I have often been asked two questions. One is: What was the most surprising incident when you served in the Chinese People’s Army? The other: What surprised you most in America?
To both questions my answers are rather personal and internal. I served in the Chinese army for five years and saw terrible accidents. Soldiers got killed in military exercises and in collapsed constructions, but what surprised me most is something that none of my comrades might remember. A fellow soldier in our company was a wonderful basketball player, handsome and agile and six feet two inches tall. His parents were both senior officials in Beijing, in the Ministry of Railways. By contrast, most of us were from remote provinces, and many were sons of peasants. Toward the end of my third year in the army, word came that the basketball player’s mother was dying in Beijing and left him her final words. We all knew she was a revolutionary, and thought her last words must be wise and edifying, so we were eager to learn about them too. Then her final words for her son came: “Don’t ever give up your Beijing residence certificate.”
Without a residence certificate, one couldn’t live in Beijing permanently. But if you were not born in the capital, the only chance for you to get such a certificate was to find a permanent job in an official department or company that could help you get it. I was shocked by the mother’s last words, because they suddenly revealed to me that people in China were not born equal. Her words stayed with me and went deeper and deeper in my consciousness. For decades afterward I carried the bitterness, not just for myself but also for tens of millions of people who could never have such a privilege of living in the capital and who, by birth, were citizens of lower class, although China’s constitution guarantees equality to all its citizens. This inequality in residential status among the citizens actually contravenes China’s constitution, which has become meaningless in the eyes of the public.
As for what surprised me most in America, it was also a personal moment that turned out to be charged with meaning, but mainly for myself. When I came to the States to do graduate work in 1985, my family couldn’t come with me, both my wife and son having to remain in China, because at the time the Chinese government didn’t allow families to go abroad together. Like my compatriots, I accepted this rule without questioning it because it was made by the country. Among my fellow graduate students at Brandeis, some were from other countries. They knew I was married but was here without my family. Sangeeta and her boyfriend, Chuck, were from India, living one floor below me. At a party one evening, she asked me why I’d left my wife and child behind. I told her because the Chinese government did not allow them to come with me. I couldn’t explain further, since nobody could see the logic of such a rule. Out of the blue Sangeeta asked me, “Why don’t you sue your country?”
Her question stunned me, and I turned tongue-tied, unable to get my head around it. Could she sue India? I wondered. She must be able to if she had a legitimate case and also the means. But never had I heard of any Chinese citizen suing the country. Sangeeta’s question remained on my mind for many years and affected my view of the world. Gradually I came to realize that her question pointed to the core of democracy, namely that in the eyes of the law, the individual and the country are equal. If a country is wrong, a citizen is entitled to confront it.
It took one and a half years for my wife to join me here, but she couldn’t bring our son with her. So he couldn’t come to live with us until another two and a half years. By then, having stayed in American already for four years, I realized that all the forced separations among my compatriots and their families had been gratuitous, serving no purpose, as if the role of the powers that be was to make people suffer. Of course I couldn’t sue China. For citizens to be able to sue their country, there has to be a legal system that can guarantee their civil rights, both on paper and in practice. Because there has been no such practice in China, people tend to just cower to the state. Many even worship the country like a deity, willing to serve it unconditionally. Owing to China’s long ban on religions, people’s religious feelings have been diverted to the deification of the country. God is amoral, and so is your country, and all you can do is obey.
When the Tiananmen massacre broke out in June 1989, I was traumatized and remained in shock for weeks. I was so outraged that I became very out spoken, publicly condemning the killing of the unarmed civilians. As a result, the next spring when I sent in my passport for renewal, the Chinese consulate in New York confiscated it. Afterward, for seven years I had no passport. I couldn’t travel outside the States and became a man without a country. I had always planned on returning to China to teach, but that was out of the question now.
Finally in the fall of 1997 I was naturalized. At the ceremony, the new citizens were formally asked to renounce our loyalty to our former countries. Like the other new citizens, I swore my oath of allegiance to the US Constitution. A new citizen must be willing to perform noncombatant service in the armed forces to defend the Constitution. I assumed that this was equal to pledging loyalty to America, the country. I didn’t feel completely comfortable about the oath, but this was a necessary step for me and my family if we wanted to become US citizens. In essence, it was a move for survival. Prior to the naturalization ceremony, I had read the Constitution, which struck me as something like a contract between the country and the people. It specifies repeatedly what rights the people keep or give to the government.
