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Labels Are for Jars, not People

The movie Lost in Translation, which won this year's Academy Award for best original screenplay, is currently very hot.

It's about two Americans in Tokyo, a city that is completely alien to them. Unable to speak the language, they find themselves strangers in a strange land.

Lost in Translation is not a movie about the American reaction to the Japanese way of life, of course. It is a story of loneliness and alienation, having that feeling that you just don't belong, no matter how hard you try.

Still, we can use it as a metaphor for today's trend towards increasing international exchanges.

Linguistic differences are always a major obstacle for people who want to understand a nation or culture different from their own, but what often makes people feel "lost" goes far beyond speaking a different language.

Long-established prejudice also affects people's perception of other cultures, and that prejudice often pushes them into making poor judgments.

China has long been a victim of such practices.

While reporting Chinese stories, biased foreign media invariably include too much of their own ideological baggage, and as a result their reports often ignore or distort the truth.

A recent example was the cover story of the February 2 issue of the Asia edition of Time magazine, profiling five Chinese in their 20s.

The five -- two writers, two computer wizards and a punk rocker -- all voluntarily dropped out of middle school, and their unconventional lifestyles are a far cry from what was the norm in this country as recently as a decade ago.

Two of the five, Chun Shu and Han Han, have been frequently featured in the Chinese media. Their novels contain sexually-explicit passages, as well as blunt criticism of China's educational system.

Despite their extensive media coverage in China, however, it took the Time article to focus the international spotlight on Chun Shu and Han Han for the first time.

"People born in the 1980s are worried about self-expression, how to choose a path that fits one's own individual identity," the Time story summarizes.

If the writers stopped there, they would be worthy of respect for their keen awareness of social trends in China.

Unfortunately they were too eager to label everything, and went too far.

The article hints that Han Han and Chun Shu are representatives of a quickly expanding population of young iconoclasts, and compares them to America's beatniks and hippies and Japan's shinjinrui.

The Time story calls them "the new radicals" or linglei the transliteration of a Chinese word the writers invented for English readers.

However, such a comparison is erroneous.

No group of young people in China can be categorized with a label, and Chun Shu, Han Han and the other three are only individual examples.

It is only natural that people born in the 1980s are very different from their parents and grandparents. With the world of information pouring into the new open China, they are much more confident, independent, active and outward.

But most Chinese youth will not see Han Han as a role model. For one thing, few will voluntarily drop out of senior middle school to alienate themselves from their schoolmates.

The reason that Han Han and Chun Shu have become famous is not that they have many supporters to follow their lifestyles, but that with the economic development and social progress, Chinese society has become more tolerant and open to different voices.

Even the meaning of linglei is not as broad and clear as the authors indicate. The word's Chinese meaning is somewhat vague, and definitely does not refer to the young people only. On the contrary, it can be used to describe any unconventional acts and practices.

The protagonists of the Time story have themselves declined to accept that they are linglei.

"I am a very traditional Chinese man; the media imposed names on me that they invented," Han Han was quoted as saying by many Chinese media.

Chun Shu and Man Zhou, one of the computer wizards, expressed similar sentiments.

Another mistakes the Time article makes is that it's too "pan-political."

To the regret of every Chinese, some Westerners, including the magazine writers, still maintain a Cold War mentality and insist on putting a political "spin" on everything they encounter here.

After Li Yang, the punk rocker, told the writers he loves his country, they arbitrarily conclude Li is "a product of an education filled with what's called 'love of country' lessons."

Patriotism is one of the greatest feelings in the world, but the writers are surprised to discover "Li is angriest about how Japan, all those decades ago, stole the Diaoyu Islands from China."

The article goes on to say "linglei are like dogs wearing electric collars that know just how far they can stray without getting shocked."

Time magazine claims to "be a source of honest information and thoughtful judgment," but comparing linglei to trained dogs simply contradicts that motto.

The tag line for Lost in Translation states "Sometimes you have to go halfway around the world to come full circle."

Many experienced Western journalists have gone more than halfway around the world, but until they give up their bias they will never come full circle.

(China Daily April 3, 2004)

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