Gao Xiaosong on America

Gao Xiaosong (高晓松) is a Chinese media personality known for his music, film work, and perhaps most influentially in his role as a judge on China’s Got Talent (中国达人秀) and Super Girls (超级女声). Despite a drunk driving arrest that ended his position as judge on China’s Got Talent 2 in May 2011, Gao remains popular. He’s now the host of his own talk show on the Chinese video site Youku: Xiao Shuo (晓说). The weekly show features Gao commenting on subjects ranging from World Cup football to American health care reform in an episode recently discussed by the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos.

Gao, who has lived and traveled in the US, later published another episode on America, this time focused on racial dynamics and, perhaps surprisingly, geography. (Watch on Youku here: 第二十期:”看美国”系列之《美国人与物》)

In the episode, he describes the US as a melting pot for immigrants the world over. According to Gao, the largest ethnic group in the US are WASPs, or White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Other racial and ethnic stereotypes are played equally fast and loose: Jews are good at art and doing business; ethnic Germans are innately warlike; Italians are mobsters.

Gao offers up such statements with breezy assertions that the truth is self-evident: Jewish acumen in business and art is behind Hollywood’s global influence and military men from Pershing to Eisenhower were ethically German. When discussing Italians, a clip from the Godfather plays in the background. Gao’s comments and the degree to which they are or are not racist in the Chinese context is a tricky topic. In China, the use of ethnic stereotypes is perhaps as common as it was in mainstream American society in the 1950s, and it is often not intended to be malicious. The overwhelming majority of Chinese people have had no personal contact with foreigners, and they tend to be taught about foreigners in the same way former generations of Americans and British were taught about Eskimos. Gao’s comments can sound a little rough translated directly into English. (Listen to this Sinica podcast discussion of racism in China for more on the context of Chinese stereotyping of different types of foreigners). What is clear is that Gao is a proponent of America’s openness to immigration; he believes that the US is second only second to Singapore in terms of its welcoming nature and lack of discrimination against Chinese people.

Gao also talks about American geography, particularly its importance to the question of the China-America rivalry. He has a pilgrim’s perspective on America: the soil is fertile, the land flat and water resources are abundant. China, on the other hand, becomes mountainous past the eastern seaboard and stays that way until the deserts of Xinjiang. His travels in the US also lead to unpredictable conclusions: I-95, an interstate highway running through busy East Coast cities, is declared a beautiful drive, while Yosemite National Park is nothing but barren hills.

Here are some notable quotes translated from the episode of Gao’s show described above:

Gao Xiaosong on America – a selection of quotes

“Of course, ethnically English people, or WASPs as they’re known, are America’s largest ethnicity. WASP refers to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Now what do WASPs do? WASPs established and maintain America’s mainstream values, its fundamental value system even today. When we’re talking about American spirit, the American dream, American mainstream values, we’re talking about these people.”

“All American presidents have all been WASPs, though more recently things have started to change. As a black guy, Obama clearly doesn’t count; the first letter in WASP, after all, is a ‘W’ for ‘White’! Before Obama, the only non-WASP to get elected was John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic. And although Obama’s skin is black, his campaign platform and the personal and cultural attitudes he’s shared are WASP attitudes. That’s why Americans voted for him.”

“What else are Jewish people good at [other than business]? Music! At one point more than half of the world’s violinists and pianists were Jews. So, Jewish people are adept in music and business, which is why Hollywood could only happen in America. In other places, people are either good at business or good at art; England, France, China are all like this. But only Jews love doing business and creating art and the result is Hollywood. It’s their place. When I was hanging out in Hollywood, we never said ‘cheers’, only ‘mazeltov.'”

“The vast majority of people in American high-tech, from Silicon Valley to NASA, are Chinese engineers. Chinese IQs are about even with Jewish people; together they’re the two smartest ethnicities in the US. It’s just that they have different interests. Smart Jewish guys are doing business, whereas smart Chinese guys are doing research. One time I heard someone say about Silicon Valley that ‘our most important product isn’t a PC but IC.’ ‘IC’ means Indian and Chinese. In Silicon Valley, if you’re not Indian you’re Chinese.”

“I think the reason America attracts so much immigration is because god must have given them the world’s best land. There are plenty of reasons why China doesn’t attract much immigration, but one reason for sure is that there’s just no room.”

“Once I drove from Key West, the southernmost point in the US, to the Canadian border… and the whole ride up there were forests along the road. I drove along I-95 [major north-south highway along the US east coast] and it was forests all the way, really beautiful.”

“As everyone knows, the main river in the US is the Mississippi, which is really similar to the Yangtze. America has a ton in common with China. In this case, though, the quality of the rivers is different. Their lengths are about the same, but the Mississippi moves about 10 times more freight than the Yangtze.”

“The US has almost everything [in terms of natural resources], which is why kinds of extreme conservatism like isolationism frequently crop up. The thinking is, ‘What do we need from anyone else? Why should we get involved with anyone else? If there’s a war somewhere, it won’t affect us; that’s their problem. We’ve got everything we need right here.’ So the US has seen different waves of this kind of isolationist thinking during both the First and Second World War.”

“Because there aren’t places in the US clearly better than others [in terms of natural resources], the population isn’t concentrated in any one direction. Whereas in China, everybody is in the southeast along the ocean because everything is there: flat land, the ocean nearby, good transportation, etc. So the population has exploded in the southeast and so has industry, business, education etc. But the consistency across the US means there’s no particular direction that people will head. The US is probably the only country in the world like this.”

“So how to beat the US? Alright, well, tech people are running to the US, performers are running to the US, even politicians can immigrate. The governor of California was an immigrant from Austria! Of course there are plenty of reasons why America attracts lots of immigration, but at the end of the day the main reason is their system. You know, freedom, equality, opportunity, no discrimination. If you’re Chinese, you know that of anywhere in the world, other than Singapore, you get the least discrimination in the US. If you go to other countries, Chinese people are seriously discriminated against. If you go to Europe, well yeah, France is beautiful, Paris and the Left Bank are nice, but you won’t be accepted in society, people will always say, ‘You’re not French.’ In the US it doesn’t matter what you look like, everybody will think you’re an American. If you look like me everyone thinks you’re American. Whether you’re black, white, red, you’ve got a feather in your hair, doesn’t matter.”

“Now of course plenty of people will curse at me, say I worship the US or something like that. America has lots of problems, and I’m going to get around to those problems [in later episodes], but I just wanted to touch on a few positives first.”

Links and sources
The New Yorker: So let me explain how American health care works
Youku: 晓说, 第二十期:”看美国”系列之《美国人与物》

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