscapes. Plus, I was firmly convinced, and remain so, that I could talk to trees and rivers.) Of the stores which I frequent – I know many of the storeowners. Some for many years. I’m the type of person who would pay more and walk longer, just to shop at my favourite places.

    And the BC landscape is quite unique. If you cross the Rocky Mountains, you can tell as soon as you enter BC, because the trees and the grass will change. Sometimes, I would roll around on the grass and feel tremendously happy.

    As you can tell, I love Vancouver very much. I especially like how it has a small-town feel, even with a beautiful downtown. When I first arrived in Vancouver, there weren’t as many asians yet. At least not in my part of town. Back then, you could still see much of the old West. For instance, I studied Latin and Greek at school. My friends talked about quaint things like honour and manners. Many of my teachers were men of principles and good-bringing. (They don’t make these folks anymore.)

    What I remember most about those first few years, however, was how nice everyone was to me. Here I was, clearly a new-comer, yet they treated me as one of their own. (In fact, my English was so bad, that the teacher never understood me. A classmate would have to explain my meaning to the teacher.) I also remember how many friends I had. In my earliest childhood in Hong Kong, I had very few friends. But as soon as I arrived in Vancouver, I always had friends to hang out with, whether to play soccer or tag (or grounders, what a strange game that was!).

    I later lost touch with most people from that neighbourhood. But at the bottom of my heart I’m grateful for the wonderful childhood they gave me.

    Canadian nationalism doesn’t bother me. Actually, Canadian nationalism is just tough-guy posturing. But I’ve thought about this – I think I would be willing to fight in a war for Canada. The Canadian people have just given so much to me, you know – such a small sacrifice is mere obligation. I would be okay with any war, whether righteous or unrighteous, as long as I’m not fighting China.

    And I’m content with the fact that, being Asian, I would never be Canadian the same way an Anglo-Canadian is Canadian. I’m compensated, because I belong to a most ancient and beauteous people called China. Vancouver is my home, but China will always be my soul.

    What as it Horace said, “They, who cross the sea, change their sky, not their souls.”

    Sometimes, I wonder whether expatriates who go to China feel the same way about China as I feel about Canada. The first time I stayed in China by myself, I hung out with several expatriates. They’ve been in China for over twenty years. I was very impressed by them, because they said and did so many noble things. I thought it was very cool that they were helping with developing China.

    But I think some expatriates whine too much. Not a few expatriates say that they’re bitter about China. What exactly makes them bitter? Have you ever heard an Overseas Chinese say he is bitter about Canada or the US?

    Maybe those expatriates are just having a bad day and trying to express themselves.

    But you know, I think some people go to China, just so they can tell their friends back home they’ve been to somewhere exotic. On the one hand, I can understand this impulse. For instance, if I went to the Congos today, I’m unlikely to become full Congolese tomorrow.

    On the other hand, if you stay in a community for some time, and the people prove hospitable – you have obligations to them.

    You know, I don’t expect expatriates to form an volunteer corps and fight for China. There are enough Chinese people, that this never needs happen.

    And it is okay if some expatriates never become Chinese. There’s enough room in China for the whole world to stay indefinitely as guest. And it’s okay if some expatriates prefer to hang out in their little expatriate circles – I can understand this better than anyone – after all, I know many Chinese people in Vancouver who don’t speak a word of English after having been there for twenty plus years.

    But I wish sometimes more expatriates would say something like, “Even though I don’t consider myself Chinese, my stay in China has irreversibly bound me to the Chinese people through friendship and familial ties.”

    The more expatriates express noble sentiments like these, the more people around them will feel reassured about their good intentions, and the more friends they will have.

    Ancestral ties are the stuff of soul. There is no compulsion therein. When I was a kid, I loved writing slogans like “I love China” all over my practice workbook. No one forced me. I had no example to imitate. It was just a natural outpouring of my naive, idealist feelings.

    Therefore, I wish more expatriates would understand nationalism, even if they don’t completely identify with it. The blood of the Western people have cooled. They’ve forgotten what it was like to love, with loyal passion, one’s family, land, and people.

