In his new book Beijing Welcomes You, Tom Scocca explores the transformation of Beijing into a symbol of Chinese power and influence in the 21st century and what China is telling us, intentionally and unintentionally, about our future together. In the excerpt below, Scocca delves into the enthusiasm with which Chinese people stereotype Chinese people.
The Year of the Pig would begin in February. At the Carrefour supermarket, by the north side of the Third Ring, the entrance ramp was lined with pig merchandise and decorations in the red of the festival season till it resembled an inflamed esophagus. There were to be no pigs on CCTV, however. In a gesture of intranational (rather than international) hypersensitivity, the state broadcaster was banning on-air pig imagery, so as not to offend the sensibilities of China's Muslim minority.
This was, according to most reports, a super-propitious year in the traditional animal zodiac, a Year of the Golden Pig. Actually, by the six-decade cycle of five elements and 12 animals, it was supposed to be a Fire Pig year; the Golden Pig had come up in 1971, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. But people liked the idea of a Golden Pig. It sounded fat and prosperous.
Chinese culture was proving oddly malleable. The thing about Chinese people is that they are always telling you what the thing about Chinese people is. For a long time, I made the mistake of trying to pay attention to the specific things themselves. The Chinese will tell you that Chinese people are less formal than Westerners, and they will tell you that Chinese people are more formal than Westerners. Chinese people are outspoken, and Chinese people are reserved. They are very blunt, and they are very indirect. They are too curious and not curious enough. Chinese people are naturally thrifty (or cheap); they are inherently generous (or wasteful). The outlook of the Chinese is inflexible, and it is adaptable.
Once you get going, it's hard to stop. The thing about Chinese people is that they insist on bundling up against the slightest threat of cold. The thing about Chinese people is that they wear replica basketball uniforms without player names or numbers on them. The thing about Chinese people is that they love watermelon and fried chicken. The thing about Chinese people is that they never take the manufacturer's sticker or plastic label off anything they buy, ever—microwaves, security doors, rice cookers, DVD players, bathroom sinks—even when the paper starts to wear away or the edges of the plastic film peel up on their own.
Americans tend to get their backs up if anyone (particularly a foreigner) tries to make any sort of sweeping claim about our national habits. I more or less reflexively inserted tend to in the preceding sentence, as a bit of protective chaff, to soften the generalization. We will consent to be called freedom-loving or entrepreneurial, but more concrete collective observations—that we watch a lot of television, say, or that we are getting kind of heavyset, or that we shoot guns at each other more often than people of most other nationalities do—are an insult to our sense of dignity as free individuals.