Holding Two Truths: Advocating for Safety Amid Cultural Barriers

The cultural and political barriers between Chinese international students who participated in the November rally for safety and their critics contribute to the targeting and erasure of international student narratives.

By Zhaorui Wang

Following the tragic killing of Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, a recent University graduate and the second Chinese international student to be murdered by gun violence in 2021, Chinese international students held a rally on the campus quad against the University's inaction, calling for basic safety for all. Why, then, do the narratives of Chinese students continue to be absent? The erasure and targeting of Chinese international students began immediately after the rally. So-called progressive communities accused those who participated in the rally of “supporting UCPD violence” and of being “anti-Black.” This rhetoric has prevailed on social media platforms. However, these accusations do not allow for nuance and different lived experiences. Critics of the “We Want Safety” rally are extracting the content from the protestors’ context and cultural background and then putting all this into a framework of uniquely American culture and political discourse, to which the mostly international student protestors have no access. That is to say: There is a cultural and political barrier of understanding barring the critics from fully comprehending the Chinese international students’ true intentions, and at once barring the international student protestors from comprehending the racialized issues at hand.

The basic American rule for discourse seems to be: There are two sides, and you must choose one. This rule leads to a series of flattened beliefs, among which one can find the Cultural Revolution–like argument that “if one does not advocate for defunding UCPD, then they are supporting racial violence.” The logic makes sense for many concerned local students and community members, but for Chinese international students, it can be very astonishing. The backlash after the rally, which included the Chinese students being labeled as racists, shocked many of the participants: Why couldn’t they at once support racial justice and call for their vision of safety? The conscious and subconscious rejection of the “only two sides” view explains why the rally participants were not aware of the potential risk and harm when holding slogans like “student lives matter”—not recognizing the cultural and racialized significance of the Black Lives Matter movement—and also why when observers conclude that the Chinese international students are calling for more police violence when they call for more police presence, they are far away from the original intent.

To truly understand the November rally, we must understand the background, cultural and political context, and intentions of the Chinese international participants. Most leftists and advocates of defunding the UCPD know nothing about what Chinese students were really thinking about and advocating for during this event. Although Chinese students are everywhere in this country, our narratives are barely present. We have been hesitant to express our views and have been used to living like shadows. I am hesitant to say that many of us have expressed plans to buy body armor for protection. We know it sounds strange and hysterical to most people, so we just don’t bother.

Consequently, I argue that, when dealing with the November rally, previous experience of similar campaigns organized by other marginalized groups cannot be applied offhand. I have to regretfully tell the progressive leftist that what they are faced with now is a brand-new situation. Slogans such as “student lives matter” cannot be interpreted in a traditional American way because the protesters are from a very different cultural background. How Chinese international students understand the meanings and implications of these slogans is very different from how Americans tend to. Critics who genuinely care about the rally should first ask themselves: Are the Chinese students supporting police violence? Are they supporting UCPD in the way we immediately thought? What are their slogans really calling for? Are they conniving to bring greater disaster to Southsiders who are structurally discriminated against? Who is represented in the Chinese Students and Scholars Association’s open letter: The students themselves or their parents in China? To answer so many questions is not easy, especially in this country, where freedom of speech tends to run faster than the freedom of thought. Read our interviews. Find one of us and talk.

By encouraging more interaction and communication, I am not implying that we are fundamentally politically homogeneous with the progressive critics and that by learning more about each other, misunderstandings caused by language and cultural barriers can be eliminated, thus allowing for us to align politically. I do, however, want to make one crucial point clear. A large number of Chinese international students, if not most, are willing to simultaneously hold two truths: that racialized police violence is a problem, and that basic safety is also a problem. It seems like the critics can only see the former.

So, we understand a dichotomy between people who recognize that basic safety is a problem and people who behave as if it is not a problem at all. The hypocrisy and arrogance has led leftists to fight against a windmill and to covertly accept that crime and tragedy will happen. By holding only one truth, they can easily convince themselves and others that they are good. To praise this kind of person as good is the most efficient social mechanism to produce and reproduce hypocrites. To really be a good person is far more difficult. One should learn to hold multiple truths simultaneously and honestly devote themselves to problem affirmation and solving rather than to public image speculation.

It has been more than two months since Shaoxiong was senselessly murdered on 54th Street. Even today, every time I take the 53rd Street shuttle to enter campus, I still deliberately turn my head to the left, although I know looking away won’t prevent me from remembering the senseless tragedy. What is equally painful is the realization that interactions between concerned locals and Chinese students haven’t progressed. We need to seriously discuss together how we can address the problems of basic safety and further serious discussion on how to address the problem of basic safety are still not fully developed. The streets are peaceful again and it seems like people are forgetting what happened. But I urge everyone to remember, to reach out, and to try to understand where we Chinese international students are coming from. Take action to demand our university provide basic safety for all.

Zhaorui Wang is a graduate student in the Division of the Social Sciences.