Zhihang Du | 2017年8月16日
“Storytellers” in the Making
It has been almost a month since we bade each other farewell after the four-day meeting in Beijing. One of the themes carried out throughout this meeting as well as the previous sessions was the balance between commonalities and differences. Though a large part of our conversations centered on the differences we have in culture, political system, and economic structure, there is one thing I believe we all agree on: conveying the right message is crucial in China-U.S. dialogues, and we all need to be better “storytellers.”
In her TED Talk, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned people of “the danger of a single story,” the self-reinforcing stereotypes created from misunderstanding or overgeneralization. Unfortunately, both Chinese and Americans are reading and manufacturing loads of “single stories” about the other side every day. For the majority, hegemonism is China’s single story of the United States in international politics, and Panda Express is the U.S.’s single story of Chinese food. Even though there may be an element of truth in these stories, as Adichie pointed out in her talk, “start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.” If we miss the whole picture, we get completely different story lines.
Seldom can anyone be unaffected by the single stories making the rounds. At the U.S. Embassy in China, I was surprised to see how little some diplomats knew or cared about China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. They had developed their single story of it, seeing the initiative as a largely vague, low-quality proposal that prompted a lot of risky investment overseas. Their single story clearly affected their professionalism, as some of them, irrespective of the Chinese official abbreviation, referred to the recent Belt and Road Forum using a highly pejorative acronym, one that is not seen or used anywhere in government papers and websites.
Even the well-informed top leaders of both sides can sometimes fall victim to the miscalculations resulting from their single stories. Recent events suggest that misperceptions persist in high-level exchange, as China protests against a series of actions taken by the United States, which are considered to be “counter to the spirit of the Mar-a-Lago summit.” As Professor Wilder commented, for the U.S. side, the abrupt end of the honeymoon was yet another case where Trump “heard what he wanted to hear” regardless of the intended message from the other side.
The importance of storytelling in cross-cultural communications can never be overestimated. “Ping pong diplomacy,” a prelude to the 1972 rapprochement, is a typical example of good storytelling. A narrative of dubious quality, on the other hand, can raise concerns and hence lead to mistrust, creating a negative impact on the image and reputation of the narrator. In the press conference of Chinese Foreign Ministry one day before the twenteith anniversary of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the spokesperson declared the Sino-British Joint Declaration a document that “no longer has any realistic meaning.” The spokesperson’s remarks have raised controversies both at home and abroad. The ministry clearly realized its failure to deliver the right message, now rephrasing the sentence in its English transcript as “the arrangements during the transitional period prescribed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration are now history and of no practical significance.”
Telling a good story is never easy, particularly for us college students. We are confident in our knowledge and always anxious to plunge into cross-cultural communications, but oftentimes neglect our limited capability to tell a good story of our own. We came in with a lot of stereotypes and unwarranted assumptions, poised to initiate strikes or defend our ground. More often than not we attack and defend using rumors, conjecture, and hasty generalizations, rather than facts, figures, and logic. Without good storytelling techniques, what is supposed to be a duel between musketeers may well turn into a tussle among street fighters.
In a time of uncertainty, the world needs not just heroes, but also competent “storytellers” who can show the people how vibrant and colorful our world is, who can convince the people that when there is understanding, there is trust; when there is trust, the world stands as one. In my understanding, the student fellows program does not train us to be future leaders. It gathers a group of ambitious youths with different backgrounds, and leads us to march on the way to becoming storytellers in the subjects that the world needs to read the most.
Yuqian Zhang is a master’s degree student of the Tsinghua-Johns Hopkins SAIS Dual Degree Program.
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