Saturday, March 05, 2005

Buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy ride 

I attended English classes in a Chinese school this past week. An ex-pat requested that I come to his class as a teaching aide; to answer questions from the students and prompt English dialogue. I obliged, curious to see a Chinese school. The kids asked many questions, and understood some of my answers. Each class ended with the students singing a song or two for me. Young voices sang English and Chinese songs; one class sang a song with more enthusiasm than any of the others. They started strong, their voices swelled and the sound of the 65 14-year olds singing overflowed the room and poured out the door into the hallway. The emotion was evident in their singing. The teacher yelled into my ear that it was a patriotic song they have to sing often. Trying to remain upright against the onslaught of patriotism, I called to mind the conversations I’ve had with ex-pats in regards to how people here think, their treatment by the government, and the government’s efforts to ensure that school work (busy work) and social programs (Party meetings) are time-consuming enough to allow no free time or free thought. Combined with this evidence of their overwhelming sense of nationalism, I found myself growing angry. Angry at the perceived ruse perpetrated by their government..

Clarity chose this time to break through. Shocked into a rare silence my mouth stopped running and I stood stunned.. "My god," I gasped, "I’ve spent my life hearing garbage similar to what I’m now condemning!"

The school system in China leaves much to be desired. Teaching materials are lacking and old; teachers are paid poorly; often times (especially in rural areas) kids have to quit school and go to work at an early age. The government recognizes and is trying to rectify these problems. However, the teachings themselves are not up for discussion. Teachings, or propaganda, begin in school at an early age (as it should for maximum effectiveness).School books teach of the superiority of Mother China and the Chinese people over the rest of the world. Historical facts are mangled, fabricated and omitted as necessary to support these claims (These historical claims can be hard to swallow if you’re a minority and your school books teach that before being ‘freed’ and incorporated into the fold of Mother China your people [Tibetan, Uyger, Kazak, etc] were suffering and lived worthless lives, and are dirty and ignorant and dangerous. Easier for the Chinese to accept [especially when there is little intermingling], but not pleasant to read if you happen to be one of these minorities). Chairman Mao, a dastardly figure to the rest of the world, is revered and all but proclaimed the second coming (minus the fire and brimstone. Though maybe there is ‘proof’ of that…). Text books are infallible, therefore anything in them is accepted questioningly. Hence my friend’s frustration when dealing with Chinese English teachers ignoring his correction of their grammar, because they choose to believe their faulty texts rather than his lifelong experience.

Overall, it's quite a phenomenon. Common sense and critical thought are overwhelmed by rote memorization and constant reinforcement. The result is a sorry state of affairs and an enormously effective set of blinders against reality.

While the xenophobia and brain washed antics are frustrating, it's hard to hold the individual completely accountable. It's all they've known, all they’ve been taught, so how can they know otherwise? It's sad, that people who drop out of school early are the ones who come across more intelligent. Who are capable of having interesting/intelligent conversations and are capable of critical thought. The rest are functioning automatons.

Now let’s return to the classroom, and me reeling about in a moment of clarity and horror.

A break formed in my fog of illusion, created by a breeze carrying on it the realization that despite all my condescending scorn, I have been subjected to similar treatment my entire life. By the “Greatest Country in the World”-the US of A.

Flashing back to 1982 a vision arose of me reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in first grade. How at 6 years old could I be expected to truly realize what I was saying? That isn’t the expectation. To me the expectation is to begin planting the seed of the country’s greatness. (“One nation, [under God], indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”). Tv shows, cartoons, commercials, movies, news programs, fellow citizens, all voiced unwavering support of the superiority of the USA. The National Anthem is sung, with reverence (much like the song I scornfully listened to in the Chinese classroom) before any major sporting event.

Isn’t that the essence of brainwashing? Grab someone before they are capable of critical thought and pound the same idea into their head until simply out of repetition they believe it to be true?

From day 1 it’s drilled into our heads that ours is the Greatest Nation on Earth (a subjective conclusion as money and power are not everyone’s determinants of success. And this is by no means a permanent state of affairs); that our way of life is the best and only way to live; the rest of the world wants to-and should-live like us (not everyone does, actually); our government is the best; our people are the best; our land is the best; etc, etc, etc. We harangue other countries for their poor press, their unrepresentative governments, their teaching of hatred of the US or whoever, and their suppression of free speech. Often we hear people pontificate that countries of the world need to be just like us.

The result? Defensiveness and anger directed at a person daring to criticize; an inability to cast a truly critical gaze on all things American. But more importantly, it causes a stagnation in possible improvement.

