Tributes to Sheldon Seevak

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Posted August 17, 2008 in Nationalism
Edward Wong, "The Gates Began. Hearts Swelled," NY Times (August 17, 2008)

The Games Began. Hearts Swelled.

BEIJING — The flags were everywhere when I returned home. I had been reporting in the western desert right before the start of the Olympic Games, and in the 48 hours I had been gone, my gray alleyway in Beijing had been splashed with the bright red of dozens of Chinese flags.

The neighborhood committee had decreed that in the spirit of the Olympics, every household should hang up a flag. It had even installed a small metal flagpole stand on the wall beside every door.

There were grand flags and faded flags and flags that billowed at the slightest gust of wind. But my doorway was conspicuously bare.

I had moved into this courtyard home in one of the city’s ancient alleyways, called hutongs, less than two weeks earlier, and I was self-conscious about standing out. Here I was, a foreigner who was wealthy by Chinese standards, living in one of Beijing’s poorer neighborhoods. Would my neighbors think I was aloof if I didn’t hang up a flag? And hadn’t I chosen to live in a hutong to share in the lives of ordinary people?

I was a man without a flag, and the afternoon before the Olympics began, I decided to get one.

“What, you don’t have a flag?” said Mr. Zhao, an old man sitting next door who wore the red armband of the volunteer neighborhood sentries recruited for the Olympics. “It’s easy. Just walk down the street to the People’s Market. It won’t cost more than five kuai.”

That’s about 75 cents. Was that what love of country boiled down to in China?

Of course not. In the three months I’ve been working in this country, I’ve come to realize how complicated Chinese patriotism is.

It has manifested itself throughout this year: in the backlash against the Western news media for its coverage of the Tibetan conflict, in brawls between pro- and anti-China demonstrators as the Olympic torch relay passed through foreign cities, in the surge of volunteerism during the May earthquake, and in the rush to make Beijing presentable to the world before the Olympics.

When it comes to love of China, nothing is more representative these days than the feelings of Chinese toward the Olympics. I realized this when I interviewed a group of grieving parents recently in the earthquake zone. They were furious at local governments in Sichuan Province for not investigating why so many schools had collapsed. But they said they would not go to Beijing to protest until after the Olympics.

“We don’t want to get our nation into trouble,” said Gan Tingfu, whose 16-year-old daughter died alongside hundreds of classmates in the collapse of a high school in Juyuan.

Patriotism doesn’t end at China’s borders. Last spring, when many Westerners criticized Beijing’s harsh reaction to the Tibetan riots, some of the Chinese who rushed most quickly to their nation’s defense were students abroad, ones who have been fully exposed to Western culture and thought. But for many Chinese, especially those overseas, love of country doesn’t necessarily equate to love of the Communist Party — it can mean admiration for, or loyalty to, Chinese culture (“5,000 years of history” as most Chinese will tell you), and a desire for the West to respect the Chinese.

The Olympics have given overseas Chinese a momentous rallying point. Even my family members, who immigrated to the United States decades ago, take great pride in it.

Like all Chinese, my parents have a complicated history with communism. By the early 1970s, when the horrific Cultural Revolution was in full swing, my parents saw little hope economically or politically in that part of the world, and they left Hong Kong for Washington.

I sensed their attitude toward China changing in the 1990s, as the economy began improving. A signature moment for them came on July 1, 1997, when England handed Hong Kong back to China. The return of the island to the motherland seemed right to my parents.

Now comes this month’s gala, with the host ready to reassert itself as the Middle Kingdom.

My mom and dad watched the opening ceremony on television. Though my mom thought the production was overwrought, she was impressed by what it said about the new China. “They worked so long to prepare for this, and now they can show the world who they are,” she said. “Before, a lot of Americans didn’t even know where China was. They thought it was small and secretive. Now they can see it’s opened up.”

She told me to stock up on Olympic souvenirs for them. My dad’s older brother, Uncle Sam, asked me to mail him letters with Olympic stamps and cancellation dates of Aug. 8, the day of the opening ceremony.

Last year, when I told my relatives I had been assigned to China, almost all of them said, “So you’ll get to cover the Olympics!”

Few mentioned the chance to report on China’s economic evolution, its troubled environment or its widening rural-urban divide.

Even in my childhood, the Olympics opened my eyes to the idea of Chinese transnationalism. I remember staying up during the 1984 Summer Games with my parents to watch the women’s volleyball final match, United States versus China. China won 3-0 and got the gold. My parents rooted for China, I for the United States. Our loyalties were based on birthplace and cultural affinity.

Decades later, I see how malleable such sentiments can be. Last Sunday, as I watched the highly anticipated United States-China men’s basketball game at the arena here, I found myself occasionally rooting for China because it was the underdog. The Chinese roared in appreciation for both teams. A few days later, when I called my parents while they were watching the Games, I heard them cheering for Michael Phelps, the American swimmer.

“We’re American citizens,” my mom said. “We want America to do as well as China.”

Patriotism can be subtle and fluid, but some Chinese here see it as a fixed quality. Many who know my American background still naïvely expect me to behave as if I had grown up in China. When I write an article that is even the slightest bit critical of the government, I get reader e-mail messages like this one I received while reporting on the earthquake: “An ABC? I am ashamed of you!” (ABC, for American-born Chinese.)

So as an ethnic Chinese, how was I supposed to feel about the Olympics? What would hanging up a flag outside my courtyard signify?

I thought about these questions as I looked for the market that Mr. Zhao had recommended. I bumped into a neighbor who suggested I go to another shop. Minutes later, I peered down the street where that shop was supposedly located. I asked a young man named Little Zhai where I could find a flag.

“You have to go to a big supermarket like Carrefour,” he said.

I thought I had misheard him. Was he telling me to buy a Chinese flag at Carrefour, the French supermarket chain that angry Chinese youth had urged everyone to boycott in the spring because of the French owner’s rumored ties to the Dalai Lama?

“Yes, go to Carrefour,” he said. “They definitely have flags.”

The earlier manifestation of patriotism seemed to have dissolved in a matter of months.

But Carrefour was too far away. I mentioned to Little Zhai the name of the store my neighbor had suggested. He took me down the block.

The cramped shop sold cold drinks and lottery tickets. A short woman with glasses stood behind the counter.

She pulled a pile of flags off a rear shelf. Each one was neatly folded and wrapped in plastic. “People come in every day to buy these,” said the woman, Yang Xiaoyuan.

I had no flagpole, so Ms. Yang got me a strip of wood at the picture-frame shop next door. After I returned home, I stuck the entire thing into the metal stand by my doorway.

Putting up the flag meant nothing more than my hope that China would pull off an Olympics that ordinary Chinese could enjoy. They, like everyone else, want a nation they can be proud of.

There was a slight breeze, and the flag fluttered a bit. It was wrinkled and needed ironing.

Category: Nationalism