The Inscrutable Americans

John Rosenberg

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an interesting article, “China’s Deficit in American Studies,” pointing out that

China faces a worrisome imbalance of intellectual trade with the United States. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Chinese know less about the United States than Americans know about China.

Most Chinese students and scholars interested in the United States concentrate either on English language and literature or on Sino-American diplomatic history and policy studies. There are few opportunities for fieldwork in the United States, and scholarly work on American domestic politics is “woefully inadequate,” according to a Peking University specialist in American studies. “By contrast,” the article noted, "Americans have done surveys, oral histories, and archival research in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences all across China, including such sensitive areas as Tibet and Xinjiang….”

The author, Terry Lautz, conducted interviews in China for the Ford Foundation last year “to review the state of American studies in China and to make recommendations for increased interaction between specialists in China and the United States,” finding that “Chinese scholars and policy analysts are increasingly ready and able to move beyond the narrowly focused approach that has dominated American studies in China in the past.”

“We need to study the economy, society, history, and culture of the United States, not just what Obama said yesterday,” said one Chinese scholar. He and many others are eager to investigate the cultural, ethnic, and religious factors that help to explain America’s behavior and its foreign-policy decisions. As it stands now, “China equates American diversity with chaos, not realizing it is the strength of the U.S.,” says an American professor.

I suspect China’s view of “diversity,” at least as it’s currently practiced, may be closer to the truth than the American professor’s, a view that would probably be reinforced, not refuted, by immersion in the concerns of American Studies professionals in the United States. A quick look at a couple of random issues of the journal American Studies, for example, finds, from the Summer 2007 issue, an article on “Southern Backwardness: Metronormativity and Regional Visual Culture” and another titled “From Websites to Wal-Mart: Youth, Identity Work, and the Queering of Boundary Publics in Small Town, USA.” I’m sure the Chinese would also be impressed by the celebration of indigenous cultural nationalism in the Fall-Winter 2005 issue, such as “The Contemporary Revival and Diffusion of Indigenous Sovereignty Discourse” and “Framing Cinematic Indians within the Social Construction of Place.” Looking at the award-winning (“Best Special Issue from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals”) September 2008 issue of American Quarterly, the other leading American Studies journal, finds more celebrating of indigenous cultural separatism such as “Beyond Mexico: Guadalupan Sacred Space Production and Mobilization in a Chicago Suburb,” described in its summary as   follows:

“Beyond México” opens at a meeting of Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran and “American” (presumably devotees with U.S. citizenship) Guadalupanas/os at the “Second Tepeyac of North America” in a Chicago suburb. Taking this Sunday morning gathering at the “Second Tepeyac,” a replica of Tepeyac—the Marian shrine in Mexico City where Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in 1531 — and early twentieth labor migration circuits to the Chicago area as a point of departure, this article examines the transposition of sacred space across national borders. The essay contends that although both shrines share architectural elements and devotional performances, the U.S.-based sacred space doubles as a political platform and safe haven for undocumented devotees. The “Second Tepeyac” provides naturalization and citizenship workshops, trips to Chicago and the state capital to support immigration reform, and an environment that encourages intercultural dialogue and socio-economic networking. La Virgen de Guadalupe is an inherent part of Mexico’s identity. Her presence in the Midwest, however, does not offer solely a Mexican perspective; the “Second Tepeyac” provides an atmosphere in which communities are encouraged to celebrate their distinct heritages and homelands. Guadalupanas/os acknowledge each other’s national affiliations but their religious principles exceed secular identifications.

For some reason I continue to doubt that their immersion in America—at least its worship and practice of “diversity” as practiced in American higher education and refracted through the lens of American Studies, especially its worship of multiculturalism and its often attendant celebration of cultural and even political separatism—would impress the Chinese with the vibrancy of “diversity” and its contribution to national life.

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