Clash of Cultures

Bryan Michael Galvan

EXPERIENCING the Lunar New Year in China is always a memorable event, but this year’s spectacle was amplified through multiple glasses of baijiu and a bombardment of unsavory news from abroad.
During the Chinese New Year, which started on January 28, hundreds of millions of citizens drained out of top-tier cities such as Beijing to seek the embrace of their hometown family and friends.
For the first time, I was welcomed into the fold of a Chinese family. The experience was marked by daily visits to other family members’ homes, banquets and frequent toasts of strong liquor, to my approval, both at lunch and dinner.
Confucian values were embedded in every action, in expressions of filial piety, and as older family members watched over and guided the younger generation sitting across the dining table.
And despite my woefully scant understanding of the Chinese language, the family treated me—an American expat—as one of their own.
Still, in the background, I couldn’t help but see the sharp contrast between my experience and the recent announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump to ban travel to the country from seven Muslim-majority countries.
As the week unfolded, reports came in of protests and even riots breaking out in the United States. From my armchair view of the events, the most striking aspect was how U.S. society is increasingly becoming more insular and polarized.
The trend has become magnified through U.S. media and authorities, which understand how confirmation bias affects their audience. The trend is being exploited to propagate belief of certain narratives among members of any target social group. Take for example, U.S. Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, who defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s statement about the number of people attending Trump’s inauguration. During an interview on January 22, Conway was asked to explain why Spicer had “utter[ed] a provable falsehood,” to which she stated that the press secretary was giving “alternative facts.”
As a new “post-truth” world is dawning, the lines between those playing to satisfy their base and those seeking facts will only become more entrenched.
Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov outlined the stakes when he posted on social media last year on December 13 that “the point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
The juxtaposition of the atmosphere of fear and loathing in the United States with my participation in an event celebrating core values of tradition, tolerance and inclusivity was tough to digest.
Journalist Dan Rather explains that the United States is experiencing abnormal times. Despite the media’s role in the matter, in a social media post on January 22, Rather asserted that facts and truth are not partisan. “They are the bedrock of our democracy. And you are either with them, with us, with our Constitution, our history, and the future of our nation, or you are against it [sic]. Everyone must answer that question.”
Faced with such a question, one wonders if the American dream is disintegrating from within. With “alternative facts” standing as a euphemism for a different point of view, what happens when intolerance of another person’s intolerance leads to conflict on a national scale?
As I wrapped up my weeklong encounter with Chinese culture while nursing a hangover and racing along on a 300-km-per-hour train to Beijing, I understood that China itself is flawed on a number of levels. But then, which country isn’t?
One lesson I learned during my trip, though, was the value of kindness and acceptance. These universal values transcended my fumbling attempts to communicate—at one point I told my hosts that I wanted to wash my feet while pointing at my hands.
Regardless of the outcome, people are resilient to adversity. As the Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius once said, “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” Courtesy: Beijing Review.
— [The author is an American living in Beijing yanwei@bjreview.com]

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