I love the Olympics. Not for sports - I could care less, frankly, though I enjoy watching the more obscure things, like fencing. I like the Olympics because the nationalism is just so immensely wrong and amusing.
Friday, my friends and I made up a drinking game during the Beijing opening ceremonies. For kicks, and because we are students of the problematic ways our media covers other countries during the Olympics, we made a list of things that might be said or shown during NBC coverage of the games that might be a little problematic or just drive us nuts.
If they say the words, 'ancient,' 'mysterious,' sleeping dragon,' 'paper tiger';
if they imply Chinese 'inscrutability';
if color commentary registers surprise at any aspect of Chinese culture;
if color commentary confuses any aspect of Chinese culture with any other Asian culture;
if color commentary points out every Chinese American athlete and wonders aloud how great it must feel to be 'home';
if coverage shows common/stereotypical western images of China - the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, dragons, or anonymous teeming crowds;
and extra drinks for all if any misunderstanding of Chinese culture gets called out on air.
Our real list was actually longer (and also included how many times Mao is mentioned, problematic social policies and continuous stats on the population) and, within a half hour of the opening ceremonies, we were intoxicated. By the end of the opening ceremony there were so many drinks taken, we were all laid out on the floor.
Welcome to the Orientalizing Gaze. Though his book didn't include China in its analysis, Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) describes Orientalism as a discourse that makes certain generalizations about the 'East' which serve to paint the Other as inferior (or unknown) and, as a result, the Western subject as superior since the West 'knows' or recognizes the Other. (That's a huge reduction of his main thesis, but that basically covers it.) Said says that, mostly, what the Western gaze sees and reproduces is myth.
And you see the power of that myth in the NBC framing of the story around these opening ceremonies. What's really interesting to me is that there was a huge gap in the representation of China, depending on who was doing the talking. First there's the NBC color commentators - who provided us with all of the problematic dialogue; then there's the 'talking' done by the ceremony itself - but which had to be interpreted by an NBC 'expert' on China. So basically, we didn't see China represent itself at all but saw it through a scrim covered by another scrim covered by another. Will the real China please stand up?
For me, one of the telling moments was midway through the ceremony (which was probably the most gorgeous and amazing one I've seen, truthfully). The NBC expert pointed out the Chinese character for 'harmony' and went on to explain how this theme of 'harmony' will appear throughout the games and the rest of the ceremony; then he went on to bring attention to the irony that this Confucian idea of 'harmony' is at odds with every day reality, how things are quite 'dis-harmonious' within China - i.e., their social, political and environmental policies.
He clarified for Bob Costas and Jim Lampley, "So, actually, this concept of harmony is, you know, an ideal.' As in, completely fake.
I tipsily snarked back to the screen, 'Yeah, sorta like our ideal of democracy.'
The beam in your own eye and all that.
It's easy to 'see' or to 'know' the inconsistent self-fictions of another country (or to think that we do) but it's quite another to see ourselves do the same thing. The NBC expert sneers at Xiang Yimou wanting to include harmony in his country's self-presentation and his tone implies that the Chinese identity is hopelessly broken and false (handily tapping into the stereotype of the false Oriental); but in the same way, isn't our national identity split, too? Our actions are one thing, our ideals another and never the twain shall meet.
Take, for instance, our President at the opening ceremonies. He's there to present an ideal face of America to the world - to embody gravitas, democracy, freedom, liberty, prudence, or whatever else we expect from our President. But what do we actually get? A man in a wrinkled gray suit, looking at his watch, waiting for the whole thing to end. There's your ideal, right there, folks.
[Want more on Said? Go here for a really great intro to his work.]