Nevertheless, unfamiliar with how this was enforced in practice, I didn’t think much of the Constitution, which seemed to be just words few people could abide by. That was my misconception, partly due to the despondency that sank deep in my heart. What disappointed me most were American double standards. To put this simply, the US government’s words and deeds didn’t match. During the Tiananmen massacre, President George H. W. Bush spoke a great deal about supporting the democratic movement in China and condemned the Communist regime roundly, but in no time he dispatched his secret emissary to Beijing to pacify the Chinese government. The White House’s doubledealing reflected crude American pragmatism. Americans tend to calculate everything in dollars. For the sake of business opportunities, the United States grew reluctant to defend human rights and even willing to relinquish our principles. On President Obama’s first visit to China in 2009, Hillary Clinton, secretary of state then, said on NPR that human rights were no longer an issue on the negotiation table because we owed China a huge debt and our economy was struggling to recover from the previous year’s recession. She said, “How can you talk about human rights to your creditor?” Hearing those words, I felt betrayed, my belief in American idealism shattered. Later I learned that Bill Clinton, after leaving the White House, had collected hefty fees when he gave speeches in China.
Besides pragmatism as a distinct trait of the American character, there is another aspect of the American character that I have always admired and cherished. That is American idealism. One can argue that because of having a black-and-white mindset, Americans can become destructive, shaping the world according to our ideas or ideals. Such a tendency is dramatized vividly in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, specifically in the main character Alden Pyle, who turns blind to the human cost and suffering in carrying out the American plan for combating Communism and establishing a democratic force in Vietnam. Greene’s novel is a condemnation of US imperialism and might have its legitimacy, considering the violence the United States has unleashed in the world. However, he addresses only one aspect of the American character, which to me also embodies strength and integrity and even nobility, inseparable from idealism. In fact, we often talked about honesty, justice, equality, all of which show the other aspect of the American character, rooted in the belief in universal values.
I believe in noble ideas, which differentiate humans from animals. Some governments of non-Western countries oppose universal values, and instead emphasize their countries’ peculiarities and differences. In essence, such an emphasis is their way of defending the power of the state and justifying their ideologies or dictatorships, which can never be measured against the standards of democracy and social justice. To me, it’s fundamental to hold on to some ideals so as to show the distance between sordid realities and the dream we might strive to realize. Without such a distance or room in our vision for improvement, we would be stranded in the quagmire of particulars and differences. In this sense, I admire American idealism and cherish the image of America as a shining city upon the hill.
Because of my despondency about American pragmatism, I tended to stand aloof, observing life flowing by. Rarely would I get involved in politics. I even grew a little cynical about social activities, believing that everyone acted out of personal interests. During the last election when the final two candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, emerged to compete for the presidency, I would vote for neither. Clinton was an insider, a practical politician, whom I couldn’t trust, whereas Trump was too outrageous and bigoted in his views on many issues. I also knew that Trump’s family had business connections with China, so the Chinese government could find ways to influence him. I simply couldn’t vote for Trump. There was no viable thirdparty candidate for me to root for. I again stood aside and just observed, my despondency deepened by the political rhetoric and controversies I often encountered. I didn’t expect that Trump would win the election, and his success cast gloomy shadows on my mind about America and made me wonder if my adopted country had failed as a democracy.
However, my attitude was utterly changed early this year when Judge James Robart blocked President Trump’s travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim majority countries from being implemented. Robart was only a district judge but could overturn the president’s order on the grounds that it did “not comport with our Constitution.”
This public incident was very personal to me. It meant several things. Despite my despondency and cynicism, American society’s general acceptance of Robart’s ruling against Trump’s order showed that our democratic system was still sound and intact, and it was also a blow to those who were gloating over the US retreat from democracy. It demonstrated that this land was still ruled by law — no one, even the most powerful man on earth, is above law. No matter how great a political issue is, it must find a solution in the law, which everyone must serve and obey. Robart’s ruling struck a sharp contrast with the incident on July 9, 2015, when more than 300 lawyers and legal workers in Chinese cities were detained and interrogated and imprisoned, and some simply disappeared, because they had been helping petitioners and common citizens defend their civil rights. Now I finally understand why at the naturalization ceremony we were asked to swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution, not to a government or a country. The Constitution embodies the true America, a land based on ideas and principles. I was touched by Judge Robart’s ruling, which signifies to me that it’s still possible to live by ideas and ideals. If I have the law on my side, I can sue my country when it violates my rights guaranteed by the Constitution. As I recall the oath of allegiance that specifies “noncombatant service” in armed forces as a new citizen’s duty to defend the Constitution, I am more than ever willing to perform such a duty. If need be, I will be willing to do even “combatant service” for such a defense, because unlike China’s constitution that promises citizens so many rights without ever ensuring the implementation of them, the US Constitution has the supreme legal force and we can rely on it to exercise our civil rights.
Finally, after living in America for 32 years, I feel at peace with my role as a US citizen and can accept myself as an American at heart. This conviction was possible only after I had witnessed the public acceptance of Judge James Robart’s ruling.
This essay appeared in It Occurs to Me that I Am America, an anthology of stories and art by more than 50 of today’s most acclaimed writers and artists, compiled to celebrate the work of the ACLU.