It is a truth universally acknowledged, that practically the second you become an expat you find yourself cultivating new attitudes towards your homeland. This can happen in a lot of different ways. Sometimes the changes are pretty subtle -- just a slightly altered set of emphases on the things, positive and negative, that you consider important about your country. Decent ice cream, say, or an insufficiency of municipal parks. But sometimes the changes are more drastic. Ferocious critics of the way the home store is run suddenly find themselves lobbing mortars in the other direction. Doves get hawkish. All kinds of stuff starts to sound different when it comes from people who grew up singing a different national anthem.
This thought occurred to me during my English lesson yesterday. In a review of the word "powerful" and the different ways it could be used, I found myself discussing the idea behind the word "superpower" and its various implications. It was all rather over my students' heads (hey, they just turned eight last month), but sometimes I like to talk to them about things they can't possibly understand. Just occasionally. You never know what will stay with them, after all.
So, I told them that America was, for a time, the world's sole remaining superpower (they liked hearing this, as they are very pro-America), but that China was also a rising superpower (naturally, they liked that too). Then I mentioned the Cold War and invited them to guess who the other superpower had been. I thought they might know the answer, actually -- might have heard their parents or grandparents talking about it, perhaps -- but in any case I have noticed that when they don't know something they like to guess. What I wasn't prepared for, though, was one of the first guesses: France.
Actually, what I should say is, I wasn't prepared for my reaction to the idea that France might have been the Other Great Superpower, the US's rival in the Cold War. I mean, "derisive laughter" doesn't begin to describe it. I just hooted.
See, the thing is, back home, I don't make fun of the French. I mean NEVER. It would break my Proust-reading, Paris-map-memorizing parents' hearts. But this time I laughed so hard I almost fell over. I was wiping the tears from my eyes. I felt so American -- so classically "freedom-fry"-eating, flag-waving, SUV-driving American -- I had to resist the urge to rush to a mirror to see if I looked any different. (People over here often ask if I am French, English or Russian and even quite frequently if I am Chinese -- I suppose they must think I am one of the Turkic minorities or something -- and they are always astonished to find I am American. "You don't look American," they say.)
I clearly remember the first time this sort of expat Americanization happened to me. It was during my last sojourn in China, right after college, and it was much more dramatic and sobering. Bill Clinton was President then and the US was riding high. But I knew that we still had plenty of critics. I was one myself. And so I wasn't too surprised when a grad student at the university where I taught began to voice anti-American views. One day, though, he stepped over the line. He told me that if he were President of China he would order an air raid on some random US cities, just to give us a taste of our own medicine.
"Well, that's awfully civilized of you," I said. "Very mature."
"Yes, that's right, that's your civilization. You boss everyone else around. You should see what it's like on the other end."
Being told that the US is bossy and overbearing (which is actually a fairly polite description) didn't really bother me. What bothered me was my interlocutor's phenomenal, staggering refusal to think rationally or argue fairly. After all, I wasn't the one proposing to bomb random cities. He was. It wasn't my civilization; it was his twisted, childish thinking. And while I was ready to engage in a real discussion of the complexities that inevitably attend the conceptualization and prosecution of any foreign policy in a geopolitically interdependent world, this grad student didn't even know what real discussion was. I guess that was really the scary part. He was a grad student at an excellent university, and he didn't even understand how far from the rational he had strayed; he had no concept of rational thought in the first place.
So, perhaps it's not surprising that I snapped. But what is surprising -- what surprised me at the time, anyway -- is the way I did it. Without warning, I switched from Chinese to English and said, coolly, "You want to take on the US? Good luck." The chilly arrogance in my tone startled even me. It was as if some brooding external force had been lying in wait and seized the moment to transform me from an individual person, a liberally-educated citizen of the world, into a living epitome of American power and American will.
Then the moment passed, and things shook themselves right again. Or almost right. I did lose contact with that particular grad student, though we had once been very close. I also developed a keener sensitivity to the national chauvinism that seemed to be becoming endemic among China's young people. Then I went home and startled all my friends with my endless complaints about China: how rude and unfeeling people could be, how ruthless in their pursuit of personal advantage, and, most of all, how determined to regard world culture in a competitive context, as if it were a contest they felt entitled to win and injured at having to entertain any doubts about. You're a rising modern power built on a five-thousand-year-old civilization, I wanted to shout. You have nothing to prove! But I never said it, or not to the right people, anyway.
Things have been very different on this trip. After eight years of the galactically unpopular Bush administration, I had dreaded playing the part of the American abroad, but I should have known better. We're too easy a target now. Bashing us is no fun anymore. Besides, now China is the one to be riding high. If it's a competition, China won it -- she's got the Olympic gold to prove it. If it's a question of personal advantage, well, there's nothing like the threat of a global depression to shift one's perspectives. We're all in a ditch; no one has the advantage now.
But of course now things are changing once again. As I sit here gazing out my window at the bright moon hanging over Beijing, I think about the coming inauguration of Barack Obama and the renewal of America. Of course, I don't know what this renewal will mean or what shape it will take. No one does. But the prospect makes me think of a strange question one of my students raised in our lesson yesterday. When I said that China was becoming a superpower, my tone must have left room for some doubt about whether I meant to say China would take America's place on the world stage, or merely join her there. I can still see my student's great, big, anxious eyes fixed on me: "China and America, right? China and America?"
As I said, I don't know what will happen. No one does. But, as I listened to the implications behind my student's question, one certainty suddenly shot through me. A lot of people have been suggesting certain parallels between Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy. Maybe they're valid, maybe not. But here's the thing. I don't know what kinds of dangers will prompt President Barack Obama to dispatch aides in the middle of the night to seek audience with heads of state in foreign lands -- maybe to France, maybe to China. I"m just pretty sure there will be such perils. And, for the first time in a long while, I think there's a good chance that those heads of state will find it reasonable to say, as once before, "I don't need to see pictures. I trust the word of the President of the United States."
"That's right," I assured her. "China and America. Both of us."