For eight of the past 10 years I’ve lived and worked in China as an English teacher. Many folks at home don’t know much about China, though they think they do. The reason I can say that so confidently is that even after spending so much time here I feel as though I know very little about China. I’m undoubtedly more knowledgeable than the average American who has never bothered to get a passport. (Which is more than half the population, by the way.) However, China is and, by extension, Chinese are, ultimately “unknowable.” Any Westerner who has spent time here will know what I’m talking about. I live and work among Chinese every day and can speak Chinese decently enough to engage “regular people” in conversation if I feel like it. There are also many Chinese who speak English well enough to engage me in discussions about pretty much anything I want to talk about. That being said I cannot honestly say, “I understand Chinese people.” I’ve heard other “foreigners” here say this and I usually don’t bother to say, “NO YOU DON’T” because I don’t see the point. To me it’s very close to a man saying he “understands” women. Even a man as bright as Stephen Hawking has said women are the biggest mystery in the universe. I’d agree with that sentiment. So, is there a point in here somewhere? Please, Dear Reader, be patient with me.
Today I read an article about the upcoming South Carolina Republican Primary. It led me to conclude that there is a group I understand even LESS than Chinese or women. It is called, for want of better terminology, “poor whites.” The article pointed out that a majority of them vote Republican. It is true that I’ve spent 80% of the past decade out of the country but this statistic nonetheless blows my mind. Who are these “poor whites?” What motivates them? Why do they vote for a party that obviously despises them? Can someone like me, a “middle-class white” EVER grow to understand them? And how?
This is NOT a criticism of poor whites. When I say I don’t completely understand Chinese (or women) it is not a criticism of them either. It is a fact. Before coming to China I was a high school history teacher. I therefore know quite a bit about the Civil War of the 1860’s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Are “poor whites” still bitter about them like many elderly Chinese are about the Nanking Massacre of 1937? Is THAT what’s going on? Is there any hope I can ever grow to understand these “poor whites?” Help me!