BY JESSIE GARLAND:
Determined not to exactly copy KFC, in Beijing, Chinese restaurant owners instead opened “Obama’s Fried Chicken,” complete with his caricature as their logo. On the other side of Beijing, t-shirt venders do their own take on the ‘I Heart NY’ shirts, displaying shirts with the design ‘I Heart BJ.’ Copies of Hollywood films are ever-present in Chinese markets. Sometimes, Chinese ‘borrow’ American companies’ ideas without asking. And right after our election, China switched up their government as well. But that time, the imitation wasn’t so perfect. Well I was told that imitation is the best form of flattery.
Spending time in China, it is clear that there is plenty of imitation, but mostly, it seems to be done out of a respect, and in some cases, veneration of American culture. I spent two months in Harbin, a city in northeastern China, near enough to the border that any Caucasian is generally assumed to be Russian. Historically, their neighbors north of the border have not been very amicable with the local population. And taxi drivers were instantly more polite when they discovered I was American (and probably only ripped me off half as much). Everywhere we went, it appeared that “MeiGuoRen,” the Chinese word for American was the secret password that opened a gate to extreme generosity, hospitality, and curiosity, letting us into clubs without a cover charge, giving us free food and drinks, and, at one bar, access to a cooler of cheaply priced drinks with a sign that said “only for Americans.”
My picture is on the wall of a little restaurant in Harbin, next to all the other Americans who have ever come into it. I received invitations to dinner of the homes of people I had met moments before. And at a look out point on the top of a mountain, the Chinese tourist’s cameras were pointed at the Americans instead of the beautiful scenery. But it is clear that Chinese Americans don’t get the same treatment. They receive confused responses to their answer of “MeiGuoRen.” A Caucasian American’s mangled response is impressive, while a Chinese American’s almost fluent reply can receive derision, though they may make few mistakes.
I discovered a street filled with traditional Chinese apothecaries, selling items such as Deer Placenta Cream, and numerous U.S. army surplus stores. They seemed just like ones in the US, except a few jackets had Chinese badges sewn on.
There was a bar called USA Bucks, dedicated to all things American. Native American headdresses decorated the ceiling, and John Deere signs were on the walls. The menu was plastered with pictures of the owner in various American army uniforms and cowboy outfits.
Clubs, both those aimed at foreigners and locals, pumped Rihanna and Trey Songz. The YMCA song was playing at the most exclusive club in the city, though no one knew the dance, nor the meaning. The obscure gym I went to was blasting WALE, who a little more than five years ago wouldn’t have been heard outside of D.C. And when I read on the bike, fellow gym goers didn’t hesitate to look over my shoulder at the book, curious at all the English words.
Strangers would come up to me and say I had a big nose (eventually I realized that this was a serious compliment in china). And going to KFC was reason to dress up.
But answering questions of national identity with “MeiGuoRen” was also the key to an unlimited box of inquiry. The street vendors and my professors all had questions. They asked about different things, but everyone wanted to know the American opinion – “do you eat this kind of fruit in America?” “How do Americans view Hillary Clinton?” They asked because they were curious — America is a world that they don’t have unlimited access too, and they aren’t fortunate enough to travel across to world to see it for themselves, although my professor said that just like most other Chinese, she harbors an “American dream.” But the questions were also reminiscent of my questions to my older sister, asking about music and clothing choices. They were looking to American culture, just as I had looked up to my sister, trying to define cool by following a role model’s opinions.
It isn’t hard to find a unique admiration for America in China — if only the government would get the hint from their peoples’ cultural imitation and start copying our freedom of expression. But the veneration is often conferred undeservingly to American travelers, as they serve as a symbol of their culture. And when someone who loves my home culture even more than some Americans do asked me where I’m from, it didn’t matter if it was the tenth time that day. I couldn’t help but smile when I said “MeiGuoRen.” Now all I need to do is figure out how to say that with a southern American drawl.
Jessie Garland ’15 is in Davenport College. Last summer, she studied Chinese in Harbin. Contact her at email@example.com.