A Glimpse of America
Wang Ruoshui, 1978
Translated in: Land without Ghosts : Chinese Impressions of America from the
Mid-nineteenth Century to the Present, translated and edited by R. David Arkush and Leo O. Lee (Berkeley : University of California Press, c1989).
The plane was descending. Looking down through the window, I could see a beautiful city come into view on the ground, with block after block of buildings crisscrossed by a network of streets. The many skyscrapers among them looked like matchboxes standing on end, and the cars slowly moving along the highways like children’s toys. The city was so large that it extended beyond the horizon and even from an airplane you could not see where it ended.
This was Los Angeles. It was our first sight of America.
I was a member of a delegation of Chinese journalists that visited nine cities and their surrounding areas, from Los Angeles on the Pacific to New York on the Atlantic, from Detroit on the northeast border to St. Louis in the American heartland, traveling over ten thousand miles in three weeks. . . .
The first thing that strikes your eye, of course, is the tall buildings. The United States has many works of architecture of which it can be proud. In St. Louis we visited the famous Gateway Arch, a stainless-steel parabola like a silver rainbow almost two hundred meters high that arches over one shore of the Mississippi and is visible from almost anywhere in the city. In Detroit we stayed at the 73-story Renaissance Center, a glass structure that includes several round towers – an original and bold concept on the part of the architect. In New York we were taken to dinner at the World Trade Center, two 110-story skyscrapers whose dining rooms can serve twenty thousand people at the same time and which attract eighty thousand tourists every day. The elevator took us to the 107th floor in only one minute. From there, called Windows on the World, you can look down in all directions. The view we saw that night of New York ablaze in lights was truly magnificent.
New York’s crowded skyscrapers, however, also give you a feeling of abnormal development. The tall buildings block out the sunlight and on the streets below pedestrians seem to be in shadowy canyons. People appear tiny, as though they were about to be squashed by these capitalist monsters.
There were many cars in the streets, needless to say, but traffic police were not to be seen at the intersections. The traffic lights are all controlled automatically. Nonetheless the traffic is rather orderly and there is not too much street noise. Sometimes a car coming at you when you are crossing the street will stop suddenly right next to you, but the driver does not honk his horn. Americans think that it is insulting for a car to honk at you, and some states have gone so far as to prohibit honking except when absolutely necessary. . . .
Service industries are well developed particularly hotels and restaurants. Every large city has numerous Chinese restaurants. In stores the brightly colored goods are dazzling to the eye. Whether on airplanes or in hotels, in restaurants or in shops, service personnel are all courteous and polite. Of course, there is this business of tipping. In some cases you have to give a tip even to go into a restroom. Still, no matter what you say, the service is always good – as long as you can afford it ….
Sanitation is not bad. Although it was late summer, we saw few flies in the cities. The streets were all clean, with the exception of New York’s ….
Automation has become a part of everyday life.
The hotels we stayed at were for the most part first-class ones, but they had few service personnel. The elevators are completely automated and do not require human operators. If you want a glass of Coca-Cola or a cup of coffee, you can buy it from an automatic vending machine in the corridor. The image of the newsboy on the street has already become a museum piece, replaced by the automatic newsstand.
Most advanced are the automatic ticket-selling machines in the Washington subway, which operate without humans. …
When Congress is in session, not only reporters but even ordinary people can go in and listen. Is there not fear of people making disturbances? No matter, there are police on guard who can grab troublemakers by the collar and throw them out. ….
When we arrived in the Untied States, Pope Paul VI had just died, and when we left a new pope had just been selected. During this period news about the papacy dominated the newspaper headlines.
There is a Bible in every hotel room. On our visit to the White House I discovered that one of the two books on the president’s desk is a Bible, too. The Bible is the best-selling book in the United States, with about 8.5 million copies sold every year.
I read in an American newspaper of a “public opinion poll” that asked people if they considered President Carter a devout believer. Because many still answered yes, the paper said this showed the president had hope of recovering his prestige.
It is apparent that the dominant ideology in the United States, apart from bourgeois democracy with its basis in individualism, is Christianity….
That religion is still this powerful in the United States, where science and technology are so highly developed can be explained only by reference to the needs of the ruling class and by the fact that people still do not have control over their own destinies. I know that both drug use and religious activities flourished among the American troops who invaded Korea in the 1950s. American reporters at the time correctly pointed out that this was due to the soldiers’ feelings of spiritual dejection and of their having nothing to depend on.
An elderly lady with whom we had dinner said that she could not comprehend how anyone could live without religion, that, as she saw it, life would be without hope that way.
