The Cocoon of the Past
When I was still a freshman in college, one Scottish professor complained to me about being overcharged at a grocery store. He explained that many business owners in China would assume that white “foreigners” are rich and unable to understand Chinese. My amiable professor, unwilling to start a conflict, would always pay the undue price even though he was only meagerly paid by my university and was able to speak perfect Mandarin.
As a student of humanities, I’m particularly intrigued by the ramifications of cross-cultural encounters entailed by the new era. We have to bear in mind that whenever we talk about the new era, there is always an old era that keeps haunting us in various ways. Last year I went to the University of Tokyo for a one-year exchange program. Before I left, my grandma seemed quite distraught and apprehensive: she told me to take care of myself as if I was about to go to the battlefield.
But we Chinese are not the only ones infested by outdated misconceptions. When I was bidding farewell to my American professor at an academic writing class in Japan, she stopped me and asked me, “Are you really from China?” At first I thought she was pointing at my handsomeness, asking me whether I had been to Korea for plastic surgery. Well, clearly this is another stereotype that we should get rid of. But to my disappointment, she was actually referring to my English skills. “I’ve never met any Chinese student who can talk and write like you do,” She said, “You must have been stayed in the States for some time, haven’t you?” It does seem that even a specialist in linguistics can’t escape the illusion built up by the last generation of Chinese students: gauche and diffident, unable to articulate themselves in English.
Nevertheless, such stereotypes are becoming a thing of the past. When professors around the globe meet with an increasing number of students from China with both language proficiency and academic competence, well-qualified students will no longer be a surprise. Moreover, with more people going abroad and enjoying firsthand encounters with different cultures, people like my grandma will no longer be subject to the fossilized, antiquated narrative of the past. The interesting thing is, after I told my grandma my experiences in Japan, how clean, safe and beautiful their cities are and how nice, polite and considerate their people are, she gladly removed Japan from the list of least-want-to-visit foreign countries and put it instead to the most-want-to-visit one.
Even the shop owner near my campus is now repenting for his peccadillo. When gradually more international purchasers become his patrons, he would no longer treat them differently. And he would even occasionally call out for them, yelling “come, come,” “cheap, cheap,” “thanks thanks” with a very strong Chinese accent. Meanwhile, my Scottish professor has now equipped himself with Wechat and Alipay, assimilating seamlessly into the local life here.
The old era is like a cocoon, protecting us from possible dangers outside and providing us with warmth and comfort. However, an overreliance on memories and experiences of a long-gone past can also hinder us from genuine, meaningful interactions for the future, just as the cocoon can also serve as a wall to bar us from the beautiful world outside. But in order to make a brand-new attire or to build a modern silk road, we have to plunge the cocoons into hot water and obtain the silk despite the pain. So ladies and gentlemen, don’t be trapped by the old era. Transcend it, and embrace the new one.