It was a recent weekend when Jun and I were browsing university websites, looking through their psychology faculty, when something gave us pause: the listing of faculty nationalities. The university in question — one of China’s top ten — had a table that listed the faculty name, nationality, and department.
It’s quite an oddity, isn’t it? When you think about it, when was the last time you saw a department in, say, the UK or the US touting the nationalities of its own faculty? But, when you closer, there’s nothing odd about it at all. It’s yet another reminder of how China still devalues being Chinese.
It all began with the Opium war in the 1840s, when the British seized Hong Kong, which remained in British hands up until 1997. That was the first time China was so humiliatingly defeated on its own soil. Soon, China was sliced and diced like a poor piece of Beijing duck by the foreign powers who were desperate to capitalize on trading opportunities with the Middle Kingdom, but despising of the harsh and limited legislation which had previously made it difficult for them to get in. Dalian, Tianjin, Shanghai, Xiamen, Hankou, Guangzhou — all, and much more, were conceded to the foreigners by China, which became increasingly fearful of the military might and strategy of the British, French, Russians and other foreign powers. By the time China did finally defeat a foreign power, the Japanese during World War II, for the first time in over a hundred years, there was such a depressingly long list of defeats at the hands of foreigners that somehow the damage had already been done, leaving the Chinese with one conclusion: foreign is better.
Not surprisingly, pretty soon being associated with something foreign meant higher status: getting a foreign degree to learn foreign technology and ideas, wearing expensive foreign fashions, living in a community named “Santa Fe” with foreign-style homes, driving a luxury foreign car. But topping this list has always been that coveted foreign citizenship.
To understand this in action, consider the movie Drifters, about a young Chinese man named Hong from Fujian who was deported from the US to his hometown and . The man fathered a son in the US, but even though the son is back visiting his hometown, he cannot see the son — a son that the grandparents call an “authentic American citizen”. In one scene, the grandparents even claim that the son is protected by American law. They are, in every way, far above the lowly Hong, who is not an American and only but a migrant laborer who failed in his attempt to stay in the US.
It is such a sad state of affairs that Chinese look to passports as a sign of status and value — especially so on this top-ranked university’s website. For them, it was not enough to boast of their faculty’s scholarship and research; they had to show how many Americans were on their staff to lift themselves up, because someone must have inherently thought that, if people considered them all to be Chinese, then surely their department would not have been nearly as good. It isn’t being Chinese or American that makes us better or worse — it’s what we do with our lives that counts.
I look forward to the day when China no longer feels content to look to foreign citizenship, items and ideas for their value, but instead to themselves — to the ingenuity, innovation and leadership that has distinguished China in the past, and bring them to a new and brighter future.