ZHENG: Y degrees of separation

Propergandist
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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

As readers of this column might know, I write often on China, and I’m not exactly happy with a lot of the things that are going on back home. Doing so puts me in a rather awkward spot: To my peers in China, I’m criticizing my own country in a foreign place, to a foreign audience and in a foreign language. In other words, I’m a sellout.

Xiuyi Zheng_Opinion PortraitWhile my suitemates have taken full advantage of the opportunity to make jokes about the Chinese government blacklisting me (though the authorities haven’t notified me yet), I often find myself wondering what I’m accomplishing with my writings about China, especially in the context of a campus newspaper.

There is an obvious answer: International students like me can provide a unique inside perspective on what’s happening in our respective countries. That’s one of the reasons that we’re here, and what motivated me to write columns in the first place.

For me, writing in English and for the Yale audience has been a liberating experience. One thing is for sure: I would not be comfortable writing these articles in Chinese. My dad once suggested that I translate my pieces and publish them online. I stared at him as if he had gone mad. Censorship is only half the problem — with it comes the culture of the “silent majority” that rewards reticence and deference to authority, even if that silence is maintained only on a superficial level.

Despite the voice I have gained through my writings, my ability to bridge the gap between the two countries has been limited. First of all, the language I use and the audience I face have colored my perspective. Certain words and phrases carry with them pre-established connotations and elicit well-conditioned emotional responses. Concepts such as “democracy” and “academic freedom” may be widely accepted in the U.S., but when translated into Chinese, they often lead to raised eyebrows and the disparaging label of “meifen” (pro-American liberal).

Moreover, away from home, my understanding of current events in China has been limited by the information that I have access to, consisting mainly of online sources — many of which are western media reports — and anecdotal evidence from friends and relatives back home. Having been in America since I graduated high school, I lack the common experience of living in China as an adult. As a result, I feel increasingly separated from the day-to-day life of the average Chinese 22 year old. I can comprehend his preoccupations, desires and frustrations, but it is difficult for me to step into his shoes.

I’m not worried about being a sellout to my country or to any entity, as long as I am spelling out my convictions and representing accurately what I believe to be the truth. Yet what I am worried about is the possibility that I will gradually lose my “Chineseness,” or at least the ability to identify with what it means to be a young person in China today. When I am criticizing a new government policy or a certain social phenomenon, I hope that I am not doing so on the basis of a few New York Times articles, but because I know who the victims are in those cases and I can feel their pain.

In the four years that we spend in New Haven as Yale students, we experience rapid, even transformational growth both intellectually and emotionally. For international students, this change may be even more profound, given that we must adjust to a brand new social and cultural environment. As we contribute to the university’s diversity, we also inevitably become more Yale-ized and Americanized.

This is far from a bad thing — I would not have written this column four years ago — and it is a natural consequence of receiving a college education in the U.S. However, with the empowerment that comes from looking beyond the borders of one’s own country also comes the risk of losing touch with one’s roots.

I’m not selling out on my country by pointing out her flaws. To criticize is infinitely better than to help maintain a false façade of tranquility. However, regardless of where I am, who I’m talking to and which language I’m using, it is vital that I retain a sense of who I’m speaking for.

Xiuyi Zheng is a senior in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at xiuyi.zheng@yale.edu.

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