By Berlin Fang
The expansion of Chinese colleges a few years ago has produced more graduates than what the target market can handle. Why wouldn't some of these graduates start by working in factories that are desperate to find workers? Most parents wouldn't want their kids to start their lives that way. Instead, they would expect their kids, often single children in the family, to be brought up the V.I.P. style, for bigger accomplishments, pursuing bigger dreams.
However, the road to V.I.P. often begins from Very Insignificant Places, say, a dirty parking lot. I know a girl just like that. She is from an ordinary family who started her first job by sweeping parking lots and apartment buildings, bringing home thirty dollars a week. She loved sports. She funded her trips to out-of-state events by raking leaves, babysitting, or whatever odd jobs that came her way. Thus she did odd jobs, played sports, went on to become Miss Alaska, and then to college, and dreamed of becoming a sports reporter some day. With some twists and turns in fortunes, she ended up as a governor of Alaska, candidate for the Vice President of the United States, and a possible candidate for Presidency in 2012.
Yes, that is Sarah Palin.
Palin's recently launched biography became very popular in the United States. "Going rogue," means doing something mischievous or not playing by rules. In 2008, when John McCain, then Presidential candidate for the Republican Party, nominated Palin as his campaign partner, one of McCain's aides complained to CNN that this is "going rogue." Meaning: what in the world is McCain doing? This is nuts. The phrase stuck. It went on to become the title of this book, suggesting that Palin is still unique and green, untainted by the clichés and corruption of Washington politics. Not a bad label to be stuck with when the whole nation is chanting change.
Before exploding into public awareness, Palin had been governor of Alaska, the largest state in the United States. She was doing pretty well for herself as the governor in this state. In the midst of the current Mexican oil spill crisis, some of Palin's political feats may still ring a bell for Americans. She once was faced with a similar oil spill in Alaska. Adopting a populist position, she managed to bring big oil to its knees through a marathon lawsuit spanning two decades. In this autobiography, she talked passionately about energy independence, moral reformation, and other topics favored by conservatives. The book offered a glimpse of how it all happened, how an Alaskan girl in the middle of nowhere could move to the center stage of Alaskan and then American politics, especially in the somewhat melodramatic developments in 2008, culminating in her Vice President candidacy.
The book also presented a fascinating view of her family and her personal life back in Alaska. Palin is a mother of five, with the oldest son serving in Iraq and the youngest having severe physical difficulties. She could be anybody or nobody. Her eventual rise is a story of success for someone from a small town in America. Some places read like youth lit to me, with girly details that might fascinate female readers, for instance her coming-of-age story, her love, her first kiss, her childbirth. Her love story is especially interesting - her friend is a 50% Eskimo and 100% fisherman, as his fathers and father’s fathers have been. The two eloped and went on to register their marriage. Court clerks required them to have a witness for such registration, so they went to the Senior residence across the street, pushed a wheel-chaired senior to be their witness and got business taken care of. The registration clerk, being first time at the job, cried while reading their wedding vows. After their marriage, they left a note at the doorway of Palin's mom. The mom cried too, this time out of anger.
In any case, the biography is actually a rather typical American story with the familiar moral lesson: a hero is a hero no matter where he is from. The story went from the past to present and is bound to move on, gathering some momentum with her candidacy and this book. Years ago, when she was competing for the Miss Alaska title, one of the judges asked her if she’d believe women can become a Vice President. She snapped: yes. The judge went on to ask if she would vote for such a female candidate. She said she would rather cast her vote based on political views, not gender preferences. That must have impressed the judges then and there. A quarter of a century later, things said in those days seemed to have become footnotes of what actually happened. But she writes that she does not believe in coincidences. She believes all things happen for a reason and lead towards a grander purpose: Palin is a devout Christian.
Palin's story describes stories of many Americans -- plus the politics of course. Like many middle class Americans, her growth involves sports, Bible classes, 4H camps, girl scouts and all such good old American activities. It should not have surprised so many that McCain chose her to be the campaign partner. People want a girl-next-door kind of figure to represent them in Washington. Besides, she seems young, fresh, full of energy, in many ways - I wouldn’t name which - contrasting McCain. There is a good balance in the tightrope walk towards the center of power. Many Americans consider her to be "one of us.”
Like many conservatives in the United States, Palin esteems Ronald Reagan. Reagan is a big advocate for small government and less tax. Reagan believes that the United States is a force for good. After Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis and all such drama, Americans were starting to have doubts about themselves. Reagan cheered them up and injected a new hope in the collective psyche of America, making Americans believe once again that they can be the light on the hill. Reagan helped America to win the cold war without actually fighting a battle. Palin said that the Iran crisis had lasted 444 with the Carter government was absolutely clueless on what to do, resulting in huge humiliation for America. When Reagan came to power, the problem came to a quick solution. Based on what we read in Chinese books, it is a scandal of Reagan swapping weapons for hostages. However, Palin offered a different interpretation of what happened that year. She said the main reason is that Reagan has a "steel spine" without which weapons would not be of any use, even if you offer nuclear weapons. From the Republican perspective, Democrats (at least some of them) have a little chiropractic problem, a weakness that Democrats do not really want to be associated with in such gross generalizations. However, generalizations are sometimes useful for foreign readers to understand the confusing political forces at play in a different country. You can discern the finer differences later on anyway.
Palin seems to suggest that the Republicans do not have a spine problem. When President George W. Bush was in power, he provided many jokes for nighttime talk shows. However, in spite of all the doubts about his intellectual sophistication, few people made fun of his moral clarity. If he believes something to be right, he really persists, with sincerity and often zeal. The democratic President Barak Obama, however, does not impress the Chinese as having such moral clarity. In his first visit to China, he seemed rather ambivalent on many issues, so much so that a Chinese blogger Hecaitou coined a term calling him “xinima”(meaning a horse staying at the same place muddying things over). China does not return his ambivalence with favor. On his first trip to China, Mr. Obama did not actually accomplish much, not even the change of his Chinese name. Chinese calls him 奥巴马，while the US Embassy in China wants that changed to "欧巴马". Chinese media, from Xinhua News Agency to Xinjiang Daily, just went ahead ignoring that wish. In terms of moral clarity, Palin seems to indicate that she inherited the best from the Republican patriarchs. This probably is a tactic to address doubts about her intellectual powers, something that media, her party and her opponents sometimes fault her with.
With much hype building towards the launch, the book became an instant bestseller in 2009. In order to write the book, Palin spent weeks in San Diego with her ghostwriter, the famous Lynn Vincent. The book was first released in 1.5 million copies, as many as the autobiography of Ted Kennedy. The book soared to the top of best-selling lists. Palin then resigned from her governor position, possibly to help in the promotion of this book. Around the time of the book's release, there was much news about or from her, including allegedly inappropriate dress on the Newsweek cover, and doubts about Obama’s birth certificate. No matter what you think of her and how the media treats her, one thing is sure: it is now hard to ignore her importance after the September 3, 2008 nomination at the Republicans’ national convention. In America, books seem to add to political weights. Writing a bestseller is one good way to speak to the public about where you are from and what you are all about. Think of Obama and the Audacity of Hope.
I hope this book can provide a unique perspective for Chinese readers to understand US politics, the Republican Party, conservative values, or perhaps, what US school sports, hunting and first kisses are all about.
And alas, if only we had a guy or girl going rogue about our politics in this unsettling and costly pursuit of a harmonious society!
Berlin Fang is a literary translator, a reviewer of books, technology, education, current events and generally jack of all trades. He can be reached at email@example.com