Apr 17

My Story and the Chinese Dream Behind It

Written by Nimrod on Friday, April 17th, 2009 at 4:52 am
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Bai Yansong (here’s his biography), the famed CCTV anchor, was on a trip to film his travels and observations in the US, when he gave this following speech at Yale University recently. (Here is the original.) It has a “commencement speech” style to it and is of general interest. Here is a translation for your consumption.

My Story and the Chinese Dream Behind It

In the past twenty years, China has faced three American presidents, but till coming to Yale today, I never realized that China really just faced one university. Although, through these three presidents, I understand that the quality of Yale graduates is not so even.

Let me begin my main subject and let me give it a title, called “My Story and the Chinese Dream Behind It”. I want to talk about five particular years. The first is 1968. That year I was born. But it was also a chaotic year for the world. In France, there was this huge street disturbance, and in America, too. Then President Kennedy was assassinated. However, I really did not cause all of these! But that year what we remember more was the assassination of Mr. Martin Luther King. Although he fell that year, his words “I have a dream” stood up, not only stood up in America, but across the whole world.

But sadly, not only for me, but for almost all Chinese, we did not know such a dream. It was hard to describe each Chinese as having his or her own dream. China and America were so far apart, no less far apart than the Moon and the Earth. But I didn’t care about any of that. All I cared about was could I have a full meal. Clearly, I was born at a very inconvenient time, not only for China, but even for the world, there were problems.

In 1978, ten years later, I was 10. I still lived in the very little city that had only 200 thousand people at the time I was born. It was 2000 km from Beijing. If you wanted to read the newspaper from Beijing, you waited three days. So for us, there was no such thing as news. That year my grandfather passed away. Two years before that my father passed away. So there was just my mother left to take care of me and my brother. Her monthly salary was not even ten dollars. As a result, even though I was 10, the word “dream” was still not in my vocabulary, and I would never think of it. I could not see hope in this family, but only felt bitter cold every winter. Where we lived was close to the Soviet Union. Yet the 1978 in which I could not see hope was also the year that a huge change took place, whether for China or for the relationship between China and America. That is a date that everybody here today should remember.

December 16, 1978, China and America officially established diplomatic relations. That was a big event. And two days after that, December 18 was when China opened the 3rd Plenary Session of the Eleventh CPC Central Committee. That was the beginning of thirty-one years of Reform and Opening. History, two great nations, and a very pitiful family all became intertwined in a theatrical way. Truthfully, from the small personal family, to the big family of the country, nobody then had any idea what the future would be like.

In 1988, I was 20. At this time I had already come out of the little border town to Beijing as a university student. Although we have many people in China today criticizing China’s university entrance exams and see many many deficiencies in it, it must be said that it is such a system that allowed very ordinary people like me to have the opportunity to change our lives. Of course, at that time, America was no longer a very distant country. It became very specific. It was no longer the “Imperialist America” of the past slogans, but it became the many details in our lives. This was the first time that I tasted Coca-Cola. When I finished drinking it I believed China and America were truly so close, because it tasted just like Chinese medicine.

That was a time when I took a crazy liking to rock’n’roll. That was a time when Michael Jackson still looked relatively handsome. More importantly, that was a time when China experienced very big transformations, as Reform and Opening had already gone on for ten years. That year, China began experimenting with market pricing for many goods. It may feel like something totally incomprehensible to you, but it was a big deal in China, a huge step, because before that the prices were decided by the government. But in that year, because price controls were relaxed, the whole country went on a crazy shopping spree. Everybody all thought, how long could this last, so they had to get a whole life’s worth of food and goods to bring home. That year symbolized that China marched closer and closer to a market economy.

Of course back then nobody knew that market economy could also have a subprime crisis. Anyway, I know that 1988 was an extra important year for Yale, because a Yale alum once again became an American President.

In 1998, I was 30. I had already become a news anchor at CCTV. More importantly, I had become the father of a one-year-old child. That year a very important thing happened between China and America, and the protagonist was Clinton. Perhaps you remember his sexual scandal in America, but in China what we remember is his visit to China that year. In June, when he visited China, he and President Jiang Zemin held an open press conference in the Great Hall of the People. Then he gave an open lecture at Peking University. The live anchor for both events was me.

