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June 9, 2020

Responding To: Shared Approaches and Prospects for Peace

What We Have in Common: Family and Death in the U.S. and China

Becky Hsu

The Washington Post recently covered the increase in racist attacks in the United States against Asian American doctors and nurses. That popular reaction is consistent with the anti-China language that we have been seeing from a broad range of American political figures during the past two months. The alarming deterioration of U.S.-China relations deserves our attention.

Given the tension in geopolitical relations, it seems unusual right now to think about what the U.S. and China have in common. Ordinary people in both societies must deal with the situations that are the outcomes of the maneuverings of a relatively small group of economic and political elites. Our lives—and our deaths—are in the hands of people we do not know, people who make decisions that affect us. The worldwide death toll due to COVID-19 as of today is 323,000, with the deaths in the U.S. making up almost a third of that. The official death count in China is at around 4,600, though there are questions about these numbers. People are trying to count the many tragic effects of this pandemic. Death has been on everyone’s minds.

Barbara Ehrenreich characterizes American society as having painted ourselves into a corner, unable to accept any death because it is unthinkable given our cultural focus on a lifeless material world but also the perception of the endlessly fascinating self. In our everyday lives, we live, she writes, like fugitives: trying to keep one step ahead—one more meal, one more dollar to earn, one more workout. This social construction of death is particular to our time and place.

The funny thing is that, in fact, Americans and Chinese think about the same thing when they are approaching death: family.

Hospice chaplains in America say that the main thing people talk about with them at the end of their lives is not theology or cosmology, but family. If they have regrets, it’s that they did not spend enough time with them. According to Kerry Egan, they talk about the love they felt and gave, or the love they did not receive, they withheld, or never felt for those they should have loved.

My fieldwork over the past five years shows the same in China, though in different form: some people prepare for their own approaching death (even if it is likely decades away), with the participation of their families, for proper preparation of burial clothes, portrait, coffin, or grave site. Or, they emphasize firmly that they want death to happen in a way that minimizes the burden on their adult children—a quick death that requires little hospitalization, or a simple burial—so that the money can go to buying their grandchildren a house, for example.

Though we may have some of the same challenges, ordinary people in the U.S. and China may be meeting them differently. Americans have been self-critiquing for being limited by principles of individual autonomy and consumer choice, which are enshrined in the law and in folk culture. In response to the challenges presented to them, ordinary people in China have innovated new ways to get beyond the dichotomy of individual versus collective. With the eroding confidence in the American experiment, people around the world are looking for ways to create a good society. We may find that we have things to learn from each other.


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