Saturday, May 17, 2008

A personal Chinese American reaction to the earthquake in China

Coming on the heels of Cyclone Nargis's devastation to Myanmar, the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that hit southern China filled me with anxiety. For the people hit, the families affected, and the Chinese throughout the world who wondered as to the safety of their families and friends, yes, but also an anxiety as to the reaction - or lack thereof - of the rest of the world. I worried that no one would care. I worried and believed that Americans in particular would see this as an opportunity to add to their arsenal of anti-Chinese rhetoric. I thought that donations of aid (although not as needed with this more open government than in Myanmar) and even condolence would not come because of anti-Chinese sentiment.

Thankfully, I was proven wrong on all these counts. But is my plummeting faith in the goodness, open-mindedness and even-measuredness of the human race when it comes to putting single-mindedness, ignorance and institutionalized prejudices aside really so surprising?

The sympathies and concerns of the world did come, although mainly from individuals and non-governmental organizations, since the usually common remarks of condolence were notably absent from U.S. leaders; while an admittedly meaningless token when not backed up with genuine action, it's become an expected response to any large-scale tragedy and its absence speaks volumes.
Still, good intentions can easily be premature, distorted and manipulated, or both. Take for example the report from Britain's The Independent that according to international aid org. Save the Children, China has been inundated with requests, offers and applications to adopt newly orphaned children in the last few days. The Chinese government is unlikely to bend to this pressure as they have already been staunching the constant flow of foreign adoptions of Chinese children, but the fact that these offers are being made when parents and children are still being searched for in the rubble... when parents who work in far-away factory towns are scrambling to get back to the countryside to find and hopefully identify their surviving children... when families are still coping with enormous loss, is, quite frankly, incredibly thoughtless. A cynic might comment that it figures that well-off couples in the West would immediately respond to another nation's tragedy in savior's clothing, as if the afflicted nation is incapable or unwilling to cope and care themselves. But it doesn't take a cynic to recognize the absence of both human empathy and reason in such impetuous actions.

I was born in the United States, raised here immersed in a mixture of American and Chinese values. I have never been to China and do not even read, write or speak any dialect of Chinese fluently. And yet the strong bond forged with my grandparents, as well as the millennia of fascinating and remarkable Chinese history, has given me enough pride in my heritage to make me hug it closer; make me more apt to defend it and more likely to sense it as being under attack. To be sure, ever since my elementary school days, I have been wary and critical of anything I could see as preluding a colonialization, imperialistic and assimilationist mindset, but I do not believe that this wariness is misplaced. And I still desire for this reaction to somehow effect change in the rash, impetuous, unthoughtful actions that others take towards China and foreign nations and peoples in general. Is it truly possible for this kind of transformation to occur? If so, can it happen before we destroy one another?

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