SHANGHAI, China – Last week, while serious citizens in the United States were watching the Democratic National Convention unfold, I was in Shenzhen. But I was able to catch up with a few convention speeches on my iPad. The last thing I expected, however, was for the DNC to be a topic of water cooler conversation in China.
I had barely sat down with my Chinese girlfriend at a Starbucks in busy downtown Shenzhen before she asked me about Michele Obama.
The Chinese woman, who saw the First Lady’s speech on the Internet, summarized its essence as putting “family” and “faith” foremost in life. My friend can’t imagine any political leader in her country uttering such sentiments. Ordinary Chinese would be at a loss if asked what “faith” he or she professes, she added. If anything, life’s priorities in China are to work hard and earn money.
Of course, I replied that Americans, too, believe in working hard and making money, because after all that’s what pays the bills and we all need to live. Putting “family” and “faith” first is an aspirational goal. Some Americans actually do put these ideals first; others don’t.
The difference might be the American conviction that it’s important to spell out and remind one another that we are held together by common values. The values conversation gets amplified during a presidential election year.
The so-called American Dream is a grand myth. But the myth lives on in the United States, because it’s ingrained in the national ethos. Former Democratic leader Robert Strauss expressed it humorously by saying that the perfect presidential candidate is a man who was born in a log cabin that he built himself.
My Chinese friend looked puzzled when I started talking about the American Dream. I had to explain that, of course, the American Dream isn’t necessarily about becoming the President of the United States, or becoming the richest man in the country. The dream is to ensuring equal opportunity, so that everyone has a chance to succeed.
My question to her was: What’s the Chinese Dream?
Journalist James Fallows popped that question in the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago. He further articulated it in his latest book "China Airborne" and in a special report in the magazine.
It’s a great question, and it sticks in my mind.
A few months ago, a friend living in Beijing reminded me, “Junko, there is even a TV show in China called ‘Chinese Dream.’ It’s very popular. Of course, China has a Chinese Dream!”