Letter from Beijing: Torn between China and the west

Was my anger justified, or was it a symptom of nationalism?
April 23, 2014

Relatives of Chinese passengers onboard missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in a prayer room in Beijing © Ng Han Guan/AP/Press Association Images

One night in late March, I opened my Facebook newsfeed to find a string of posts on Flight MH370, the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared en route to Beijing on 8th March. Circulating among many of my Chinese friends was a paragraph from a recent issue of Time magazine, describing the missing passengers and their relatives, who were anxiously waiting for news:

“Many of the passengers were among China’s new middle class and relatively new to the wonders of air travel to foreign lands,” the paragraph read. “Some of their relatives are only a half-step removed from China’s farms and factories. With their sunburned necks and ill-fitting suits, they wandered, lost and exhausted, around the hotel’s grand ballroom, which has been turned into a Malaysia Airlines command center… For weatherbeaten farmers and urban sophisticate alike, it is hard to make sense of the disappearance of MH370.”

I studied these sentences again. I recalled the images of the relatives, banners in hand, demanding information about their loved ones, or, bleary-eyed and resigned, sitting in the corners of hotel lobbies. Two days earlier, they had received a text message from the airline, announcing that the plane had crashed and there were no survivors.

Below the paragraph was a stream of angry comments from Chinese web users. “Those people are not ‘sunburned necks’, not ‘ill-fitting suits’,” one read. “They are parents who lost children, wives who lost husbands, grandparents who lost grandchildren, brothers who lost sisters.” Thank you, I thought. I found myself mumbling these words aloud, while moving the cursor to the “share” button next to the post.

But my finger halted. A thought flashed through my mind: what would my American friends think, seeing me take offence at these words? Was the article truly insensitive, or was I being oversensitive? The paragraph, after all, appeared in a reputable magazine, and was likely written by a seasoned reporter and vetted by scrupulous editors.

I read the paragraph again. Grasping for a measured response, I asked myself a few questions. Would I feel offended if the paragraph had appeared in a Chinese magazine instead of a western one? Would Time ever describe Americans in similar fashion? If it did, would my American peers speak up?

My head spun as I considered these questions. The harder I tried to reach for a clear answer, the deeper I sank. Maybe I was just overanalysing the situation? Although I felt confused, it was a familiar quandry—a kind I have faced repeatedly as I’ve immersed myself in western discourse on China.

In the US, where I studied for seven years, the Chinese are often presented in the media as an angry mob, protesting against perceived slights from foreign countries. The anti-French boycott in 2008 over the disruption of the Olympic torch relay, and the anti-Japanese protests in 2012 over territorial disputes in the East China Sea, both made international headlines. While covering these events for western publications has pushed me to examine Chinese nationalism with more detachment, it has also alienated me from my own feelings.

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours convicted war criminals, in December, I watched my fellow countrymen again rise up with outrage. The same reaction occurred in October when a sketch from American comedian Jimmy Kimmel’s show included the line “kill everyone in China.”

In both cases, I pored over western media reports on how the Chinese had reacted, and I tried to work out how I felt. Was my anger justified, or was it a symptom of nationalism? I felt as if I were staring into a hall of mirrors, scrutinising my reflections from all directions, while restlessly glancing over my shoulder, conscious of how others would judge me.

In the end, after mulling over the Time paragraph for half an hour, I closed my Facebook page and opened Twitter. “Chinese students on Facebook pouring anger over this paragraph on Time magazine about the families of MH370 victims,” I wrote next to a link to the paragraph, cautiously sidestepping any first person pronouns.

The next morning, I opened Twitter with a tickle in my stomach. The message had been retweeted nearly 100 times, mostly by non-Chinese web users. “Is that even necessary, @TIME?” one asked. Another, a Beijing-based correspondent for a western media outlet, gave the offended Chinese students a supportive nod. “Rightly so,” she wrote of their outpouring of rage.

The relief I felt upon reading these comments was tinged with shame. My original response, having been validated by these comments, now only seemed feeble and inauthentic. It is OK to feel angry now, I thought, though I was no longer sure whether to be angry with Time or with myself.