    Not that I consider nationalism an umixed blessing. I agree with the view that the government takes advantage of contemporary nationalism. For instance, the last time I returned to my ancestral locale, Teochiu, it was war talks all the time. Every dinner with my relatives, as soon as the news start, everyone would hush to hear the latest info on Taiwan. And then afterwards, the table banging would begin, with people making vague and ominous hints at war.

    I think these folks have their priorities entirely mixed up. We should not fight for the Beijing government in a war against other Chinese people. In fact, we doubly shouldn’t do so, because Taiwanese are Hoklo, just like us. Our ancestral ties run deep.

    People are easily persuaded by the government when they neglect their traditions, just as reeds without firm roots are carried by the current.

    Anyway, I’ve written far more than I should. I hope someone will take my views into careful consideration, even if they don’t agree with them.

  20. I usually like reading your blog, but your post comes off as completely apathetic towards the actual disaster. Instead it’s all about you. I suppose lao-wai in China can become rather self-centered, but this was one of the worst posts I’ve read. I can’t believe that your observations on the whole donation process are about how the money donation process is or how you feel left out in the vigil. It’s snarky at best and really not befitting this time period. My comment is coming off as harsh, but I think I’m just shocked at what I feel is more representative of that guy who threw away that restaurant’s address that he promised to send a picture to.

  21. Dana, how is John’s post “snarky”?

    More important, who are you to piously decide what emotions befit this time period? If more Americans had had the courage to raise some uncomfortable questions about war and nationalism after our own disaster on 9/11, we wouldn’t be in this mess right now. Instead, too many of us were shamed into keeping our heads down and “supporting the troops.”

    When it comes to being skeptical about nationalism, there’s no time like the present.

  22. Abstract,

    I’m not going to reply to the full length of your comment, but let me just say that I’m not applying a double standard here. I’m very suspicious of nationalism regardless of the country (and especially under Bush’s reign).

  23. Dana,

    I’m sorry you feel that way, but you’re totally misinterpreting my intent. I don’t need to write an emotional reaction to a tragedy to prove that I’m not apathetic. I’m not “covering” the tragedy or “framing it” like some bloggers might be doing. In this case, I simply wrote two very short, very specific accounts of a few of my personal experiences.

  24. Abstract,


    Even though I don’t consider myself Chinese, my stay in China has irreversibly bound me to the Chinese people through friendship and familial ties.

  25. Abstract Says: May 21, 2008 at 1:13 pm


    That’s very good to hear. I wish there were more expatriates like you.

    By the way, I think your website is very cool.

  26. sorry too that Dana feel that way. I just feel the same as what John explained in his message to Dana. It’s a post that is short, but still quite explicit and sincere.

  27. Abstract, I think your quote is brilliant:

    “Even though I don’t consider myself Chinese, my stay in China has irreversibly bound me to the Chinese people through friendship and familial ties”

    I would be grateful if someone could give a good translation of how to say this in Chinese (Characters please).

  28. Abstract Says: May 21, 2008 at 3:11 pm


    The translation is:



    Actually, this isn’t an exact translation. And it sounds a little bookish.


    自我認同/自我认同 = self-identification (I didn’t use that word in the translation.)
    不解緣/不解缘 = lit. karmic conditions which cannot be untied (You can have a bujieyuan with a person, a country, or even a hobby.)

    Any other Chinese speaker want to help out?

  29. Dana – Seems like some people posting comments in the past few days expect John to be running a full blown news service here. That’s just WEIRD to be. It’s a blog, do you know what that means? It is more often than not about one’s self, for goodness sake it’s not a nationally syndicated newspaper column. Must someone be a shining example of humanity to write up random experiences on their own paid hosting?

    Abstract – I see where you are coming from a little bit. Given my negative feelings toward China, I was searching for something to tell me that Chinese in Canada have the same issues and frustrations I do. I read a book 活在多伦多 and found I couldn’t relate at all to anything negative the Chinese man said about immigrating to Canada he said. They were a result of his own distance from Canada and inability with Engilsh, while in China my misery is caused by resenting exactly the opposite — not being allow to participate, and being treated (or should I say ignored) by coworkers as an alien from another planet. Do you really think going from China to Canada is analogous to the reverse direction? I once hoped it would be, but I’m pretty sure it’s very much not.

