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'Why Can't They See Things Like We Do?'

Demonstrations: We judge the Chinese and their reactions by how we would likely react. They do the same with us.

May 16, 1999|NICOLE MONES | Nicole Mones is the author of "Lost in Translation" (Delacorte Press, 1998)

It doesn't take much to get a taxi in Shanghai. Stick out your hand, climb in, and find yourself at your destination in a few minutes. But on May 8, when a friend and I hailed a cab to take us to one of Shanghai's hottest restaurants, we ended up mired in gridlock instead.

After an hour we got out, waded into the crowd, and realized we were deep in an angry demonstration. Our Caucasian faces drew hard stares. I'd done business in China since 1977, first as a wool trader and later as a writer, but I'd never felt anything like this. I unclipped my dark hair, pulled it around my face and grabbed my friend's hand. She spoke no Chinese and I couldn't let her get separated from me.

Over the heads of the crowd we couldn't see anything except the orderly rows of banners, riding past. Finally we asked someone what this was about. The NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy, was the answer. Naturally. Why hadn't I guessed?

Maybe because I had been so certain the bombing was an accident. Now, back home, I sense many Americans are stuck in the same perceptual gap. How could this particular chain of events spiral downward so quickly, dragging already fragile U.S.-China relations down with it?

Plenty of excellent reporting has explained the situation. We know Chinese resentment burns over the allegations of nuclear intelligence theft, over U.S. pressure to improve human rights and over China's entry into the World Trade Organization. We know how powerfully historical fears of foreign intervention still smolder in the Chinese mind. Yet still we ask: Could they really think we deliberately bombed their embassy? Don't they realize it would be entirely against U.S. interests to do so?

We know the Chinese government disseminates a certain version of events, but we also know the Chinese intelligentsia has Internet access. They are not limited to their government's portrayal. They surf the same Web we do.

Walking around Shanghai the next day, I asked people what they thought. No one believed the bombing was a mistake. My efforts to point out that America had nothing to gain and far too much to lose by attacking the Chinese embassy were dismissed. Everyone was sure it had been planned.

It seemed that half-buried, anti-American imperialist stereotypes were rising back up for regratification. Alongside came all that is currently admired about the West, all the elements that have fed China's recent love affair with things American. People could not believe that the U.S.--the world's richest, most technologically advanced nation--was actually capable of such a stupid mistake.

In each conversation, I would feel an immovable resistance to my arguments. I am intimate with this resistance. I have felt this it many times in China in the past 22 years, though I still struggle to understand it. Why can't they just see things the way we do? Maybe the answer has roots in the deep differences between our cultures. A new country, we question authority and search for alternatives. We love originality, dump old ideas for new. For better or worse, progress conquers history.

In China, despite paroxysms of change over the last century, cultural history is for the most part an endless development and perfection of existing forms and genres rather than a celebration of successive innovations. A national identity rooted in a deep past joins hands with fear of contemporary government oppression to make the odd, outrageous point of view almost inexpressibly difficult to embrace.

My arguments were futile. I was told I was wrong. This bombing was no accident. This gap in perception, underrecognized, is a silent, festering splinter in U.S.-China relations. We judge the Chinese and their reactions according to how we would be likely to react, and they do the same with us.

If anything, China's current modernization exacerbates this perceptual mismatch. Our two worlds seem so much more in sync now. In Shanghai a week ago Saturday night, after easing out of the demonstration by claiming in Mandarin to be Icelandic, we finally made it to the restaurant--a cool, minimalist place with delectably innovative Shanghainese cuisine. After dinner, we repaired to a bar that served 40 kinds of martinis along with Cuban cigars. In overstuffed armchairs, wreathed in cigar smoke and hip music, sipping martinis flavored with the Chinese Osmanthus flower, it was all too easy to forget the vast differences in culture and perception that continue to divide us. Until we grasp this, and learn to work with it instead of pretending it does not exist, we may never achieve the relationship we always imagine is just around the corner.

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