When dialogue intensifies differences

In Europe, the “Erasmus Generation” describes those fortunate enough to spend a year studying at a foreign university on the Old Continent. The European program, of which hundreds of thousands of people have partaken, brought nations, cultures, and different academies in contact. The motivation is clear in its simplicity: a Europe can be built without fences if young generations appreciate the lack of controls and boundaries. With peaceful means, admitted students can deepen their concepts of mobility, knowledge, and tolerance. However, studying abroad seems to have the opposite effect on Chinese students in the United States. The 250,000 university students (the largest group of foreigners in the US) tend to be closed and nationalistic. Paradoxically, the proximity to other nationalities augments these traits. Distance from the mother country intensifies patriotism, rendering people insensitive to criticisms and refractory to comparisons. This is what emerges from numerous studies: a series of coherent revelations that unequivocally confirm the phenomenon. Chinese students believe they are reacting to Western preconceptions, as if they are suffering personal attacks when their country is called into question. They chose the best American universities, but they refute the evaluations of the Chinese model regarding human rights violations, labor laws, and pollution, even when they are well founded.  Retreating into cultural trenches in the discussion of untouchable diversity has two antique roots. The first is Chinese culture, steeped in national pride, raised on the uniqueness of their history, and the absence of strong contaminations. Even over the past 35 years, when China opened to the world it did so instrumentally, to acquire the productive capacities it needed. Contagion with the outside world represented only a collateral effect of an epochal choice. The second origin is the western hemisphere’s habit of considering China an unknowable world, far away, different, and probably hostile. It’s a frequently hostile approach from which a desire to conquer emanates, as if the immense Chinese population should be converted religiously or transformed into consumers of the improbable “biggest market on Earth.” Gray hairs remember the historical meeting between Kissinger and Zhou En Lai in Shanghai in 1972. The former asked: “how can we understand China?” The answer was cold and detached: “there’s only one way: study it.” Recent events prevail over everything. Young Chinese generations are used to growth. They only know increases in quality of life, and consider GDP growth to be the natural order of things. For them, getting close to—if not surpassing—living conditions in the US will take place. It’s only a matter of time. They’re optimistic, nationalistic, and often deaf to criticisms. They’re also different from their parents, who knew depravations, the feeling of conquest, and the heroic years of liberation. They hear the observations like an interjection, and they hide in an identity that doesn’t do justice to China’s greatness, a civilization so vast that it doesn’t need to consider every criticism as an international conspiracy.