Originally pubilshed on The Contexts What the Olympics Mean to Chinese Americans by C.N. Much has been written and said about China hosting the Summer Olympics and much controversy has been associated with the games based on China’s record on many issues. But little has been said or written about how Chinese Americans see China and its hosting of the Olympics. With that in mind, the New York Times reports that many Chinese Americans have mixed feelings about China and the communist government’s policies, but that almost universally, they are very proud of, and even overwhelmed, by the Chinese people, how they have put the games together, and what the Olympics mean in general for the country:
Joe Lam . . . who moved to New York 35 years ago from Hong Kong, said he watched the opening ceremony for the Olympics twice on Friday night, the second time with his daughters — ages 18 and 22 — who he said had little overt connection to Asia. But watching the spectacle, with its blend of China’s ancient grandeur and dazzling modern technology, “was like a religious experience for them,” he said. Mr. Lam said he was not a fan of the Communist Party, but, like many others, he noted the history that makes these Olympics resonate so deeply: 150 years of invasions and turmoil, from the Opium Wars to the Japanese invasion, civil war and the disastrous policies of Mao, which left China far behind the West. “Our joy is not for Communists,” Mr. Lam said. “It’s for what hosting the Olympics means to the history of the Chinese people.” . . . Several Chinese-American leaders also said they thought that the respect China gained from the Olympics would improve the status of Chinese here. Helen Zia, a human rights advocate, author and former executive editor of Ms. magazine, said she surprised herself and many friends when she agreed to carry the Olympic torch in what turned out to be a contentious leg in San Francisco. She did so in part, she said, because she believes that engagement with the West is helping to liberalize China. But she added: “All those years of China’s humiliation carried over to America, where Chinese kids grew up being taunted and bullied on the playground. Now when we see the home country shown in a positive light, we hope Americans will understand better where Chinese-Americans come from.”
Regardless of where people stand in terms of supporting or criticizing China on various issues, I think there are very few people out there who can honestly dispute that, as one example, the opening ceremonies were one of the most lavish and spectacular displays of human art, choreography, and pageantry in recent history. The work of director Zhang Yimou and his team of 15,000 performers has to go down in the record books as simply, absolutely awesome. But even more important, beyond the political issues that are inevitably present, China’s hosting of the Olympics does have some very real significance, although I do not see it as China’s “coming out party” as many have described it. Instead, we should remember that prior to the late 1800s, in many ways China was already a superpower and as the NBC commentators even noted during the opening ceremonies, for nine of the past ten centuries, China had the largest economy in the entire world. It was only after Britain’s colonization in the late 1800s and Japan’s invasion in the 1930s did China acquire the unfortunate nickname of the “sick man” of Asia. But even after the turmoil associated with Mao’s policies, China has rebuilt itself and in a very short amount of time, has become the third-largest economy in the world and in many ways, the most important political, economic, and cultural player on the international stage in the 21st century. With that in mind, as the NY Times article described, China’s (re)emergence is likely to have some effect on how Chinese Americans are perceived. I certainly hope that as Helen Zia noted, it will improve the image and acceptance of Chinese Americans into mainstream American society. On the other hand, I can also see how it might hurt Chinese Americans if other Americans see China’s emergence as a threat (along with the effects of globalization in general) and become defensive and as a result, take their frustrations out on Chinese Americans (and by implication, all Asian Americans). Nonetheless, regardless of what other Americans may think, Chinese Americans and all Asian Americans have a right to feel proud of what China has accomplished. Yes, there are still many issues on which China should be criticized. But everything has a time and a place. Right now, China is showing the world just how glorious, spectacular, and powerful it can be when it focuses its efforts in a constructive way. I, for one, am very impressed.