I’ve just returned to Hong Kong after two weeks of what I think is a very typical twenty-first century vacation where it was ostensibly supposed to be about unplugging and enjoying time with family and friends, but ended up being more of a hybrid of work and vacation with the boundaries never as clear cut as I would have liked.  My trip home also happened to coincide with the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, which means I was able to catch bits of pieces of what was a very dark and angry four days, culminating in an acceptance speech by Donald Trump that perfectly embodied all of the hate, fear, pessimism, and anger with a dose of the ridiculousness that characterized not only the prior four days, but much of his campaign.  And yet coming back to Hong Kong, I am still happy to be an American.  There is always something about these trips that makes me appreciate where I come from in a way that I did not when I was younger and lived overseas.  While part of it may have to do with the abundant choice in America’s stores, there is also something about being home and recognizing I am a product of my home. Now being happy to be an American and proud of my country are two different things and after witnessing the debacle that was the RNC last week, my pride is being held back until the outcome of the presidential election in November.  There is a lot of hate and fear in the U.S., which is part of the same strain of hate and fear that propelled the “Leave” campaign in the Brexit vote and almost saw a right-wing nationalist get elected to the presidency in Austria.  Beyond these countries, fear and hate are mobilizing large parts of electorates in other European countries as we seem to be caught in a moment where openness, tolerance, and optimism are in short supply.  I understand that I am fortunate as someone who has been able to live and travel around the world and have benefitted from globalization in ways that large segments of the world population have not, but it also frightens me that those who are fearful of the future or angry about what is happening around them cannot take a step back and put things in perspective and realize that we are better off today in so many ways than we were yesterday.  I can’t pretend to know what it is like to have lost one’s job and struggle to find another one because there are no job opportunities available to them, whether its because they simply do not exist where they live or they do not have the requisite skills to get a new job.  I can’t pretend to understand a feeling of being trapped or in despair because I can’t pay my bills and am one medical emergency away from not being able to keep a roof over my head or food on my table.  Yet, the irony in all of this is that it’s me or more accurately, people like me who do not have a clue who are supposed to come up with the policies to help people facing untenable life situations.  One thing I can understand is the appeal of someone who seems to offer a quick fix or has no qualms scapegoating individuals and worse, entire groups of people.  It’s comforting to have someone give voice to the things you may be thinking and to attack those whom you perceive as partly responsible for your lot.  What I have been struggling with is how to connect with people who feel disconnected and angry with the way things have gone, but in a way that is constructive and positive versus destructive and negative.  Unfortunately, the Democrats have not done any better than the Republicans in figuring out how to accomplish this seemingly impossible task.  What the Democrats have done for the most part is not degenerate into name calling and personal attacks, but have actually had debates on policy including the proper role of government in righting these wrongs.  It’s just hard to stomach policy debates when you’re worried about where your next paycheck in coming from or you feel threatened by all of the changes taking place by you.  It’s easier to hark back to another time when things seemed simpler and frankly better.  Even I do that sitting here thinking my life was so much easier when I was younger, but forgetting the angst that came along with adolescence.  I am not trying to pretend I can understand the anguish, hopelessness, or fear that seemingly large segments of the American population are feeling, but I can relate to the idea that we tend to look at the past with rose-colored glasses because it’s known whereas the future is a giant unknown and these days tends to be tinged with darkness.  The challenge is to find a way to regain that optimism that makes Americans uniquely American.  If this post sounds at all jingoistic, I apologize because I am also deeply aware of my country’s flaws and will be the first to acknowledge them, but I also know that in spite of the whatever terrible thing may be happening in the U.S., whether its obstructionist government, a recession, buffoonery among our political class, or more common lately, a gun-related tragedy at every turn, we as a people tend to rise above and move forward.  What scares me now and something I feel more acutely being over 8000 miles from home, thus able to look at things with more perspective, is that we seem to be losing the ability to look and then move forward.  That inability to keep progressing is what may be the most worrisome thing about where we’re currently at as a country.  One side of our political spectrum has decided to capitalize on that inability and turn it into a rallying cry to govern.  The challenge for the other side is to figure out how to appeal to the desire in all of us to move forward and be even better tomorrow than we were the day before, regardless of party affiliation or personal circumstances.  If there ever was a time when we needed hope, it’s more so now than it seems to ever have been, whether it was 1860, 1932, or 2008.

