Saturday, March 21, 2009

Fallows on China

Speechwriters aren't necessarily good orators.

But former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, James Fallows, was a delight to listen to on Thursday when he gave a talk to promote his book, Postcards from Tomorrow Square, a collection of his articles written for The Atlantic Monthly.

The end of his three-year stint in China is almost over and it's made him reflect on how China has changed his sense of himself and the world.

His conclusion: Why do I generally have a positive attitude about China when it drives me crazy everyday?

We all laughed and nodded in unison.

"I have a 90 percent hatred of daily China... like being a pedestrian. It makes me want to take an uzi."

His first introduction to China was at Harvard in 1966 sitting in John K Fairbank's class in which he basically said: "We know something is happening but we're not sure what it is."

This was just when the Cultural Revolution was breaking out.

And from there Fallows studied in the UK where he became interested in nationalism, especially about the United States relative to the world.

He lived in Japan in the 1980s where he saw the boom and then stagnation of the economy. He's seeing it again in China, but with different factors and circumstances, making China's economic slowdown a totally different story.

But possibly what he loves most about China is its excess humanity. "I'm not talking about the size of the population, but the overflowing humanity."

He illustrates his point by describing a recent dinner he had a Sichuan restaurant with his wife and friend.

And while they were eating, in the back of the restaurant the kitchen staff were having a fork fight, throwing the utensils at each other. "You'd never see that in Japan," he said with a smile.

Fallows observes that with it comes to the US, many Chinese are very admiring of many things American, but at the same time, the Chinese can be resentful because they have thin skins and have inaccurate views of the US through the TV shows and movies they watch.

"Chinese readers know enough English to misunderstand what I write," he says of his witty columns and blogs that are known for their subtle humour.

At the same time the longer Fallows is away from the US, the more he feels it is self-indulgent, decadent in certain ways, but also very inclusive and has a feeling of self-renewal, especially with Barack Obama voted into office.

Fallows packs up his bags in July and is madly writing and interviewing before he goes.

Hopefully he has helped more Americans understand China from here, and how he says we shouldn't fear it, but become more aware of it and include it as part of our understanding of the world.

No comments: