Posted on January 1st, 2017
I spent my twenties living in two of the biggest countries in the world—China and Indonesia. One, China, remains firmly under the thumb of authoritarian leadership. The other, Indonesia, had recently crawled out from under that same thumb and held, to great contention and excitement, its first direct presidential election ever in 2004.
Twelve years later, Indonesia remains one of the biggest democratic flowers yet to bloom in Asia, while China, now under Xi Jinping or “Xi Dada”—Father Xi—experiences some of its harshest crackdowns on basic freedoms in decades. But I walked through both countries like these facts were foregone conclusions. Like my own country, America, could never backtrack.
I have no great insight on any of these three countries, despite spending years in each and speaking, to greater and lesser effect, their various languages. If anything, I find that hackneyed old adage to be true—the more closely I look, the less certain I feel about anything.
I started in China at 21, a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in one hand and a letter of introduction to a university in Beijing in the other. I would teach history and English in my first year out of college to, well, a bunch of college kids. It didn’t even occur to me to be terrified. Instead, my memory of boldly striding off the airplane into a dust-choked Beijing and demanding a “little car” for my luggage (I hadn’t yet learned the Chinese word for “cart”) strikes me as quintessentially American: childish, impetuous, eager, untested.
I got tested, to a degree. But, with my copy of Zinn and all my good intentions, I felt I could keep the worst accusations at bay. Yes, America had had slavery. Yes, the genocide of the Native Americans. Yes, Jim Crow. Yes, segregation. Yes, different pay for men and women. Yes, persistent inequality. But Clinton, however flawed, was in office and the pendulum, however busted, appeared to be swinging in the right direction.
And at least “we” can have these conversations, I told my students over bowls of cheap noodles that they showed me how to eat together with quick nips of raw garlic. (“It cuts the grease,” a student who went by the name Betty Sue told me.) I remember waving her away. “Fascinating, delicious,” I insisted. “But what about Tiananmen Square? What about Xinjiang? What about Taiwan? Or even just the Cultural Revolution—are these things that you can talk about without reproach?”
“What does reproach mean?”
“You see,” I continued, “If America has made some mistakes in the past—and we most certainly have—we must also realize that the broader course of history is moving in the right direction.” Sanctimonious, I was getting used to this little institutional pulpit I had acquired. I’d even reach for the bill when it came. “No worries,” I say, my tone reaching a high holy pitch. “I got this.” The bill would have come to about $3.50 for all of us, but I thought it was a good demonstration of American hustle and ingenuity, if not downright generosity—Here, children of a lesser God. Let me get these noodles for you, seeing as I have already nourished your mind.
Indonesia—moving toward democracy, fractured after the fall of Suharto—was different, freewheeling. Jakarta was, to me, like one big party where all the lights had gone out and someone had just found the keys to Mom and Dad’s liquor cabinet. There were very few Americans in town, however, so I didn’t have many people to crow with me about American exceptionalism. My friends were Australian and European and we watched together as Bush secured his second term in office, sipping beers out of teacups because it was Ramadan and alcohol was forbidden. We had devised our work-arounds in a country that looked to a god that was not our own, and we reassured each other.
I think we were all a bit sanctimonious, all these privileged white people (and we were mostly white) working high-end development jobs in fancy office towers in a crumbling city besieged by floodwaters and corruption. In our home countries, we assured each other, infrastructure worked. In our home countries, officials could not be bought and sold. Unlike here, we tut-tutted as we leapt in and out of Toyotas with tinted windows, glad-handing officials, getting paid vertiginously more than our Indonesian counterparts.
We could see the suffering and inequality all around us, sure. But we had come from countries where such suffering, we insisted, was a thing of the past and it was our job, now, to similarly eradicate the suffering of Indonesia while turning, naturally, a profit. We were proud. We had won. So these were the stories we told ourselves. These were the ideas we lived by. Soon Obama, a man who had himself spent childhood years in Jakarta, would be in office. See? We assured each other. The great pendulum does swing in the right direction.
Pendulums, of course, swing back. Now the reality television star and unrepentant huckster Donald J. Trump is preparing to assume that high office. I am back in the United States. Most of the expat friends I made in Asia are also back in their respective home countries. And I am not so proud. America had never, of course, eradicated its own suffering, its own enduring divides, nor are we above the allure of brute force and hawkish division. The dream of totalitarian order and lockstep oppression is the nightmare to which we are now, perhaps, only just beginning to wake. “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism,” the historian Timothy Snyder recently wrote. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.”
What will this learning look like? What does it mean to “learn from their experience” when we know so many Americans are unwilling to learn, even, from our own. The dominant narrative—land of the free, home of the brave—doesn’t fit anymore. For many Americans, of course, it never did.
One of the most painful aspects of this awakening, such as it is, is its impact on families and close relationships—yielding conversations between people who had previously taken our shared values as just that—something shared. But sharing, as we know from kindergarten, is not always easy. True sharing is wanting to hand your toy over to another kid, not being forced to and then peevishly ticking off the seconds until you can get that toy back and inspect, immediately and thoroughly, for damage.
My parents met at Purdue University in Indiana, Mick Pence’s home state. Recently some posters when up in the school’s Stanley Coulter Hall. They depict white faces and the words “We Have a Right to Exist” and “White Guilt—Free Yourself from Cultural Marxism”. It’s white supremacy propaganda, the likes of which has never hit the mainstream since my parents (both white, both in their 70s) were children.
I sent them the images, with a text that read simply: “At Purdue!”
Mom: “Wow! Where did you find this?”
Me: “It is on Facebook, posted by a Purdue student.”
“Would be fun to know what happens,” my Mom replied. “Thanks, Caroline!”
I had—and still have—no idea how to respond to this. Because we know what happens. So what’s fun? What is there to thank?
Yes, the more closely I look, the less certain I feel about anything.