The Way We Look Now

New Yorker columnist Evan Osnos writes on popular Chinese perceptions of America:

A couple of years ago, three researchers interviewed Chinese high-school students across the country, during lunch hour, to gather their impressions of America. The results were published last March in the journal The Social Studies, and included an intriguing section in which the students were asked for the first five words that came to mind when they thought of America. Their most frequent responses read like a kaleidoscopic view of our best and worst attributes:

Bill Gates, Microsoft, N.B.A., Hollywood, George W. Bush, Presidential election, democracy, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, 9/11 terrorist attack, Bin Laden, Harvard/Yale University, McDonald’s, Hawaii, international police, gas, overbearing-ness, hegemony, Taiwan issue, China Threat Theory, Sino-U.S. trade conflict, and Sino-U.S. relations.

I came across the list recently while I was seeking a better understanding of how Barack Obama might or might not change the world’s impression of us. The enthusiastic embrace by Chinese young people of Obama’s victory suggests that a repeat of this survey today might already produce an altered list. It’s not difficult to imagine why people in their twenties and thirties in China have been so taken with the notion of Obama’s rise from obscurity. His story defies not only the image of America of the past eight years but also the image of America that Chinese young professionals studied in school.


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