  30. Seektruthfromfacts Says: May 21, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    @Abstract: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Please know that at least one person will take your views into careful consideration. I agree with a lot of what you have written. However, I am puzzled by the keystone of your argument:

    “Notice that I don’t say that the expatriate cannot become Chinese. In fact, he can. Chinese society practises cultural nationalism, like the French and the Americans. Anyone can become Chinese.”

    Could you please explain what you mean? I would argue that the opposite is true – that it is impossible for someone who does not have ethnic Chinese ancestry to become Chinese. Legally, the authorities will not grant naturalization. The test case is Hong Kong 1997 – people who were not ethnic Chinese were refused Chinese nationality, even though this left some of them stateless, and even though a plain reading of the PRC Nationality Law required it. It is also a cultural fact, which helps to explain why Chinese nationalism is unchallenged.

    Although Canada had a shameful period of racial discrimination, for many years Chinese people have been as welcome as people from any other ethnic group. In fact, Canada’s last Governor-General (the head of state for day-to-day purposes) was Adrienne Clarkson, an ethnic Chinese born in Hong Kong. You will know better than me, but I suspect most people in Vancouver assumed that you would integrate into Canadian society, settle down and became Canadian.

    Chinese society, by contrast, still discriminates by race. Can you imagine a white person born in Vancouver becoming President of the People’s Republic? In fact, can any reader name a single person of white, black or Arab ancestry who has become mainland Chinese since 1949? Norman Bethune was a Canadian who did much for New China, but there was no question of either him or George Hatem/Ma Haide becoming Chinese. (Contrast Gladys Aylward/Ai Weide, another humanitarian worker who could and did naturalize under Minguo laws.)

    If expatriates are frustrated at being unable to be Chinese, but still remain here, doesn’t this actually show their concern for, and commitment to, China? The Chinese people will not allow them to show the same commitment to China that you have to Canada. Of course, some expatriates care only about money or women, but isn’t it a tragedy that some have an unrequited love for China?

    This cultural fact may contribute to some of the characteristic features of Chinese nationalism. A significant immigrant group might encourage Chinese nationalists to define themselves in term of universal values that immigrants could subscribe to, rather than pseudo-Darwinian ideas of ethnic superiority (compare, for example, Australia’s recent document redefining ‘Australian-ness’ in the light of multiracial immigration). It would also make it more difficult to argue that “Westerners do not understand China”, since it would appear obvious to all that this was a journey that could be made.

    Abstract, I look forward to reading your response.

  31. […] are a couple of interesting posts from Sinosplice.  This one about the candlelit vigil moved me.  And this one about how much donation was appropriate in a company was an interesting […]

  32. […] are a couple of interesting posts from Sinosplice.  This one about the candlelit vigil moved me.  And this one about how much donation was appropriate in a company was an interesting […]

  33. Abstract Says: May 22, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Hey, John, I posted a response to Seektruthfromfacts sometime ago. But for some reason, it has disappeared. I think there’s a glitch in your blog.

  34. @Dana

    I don’t think your assessment of John’s post is accurate. Just because he is covering the reaction to the disaster instead of the disaster itself doesn’t imply he has no feelings towards the disaster. There has already been much written online about the tragedy itself, and I think we all feel for those who are suffering and have died in Sichuan. Personally, I think it would have been more self-centered had he just written about the disaster and his own feelings towards it.

    Additionally, by covering this event in Shanghai, John is giving us primary information about a particular happening. This has much more journalistic worth than relating to us his feelings about an event which he did not see in person.

    @ Pete Braden

    If more Americans had had the courage to raise some uncomfortable questions about war and nationalism after our own disaster on 9/11, we wouldn’t be in this mess right now. Instead, too many of us were shamed into keeping our heads down and “supporting the troops.”

    This is so, so, so true. What does “supporting our troops” really mean? Does anybody know? What if I don’t support our troops? What happens then? One thing I know is that many people will be offended and call me unpatriotic. Very often nationalism is a tool used by governments to prevent us from asking the very questions which truly need to be asked.

