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The Multicultural Cringe

January 27, 2011

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The Multicultural Cringe

This week’s storm in a teacup was when Chinese pianist Lang Lang played the Chinese song “My Motherland” at a US state dinner for visiting Chinese functionaries. The song is a gushy old patriotic thing—you can inspect the lyrics here and see it sung in its original movie setting here—from the mid-1950s, when mainland Chinese people were congratulating themselves on having fought the USA to a draw in Korea.

There are all sorts of things to be said about that, beginning with the fact that both China and the North Korean regime they supported were totalitarian despotisms led by megalomaniacal dictators. Among the Chinese who were not congratulating themselves for the Korean stalemate were the million or so country landlords and other “enemies of the people” murdered in Mao Tse-tung’s early 1950s class-struggle purges. After half a century of warlordism, invasion, and civil war, the great majority of un-persecuted Chinese people were glad to be experiencing social order.

So what if Third Uncle’s brother-in-law who owned a bit of land in the next province over had been clubbed to death by angry peasants for being a counterrevolutionary element? So what if the wife’s cousin’s best friend, who’d fought for Chiang Kai-shek, had been sent to a labor camp? There was rice in the bowl and the kids were going to school. In 1956, Maoism’s real nation-gutting horrors—the Great Leap Forward, the famines, the Cultural Revolution—had yet to occur.

And fighting the USA to a draw was a heck of an achievement for a peasant army racked and impoverished by that half-century of chaos. They liked “My Motherland.” The song hung around long enough to detach itself from its original context. They still like it. I can’t say it’s my cup of tea, but it wasn’t meant for me. It was meant for them.

“When the Olympics are on TV my wife roots for the Chinese teams. Why wouldn’t she? She’s Chinese.”

So far as I can judge, Lang Lang has no interest in politics or in scoring points off the US president. Now 28, Lang Lang was born in the Manchurian city of Shenyang a few weeks before I passed through the place in 1982. (My main recollection of the city is of a huge socialist-realist monument in the central square, masses of sculpted heroic workers, peasants, and soldiers surging forward to victory, the whole grotesque thing precisely the color of shit.) The China he grew up in is the China I know from having lived there, visited subsequently, and married into—my “country-in-law,” as Mrs. D. says. It is a China that can’t be bothered much with politics.

Lang Lang is still a Chinese citizen, actually a resident of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. He is patriotic, and he’s entitled to be. Even if he were a US citizen, it would be perfectly natural and normal for him to have tender feelings toward his motherland. First-generation US citizens generally do, unless they belonged to some subjugated minority in the old country.

Nothing is more human than sentimental warmth toward your birth country and the religion of your childhood. Even I, though less disposed than most to that kind of thing, experience a twinge of affection when I see the queen on TV or hear something equivalent to “My Motherland.” (Vera Lynn singing “The White Cliffs of Dover” will do it.) I wouldn’t live in today’s Britain if you paid me a salary to do so, but if I felt no emotions toward the place I’d be less than human. I nurse similar affection for Christianity, even though I don’t believe a word of it.

First-generation citizens such as myself are only ever half-citizens, however much we strive to fit in. You can’t shut off your normal feelings for your motherland unless your motherland was exceptionally beastly to you. Even then, I have known German Jews of the Hitler generation who still thought proudly of themselves as German.

What would be unnatural and undesirable would be for subsequent generations—America-born and America-raised—to feel that kind of bond for their ancestral nation above what they feel for America. People who urge that kind of thing are doing something wicked and ought to be exposed to public shaming, as ought the politicians who employ them.

I would be willing to cut Lang Lang some slack for liking patriotic Chinese songs even if he’d taken out US citizenship. Since he hasn’t, I’m glad without qualification to know that he loves his country as a person should. When the Olympics are on TV my wife roots for the Chinese teams. Why wouldn’t she? She’s Chinese. She’s a US citizen, sure, and glad to be one, but…Chinese. The kids root for America.

The pathology on display at that White House event was not Lang Lang’s. He’s a normal, well-adjusted human being. The abnormality was in his being asked to play for the visiting ChiComs. At a nation-to-nation event like that, a self-respecting host would put his own nation on display to the visitors. That is what normally happens. When Richard Nixon made his celebrated 1972 opening-up visit to China, he was obliged to sit through a performance of the “revolutionary ballet” Red Detachment of Women.

If the president of the United States pays a state visit to Romania, he will be entertained by a Romanian folk-dance troupe. It would be thought odd if his hosts brought in an American to do a Martha Graham routine. Likewise, when foreign leaders visit the White House, they should be shown something American: a display of country fiddling or square dancing or Delta blues.

Why did Obama and his staff bring in a Chinese national to entertain the visiting cadres? You know perfectly well why. It’s the same impulse that drives Obama to bow to emirs and sultans, to gush in his autobiography about his soulful Kenyan relatives, and to want illegal Mexican residents to have rights and subsidies not available to US citizens. It’s the multicultural cringe.

I applaud Lang Lang as an honest patriot. I only wish our ruling class had half as much love for their country as Lang Lang has for his.

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