I never thought that I would be writing about 9/11 nearly 11 years after it happened and while sitting in Linyi, but here I go.  It all started yesterday when Ms. Jiang, the woman from Linyi University who is responsible for the international programs, picked us up for a farewell dinner.  She took us on a scenic tour of the city along the river and then down some side streets that I had not been down, including one that went past one of the best schools in Linyi.  Like most Chinese cities, there were quite a few plots of land cleared of old buildings and waiting for new ones to take their place.  As we were driving down the street, one of the plots still had debris from the previous building that had been demolished, including a large portion of the front of what looked like a two or three story market.  From the back seat of the car, John (one of the other professors from UNH), remarked to me that I probably had not seen anything like that (meaning the demolished building) since September 11th.  As soon as I heard his comment, I had a visceral reaction.  I tensed up, turned around, and told him that I thought his comment was highly inappropriate and not something that I expected to hear out of his mouth.  What was most remarkable was that he did not apologize or even act as if he realized that his comment had affected me deeply.  He just continued prattling on about how there were so few new buildings in New York and even went so far as to ask me where I was for 9/11.

Yesterday’s incident instantly took me back to that time.  I was living in Hong Kong at the time, working as an investment banker at Salomon/Citigroup, and it was evening in HK when the events transpired back in New York on what was a most perfect late summer day.  Being 7000 miles from home when something unprecedented of that magnitude happens is indescribable, so I am not even going to try.  What I can do is tell you what happened in my office in Hong Kong because of course we were working past 8pm on a Tuesday night as investment bankers.  As word of the attacks spread, most of us were either on the phone trying to connect with loved ones back in the States or watching the events live on big projection screens in one of our conference rooms.  The Hong Kong office of Salomon had quite a few Chinese nationals working there and they were also watching the events unfold back in New York.  When the first tower fell, many of these Chinese bankers began clapping and cheering as if their national soccer team had won the World Cup, like what was happening was some spectator sport.  One of my American colleagues was so angry at the combination of the towers collapsing and the apparent glee of the Chinese bankers that he punched a wall.  I also remember feeling angry and intensely American at that moment, scared of what this moment meant for the future of my country and wholly cut off from my Chinese colleagues.

John’s comment yesterday immediately brought me back to that moment when my Chinese colleagues were clapping and cheering as the first tower fell and I felt alone.  In all my time back in China since that moment, even when U.S. – China relations were at low points, when I would be asked where I was from and I replied “America” or 美国 (Meiguo, meaning beautiful country), the reaction was always largely positive.  I am not one for the sacred or taboo, but to joke about an event like 9/11 feels like crossing some invisible line.  Perhaps I am overreacting, but I just think back to that day many years ago when there was a feeling of glee from my Chinese colleagues that America had received her comeuppance and I wonder if that feeling still persists among Chinese people.  Having lived abroad relatively long periods, I have learned that many people are able to separate their love of Americans and all things American from their distaste for the country’s leaders and policies, something especially apparent during the Bush years.  But how sincere is this separation and what is to prevent distaste for one from seeping into the other.  Whenever I travel and live abroad, I try to be the best ambassador for the States that I can be, taking a balanced view to America’s policies and avoiding any of the typical “Ugly American” behavior.  Yet sometimes I cannot avoid this feeling of intense patriotism and the need to defend my country from unwarranted attacks, which is not something that easily jives with my liberal and largely unpatriotic tendencies.  The fact that John, someone who made the choice to leave China to raise his family in the States with a job in American academia, a comfortable existence in suburban Connecticut, and a son at a top American college would choose to make such an insensitive comment just baffles me.

The comment also raises the larger issue that I touched on before about whether the professed love of America by the average Chinese person is genuine.  It also raises the question about soft power, which I think is one of America’s greatest tools in its foreign policy arsenal.  American brands and culture are everywhere around the world and have pervaded even the most remote corners of the planet.  We all have a story about being in the middle of nowhere and then stumbling upon something that reminds them at home, whether it’s a song, movie, or product.  Secretary of State Clinton has made repeated comments about the strength of American soft power and its importance in the overarching umbrella of American foreign policy, but those more hawkish on American foreign policy tend to pooh-pooh this part of our diplomatic efforts.  Living and visiting China, I think it’s folly to downplay the importance of soft power.  If it was not important, China would not be trying to do the same thing and harness its soft power to extend its influence around the world.  It’s why Xinhua, the Chinese government’s news agency, opened its North American headquarters in New York’s Times Square in 2011 and announced plans to launch a 24-hour global English-language news channel.  When our main rival is seeking to project its own soft power around the world, I think it’s a clear sign that this part of foreign policy should not be ignored.

All of the various exchanges that American institutions and companies have established with Chinese counterparts are part of extending the reach of soft power and provide tangible and meaningful interactions for many Chinese people who only know about Americans from what they see in movies and TV shows.  Will more soft power eliminate reactions like those from my Chinese colleagues all those years ago when the Twin Towers collapsed?  Perhaps not completely, but such power will go a long to building links between people and tapping into that universal human feeling of sympathy and understanding.  As for John’s comment, he’s a nice guy and has been very welcoming, so I am not taking it personally, but I must admit that I did look at him a little differently when we met to go to class this morning.  I think my change in how I view him is merely because I am just incredulous that someone could make a comment like that, especially to an American who he knows has strong ties to New York.