For many Chinese residents in the US, the Fourth of July is another occasion for BBQ parties. This afternoon I am on my way to a BBQ party that promises to be a fun filled, food rich gathering. Friends and colleagues will get a chance to chat about their backyard flowers, kids, or probably politics in the workplace. On the other hand, it is very depressing to shrink the Fourth of July to BBQ. For a whole century, generations of Mainland Chinese, the Fourth of July was an inspiring beacon of light. The American Revolution epitomizes the heroic spirit of the American people struggling for independence from foreign rule and taking destiny into their own hands. It symbolizes the political wisdom of the founding fathers in laying the groundwork in constituting a stable and open society. It calls to mind the emancipation of black slaves and the emancipatory writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose inspiring Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into Chinese in 1901 and staged as a Chinese drama in 1907. The Fourth of July also symbolizes the civil rights movement in the 60s, Martin Luther King, and the fight for the rights by minorities. On the eve of China’s Cultural Revolution, black leaders visited China and had conversations with Mao. Days after King’s assassination, thousands of Chinese workers and students turned out in the streets to protest against racial injustice and oppression. The Fourth of July signals ideals of freedom and independence, racial equality, opportunity, and prosperity for all. The democratic tradition of American literature can be put under its banner, conjuring up resounding names like Stowe, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Jack London, Ralf Ellison, Upton Sinclair, Theodor Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. These authors are not only eagerly studied by Chinese college students but also are revered masters in China’s world literature hall of fame.
Depressingly, not the idealistic but rather BBQ image of the Fourth dominates the consciousness of Chinese immigrants. BBQ is wiping out any memory of inspiring images imbedded in the precious American Experiment. In the downward slide from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to the BBC party, we see how the Mighty has fallen. No longer is America a nation for Chinese to emulate for its great heroes and reformers, but an unending consumer party in which to make money, to have manufactured fun and to realize the “American Dream.” Ritualistically associated with BBQ, the Dream not only smells like BBQ; it gets burned like BBQ. The crushing, potentially catastrophic national debt, the explosive gaps between the rich and poor, the overwhelming domination of society by giant corporations allied with the “representative” government, a gigantic media apparatus that serves endless streams of mindless stars and junk food, the unsustainable military campaigns that spend the money otherwise meant for children, college students, and local communities, and the perpetual bickering among politicians who can never come to an agreement on the common goal of America as a whole—all these are burning the idealistic Fourth of July.
Economists have noted that Chinese money has financed America’s costly wars and financial recovery. When an individual owes so much money he should treat the loaner with more respect. But pundits blame America’s financial troubles on China; scaremongers spread the fear of China threat; China watchers anticipate the coming collapse in China, be it of the Communist Party, financial institutions, the society, the Three Gorge Dam, the high-speed railroads, or the environment. China is also building numerous Confucius Institutes in the US and around the world. For many fearful Americans, the Confucius Institute means an evil attempt to impose Chinese values onto innocent American kids, inviting American backlash. Yet nobody seems to say anything about American campuses being set up in China and eagerly sought after by the Chinese government and students, about the American way of life and commodities disseminated everywhere, and billions of dollars that China spends for sending young people to study in American universities. Chinese seem to have a crash on things American but the love is not returned. The Chinese may retain traces of an idealistic American past under the banner of the Fourth of July. But Americana, in its fear and anger about China’s rising power, status, and Confucius Institute, seems to border on a symbol of paranoia, defensiveness, and in debt matters, ingratitude.
Remember the movie Independence Day? In it, the Fourth of July is a day of infamy, when an alien invasion, equipped with strange technology and incomprehensible power, overwhelms peace-loving, innocent Americans, and American victory turns out to be defensive and inwardly nationalistic. Independence Day was the pride of an open-minded, democratic history, the beacon of light for people and nations in the world in achieving independence and democracy. How depressing it is that this day has been marked as a day of fear of others, and as parochial, philistine preoccupation of one’s own backyard and BBQ.