There is clearly a disconnect between American perceptions of China and Chinese perceptions of themselves (and of Americans). From the inscrutable Charlie Chan to the evil Fu Manchu, there is a majority American racialized fear of China, the ‘yellow peril’ depicted in the “Chinese professor” political ad (aired during the last presidential campaign). This fear exists along with the social dismissal of Chinese Americans, the perpetual foreigners: a model minority, that is less of threat since the men are seen as hypo-sexualized (unmasculine, non-aggressive) and the women are seen as passive, exotic beauties (while both are seen as good at math). They are only to be feared when there are crowds of them, like the hordes of ‘Asians in the library.’
The sea-borne arrival of Europeans in China shattered the Chinese identity of being the ‘middle kingdom’ (zhong guo, the center of the world), and starting with the unequal treaties from the Opium War in the mid-19th century, led to the 150 years of shame as the ‘sick man of Asia.’ With the spread of social Darwinism in the late 19th/early 20th century in China, there developed a fear of racial extinction at the hands of the Europeans. So while China’s emergence as an economic power in the late 20th century has scared Americans, Chinese are still recovering from the sense of inferiority from the 19th century.
Portrayals in popular culture then continue to hit raw nerves, for both Chinese and Chinese-Americans (i.e., the controversy over Allison Gold). There continues to be a widespread lack of cultural self-confidence among both Chinese and Chinese-Americans, but one that for Chinese is rooted in historical experiences and nationalistic dreams, while for Chinese-Americans is rooted in American cultural politics and racism. While the Kimmel skit is in poor taste, the raw nerves that it hits among Chinese comes from this problem in cultural self-confidence – 30 years of Chinese socialism further eroded the strength of Chinese cultural tradition through its attacks on Confucius and feudal superstition/thinking. I’ve seen this played out in seemingly innocuous cultural issues in China, whether it be the failure of Chinese men’s soccer to achieve a modicum of success in world competition to the inability of Chinese popular culture to create a “Chinese wave” (unlike the Koreans). The question of why Chinese can’t make inroads in popular culture was a serious one during Psy’s reign of Gangnam style last year (why can’t we be as fun as the Koreans). When combined with Americans general fear and ignorance about China (as well as other parts of the world), these kinds of cultural misunderstandings and conflicts will continue to happen.
At a micro-level, these issues play out on our university campuses everyday, with the increasingly large numbers of mainland Chinese students that come to study in the United States. While American colleges and universities are actively recruiting Chinese students to come to their campuses (excelling in academics and paying full, undiscounted tuition), many mainland Chinese students are feeling alienated on American campuses due to cultural differences (see for example why Chinese students don’t party). With increasing numbers of mainland Chinese students, traditional alliances between Chinese Americans and Chinese students are also frayed, in that diaspora Chinese are not seen as authentically Chinese by mainland students, while their majority American students don’t see them as fully American (the ‘where are you really from’ microagression problem).