  35. One more point I’d like to add to the discussion…when comparing “becoming Canadian” and “becoming Chinese” it is imperative to consider that Canada is a nation of immigrants, China, with a few small exceptions, is not. In North America, our entire societies were founded on absorbing immigrants. In many areas of China, the same clans have lived on their land for thousands of years. Because of this, I think it is much, much, easier to “become” Canadian than to “become” Chinese, since by definition, a Canadian is somebody of mixed ancestry.

  36. @ Ben Ross- You got it. Thanks. I would add that many of us support and care for the troops themselves. But not the civilians who sent them off to die. Contra Dante, the hottest place in Hell is for chicken-hawks, whether they’re draft dodgers who become President, or pudgy Chinese bellowing for war with Taiwan from the comfort of their KTV booths.

    For everyone else, I recommend Nick Kristof’s piece in today’s Times. He talks about how much more theatrical and camera-ready this generation of Chinese leaders is. He sees this as a hopeful sign of a trend toward democracy. To me, it’s just a sign that these guys have finally learned that people will accept all kinds of oppressive, dangerous policies if they’re promoted by smiling, fatherly characters. Score one for the spin-doctors.

  37. […] flames of nationalism or a state expanding its power like America post 9/11 as Will suggested and John seems to have implied (the nationalism bit).  Those flames were already burning bright when the earthquake ripped through the hearts of people […]

  38. I am no fan of nationalism, and have a healthy concern about “patriotism” as well. I suspect it is human nature to fall into a feeling of solidarity with those we feel a connection to in times of difficulty, fear and pain.

    I fail to see how flag waving helps the grieving process. And the way it feels the flames of nationalism always concerns me.
    But, I do think about this:

    The Sichuan earthquake is 17 American 9/11’s in terms of death rate. Seventeen!
    The impact of that kind of loss is profound.

  39. Abstract Says: May 25, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Hey Michael Max,

    I read on your website that you are translating Chinese medical texts into English. I’m doing similar work (I’ll probably send you an email about it when I have time). Maybe we can collaborate.

    Anyway, keep up the good work.

  40. Michael Max,

    Just in case my original post didn’t make it clear enough, let me say that I agree with you completely.

    I actually considered bringing up 9/11 in the original post, but didn’t because natural disasters and human attacks are apples and oranges, even if they both result in death.

  41. Abstract Says: May 25, 2008 at 2:07 pm


    I tried posting my reponse to your post several days ago. Unfortunately, WordPress bans all weblinks. I did not realise this until just now. Therefore, I encountered the strangest phenomenon, where all my other posts go through, except that addressed to you.

    If you’re still interested, please go to my temporary “bulletin-board” at http://www dot xanga dot com/FreeAbstraction

    Are you in China right now? In any case, I pray that you meet good and hospitable folks wherever you go.

  42. Seektruthfromfacts Says: May 26, 2008 at 12:30 am

    @Abstract: Many, many Chinese people have made me welcome in all kinds of ways. I find “no thank you” is sometimes the most useful phrase in Chinese languages, or the visitor can be overwhelmed with dishes and gifts 🙂

    I am certainly interested in reading your response, but in this location, at this point in time, the whole of Xanga is behind the GFW. That might change if we wait for a few days. Alternatively, I notice that Henning and Pete Braden included weblinks in their comments. Is it possible that your comment has so many weblinks that it triggers a spam filter?

  43. Abstract Says: May 31, 2008 at 4:23 am


    Previously, I did not see your comment. Therefore, I neglected to answer your question. I don’t know if you’ll still read this, but I hope some information helps others as well.

    Chinese people who go to other countries do so to earn money. They don’t care whether they can participate in local cultural events. (There are exceptions. I know a few Chinese people who moved to the West because they were enamoured of its customs and lifestyle.)

    On the other hand, most Westerners who go to China do so to participate in an exotic culture. They want to blend in and be a part of everything. That’s why sometimes they are disappointed when this doesn’t happen.

    It is certainly possible for expatriates to enjoy China. My family’s social circle has several intermarriages between Chinese and Westerners. I notice that those Westerners who end up having a good time are always those who are constantly surrounded by Chinese friends and family members. (Even when they are back in Vancouver, they are always hanging out with Chinese people.)

    1. This might sound a bit glib – but I think being pro-active in making friends is a big factor in enjoying China. Another thing you might want to do is to pair up with an Overseas Chinese friend the next time you go to China.

