“Wow, you’re like a celebrity!” he exclaimed. “I want to shake your hand!”
As a foreigner in China, I’d felt “almost famous” hundreds of times. Chinese have surrounded me in curiosity, asked for my photograph, and grilled me with the tenacity of a tabloid news outlet.
Except, this time, I wasn’t the “celebrity” — my husband was, in a Wal-Mart in Eastern Idaho, when a man discovered he was from China.
“Oh, how I love the East!” the man declared, with the kind of passion that made me wonder if a “Red State,” like Idaho, had an entirely different meaning. This man, a strapping six feet plus with steely blue eyes and a stubbly salt-and-pepper ‘do, looked more like the type of guy who would rail on China for the lead in his kids’ toys, or for stealing away American jobs.
“You know, this is the first time anyone has ever thought of my husband like this,” I confessed to him, and he looked genuinely surprised. He spoke of China’s rich kungfu tradition, its golden ages during the Tang and Song Dynasties, and even the language itself, sharing a few words he’d learned from children’s show called Ni Hao, Kai-lan. It was as if suddenly we existed in some alternate universe of the US, in a corner of Wal-Mart, where everyone revered the Chinese.
But once we said farewell, and paid for our groceries, we stepped out into the biting winds of the Snake River Plains, and the biting reality.
The next day, I’d turn on the radio to hear more about China manipulating its currency, and China’s trade imbalance with the US. I’d remember how our university cut the Chinese language program, and that my husband’s classmate even refused to buy anything made in China.
But then I saw it, after my aerobics class — one of the doors decorated for our homecoming week, with its theme of the year of the Tiger, painted with the Chinese characters “虎” for tiger and “胜利” for victory. And I smiled, knowing that even a Red State that criticizes China has a little Eastern Red buried in there, somewhere.
Have you ever been surprised — or not surprised — by the attitudes towards China in the West?
(P.S.: this entry is dedicated, with love, to Claudia.)