Tea Leaf Nation
China’s Bizarre Stereotypes of the United States
Chinese web users wonder why Americans don't eat pigs' feet, and why men there are so well-endowed.
Carp consumption and Anne Hathaway are not topics one would expect to feature prominently in the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Yet both are among the most common things that Chinese netizens ask about the United States, at least according to the autocomplete feature of Baidu, China’s most popular search engine.
Baidu’s autocomplete works similar to Google’s: when someone begins typing in the search bar, the search engine combs its archives to display a list of previously popular ways to finish the query. They also can be pithy summaries of what the collective internet thinks about a particular topic. Case in point: typing “Why is China” into Google leads the search engine to guess that you might be wondering “Why is China so polluted?”
What happens if we turn the tables and let China’s top search engine tell us what its netizens are asking about the United States? See below:
We go into detail about those suggested searches, plus three others generated by a separate Chinese-language variation of “Why is America…”:
“Why can American warships dock in Hong Kong?” China is famously prickly about slights to its territorial sovereignty, and Chinese netizens are curious why the world’s only superpower – and one that disagrees with China on a number of regional disputes – continues to freely send naval vessels to Hong Kong’s port, even after Britain returned the city to Chinese control in 1997. This suggested search leads to several posts explaining that Beijing has given such visits its blessing regularly since the handover, though flare-ups can lead to occasional pointed denials, as happened in April when China refused entry to a U.S. aircraft carrier following an uptick in tensions in the South China Sea.
“Why do Americans hate Anne Hathaway?” This suggested search leads to a list of pages from early 2013, when the actress’s eager campaign for an Academy Award provoked a backlash on U.S. social media that later crossed over into mainstream news outlets. Numerous Chinese websites observed with bemused fascination both the vituperation targeted at Hathaway and the cultural introspection it spawned, even from respectable websites like the New York Times.
“Why isn’t America the world’s greatest country?” While this query appears to take aim at the United States’ global standing, it is actually Chinese shorthand for a clip from the first episode of HBO’s 2012 series “The Newsroom,” in which an American news anchor played by Jeff Daniels issues a scathing critique of his own country before a studio audience. The clip gained some traction online in China, where it inspired much discussion and even occasional admiration; on this bulletin board, one commenter says, “Being able to film a script like this proves America is a great country, even if it isn’t the only one.”
“Why doesn’t America go back to the moon?” This query leads to a few links rooting the decision in the United States’ evolving national priorities following the end of the space race with the USSR. More common, though, it seems an excuse to indulge in speculation about the presence of alien artifacts on the lunar surface, something common in U.S. conspiracy theory circles as well.
“Why doesn’t America ban guns?” Personal possession of firearms is prohibited in China, and the prevalence of guns and gun-related violence in the United States often prompts concern among Chinese, especially those planning trips or study there. Mass shootings such as the recent incident in an Orlando nightclub may provoke spikes in searches and commentary that help propel this search up Baidu’s autocomplete rankings.
“Why are American men so well-endowed?” Part of the curiosity here appears to stem from expectations influenced by the U.S. pornographic film industry — indeed, some bulletin board responses to the question lead off by disabusing fellow netizens of such skewed comparisons: “Adult videos go through a selection process no matter the nationality, [and] they would never show normal size.”
“Why don’t Americans eat carp?” This is a reference to imported Asian carp that escaped their enclosures and have proliferated across the United States, threatening local ecosystems and fisheries. Several of the invasive species feature regularly on Chinese dinner tables, prompting Baidu autocomplete to ask why Americans don’t just eat the damn things. Chinese web users speculate on what peculiarities of the U.S. diet prevent Americans from embracing the fish, with proposed reasons ranging from the bony fish being better-suited to chopsticks than knives and forks, to Americans’ presumed preference for culinary styles “like KFC”. One author observes cheekily: “If Chinese people discovered a place where wild fish grew this large – and the water wasn’t even polluted – then after three days there wouldn’t even be ten scrawny ones left.”
Like Google’s, Baidu’s autocomplete function is powered by an opaque algorithm. While frequency of searches plays a key role in propelling results to the top of the suggestion lists, other variables like search time and location factor as well, meaning results are subject to change and cannot necessarily be reproduced with consistency. Indeed, shortly before publication, the suggested search on carp had been joined by another culinary query asking why Americans don’t eat pigs’ feet — a common Chinese snack.
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