    2. Yet another thing you could do so spend sometime in Hong Kong first. There, at minimum, you have lots of Western compatriots at Lan Kwei Fong and Wan Chai. But it’s also probably easier there to make friends with Hong Kong Chinese people.

    Many of my Western friends, and some of my Overseas Chinese friends, tell me they like Hong Kong a lot better than the mainland. It’s a more open and more tolerant society. (As well as a society with a longstanding Western presence.)

    An American I once met said that Hong Kong was “Asia-Lite” or “Asia for Dummies.” He meant that Hong Kong was a good stepping stone before experiencing the “Real Asia.” True as that may be, it’s perfectly fine to prefer Hong Kong to Beijing, and for that reason base oneself in Hong Kong.

    1. Another thing is to involve yourself in cultural or spiritual activities, such as calligraphy, go, martial arts, Daoism, alchemy, etc. Actually, with spiritual activities, it’s best to be discerning, because a lot of so-called “masters” are con-artists. But if you come across a real master, then it can be a very worthwhile, or even life-changing opportunity. Plus, you can make friends with your fellow students, because you would have a lot in common to talk about.

    2. There is a more practical reason for studying Asian philosophies and religions. Now, since you are a Westerner, most Asians will always assume that you don’t understand Asia. Therefore, you can’t sit on your ass and expect other people to integrate you. Instead, it is up to you to prove them wrong. You have to surprise them.

    One way to do that is to know more about Chinese culture than Chinese people. Now, most people around the world define themselves by their culture. If you ask a random person what is the difference between Westerners and Chinese people – apart from physical differences, the first thing which would pop into mind is cultural differences. Culture is inseparable from personal identity and national identity.

    As a Westerner, if you don’t know much about Chinese culture, then many people will always regard you as an alien from another planet – entirely unable to participate in Chinese society. Since people prefer familiar things to unfamiliar things, they will therefore ignore you. But if you know Chinese culture through and through, then those same people won’t be able to discredit you right off the bat. Instead, they’ll actually give you a chance and listen to what you have to say.

    Moreover, you’ll gain a lot of respect. You see, most Chinese people don’t know much about their culture. I doubt one in fifty Chinese people has finished even one book out of all the Classics. It is very easy for you to pick up an English translation of the Classics, read them through, and then just look up the important names in an English-Chinese glossary. (The only exception is the Book of Change. You need to read the original Classical Chinese for that one.)

    The same with history, customs, etc. Most Chinese people don’t know much about Chinese culture. But they think they should. And many are ashamed that they don’t know more. As a Chinese person, if you can quote the Classics with ease, people automatically respect you. With a Western person, this respect becomes awe.

    (Of course, in reality, a Westerner could understand Chinese people well, even if he knows nothing about traditional Chinese culture. Conversely, he could also entirely misunderstand China, even if he has memorised the Classics. Experience only favours the mind prepared. But I merely describe how the system works in the above.)

    Chinese people are very proud of their culture. If you pretend that there’s an aspect of Chinese culture on which you want some clarification, you can always find someone who is willing to spend days explaining it to you. He’ll feel very good about himself afterwards. And you’ll have made a new friend (and an entry point to a new social circle).

    1. There are many self-help books on small-talk, making friends, etc. These books really help people. It’s an irony of modern society (both Chinese and Western) that everyone wants more friends, but few people have the guts to make new friends. It’s not enough to “be yourself” – for most people, “be yourself” means acting “cool and aloof” at parties, while inwardly resenting outgoing folks who are having fun.

    I suspect that many expatriates go to China because they desire deeper meaning in their lives. They want to be part of a community. They want intimate friendships. They want life-changing experiences.

    These above are all very good things. But wherever you are in the world, if you don’t seek them pro-actively, you won’t find them. You have to repeat to yourself in front of the mirror: “This week, I’ll find new friends, with whom I can hang out regularly. I’ll brave whatever possible embarassment.”

