Ignorance of Asia Mind Boggling
by Charles Snyder
Hong Kong Standard

It would be hard to find any educated person in Hong Kong, China or the rest of Asia who did not know that the Pacific Ocean separates East Asia from the United States. And it would be hard to find many educated people in Asia who believe that Ho Chi Minh was the father of the People's Republic of China.

Yet a recent survey of American adults and college-bound students has found that a disturbingly-large proportion of Americans do not know the right answers to those and many other basic questions about Asia.

The study, by the Asia Society and a national educational association, points to a yawning gap in America's understanding of Asia and the urgent need to start to remedy that, from elementary school onward.

While 29% of the adults named Mao Zedong as the founder of the PRC, 18 per cent thought it was Ho Chi Minh, 17% picked Chiang Kai-shek, and 8% picked Deng Xiaoping. The rest admitted they did not know.

The students' choices were similar. More than 25% of the some 2,000 survey participants could not name the Pacific as the ocean between the United States and East Asia, nearly half thought Vietnam is an island, most could not name Jakarta as Indonesia's capital despite heavy recent coverage of that country in the US press, and only 30% of the students knew that India and Pakistan gained their independence from Britain after World War II.

Only 5% of the students picked India as the world's largest democracy, while many more -11% - picked China. While Americans know more about Japan than they do about most Asian nations, 12% of those surveyed said the isolationist Tokogawa period was noted for its extensive network of foreign relations.

Introducing the survey to the press, James Kelly, the president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, noted that in American schools, only 8,745 students are enrolled in Chinese language courses, compared to one million studying French and three million studying Spanish.

The Asia Society study cites the lack of emphasis in most curricula, poor teacher training and inadequate textbooks as three root causes of the problem. Most textbooks, for instance, present the journey of Marco Polo as a major event in Chinese history.

One textbook summarises India by saying, "the customs and traditions developed in the East in ancient India remain a part of Indian life today. Cows are still sacred, and people continue to practice the specialised crafts common 4,000 years ago".

One bright spot in the survey, the society notes, is that some 80% of adults and more than 70 % of the students agree that more knowledge about Asia is essential in the coming century.

But translating that into better understanding and teaching is another matter. State and local school boards throughout the country will have to be convinced to put more emphasis and money into education about Asia, a difficult task. And text books will have to be rewritten by authors whose knowledge of Asia is much better than it is now.

Teachers will have to be taught about Asia in college- if enough qualified professors can be found. And, the children must be motivated to learn. "There is a certain implicit smugness among Americans that we're so big, and we're so powerful, that we don't have to learn about (Asia); let them learn about us," said Shep Ranbom, an official of the firm that conducted the Asian Society survey.

Anybody who has watched the course of Sino-US relations in recent decades realises the danger in continuing that attitude.