Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


V083-06_jimpassport_edited-1In 2004 I was giving lectures on the subject of American public administration for the California State University system to four universities in Beijing. Supposedly, they wanted their students to learn more about how Americans govern their cities with the prospect that the administration and planning of the swelling Chinese metropolises might be better governed. I never learned what particular auspices of the Chinese government or national education system was responsible for the invitation, as it came by way of a Chinese-American professor at my university who did not fully explain matters. But it was a good chance to return to China, meet new people there and, as usual for me to learn a good deal more than I could possibly teach them.

How do you explain America, a place built on immigration and by insurgents and immigrants, a place that never seems to be able to comfortably assimilate its new blood , or even welcome them despite having a huge statue at its front door that has been given the welcoming words “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, . . .” The only immigrants it seems many Americans ever really wanted were stolen from Africa and treated like farm animals. The rest they regarded as invading hordes who wanted to take their jobs by working cheaper, marry their daughters, ruin their property values, resulting in a country where the “natives” (the real ones all but ethnic-cleansed) will be outnumbered by people who worship strange gods in some incomprehensible babble (e.g. any language other than English). Yet, despite this inhospitable atmosphere the immigrants came and continue to come to America, legally and illegally, by whatever means they can and, often once established (if not fully welcomed and assimilated) are those who most loudly sing America’s praises.

I sat with my translator/interpreter at a table in the garden by the university’s cafeteria. She was a twenty-four-year-old graduate student hoping to perhaps land a simultaneous translation post at the United Nations or with some government agency. She spoke English very well with a slight, but sweet, sing-songy accent that can elevate a Western guy’s heart rate . We were having tea for an hour before my lecture so she could ask me if there were any technical or unusual words I would be using that she could prepare, or that I could explain or provide synonyms for. We would be doing sequential, not simultaneous translation.

To my surprise, the student audiences were large, often overflowing big lecture halls with students in the aisles and sticking their heads through open doors. I had no idea the reason for the popularity of my lectures as they were announced in Chinese, and posters and signs were also in Chinese, amusingly even including a large poster of the first page of my curriculum vitae translated into Chinese that had been put in the foyer of the classroom building. . . . Afterwards I would be mobbed like a rock star by students who were anxious to both demonstrate that they had some facility in English and to tell me how anxious they were to do graduate study in the United States, even at my university, and to respectfully hand me, as they all seem to have them, their name cards, which I respectfully in turn received and held in my hand until they had left. The only reasonable interpretation for my “rock star” status was that I was an American academic who, despite the substance of my lecture, provided an opportunity for the students to a little guanxi access to the USA. Their motivations might have been practical—having a degree from a US, Canadian or UK institution is usually advantageous in a country that produces over 6 million university graduates each year—but it was also a derivative of that US immigration myth of the “American Dream.”

The myth is composed of the fact that despite all the discrimination, prejudice, and barriers, many immigrants make it in the United States, enough of them doing very well, that the beacon goes out from the ethnic enclaves, ghettos, and Chinatowns that “L’America” is the “land of opportunity.” Immigrants who have made it surprisingly often become some of the staunchest opponents to the next wave of foreigners. And so, the English resented the Dutch, Germans resented the Poles, Irish resented the Italians, with various Asians, Latinos, and Pacific islanders thrown into the mix. The great American “melting pot” is also a myth.

I was going to have to find some way to explain that American public administration was a product of, as well as an accommodation to the realities of a nation that was a cultural crazy quilt. The fact was that I had this nagging feeling that I was here in China talking about American public administration under false pretenses. I knew that the bedrock of any system of laws governance and principles was a byproduct of the culture of the time and place. The Chinese could adopt American industrial or scientific methods pretty much wholesale, as they obviously did with the Jeep Cherokee that took me from lecture to lecture. It was identical to the same model in the United States right down to the lettering in English on the dash panel. This one has been built in a factory just outside Beijing. The MacBook Air on which I key enter these remarks was built in China.

But public administration is something completely different; you just can’t take something like an American municipal charter, which is a derivative of a state constitution or charter that must be (though not always is) consonant with the US federal Constitution, and slap it on top of a Chinese city. At the most fundamental level, how do you take a system of governance that is putatively by of and for the people, and operate it with an autocratic one-party system? So, were my sponsors expecting me to “sell” the US system, to extol its merits, with some sort of missionary zeal, or should I do the academically honest thing and tell the Chinese that American public administration would be a “square peg” for the “round hole” Chinese political culture. I needed to find an approach to discussing my topic without being dishonest, and letting my audience come to what I hoped would be the appropriate conclusion by themselves.

But first I had two explain to Ms Yang that there would be this complexity in my address. Then, something kicked in from all those years of graduate seminars; turn the question around, and see whether it leads you at least in the direction of an answer. So I said to Ms Yang, “could you please tell me what it is that makes you Chinese?” She looked at me rather quizzically, at first as though to say, “Well take a look at me, isn’t it obvious?”

Actually it was easy to look at Ms Yang; she was very attractive, with beautiful Asian eyes, and smiled to expose perfect teeth.* But she want along with my question and, after thinking about it a moment, replied, “Well I am Han Chinese,” referring to the dominant Chinese ethnic group (as there are some 52 other smaller groups), “my parents are Chinese, and Chinese is my language.” She did not mention religion, occupation, geography, or political affiliation.

“Of course,” I said, “I’m sure most Chinese would answer in a similar way. Now would you like to know what it is that makes me an American?” I asked as if I needed to. I had already slipped my hand into my jacket pocket for my passport, which I extracted, placed on the table and slid towards her. She looked at me at first, as though we might have finished the previous discussion and I was about to address another matter. Then, I said, “This, and only this, is what makes me an American. For you it is your culture, your ethnicity, race, your primary language, which makes you Chinese. But in America we have many subcultures, ethnic groups and races, even mother tongues. It is my citizenship that defines me as an American, and if you come to America and eventually become a citizen, you will become an American. But I could never come here and become a Chinese in the way that you define yourself.**

I didn’t bother, more did I have the time, to explain that many of us with American passports refer to ourselves as Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Chinese-Americans and such, and that we all retain with varying degrees of zeal and enthusiasm aspects and dimensions of our immigrant lineage, and that I personally find that this is what has enriched America. That would mean that in her terms I would be something as complicated as Yidali-ren—Meiguo-ren. She smiled and nodded, but I wasn’t quite sure whether she got the distinction I was trying to make until after my lecture, when she said to me, “I understand now, the passport.”

Did that distinction imply anything to what I should be saying in my lectures on American Public Administration? Stay tuned.
© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 6.3.2013)
*Maybe she thought that it was easy or automatic for Westerners encoded Asian faces. But actually it seems that I am no better at distinguishing Chinese from Japanese and Koreans, than are Chinese Japanese and Koreans from being able to distinguish one another. A Chinese friend sent me the link to a website called “all look same” where you can take an online test wherein you must identify a series of Asian faces of young men and women as Chinese, Japanese or Korean. I took the test, as well as sent the link to several of my Chinese friends, who also took the test, and I out scored all of them. Admittedly, it was all guesswork on my part, and probably theirs as well.
**When I was leading tours to China I once had a Chinese-American young man, who was “third-generation” and spoke almost as little Chinese as I did. It was very awkward for him at times when, because of his obvious Chinese appearance, he would be addressed by a waiter or hotel person in Putonghua or Cantonese, and have to explain, or try to, that he didn’t understand, that he was an American. There was another irony to this subject: considering that the only “native Americans” are descendants of migrants who traversed the land bridge that once existed between Asia and North America the Chinese have a prior claim to an American provenance.