What have you done in the last year to respond to the upheavals in American politics? This is an installment in a series of short essays that reflect on the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.
I live in China. I’ve been here for about eight years. Yes, I used to have an academic career in the States, but then I decided to write full-time. Finding myself in need of a job, I wound up here in China, or, as I have learned to call it, Zhōngguó. And even though this center of the world is no longer very far from the United States, I haven’t been back in several years.
You’ve probably seen Zhōngguó translated as “Middle Kingdom,” but it’s better translated as “center country” — as in, the center of the world. Still, given the distance and the possibility of submerging myself in the irritations and pleasures of day-to-day teaching and living in a place I don’t belong, insulating myself from most American news would be easy. But I do my best to keep up with the news; reading, in particular, Ted Rall, Talking Points Memo, the Intercept, Slate, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books — which tells you my political leanings.
But I also read, and with more avidity, the Singapore Straits Times, the Taiwan Sentinel, the South China Morning Post, and even Radio Free Asia. In the morning when I get up — which is about when most of you are preparing for bed — I look first for news on the Koreas, the potential re-arming of Japan, Taiwanese independence, Himalayan border disputes, the undermining of the “two systems, one country” promise in Hong Kong, and for events in the South China/West Philippine/East Vietnam Sea. This whole region is rife with strongmen and nationalists — particularly China’s General Party Secretary Xi, but also the Philippines’ Duterte, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea’s Kim, India’s Modi (who emerged from the Hindu nationalist movement), and, to a lesser extent, Japan’s Abe. While the success of Taiwan and the Republic of Korea in creating more democratic political systems gives me hope, the general decline of democracy in East Asia and South East Asia discourages me considerably.
All this to say: here in the center of the world Trump seems less extraordinary. Many Chinese like him — the loudmouth style which offends so many of us doesn’t offend here — and they certainly perceived his election as preferable to the election of Clinton. When I add changes in Europe into the picture, Trumpism seems to me a global phenomenon. It makes me wonder: Do we secretly still believe in the American exceptionalism we caution our students against? None of this make me feel more complacent, but perhaps it makes me act so. It can be hard to tell complacency from despair.
As I sit pretending to be, if not a man of international intrigue then at least a citizen of the world (rather than a pathetic secondary character in my own Graham Greene novel), I wonder what I can do from here to help my beleaguered country. What would I do if I came back that you, my former colleagues, are not already doing?
Still, often I think, “I must return.” Perhaps in such moments I see myself as General MacArthur striding through the surf only to reach dry land in the shade of the Statue of Liberty.
Then I remember that not only do I have little to offer, I can’t even find a job. Questions of money, food, and shelter immediately overwhelm thoughts of joining the opposition. Easier to stay in China and sign online petitions — at least until war breaks out in the South China Sea.
In the 20th century Reid Mitchell was an historian of the American Civil War. Now he is Professor of English and Scholar of Fourth Jiangsu Top 100 Talents at Yancheng Teachers University in Jiangsu Province, China.