Lost in Translation: American Political Theory in Chinese

It is hilarious to me how Chinese people my family’s generation do not really have any grasp of the fundamental workings of the American political system. This became really apparent to me when I tried to explain, to both my family and their friends, what kind of jobs I am looking for after graduation, since with their good intentions, they wanted to know so they can ostensibly help me look for jobs.

But it soon became very very obvious to me that Chinese people really don’t have a concept for “civil society,” at least as it’s understood in American political theory as this intermediary layer between private citizens and traditional state apparatuses. Chinese people of my family’s generation have no such concept, and why should they, since a broadly Confucian political theory has no analogous concept.

When I try to explain to them that I’m looking for jobs at NGOs, they are always confused. So are you working for the government, they always ask? When I tell them no, they ask if I’m working for a corporation or a for-profit company. When I tell them no, they have this confused look on their face, because they don’t have a concept for organizations that are neither state institutions nor for-profit private companies.

This confusion has really given me some insight as to why Asian Americans tend to be politically very inactive compared other minority groups in America. After all, how could they be politically active if they do not understand the fundamental and critical roles that civil society interest groups play in American politics? To them, there is no such concept as a “civil society” in the Western sense, because it doesn’t exist in Confucian political theory. There is no intermediary between the state and individuals in Confucian political thought, and certainly in Chinese politics today the idea of “interest groups” do not really have a lot of purchase.

Sometimes I wish I would have just applied to law school so that when these people ask, I can say that I’m going to law school. And they would probably smile and congratulate me…

That is, until I tell them that I really don’t want to be a lawyer that goes to trial, at which point they will be confused again, because to Chinese people of an older generation, they can’t imagine a lawyer who doesn’t go to court, but who is instead a player in the policy process.

But what can you huh: it’s all lost in translation.


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