What We Learn about When We Learn about China

Anxious environment obscures potential for serious, optimistic interaction

At Harvard, we’re constantly hearing about the importance of learning about China. Introductory Chinese language classes have huge enrollments. Large Gen Ed classes on Chinese history, philosophy, and culture continue popping up each year. University-run programs like the Harvard China Fund keep growing, including a recently opened center in Shanghai. And extracurriculars that involve China, from the Harvard College Association for U.S.-China Relations to the Harvard College in Asia Program, are extremely popular among students.

How has this all come to be? There are a few conventional answers that explain why so many students are devoting their time to learning about China, and why American colleges and high schools are committing so many resources to these programs and projects. First, the careerist reason: People are learning about China because that’s where the jobs are, where companies are hiring and sending young people. Second, the patriotic reason: China’s economic miracle has made it the country that will be the greatest economic competitor to the United States, so we need to get ready. Third, the adventure reason: To American students who want to experience something radically different from the country they grew up in, China seems to be one of the most “foreign” places on the planet.

As a result, learning about China as an American student has been an essentially upbeat endeavor. We’ve believed that we would be the vanguard of a dynamic future between two global powers, successfully helping to build bridges of cooperation between the two countries, and perhaps even arrogantly (but happily) helping China to modernize and emerge in a way quite congenial to Western ideas and values.

As a history concentrator focusing on 20th century Chinese history, who has been studying Mandarin since high school, I spent much of the past decade benefitting from this optimistic environment for learning about China. But this climate is changing, and the would-be vanguard of a better future for the U.S.-China relationship now finds itself on the cutting edge American cultural insecurities. Engagement with China—the activity that was supposed to place us at the presumed center of this happy dynamism—is instead entangling us in our country’s current anxieties.

Particularly because of both the persisting economic crisis and the political difficulties in addressing it, widespread anxiety and insecurity about America’s future and the U.S.-China relationship exist in the U.S. today. Our concerns range from the troubled American economy and our seemingly paralyzed political institutions to a set of China-related issues: whether the U.S. will be able to meet growing economic competition from China, what China’s strategic objectives are, whether the U.S. and China are really going to be able to cooperate, and whether an irreversible American decline is accompanying China’s rise to superpower status. The past three centuries have demonstrated that it is a mistake to underestimate American resilience (and China’s own serious problems make its own continued rise hardly inevitable), but current American anxieties are undeniable. And this affects not only our generation’s evolving attitudes toward China but also the attitudes that surround our generation’s expanding study of China and the Chinese language.

What will be our future roles if we become fluent in Mandarin? The possible answers are becoming entangled in the growing anxieties about America’s economic future and the future complexities of the U.S.-China relationship. In place of the straightforward excitement and optimism that accompanied the dramatic growth in the study of Mandarin in the past decade, we now see more anxiety and uncertainty.  In some cases, for example, learning Chinese has become a job-finding tool instead of a reflection of fascination with China or with hopes to be part of building a historically important and mutually beneficial U.S.-China relationship. For many students, studying Mandarin stops with very limited proficiency—not enough to read a Chinese newspaper or conduct a business negotiation—and may be simply a careerist statement that signals to a future employer: I’m a twenty-first century employee.

This may be particularly understandable given the incredible anxiety that current college students feel about employment opportunities. We are confronted with incessant media reports about the difficulties that college graduates face in the job market, innumerable stories of friends with strong resumes who can’t get hired anywhere they’d want to work, and the sense that most first jobs end up being barely more than summer internships. In this context, the symbolic meaning of studying Chinese seems a form of self-soothing as well as competitive signaling.

I do not mean to say that people are studying Chinese and learning about China for the “wrong” reasons; there’s no point in trying to determine “right” and “wrong” reasons for learning about another country, culture, or language. And, to be sure, it’s preferable to be at the cutting edge of America’s challenges and anxieties than focusing on the more minor things in life. But this changing environment for learning about China matters because it will affect whether all the news that has been presented as boding well for the future of U.S.-China relations—more Americans studying Chinese, traveling to China, and so on—will in fact translate into improvements in how Americans interact with China.

If Americans come to view China as a convenient Other that they can gesture toward to get ahead, but don’t recognize that true engagement and successful cooperation with a rising China requires persistent effort, patience, and understanding, then optimistic predictions about the benefits of learning Chinese may go unrealized. Finding ourselves living in a future in which many more Americans speak some Mandarin and know basic facts about China, but have no investment in engaging with China or improving the U.S.-China relationship, would be a sad eventuality indeed. We would be missing an enormous opportunity—for our generation to help shape history for the better, and for us as individuals to live more interesting and fuller lives.

Julian Baird Gewirtz ’13 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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