Alex Massie

How America is just like China...

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James Fallows has a very interesting post about what it's like to be a foreigner in China, in which he writes:

I think I now can explain why, despite the pollution and congestion and overall ceaseless hassle of big-city life in China, I always tell friends or visitors that I "like" Chinese people in general.

The reason is that, most of the time, people in China treat me as ... a person.

Not always and in every circumstance as a foreigner, though I obviously am that. I hear the Chinese words for "look, a foreigner!" and feel the general ripple of outsiderness much less often than I hear or sense the counterparts in (richer and more sophisticated) Japan. In some rural areas, my wife and I have been the first foreigners that locals had ever seen in person. They were interested but got over it.

What I find interesting about this is that it's pretty much how I felt about being a foreigner in the United States.(Obviously my experience in the US was atypical, but...)

Yes, I would explain to sceptical friends in Britain that I "liked" Americans in general and that, though strikingly different in some particular ways, they really weren't the alien species you might imagine them to be if you merely listened to or read the grosser elements of the British media. Even these "neo-conservatives" or, less frequently, these "libertarians" were not always, necessarily, or automatically candidates for the loony-bin. Nor too were those Americans who, for reasons best known unto themselves and their maker, believed in God, figures who merited only condescension and ridicule. There was, contrary to rumour, life in Flyover Country. These people may be, by our way of thinking, odd but that don't mean they're merely there to be patronised.

And, generally speaking, I never felt that I, as an obvious foreigner, was often there to be patronised either. For sure, location, as the estate agents say (realtors in Americanski), matters, but in my experience folk in small-town and rural America were interested in one's presence but soon got over the idea that there was a foreigner in town. They were pleased to see you, for sure, but it didn't make or validate their day that you were there. And why should it? It would be terrible if it did.

There were moments in which I stuck out and doubtless, in my outsider's zeal, pressed the matter too hard, straining my knowledge of, for instance college football (Go Blue!), too far. But what remains with me is the easy acceptance, the idea that anyone could be welcome at as American-as-apple-pie institution as the pre-game, RVing tailgate. You're from Scotland? Great. Now have some ribs. How much will Michigan beat the spread by today. Remember, we're playing Penn State... I could have been from New York City, where college football is a foreign sport...

In fact, the only town in the United States where this ever seemed an issue was Washington DC itself. You would be mistaken if you thought that the Capital of the Free World and its inhabitants would be above such concerns. Perhaps it is for many foreigners. All I can say is that I was surprised by the number of occasions in which, even in this city well-stocked with professional and other, more permanent, immigrants, the idea that one was from Scotland occasioned a degree of incomprehension. Usually it would go something like this:

"So you're a journalist? And you write for a Scottish paper?"

"Er, yes."

"So what do you write about?"

"Well, this is Washington so I tend to write about American politics..."

"You mean people in Scotland are interested in what happens here?"

"Um, some of them are. Sometimes anyway."

"So you write about Nancy Pelosi?"

"When I have to, yes. But mainly about the White House and the next presidential election. Folk back home have this quaint notion that it sort of matters to all of us - whether we be Americans or not - who the next President of the United States is. Plus, you know, you have to love the circus: it's P.T. Barnum does politics..."


In that respect, DC was the most provincial place in America. New York City, of course, was very different. There, one sometimes felt it was required to be a foreigner to fit in with the ceaseless ebb and flow of city life. Most importantly - and most refreshingly - nobody gave a damn where you were from or what you had done before. All that mattered - and perhaps this is a foreigner's fancy - was what you were planning to do once you were in the United States and, more specifically, New York City. New York, in that respect, offered a blissful anonymity. Nobody, it seemed, is really an outsider in New York City. That, of course, is one explanation for the thrill of the city. It's a place for reinvention just as, I suspect, Beijing or Shanghai must be to thousands, perhaps millions, of Chinese.

And in one respect New York is America writ small: it is a self-contained unit, large enough and sufficiently confident in itself and its culture as to be able to absorb or, if it chooses, ignore any outside influence. Paradoxically it is an open yet hermetic society. That's its genius. Even today, at its best it is too busy with the business of being New York - or, to extrapolate, America - to worry too much about anything else. In much the same fashion, I imagine China is too busy being China (On the March!) to worry too much about anyone who isn't Chinese, let alone what they might think of China... In this sense, size - and a communal sense of improvement - matter. This can be refreshing, liberating stuff for the outsider.

Foreigners often mock Americans for their ignorance of the world outside their borders while forgetting just how vast those borders are. We forget  - or choose to ignore - that even in this homogenised age there's something startlingly different about New Hampshire and New Mexico, Wisconsin and Louisiana. We forget that you can travel across  - and through - cultures while remaining on US territory. And we forget that the American people have, by and large, a startling capacity for generosity, hospitality and, if it comes to this, forgiving you the mistakes you made in your previous, non-American life.

If all goes well, hopefully we may one day be able to say something similar about China.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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