Ke Huang

On the Beautiful Country

"I'm from Mei Guo," the literal meaning of the word is Beautiful Country, the way Mandarin speakers call America. As a female from the Middle Country a.k.a. Zhong Guo a.k.a. China who grew in southwest Europe but went to college in the States, I knew the answer I gave to the greying taxi driver simplified my background but it would suffice. He was to take me from Pudong International Airport to my relative's house where I would stay for three weeks. As he loaded my large suitcase in his dusty slate-colored trunk, I watched him to ensure that he would not break the presents my case had inside. He dropped the red travel bag like a bouncy ball, shut the trunk and sped to the passenger seat.

As his lime-colored vehicle left behind Shanghai's futuristic curvy white airport, I regretted for having given an edited answer and wished I had taken Joyce's thick Ulysses off my luggage and was reading it to avoid answering the bombardment of questions.

Seeing the misty sky (only later would I realize it was really smog), he started in his flat local accent: "Is it true that in Mei Guo the sky is blue?" "How long did you live there?" "Were you born there?" "How can you still speak Mandarin?" I knew that it was too late to add that I was really from Portugal so I debated whether I should honestly answer his questions or reinforce his notion that America is the land of the sublime. Since I started with a semi-fabrication, I would make up that answer with a meticulous response: "Mei Guo is a large country and, like ours, there is great diversity. I have only been to New York and California and can't tell you about the Beautiful Country Midwest, which makes up for a big part of the country."

Mr. Driver scratched his cheek: "Tell me what you know."

I was settled in the 13th floor of my elder cousin's two-bedroom apartment and pulled out from my suitcase a duty-free bagged facial cream jar and a box of calcium capsules to hand them to her affable mother-in-law. I had just told the lady, whom I called a-yi, what had happened on my way in the cab. Unlike the driver, a-yi thought she knew Mei Guo. My cousin and her husband met when they were graduate students at Cambridge University and since a-yi had visited them, she lumped together the U.S. and U.K. cultures. I politely disagreed with her view, but before I could elaborate, she warned me: "This city is really chaotic, you can't just tell strangers about yourself."

As much as I was aware that a-yi meant to be caring with her advice, I felt patronized for having being told how I should act. For three years, I had been studying in New York state alone and even went to Los Angeles for summer school so I knew of the risks life in a metropolis entailed. Later, a-yi and I would clash about her insistence that I couldn't take a bus around Shanghai unchaperoned, but except for that, she couldn't be more accommodating. She gave up her room to sleep in the couch of the study and treated me as queenly as my very pregnant cousin. After I came to America, I became vegan and knew how my dietary choices could seem bizarre to her. Still, a-yi was tolerant, always remembering to set aside some fully vegetal alternatives for me.

At the end of the meal, I tried to help a-yi do the dishes, but she barred me from the kitchen: "Go rest and watch television!"

As much as I explained to her how my three years of part-time work at the university dining hall had permanently blocked the pain I had caused by washing dishes (dare I say it even became a soothing chore?), she didn't budge her five-foot plump self from the sink.

Since my cousin and her husband were in the study surfing the internet, I waited for a-yi to finish the washing up so we could watch the nightly news together. Unlike the American news, which focuses on national affairs, much of the Chinese program is devoted to international stories. That winter, a much-reported event were the elections in Kenya, and because of the close count between the two candidates, the announcements resulted in civil unrest. Recalling the course I took at Syracuse about African culture, it annoyed me that the footage reinforced the image that the politics in Sub-Saharan Africa were in constant turmoil instead of showing the strives the region made to embrace the rest of the world.

To counter the clichéd reports, I remembered that the last time I heard about Kenya had been from reading the background of an Illinois senator with a little mole beside his nose called Barack Obama. When a-yi joined me on the couch, I told her how the news story reminded me of the Black politician. She was surprised that Americans had voted someone of color for the senate: "Your brother-in-law [that was how she called my cousin's husband] is quite black, maybe when your sister [she meant cousin] has the baby, he will be black too. You should take him to America so he can become an important politician when he grows up."

I didn't know how to start to shed off her plan. I would probably have to start with a safe handling of the historical Black-White race relations in America, a concentrated account of the Civil Rights Movement, a pinch of Asian immigration history, Cold War conflicts, and a cup of contemporary comparative race relations. Wait. Class! How could I explain to a retired old lady who spent her life teaching elementary school children for the People's Republic of China that America was a great pot of heterogeneous racial-social strata? Instead, I smiled and nodded: "Maybe, if I'm still living there."

Many Asian-Americans find it frustrating when individuals from outgroups fail to recognize the diversity within this ethnic group, for this hyphenate term encompasses, inter alia, Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, Cambodians, Pakistanis, Laotians, Hmong, and Thai. My experience in China is that for many Chinese, what they know of the West is comparable. For the Chinese nationals, Beautiful Country becomes an abstract land where everything is idealized. Along with places like Courageous Country (England), Virtuous Country (Germany[!]) and Lawful Country (France), these lands become a source of, what scholars such as James Carrier, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit call Occidentalism. There are also those Chinese who detest the U.S., but from my month-long visit to the Middle Country, no one I met perceived my experience abroad but with admiration or envy.

My ethnic origin makes me more conscious of the Chinese diasporic culture in America but I'm certain other Asian-Americans experience an identical form of exoticism. Rather than something as threatening as politics, Chinese-Americans allure mainstream America through oral gratification, that is, the Chinese-American food business. For Americans who have not been to China, they may find it surprising that their culture also seduces locals through cuisine. When I met another cousin for dinner, she made a hullabaloo about taking me to an upscale foreign eatery locally called Bishengke, also known in Beautiful Country as Pizza Hut; later, an aunt of mine welcomed me to my hometown of Wenzhou by dragging me to Kendeji, a.k.a. Kentucky Fried Chicken a.k.a. KFC. I appreciated their thoughtfulness and bit my lip to refrain myself from telling them that in the U.S. these places were considered the booty call of restaurants; the last resort to satiating primal cravings.

For many prejudiced Americans, the growth of China is perceived as threatening and the pervasive images of Chinese citizens is that we are sneaky, treacherous and only forge American goods. While I cannot physically stop them from feeling that way, what I can guarantee is that there is supreme admiration for America in China. Like the paparazzi who go through Herculean, possibly illegal, efforts to take a photo of much-desired Paris Hiltons and Robert Pattisons, there are Chinese who sweat to produce a facsimile of the Beautiful Country.

Other than fast food chains, American brands like Nike, Disney and Tommy Hilfiger also sell like hot (possibly knock-off) cakes. My most memorable spottings of these brands were when they produced a new meaning that contradicted the original. When a-yi took me to the over six-century-old City God Temple area of Shanghai, I was surprised to find shops bursting with bright-colored folk knickknacks and lucky charms. I found a shelf that hung trinkets wishing good fortune to newlyweds. The image printed on them was that of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Maybe it is my oversensibility of the Disney couple's marital status but the last time I checked, Mister Michell and Miss Minerva Mouse had never been involved in an official matrimony for their over six-decade relationship. Thus I doubted they could bring any luck to a marrying couple.

With more seriousness, from my five years of living in the U.S., I do see beauty in the country; my view of America's pulchritude is not that of romanticism nor idolization but I admire the care Americans have for your surroundings (even in notorious Los Angeles) and respect families and friends have for each other. Above all, with its monumental fun cultural output of movies, music videos, cartoons, sitcoms, the America I've experienced should not be known as Beautiful but a Fun Country.

—Ke Huang

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