    I know a Chinese guy who moved to Vancouver when he was thirty. He is fifty now. At first, he spoke no English. Most people in his shoes would go to English class. Either that or hang out only with other Chinese people. But this guy did neither. Instead, whenever he saw or heard a word he didn’t understand, he would ask the nearest person. Neither was he embarassed that when he spoke, no one understood him. Instead, he would keep trying different sentence structures, until someone understood. This was twenty years ago. Now, this guy is as deeply rooted in Vancouver as anyone. If you met him, you would never have guessed that he was an English-as-second-language speaker.

    This is the type of go-getting attitude you need.

    1. While there are differences between Chinese people going to the West, and Western people going to China – there are also similarities and universal experiences. As my mother recounts the story – when she first went to the US, she spoke no English. She stayed in a small-town, where for miles and miles she was the only Asian.

    Eventually, she was adopted by a German-American couple (and therefore I can legitimately say I have American grandparents!). Anyway, my point is, if my mother made it in the small-town US, and the guy above made it in Vancouver, then certainly any Westerner can make it in China.

  44. An interesting conversation here about what it means to be Chinese and how people can or cannot become part of another cultural group.

    A couple things to add to the mix. First, China has never gone through a philosophical phase like Western humanism. There are people here who are universalists, but I find them few and far between. Chinese cultural chauvinism is fairly pervasive. And Western Europe went through a massive revulsion against nationalism in the post-WWII era, while China went in almost the opposite direction. Many people in the world have multiple identities – human, national, local, family, etc., but this global, humanistic identity seems to come from things like knowledge of the outside world and travel… certainly areas in which Europeans are strong while many Americans and Chinese are not.

    Second, Abstract and others made great points about Chinese moving to other countries and how their souls will always be Chinese. For the most part that is true, but there are exceptions. But what about the children of those who emmigrate? I grew up in Canada and most of the 2nd or 3rd generation kids whose parents were Chinese identified far more with Canada than China. Of course there aren’t many cases of foreigners staying in China for more than 10 or 20 years, and though some kids are partly raised here, they spend their school years in international schools and the walled confines of Gubei or Xuhui.

    I’ve married into a Chinese family and though they accept me with love and honesty, I will always remain special, different. That’s it. There’s absolutely nothing I can change about that. A Chinese-Canadian will always be different in the same way, but to a far lesser degree, as in a country of immigrants, one can blend in. I’m sure my ancestors identified with their mother countries when they first came to Canada, but by the 2nd generation there was a clean break, and now (I’m 4th/5th generation Canadian) if I travel to one of the mother countries (I’m a Heinz 57 I suppose) I do so without deep feelings in the heart, but with curiosity.

    John, your original post with perfectly balance. Many of us have had negation reactions to some of the things we’ve seen lately in China, but we should try to remain level-headed. You, as always, are.

  45. Stephanie Says: February 6, 2009 at 8:04 am

    This is exactly the problem with Canada. Instead of people learning English and integrating into the culture, they use ‘multiculturalism’ as an excuse to avoid integration and make demands for accommodation. Only four countries in the world now actively seek immigrants. I can guarantee you if we went to India or China with our culture we would be seen as intruders and colonizers. We should not accommodate immigrants. Now to get a driver’s license you can hire a translator or take a test in nine languages. Canada has two official languages, French and English. That is how it is and how it should stay.

    To want shari’a law with accommodations for separate studies, languages, government services and so on is nothing more than P.C. apartheid. If apartheid was wrong, this is equally wrong. It is a failed social experiment. If people want to practice their own culture amongst their own people exclusively, they can stay where they are. Misaligning culture with race is the problem. Race, religion and culture are separate. A black man from Kenya who speaks Swahili, practices Christianity, is from the Kikuyu tribe and comes from an educated, upper class background in the city has nothing in common with a Somali Muslim from a different tribe and ethnic group who lives on the desert and is illiterate and poor. It would be racist to engage in that type of P.C. generalization.

    This has got to stop. Our immigration policies should demand integration and nationalism. The problem isn’t race, religion or origin or birth but attitude. From the same country one could have either extreme. It makes sense to bring people over who want to live here. Not people who are Canadians of convenience. Throughout history, it has been the immigrant who has to adapt not the other way around. Only historic minorities would get any cultural or linguistic protection but to compare natives in Canada or Jews in Rumania to recent immigrants is lofty and erroneous at best and damaging at worst.

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