And what about young people? What is the view of life of these young men and women who wear blue jeans and chew gum? What are they seeking spiritually?
In fact decadent hippies are rarely seen anymore. Many young people think only about finding a good job and are satisfied to achieve a comfortable material life for themselves. They are not concerned with politics and have lost their religious ardor. Some other young people are still searching for the meaning of life but are in a state or spiritual vacillation.
In a “motor hotel” in Tennessee a young man with long hair and a long beard asked us if we were Chinese, saying he was eager to talk with Chinese. He was a college student and, we soon discovered, his interest was in the philosophy and religion of China and India. Having rejected the civilization of the West, he was looking for peace of mind and spiritual release in the religions of the East. Unfortunately we did not have time for a detailed discussion with him. We heard that Christianity is on the decline and that people who were originally Christians are turning to Far Eastern religions, including Daoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Many people want a god, apparently, and, as Voltaire said, if none exists they will create one.
The United States has many attractive things, but what impressed me most were America’s people and their friendship for the Chinese people.
Our host organization, the Association of American Newspaper Editors, had made thorough arrangements for our visit. Wherever we went we were received by courteous and enthusiastic people, and everywhere we saw friendly faces and pleasant smiles. Out of their heartfelt feelings, people wanted to approach us and converse. As ambassadors of the Chinese people, we felt very proud.
Americans’ living habits are not the same as ours. On first contact, we may feel that their clothes are too bizarrely varied, just the way they may feel ours are too monotonous. At the house of a union official in Detroit, a woman was curious about the Sun Yat-sen suit I was wearing, something she had perhaps never seen before. What kind of clothing is this? Do you normally dress like this? Do Chinese women wear colorful clothes like ours? Why don’t Chinese young people wear blue jeans? I said they did not like jeans, that it was a difference in custom. In the past some Americans who came to China thought it strange that many Chinese women wore trousers and not skirts in the summertime, but nowadays Chinese girls are wearing skirts more and more, while with American girls bell-bottoms and blue jeans have replaced skirts in popularity.
More important than such differences in living habits are differences in the social system, in ideology, and in history and tradition. When these differences are compounded by a lack of contact for a number of years, a situation is created whereby in the eyes of many Americans China is a mysterious country and, conversely, America is a strange one to many Chinese. All that is needed is a little more contact, however, and Americans will discover that China is not mysterious, and we will discover that America is not strange. The people of our two nations are capable of understanding each other.
The American people have many things that we can learn from. To be sure, the capitalist lifestyle is inseparable from eating, drinking, and pleasure, but to see only this aspect is too one-sided.
Americans are famous for their pursuit of efficiency. When they are working they are energetic and intense, and they clearly differentiate work and play. We were deeply impressed by this on our visits to numerous newspaper offices, television stations, press services, factories, and research institutes. The people working in these places would usually look up to greet us and then bury themselves in their work again. No one was loafing, nor was there idle conversation.
Although, granted, there are playboys and dissolute girls among American youth there are also many who study hard and work diligently. Americans like to call theirs a “consumer society,” but in fact how could there be consumption if there were no production? A society whose members knew only how to eat, drink, and enjoy themselves would have perished long ago. Without the industrious toil of a large number of workers and scientists, it is inconceivable that American production could have reached today’s levels or that the United States would have been able to put a man on the moon.
Americans are not conservative or bound to the status quo. In this fiercely competitive capitalist society, anyone who does not strive for technological progress will be weeded out. They do not refuse to learn from abroad, even though their nation’s scientific and technical level is the first in the world. The United States took in many German scientists when Hitler was in power and particularly after the collapse of Hitler’s Germany, and this accelerated American scientific development, as is well known.
The Japanese are also good at learning from foreign countries. American friends told us that Japanese had learned from America and even surpassed it in some areas. A leader at the Ford Motor Company admitted that Japan’s Toyota automobiles were one of their major competitors, and at the Columbia Broadcasting System the two color television sets in the manager’s office were both Japanese models. The manager frankly admitted that Japanese sets were better than American ones, which made me think, why can’t we do what the Japanese can do?
We should be able to do even better than the Japanese. The Japanese learned both electronic computers and striptease from America, but we will study the good points of advanced capitalist nations while resisting everything that is rotten. We will study their science while rejecting their philosophy. We can also learn from their experience. Many good-hearted American friends told us they hoped that in the course of realizing our Four Modernizations we would avoid America’s mistakes, such as energy waste, environmental pollution, and so on. This is certainly worth our attention. We have a superior socialist system and should be able to avoid capitalist corruption.
We are pinning our hopes on the American people, and the American people are pinning theirs on us.