China-US relations

Chinese and Americans united by the migrant experience find warmth on a cold Beijing night

  • Trade war tensions were left at the door as 200 people gathered for a cultural exchange with a group of ordinary Americans living in the capital
PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2018, 3:09pm

On a cold December night, hundreds of Chinese citizens queued outside the American embassy in Beijing.

They were not there for a US visa, but to attend an event organised by the Beijing American Centre, which is located inside the embassy and regularly hosts cultural activities.

The cold weather and long queues for security checks before they could enter the building did not deter them from the event, which featured several American speakers sharing their experiences of migration.

They were not high-flying business executives or wealthy expatriates. They included a teacher, a podcast host, and a documentary filmmaker, and they were there to talk about living as migrants in China.

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Their audience of about 200, ranging in age from their 20s to over 50, included many people who also live in Beijing as migrants, having come to the capital from many different parts of the country.

Their shared experience as migrants united the two groups, from very different countries across the Pacific, and the escalating trade war between China and the US did not seem to be affecting the desire of everyone present to learn more about each other.

Among the Chinese audience, some were fluent English speakers, while others were clearly making an effort to practise their language skills when they asked questions in English of the American speakers.

There were also some who spoke no English at all but were still curious and eager to get into a dialogue with their American counterparts.

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A man in his 40s from Sichuan province asked the Americans a question in Mandarin: “What do you like about us, the Chinese? And what do you think we should improve on?”

It was an unexpected question – and one which showed a rare humility and openness to outside opinion.

In the current climate of surging Chinese nationalist sentiment and escalating rivalry between the two nations, such qualities can be regarded as weakness.

President Xi Jinping, in his speech to mark the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up process last week, took a veiled swipe at Western criticism of his country when he declared proudly that China’s success – in growing to become the world’s second largest economy and lifting more than 740 million people out of poverty – did not rely on “arrogant teachers who dictate to the Chinese people what to do”.

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The American speakers answered the first part of the man’s question by saying how much they liked Sichuan food (a nod to the audience member’s heritage) and admired the Chinese for being open-minded and curious to learn.

And when it came to the latter – and more sensitive part of the question – one speaker said “there is nothing that we Americans can teach you. You don’t need us to tell you what to do”.

And the Chinese audience clapped with a knowing smile.