Arriving in the U.S. for the first time three years ago, suddenly my primary identity was being Chinese. Peers in America interacted with me based on their impression of China. That impression is usually negative and full of misunderstandings. Adding to my indignation were my ego and vulnerability as a newcomer in a new country. So, I promptly became a Chinese nationalist.
I took people's criticism of China very personally. Like a conditioned reflex, I would jump on any critiques of China, and rush to defend whatever the Chinese government did. Seventeen years of patriotic education showed its value by providing me with all kinds of slogans. If someone mentioned human rights issues in China, I would immediately fire back: "You Western hypocrites, stop pointing fingers and promoting your ideology. That's our internal affair." Or, I would tell people that my goal in life is to make China rich and powerful, the 21st century superpower.
As I happily rode the nationalist rollercoaster, my own ego became inseparable from China's ego. My vanity became a byproduct of China's global reputation. Also, out of my own insecurity, I hurried to mobilize the entire China to back up my arguments. "How dare you disagree with me! I speak for 1.3 billion people and five thousands years of history! What have you got?"
But slowly and painfully, I came to understand a few things through living and studying in the U.S.
First, China's rise comes at a huge cost to its own people, and has created anxiety (or even suffering in some cases) in parts of the world. If China doesn't alter its course, then this rising superpower is no good for itself or for the rest of the world.
Second, I realized that my nationalism is a result of two forces: my own ego, and other people's prejudice. My subconscious reasoning goes like this: I care about what you think of me; what you think of me is largely influenced by what you know of China; therefore, I care about China. In essence, I was defending my own ego and fighting against others' prejudice by using China as a proxy.
Third, I realized that before I am a Chinese, I am a human being. And before I am a human being, I am just another one of the millions of sentient beings. If I am able to love China, then I should be able to love all cultures and nations in the world. And if I can love humanity, then there is no reason why I shouldn't care about all sentient beings on earth with the same humility and compassion. So, a new identity and mission emerged from the rubbles of unexamined nationalism.
This inner transformation is one of the reasons why I came to a liberal arts college in the U.S. in the first place. Through questioning and being questioned, through critique and self-reflection, we let go of the comfort of the familiar chains and learn to embrace the foreignness of a new freedom of mind and character. Such transformation is by no means uncommon among international students in the U.S., or American students who study abroad. This is the power of education, of travel, and of critical thinking.
Today, I still love China, but what that means has fundamentally changed. I would still return to China eventually because that is where I can have the most positive impact, not just for China, but for the world; not just for human society, but for all sentient beings. My "nationalism" has undergone a life-changing transformation -- Made in USA. For that, I am grateful.