Being an American living in China means never lacking for small talk. During times of peace, conversation tends to be genial. "If I visit Hollywood, where should I stand to see the most movie stars?" is a common query. "Can I really buy a gun at any supermarket in your country?" is another. Recently though, casual conversations have increasingly centered not around movie stars and firearms, but around the increasing belligerence of this writers homeland.
"Are you an American?" asked a construction worker walking along my block with a hammer by his side. Thinking nothing of it, I told him I was.
"You Americans must not think much of us Chinese " he laid into me unexpectedly " to think that we dont see clearly that the goal of your military is to surround China on all sides!" I hadnt heard that kind of talk for a while, not since the summer of 1999, when the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia caused many an American to stay indoors.
The Chinese have a long collective memory of national humiliation that some say simmers just under the surface; given the right spark, these resentments can quickly boil over.
The state media has chosen to not make too much political hay out of the recent shift in American foreign policy from a purely defensive one, to one which specifically states that no nation will ever be allowed to equal the US militarily again. State controlled media, while opposing anything that looks like unilateralism on the part of America vis-à-vis Iraq, has been notably devoid of anything approaching fiery editorial. Part of this restraint is likely due to concessions made by the Bush Administration to the Chinese Government, most notably its support in declaring the separatist East Turkistan Liberation Front a terrorist organization. There is also some talk on the street that backroom deals have been made by which, when the time comes, China would look the other way on the Iraq issue in exchange for a similar nod from America on the Taiwan issue, but such talk is mere speculation. If the powers that be in the CCP have any such cards up their collective sleeves, they arent telling.
Nonetheless, the meaning of the shift in US policy is a hot topic among the politically savvy Beijing public. "Bushs speech was clearly aimed at China" one taxi driver told me during a crawl through rush hour traffic. "We Chinese have a saying sha ji, ching ho. (Kill the chicken to frighten the monkey.) Iraq is the chicken, and China, the monkey. Dont think we dont see this." One of the aunties who lives in my building believes me to be a conduit to the White House. "Why does your George Bush still want to attack Iraq? Doesnt he know how bad war is?" she told me last week. "Tell him that I have lived through war, and its terrible." I promised to pass her message along should the opportunity arise.
Beijing also has a large Muslim population, made up mostly of Uighurs from Chinas western Xinjiang province. While Id expected that comments from these people would be among the most vitriolic, Ive been surprised at how measured reaction from those Ive spoken to has actually been. "I dont confuse ‘Americans’ with the American government" said a woman surnamed Chuan, who sells Halal food in a residential Beijing neighborhood. "Attacking Iraq Attacking anybody, is wrong. But I dont think that American people really have any real say in the matter. I have heard that many Americans are against it, but in the end, the government will do what it wants." In a conversation I had with some of the Uighurs who sell Niangao (a glutinous Xinjiangese fruitcake) in front of the local mosque, I was told bluntly "America is wrong to attack Iraq, and, Inshaallah, America will not succeed. But as I have no say in this (Chinas) government, so are you not responsible for Americas sins."
By far the most telling conversation Ive had recently about the potential upcoming war was not with a Chinese at all, but with a western-looking woman I bumped into while shopping. Mariam spoke English with no discernable accent, causing me to assume that she was from North America. When she asked me where I was from, I answered "New York City." When I found out that she was from Baghdad, I was surprised. I was even more surprised when, far from expressing anger towards America, she instead asked me if Id lost anyone at the World Trade Center.
"When 9/11 happened, I just cried and cried" she told me "I could only think of all the innocent people killed, and all of the husbands, wives and children who would never see their loved ones again."
This was a far cry from what Id been led to believe was a common sentiment in the Arab world, that the attacks might have been some kind of Karmic retribution. When asked if some Iraqis might have felt this way, she seemed genuinely taken aback. "Iraqis have suffered tremendously as a result of the Gulf War and the decade of sanctions that followed," she said. "But I can assure you that few Iraqi people saw the 9/11 attacks for anything other than what they were a tragic, senseless loss of life. Nobody who has suffered as the Iraqi people have could feel anything but pain watching the same inflicted upon other innocent people."
I asked her how she felt Americans themselves were viewed in her country, and her sentiments were roughly the same as those Id heard from Chinese Muslims. But living with the benefits afforded by her "foreign" status unfettered media access chief among them Mariam was less inclined to let the American people (to say nothing of the American media) off the hook so easily:
"As I said, I cried when I saw the coverage of this tragedy on CNN. Later, I wondered why I saw no coverage in the western media on the continued suffering of people in Palestine and Iraq. It made me think, as I think many in the Muslim world think, that in the eyes of the west, Muslim lives are less valuable, Muslim suffering is less tragic than your own. Americans must understand that the pain they felt after 9/11 is no different from the pain felt throughout the Arab world every day."
I went looking for an answer to the question "How do they look at us?" What I found was that the answer to this depends largely on that of another: How do they think we look at them?