These days it seems taboo to: admit that forcing our way of life on others contradicts condemnation of similar acts by other governments; speak critically or question anything American or god forbid the President; failing to hate the French (or others that don’t support us wholeheartedly) for keeping their noses out of our collective ass (‘Freedom Fries’? What the shit was that?); burn the flag or fail to condemn the action. Failing to avoid these actions earns scorn and anger, and possible threats of physical harm because of your insolence (ask the Dixie Chicks). Our freedoms are guaranteed, but exceptions apply.

I remember my history classes teaching us that Communists are terrible and evil people who tried to force their way of life on the rest of the world. Decades were spent in conflicts aimed to prevent the spread of this evil. Under the guise of stopping the spread of Communism and protecting our way of life we forced other countries to live as we dictated by financial or violent means. The Central American countries could tell many stories about US funded coups and governments we installed for their benefit. The Native Americas that haven’t been exterminated yet must have quite a bit to say about the “American Dream” and their ‘improved’ lot in life after giving up their ‘wrong’ way of life. These events are relegated to relative obscurity because they are past mistakes. Yet the luxury of this sort of dismissal we afford to no other country.

History should not be forgotten, suppressed or ignored; especially if it’s overlooked in embarrassment or because it will pre-empt the validity of our complaints against others. My parents taught me to learn from my mistakes. If mistakes are ignored, how is a lesson learned? No country’s history is unblemished. If other countries’ ‘cleaned up’ histories are condemned, shouldn’t this critical assessment be turned onto the US, the role model for the world? It is bad when defensiveness prevents accurate assessment of problems. Many times it’s hard to get a clear picture of something without stepping back and taking a more unbiased view of the situation. The issues other countries/people have with the US are all too often dismissed without consideration. The fog of superiority prevents introspection. Lately it's become much harder for me to dismiss problems and criticisms from others, especially now that I can see the truths in the comments. Distance has helped provide me with a better perspective.

A change in our government (president) will not fix the problem. The attitude of the nation needs a change. The planet is filled with people. What we do affects others whether we like it (or like to admit it) or not. And yes, we do need the other people on this planet. Our environment is important. Innovation will not always come thru to save us. Technology can not supplant Mother Nature. The planet is not ours to control and we can't control it (what devices have been constructed to ELIMINATE earthquakes, avalanches, floods, rock slides, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, etc?) no matter how effectively we delude ourselves into thinking that we can. An arrogant sense of self clouds our judgment. Analogy: think about that cocky sports figure taunting and thumbing his nose at management, fans, teammates; flaunting his superstar status while breaking the law. What eventually happens? Teammates shun him/her and they get held out of games. They get labeled as a troublemaker and are no longer desired by any team. Eventually skill fades and youth supplants. They are replaced. Or go to jail. Ask the Romans, the Greeks, the Huns, the Khans, etc.

I am not saying the US is terrible. I am not saying that I hate the place. I am just saying that a critical assessment is long overdue. I make no claim to having an uncluttered view. It wasn't until I was out of the country for a while and talked to people from many other countries that my vision cleared a bit. I love the US. I love the life that has been afforded me by it. And I love many Americans. Which is why I am so damn frustrated at the way things are right now. Yes, it is a good country. But it can (should?) be better.

Criticisms of the country, its people and the government aren't anti-American. If they were, we'd still be a part of the United Kingdom. Many of the founding fathers were wealthy; but they were willing to risk their pampered lives to help make a greater country. That’s a good lesson to learn. Rather than constantly reinforcing how great a country the US is and ignoring comments contradictory to this tenet, we need instead to focus on the ideals of the founding fathers and their courage in making an effort to make changes and improve the quality of life for everyone. Thus, making a great country even greater.

My view of life has been rocked many times in the last 2 years. This latest realization, that we have this similarity with China, has once more tossed me about. And it’s helped me to lose some of my defensiveness when talking about the US and gain a better understanding that criticism and change aren’t necessarily bad. Improvement doesn’t come from stagnancy. When the US is defended with comments such as, “if it ain’t broke…,” or, “at least it’s better than (insert country name),” it worries me. Improvement is always possible, but not if problems are ignored and changes are shunted. Sure things may be good, but why not make our country better?

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

"......whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness"


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Name: Corey
Location: Portland, Oregon, United States

I'm on a journey with no destination. The path is constantly changing direction but there are always adventures to be had. "Never" and "always" have left my lexicon.

WWW http:/www.jimspeak.blogspot.com