Beyond Baywatch

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This article originally appeared in the April 24the issue of TIME Asia

My earliest encounter with America was through a column titled "Communism is Good, Capitalism is Bad" in the Young Pioneers Weekly, a newspaper I read avidly from age 7 to 12. The column ran two stories side by side, one taking place in China and one in America, with similar scenarios: an old man getting sick, say, or a flood devouring a town. The Chinese tales ended happily, as fairy tales do; the American ones showed a renjian diyu, a hell in real life.

Before I left China for the U.S. in 1996, at age 24, my sister made me watch a rerun of Baywatch so I'd be better prepared for life in my new country. But my impression of Americans as proud-bodied beauties with gleaming smiles was shattered soon after I landed. Baywatch, it turned out, was as distant from reality as the stories in my childhood newspaper.

In the years that followed, I would have to develop a more nuanced view of America. What do I make of it, then, after living there for more than a decade? A few years ago, I taught a composition class at a college in Iowa. Among my students were an immigrant from Guatemala, an Indian who grew up in London, a Japanese-American out of North Carolina, a Philippine-Chinese-American, and several very blond students from the American heartland, including a white supremacist who defended her family's racism in front of the class. This extraordinary mix of students strikes me as a perfect representation of America, a land where a boy raised at the back of an Indian grocery store in London easily started a friendship with a boy from Morning Sun, Iowa, population 872.

Yet there was also a surprising sameness and insularity to my students. When I assigned them an essay on fear, they wrote touchingly but similarly of death and aging, depression and eating disorders. Similar too was their lack of curiosity. When I asked them to list five people they were curious about, most could not come up with better answers than the jocks and girls they had crushes on, or Britney Spears and Eminem.

To teach writing and literature in America is, to me, to teach my students to be curious about people who are different from them. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of my life in America has been to befriend such a variety of othersófrom a woman raised as a Hasidic Jew to a black Southerner who, until his 20s, had never eaten with a white person. An openness to others is, of course, equally key for nations. For centuries, China paid dearly for its determination to close itself off from the outside world. Today, with China emerging as a more global power economically and diplomatically, Americans need to learn for the first time how Chinese view the world. It's never easy to bridge such gapsóbut as my American students and friends taught me, life is infinitely richer if you try to do so.

Yiyun Li is author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and an assistant professor at Mills College in Oakland, California