During Clinton’s lecture at Peking University, because he used his own translator the whole time, I guessed that many Chinese viewers only knew that Clinton was definitely saying something, but what he said wasn’t all that clear. So near the end of my live broadcast, I remarked that it looked like for America to learn more about China, sometimes it needed to start with language, though for our two countries, face-to-face was always better than back-to-back. It was also at the beginning of that year that I drove the first car in my life. For me this was unimaginable before, that Chinese people one day would also drive their own cars. A personal delight can also make a lasting impression, because sometimes the first time is the most unforgettable.

In 2008, I was 40. The words “I have a dream” that haven’t been discussed for many years now were heard among so many Americans. It seemed like Obama really did not want to accept Yale’s 20-year occupation of America. Using words like “change” and “dream”, he even convinced Yale teachers and students to parade and celebrate his election to the Presidency, according to what I’ve heard.

But this was also a year in which the Chinese Dream showed clearly. After encountering many setbacks as any grand dream in the world is destined to, it came through. Whether it was the long-awaited Beijing Olympics, or the first spacewalk by a Chinese aboard the Shenzhou 7, these were all dreams which we have waited for a long time since a long time ago. But the sudden Sichuan Earthquake made all this not as magnificent as we had expected. Eighty-thousand lives departed, and made every day of 2008 seem like a year. I’m guessing that on Yale’s campus, on every web site, in front of television and newspapers, were also many people from China, and people in all parts of the world, who shed tears for these lost lives. Just like forty years ago when Mr. Martin Luther King fell but allowed the words “I have a dream” to stand higher, more enduring, and seem ever more valuable, more Chinese people also came to understand that dreams are important, but lives are even more so.

During the Olympics, I passed my own fortieth birthday. That day I was full of emotional thoughts, because when the day of my birthday approached, I was broadcasting an exciting competition. Twenty-four hours later, when my birthday was passing, I was still broadcasting. But that day I felt very fortunate. Because it was such a special fortieth birthday at the Beijng Olympics that made me realize the Chinese Dream behind my personal story.

It was in this kind of forty years that I went from a far-away border-town kid who had no possibility of having a dream, to a newsman who could be at a big festival celebrated with all of humanity and who could communicate and share the happiness with them. This was a life story that took place in China. And in this year, China and America were not far apart. There was a bit of me in you and a bit of you in me, we needed each other. It was said that President Bush spent the longest time in any country abroad as President, and that was during the Beijing Olympics. Phelps took eight medals there, and his family was there by his side. All Chinese wished that extraordinary family well. Of course, every dream will pass. In such a year, China and America almost simultaneously found their new “I have a dream” moment, and it was so coincidental, and so deserving.

America is facing a very very difficult financial crisis, and it isn’t only America, but it affects the whole world seriously. Yesterday I got to New York. As soon as I deplaned, I went to Wall Street. There I saw the statue of President Washington. His gaze was permanently fixed on the huge American flag on the stock exchange. Interestingly, the hall behind the statue was holding an exhibition on “President Lincoln in New York”, so President Lincoln’s huge portrait was also on it, and he also gazed at the flag. I felt the very solemn weight of history. When I left there, I told my colleague this. I said, many many years ago, if something like this befell America, perhaps Chinese people would have taken pleasure, because see, America is miserable again. But today, Chinese people would especially wish that America get better soon. Because we have hundreds of billions worth of money with America. We also have a huge quantity of products waiting to be put on freighters and sent to America. If America’s economy takes a step for the better, it means behind these products, another Chinese gets a raise, it means he regains his employment and happiness in the family.

In the past 30 years, I don’t know if you’ve noticed the Chinese Dream that is relevant to more and more ordinary Chinese people. I don’t know what other country in this world, in the past 30 years, has changed the individual fates at this magnitude. A kid from a remote small city on the periphery, a kid in despair, today has the chance to have an exchange with these Yale students. Maybe we can change the viewpoint, and look at 1.3 billion very ordinary Chinese, their down-to-earth dreams, their impulsive drive to change their fates, their still kindhearted temperament, and their diligent character. Today’s China is made up of these words I just spoke.

In the past many years, Chinese seemed to be looking at America through a telescope. So everything good that is in America was magnified by this telescope. Frequently people mentioned America was like this and like that, then look at us, when can we be like that. In the past many years, Americans also seemed to be looking at China through a telescope, but I am guessing they held it backwards. Because what they saw was a diminished, always-doing-wrong, full-of-problems China. They overlooked 1.3 very ordinary Chinese people and this impulsive drive and urge of theirs to change their fate, which caused such huge transformations in our country. But I also always had this dream: why do we need to use telescopes to look at each other?

