What the Chinese think of my Job
I was on a flight to Beijing to attend a big-wig meeting for ad executives and be the live-interpreter for my CEO. The flight was early, my eyelids were heavy and all I really wanted to do on that flight was nod off my head to sleep.
But Chinese people tend to be quite chatty on planes, especially with foreigners, and the young man next to me was no exception. He introduced himself as Chang, we’ll call him, and said that he was a lawyer and represented the online video goliaths youku and tudou. Wow, I said, and gave him a firm handshake—it’s great to meet you.
Of course he started busting out his English skills and I was happy to provide the practice. After living abroad in Asia for 5 years and dedicating every single second to language study, I’m more than happy to speak my native language and I’ve stopped being a language nazi.
And then came the unavoidable question: “So Mary, what do you do?”
I’m proud of what I do, so I sit upright and puff out my chest and say: “I’m an interpreter.”
“Oh wow,” he says to me. “For Chinese and English?”
“Actually,” I slouch a bit and lower my voice. “I mostly do Japanese and English.”
And then I get it. The face. The face that Chinese people make when they obviously feel uncomfortable around the subject of Japan, or straight out spell ‘I hate that place’ with their expression.
He manages to smile off ‘the face’ and replies, “Wow, you speak three languages, that’s definitely not easy.”
“It was a rough battle,” I smile.
“So, do you like Japanese people?”
A loaded question.
“Of course they’re very kind to me, but they can be difficult to understand sometimes. Working at a Japanese company has had its ups and downs.”
And then it comes.
“To be honest with you, I don’t really like Japanese people. I think they’re cold hearted and don’t have any emotions. And… do you know about the history between China and Japan?”
I nod “yes, of course.”
“They killed millions of us in Nanjing, you know. They did terrible things in the war. Now they are causing more problems with that island and they won’t even apologize for what they did in the past. They just can’t admit to all the war crimes they committed in WW2, and for that, I can’t forgive them. I’m sorry, but I don’t really like Japanese people.”
The Lowdown Between Japan and China
This may seem like extremely awkward conversation to you, but this is probably the 10th time I’ve had it. In fact, it usually comes up when I talk to all Chinese people (especially those from the North).
The animosity between China and Japan is burning, seething—in fact, it’s almost like a time bomb waiting to explode. We had a few minor blasts last year when the diaoyu island crisis was at its peak, but somehow the incident managed to cool off and people have stopped storming the Japanese embassies and clubbing every Toyota or Honda they see on the street.
Unfortunately, Japanese companies are still feeling the aftershocks of these cultural and political clashes.
A new term “China Risk” (チャイナリスク） was coined among Japanese companies to explain the ongoing situation between China and Japan. All Japanese companies know that the Chinese economy is booming, but due to the pulsating hate that the Chinese have for the Japanese–business be bad. Since the diaoyu incident, Chinese citizens have stopped buying Japanese products, which has in turn literally cut in half the profits of Japanese companies. In fact, despite China’s rapid growth and potential for investment, Japan has all but thought of giving up the entire market and, instead, re-locating to areas where there’s less hate and more opportunity, such as Vietnam or Myanmar.
It’s unclear what the future for China and Japan will be. I think among Asia, it’s not only the most fragile, but also the most essential relationship that could literally shape the entire world we live in. Unfortunately, I don’t think relations between China and Japan will improve anytime soon. Chinese don’t just hate Japanese, either—Japanese hate Chinese people too.
Japanese people aren’t open about it, though. They don’t chat me up on a plane and say, “by the way, I hate China.” They do it more indirectly and passively, i.e., they just don’t want to come here or even talk about China. While the China economy may be growing, most citizens of Japan don’t even care—or they’re frightened. Can those uncultured, dirty heathens really rule the world? I’m sure that’s what they’re thinking, but what usually comes out of their mouth is “Oh, China? I heard it’s quite dirty over there and the people are rude… it’s taihen desune.”
Most of my Japanese friends outright refuse to visit me in Shanghai, the reason being: “I absolutely forbid myself to go to China–ever.”
China is no better, either. The PRC uses Japan as a scapegoat to re-direct the people’s dissatisfaction. Why hate the government when you could hate Japan? The government was paying people to go protest at Japanese embassies a year ago, and more than half of the dramas on TV are war-related and involve extremely racist Japanese men raping and killing nonstop. Instead of have Chinese citizens complain about what the government doesn’t do for them, they redirect that hate toward what Japan isn’t doing for them (i.e. apologizing for past war crimes).
“I hate the Japanese,” my friend’s mother outright said to me when I went to her house for dinner (upon telling her my profession). “They killed millions of us in WW2 and didn’t apologize. They’re monsters. I want nothing to do with them, and I never want to go there.”
Surprisingly, my Chinese friend (her daughter) slammed her hand on the table and shouted:
“Mom, do you know how many people Mao Ze Dong killed during the Cultural Revolution, and all of the atrocities he committed? It outdoes everything Japan did to us and more—and he’s one of us!”
My jaw dropped. Maybe China is changing.
Is there hope?
Lisa Ono, a famous Japanese bossa nova singer, was coming to Shanghai to perform at the annual Jazz Festival. Chinese and Japanese citizens both were ecstatic to go and see her, and hundreds (if not thousands) of us amassed at the outdoor stadium, awaiting her performance.
When she stepped out onto the stage donning a turquoise blue shirt, white pants and a guitar slung over her shoulder, the crowd went wild. Chinese people all around me were screaming, and I even heard a few people (definitely Chinese) shout “SAIKOU!!!” at the top of their lungs.
She smiled, so gentle and sweet, before greeting everyone with a lovely ‘ni hao’. Dusk was fast approaching, and the weather couldn’t be more perfect. The clear, blue skies were being painted a warm pumpkin orange by the setting sun, coupled with a refreshing summer breeze blowing in from the nearby Huang Pu River. Lisa Ono’s hair swayed in the wind, her expression so soft, so elegant, so at peace with the world. She began to strum on her guitar, her band members striking up their flutes, cellos, and piano—and she serenaded us, literally enchanted us, with her soothing voice and familiar melodies.
At that moment, I felt like all barriers were gone. It wasn’t China vs. Japan. It wasn’t even China vs. anybody. We were all together, as one, listening to an absolutely breathtaking singer enchant us on a summer’s evening. It didn’t matter where she came from, or where we came from, or whatever history we might have had—we were all lost in the music.
For her finishing songs, Lisa Ono sang 夜来香 (The Fragrance of the Night) and 茉莉花 (Jasmine) in Chinese. Although her Mandarin was god awful, she encouraged the audience to sing with her, and they participated without hesitation.
I really felt something special that evening, hearing Lisa Ono and the Chinese people around me sing in harmony to Ye Lai Xiang, one of the most beautiful Chinese classics to ever be composed.
In that moment, I felt like Sino-Japanese relations really took a step forward.
And I had hope that day. I had hope that China and Japan will somehow continue to forge past their differences, and maybe, just maybe one day, they can sing to the same melody that will make this world a better place.