The Multicultiral Cringe
This week's storm in a teacup was Chinese pianist Lang Lang's playing of the Chinese song "My Motherland" at a state dinner for some 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 U.S.A. to a draw in Korea.
There are of course all sorts of things to be said about that, beginning with the fact that both China herself and the North Korean regime they were supporting were totalitarian despotisms led by megalomaniac 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 class struggle campaigns of the early 1950s.
Look at it from the point of view of the un-persecuted, though. After half a century of warlordism, invasion, and civil war, the great majority of 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 as a counter-revolutionary 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. The real nation-gutting horrors of Maoism — the Great Leap Forward, the famines, the Cultural Revolution — were still in the future in 1956.
And fighting the U.S.A. to a draw was a heck of an achievement for the peasant army of a country racked and impoverished by that half-century of chaos. They liked the "My Motherland" song. It hung around, long enough to detach itself from its original particular context. They still like it. I can't say it's my cup of tea, but then it wasn't meant for me. It was meant for them.
So far as I can judge, Lang Lang has no interest in politics at all — certainly no interest in scoring points off the President of the United States. Now 28 years old, 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 painted precisely the color of shit.) The China he grew up in is the China I know, from having lived there and visited subsequently, and from having 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 U.S. citizen, it would be perfectly natural and normal for him to have tender feelings towards his motherland. First-generation U.S. citizens generally do, unless they belonged to some subjugated minority on the Old Country.
Nothing is more human than sentimental warmth towards the country of your birth 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 towards 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 like 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, perhaps: 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 the nation of their parents or grandparents, over and above what they felt 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 thus be willing to cut Lang Lang some slack for liking patriotic Chinese songs even if he'd taken out U.S. citizenship. Since he hasn't, I'm glad without qualification to know that he feels love of 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. A U.S. 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 aberration, the abnormality, was in his being asked to play for the visiting ChiComs. At an event like that, a nation-to-nation event, a self-respecting host would put his own nation on display to the visitors. That, indeed, is what normally happens. When Richard Nixon made his celebrated opening-up visit to China in 1972 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 call in at 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 think it a good idea to bring in a Chinese national to entertain the visiting cadres? Why? 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, to want illegal Mexican residents to have rights and subsidies not available to U.S. 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.