Of course I hope very many Americans have a chance to go see China, and not to look at China through the media. You know I don’t really trust all of my colleagues. I’m just kidding. Actually I respect my American colleagues very much. I only hope that more and more American friends go to see a real China. Because I can at least guarantee one thing. Even if in America you ate what is deemed to be the best Chinese food, in won’t fetch a good price in China. Just like many many years ago, in every city of China there was this popular “California Beef Noodle” shop. Many Chinese all thought, anything from America was definitely very very tasty. So they all went to eat. Although it was not very tasty, they didn’t complain because they knew it was from America. This fast-food chain existed in China for many years, until more and more Chinese people came to America, and searched every corner of California for a California Beef Noodle shop, and could not find a single one. Only then did more and more Chinese know that California doesn’t have such beef noodle, so this chain store in China is in the process of disappearing. This is the kind of discrepancy I am talking about. As we come and go, such misunderstandings will be fewer and fewer.

So lastly I just want to say one thing again. Forty years ago, when Mr. Martin Luther King fell down, his words “I have a dream” spread across the world. But, you must know that there is not just an English version of “I have a dream.” In the distant East, in the China that has held on for thousands of years, there is also a dream. It isn’t a grandiose slogan, it doesn’t lie with the government. It belongs to every ordinary Chinese. It is “I have a dream” written in Chinese.

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12 Responses to “My Story and the Chinese Dream Behind It”

  1. Charles Liu Says:

    “In the past many years, Americans also seemed to be looking at China through a telescope, but I am guessing they held it backwards.”

    Couldn’t agree more. With June 4th approaching our China-bashing ritual has become routine.

  2. Kage Musha Says:

    Thanks for this translation. It’s a really interesting speech, putting the ordinary Chinese in perspective.
    Chinese are the same as every American, they have their own dream and goals and are pursuing them.

  3. Raj Says:

    Nimrod, thank you for taking the trouble to translate it.

    But I also always had this dream: why do we need to use telescopes to look at each other?

    Despite the well-worn comment that the world is always “getting smaller”, most people are unable to even partly experience other countries for themselves. The US is remote for most Chinese and vice versa so they will always be viewed from afar. The growth of the internet and accessible media both helps and hinders the understanding of other countries, as it’s hard to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.

    But without “telescopes” neither Americans nor Chinese would learn much about the other of any substance. The trick is to work out which model gives you the best view.

  4. Bill Rich Says:

    A great story. The rest of China must be like this sample of one.

  5. yo Says:

    Great job nimrod! I love to see these types of pieces.

  6. daniel Says:

    I am the same age. When I was young my dream was to become an astronaut and explore the galaxy.
    But when I was 20, I clearly remember the crazy month from may to June 89. It is hard to believe such an event wasn’t part of his speech.
    The 89 events from my point of view has largely defined China of today : wealth but no poilitical freedom. I am sure though, the dream of 89 hasn’t died.

  7. Charles Liu Says:

    Daniel, what ever do you mean “no political freedom”? Grassroot democracy and electon have expanded to township and district level now.

  8. RickB Says:

    Thanks for publishing this. It was a touching speech. I hope it will be effective in motivating people to leave their comfortable shells of prejudice and explore the world with open minds: Americans to China, as they so freely are able, and Chinese to America, if they can miraculously manage to obtain the exit visas from their political freedom loving government.
    Not only is China a political prison that won’t even allow its own people to move freely from city to city (be honest, Charles), let alone from mainland to Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan, but there are people currently sitting in prisons or working in labor camps just because they’d like their grievances to be heard. There is genuine and reasonable fear in the hearts of every citizen.
    “Grassroot democracy” is merely China Daily propaganda that nobody believes. I’ve heard of only one possible single example, having to do with a school far from Beijing allowing a school board to appoint a principal instead of the normal political appointment process. I don’t know if it’s been allowed to continue. Let’s hope so.
    I love the people of China, and Nimrod’s article beautifully expresses the hope that truly lies in the chest of hundreds of millions of dear Chinese people. Hope for real freedom.

  9. minzhi tang Says:

    I like this speech. The relationship between America and China is definitely a huge topic. Bai gave his own story behind it really make it touching and touchable. China has changed a lot indeed during past 50 years.

  10. soft Says:

    I like your story.


  1. My Story and the Chinese Dream Behind It
  2. Bai Yansong’s Yale speech « Night Ferry

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