Red States, Blue States

by Alice Zhao | 11/14/08 8:18am

"We're immigrating to America?"

I equated moving to the United States with moving to a different universe. At age nine, I resisted leaving my friends, my house and the Chinese newspapers on the kitchen table for a new world. In my childish mind, America equaled space stations, aliens and foreign printed materials -- not the familiar comforts of home. I welcomed dinnertime conversations about the move about as much as the mysteriously limp vegetables on my plate. What bothered me most, however, was being excluded from the after-dinner political discussions, especially after one of the adults caught my friends and me eavesdropping.

Shortly after the move, I realized my new American home and friends weren't as foreign as I had first expected. But the first newspaper I opened was just as alien as I imagined. The opinion pages condemned, criticized and satirized politicians and policies -- content that I didn't remember from those Chinese newspapers on the kitchen table. The Chinese opinion pages lacked the sheer derision their American counterparts had for many candidates and policies. Whereas the U.S. pages ranged from scathing to quasi-complimentary, the Chinese ones nine years ago ranged from loosely critical to sycophantic.

The disparity between the Chinese and American print media underscores theunderlying tone of political discourse in the two countries. The American system featured -- and still features -- door-to-door canvassing efforts, negative political advertisements and lively lunchtime conversations about Sarah Palin. In contrast, the Chinese system featured fewer political volunteers and public political discussions, as well as less critical writing and reporting. Although tolerance for political expression has increased in recent years in China, differences between the U.S. and Chinese systems persist.

The two presidential campaigns I've witnessed since the move reflect these disparities. The recent swath of canvassing volunteers contrasts sharply with the dearth of door-to-door campaigners in my childhood. I don't recall strangers knocking on my door with political agendas and shiny stickers -- U.S.-style political campaigners didn't exist in my neighborhood.

In contrast,several partisan and non-partisan Dartmouth volunteers grilled me on my political leanings before the recent election. When I told them I couldn't vote, they produced an impressive collection of posters and buttons for "other methods of participation." Thus armed, my friends and I took full advantage of the American political system to express our views. We were the random strangers dispensing campaign paraphernalia at people's doors. We plastered the aforementioned collection on windows, doors and bulletins, bathing our dorms. We subtly and not so subtly worked our policy preferences into everyday conversations.

The election atmosphere across campus seemed utterly alien compared to the less politically open one of my childhood. Most adults held political conversations at home, with friends and eavesdropping children, not with strangers at public dining halls. The idea of campaign paraphernalia was ludicrous in itself, as was the display of political stickers in public areas.

Now, my favorite sticker to display is the one for which my dormmates dragged me out of bed on Election Day. They saved an "I voted" sticker from their early morning trek to Hanover High, a symbolic gesture I appreciated when I picked up The Dartmouth that day. This very Opinion page reflected the diversity of political ideologies, which -- like the sticker -- symbolized a degree of political expression I hope my childhood friends will attain as different political opinions become more and more acceptable at home in China.

Granted, freedom of speech was not a top priority when I was nine. Nine years later, however, it defines my role as an Opinion columnist. Printed conversations should further political discussions, offering a repertoire of viewpoints instead of merely reflecting a fraction of them. Self-expression should only be edited for clarity, style and good taste so readers can "vote" on its merit, not its ideology.

Indeed, the ideas for this column first crossed my mind on election night. Sandwiched between liberal and conservative friends, I realized I didn't even dream of writing a politicallyoriented column nine years ago, let alone seeing it in print. That was the America my parents spoke of around the dinner table.