China is a prominent themes in X plus Y. Nathan travels to Taiwan to train with the Chinese squad. He meets a girl in the Chinese team - Zhang Mei. The film also highlights the mathematical dominance of the Chinese team. There are scenes where Nathan begins to learn the language, and inevitably finds himself drawn into this clash of cultures.
How much of this is fictional? The original documentary - "Beautiful Young Minds" - featured a similar story, which is somewhat closer to the truth. Well, I did go to China, and I did train with the Chinese maths squad. But there is, of course, even more to the story of my own experience of China.
X plus Y does a great job of mirroring some of my own feelings. I can easily relate to the socially awkward young Nathan, away from home for the first time, in an unfamiliar land.
In the true story, one major difference is that I was interested in China since long before the maths competitions. It started at about the age of 13 when I started reading Chinese novels. I dreamt about going to China from an early age. In contrast to Nathan, I was already quite confident at speaking Chinese by the time of going to train in China.
Others often say that I was fluent after spending around three months in China. With hindsight, my language ability has improved a great deal more with each passing year.
By the way, this prior interest in China was part of the reason why I did have the opportunity to train with the Chinese team - although most likely it was arranged to fit the narrative of the documentary.
One idea that is clearly highlighted in both "X plus Y" and "Beautiful Young Minds", is the observation that people in China are kinder to people who are academically gifted. In the UK, the open hostility towards talented teenagers is so prevalent that very few people realise the harm. Rather than being bullied by teachers and peers, maths "freaks" (like myself) tend to be highly respected and appreciated in Chinese communities.
This forms a key part of Nathan's bond to China. It enables him to feel much more relaxed in China than he could at home. It enables him to let his guard down and engage with the culture on other levels. In a way, it 'saves' him, and opens up his potential and ability to enjoy life. Ultimately, it leads to his feelings of independence and confidence at the end of the film.
This is my interpretation, since this also describes what happened to me.
I remember the strong feeling that suddenly I was 'normal' when in China. Part of this was due to "all foreigners are weird, therefore if I am also weird, I don't stand out". After all, I wasn't obliged to conform to all those social norms I didn't understand. I mean this in the sense that; British culture has always been just as alien to me as Chinese culture. I could never understand why people do unnecessary illogical things. So I cannot truly fit into either culture, but in China, I can at least be on a level social playing field with other foreigners.
You could even argue that Aspergers provides an advantage for adapting into an alien culture. Since aspies are not brainwashed into following dogmatic customs, we do not have any innate bias against one culture or another. We can systematically understand the new environment without any biased preconceptions from our parent's culture. Perhaps I am only speaking for myself, but I feel this process can be quite efficient. It is what lets me fit in better than I ought to be able to.
For example, during my first visit to China; every day I would go down the road to a certain shop where I would chat with the locals. A blind chinese man sat on the bench there every day. For three months, he patiently explained to me a huge range of Chinese traditional beliefs and current affairs. I learnt more spoken Chinese from him than I ever did from any other source. It was a mutually beneficial process, and we were in awe of each other.
But one day, I got into an argument with one of his friends, a Chinese lady. I was explaining to them my theories about how the world should be a technocracy with decisions made only by experts. At one point, she asked; why couldn't waitresses and chefs also be valuable members of society? I told her that the minority who bring the world forward are more significant than the majority who keep it running. She exploded.
I will never forget this lesson - it taught me to keep my opinions to myself and to consider other people's perspectives. The blind man even explained to me the principle of "houhei" (厚黑), which is (roughly) that one must respectfully endure everyone and everything - until that final moment you are certain you can take effective action.
These are lessons that are also important in the west. Most people without Aspergers would naturally learn this principle when they are much younger. But would I have ever had it spelt out for me like this if I was growing up in the West?
Since the time of the documentary though, I have visited China almost twenty times, travelling all over, and even studying and working there for several years. My China obsession only got stronger with time; and these days it means much more to me than simply a sense of 'fitting in'.
One of the more unusual part of my obsession is a fanatical desire to visit Chinese historical sites and battlefields. I will often travel to the most remote and obscure places and find a taxi to take me to a certain field or mountain where nothing else exists except a 2000-year-old tombstone. I 'collect' these experiences, which often baffles the driver and other locals. And yet, on these journeys, I enjoyed some truly unique and amazing conversations - which only makes me love China even more!
These days, I often think about going back to live in China. I certainly see my future there. Yet it all started when I finally found a place where I could fit in. I made my first friends as a teenager in a foreign country. When will Western society learn to accept people like me? People with Aspergers. A kind of mutual respect is needed, going far beyond the 'toleration' and 'support' that is the current standard. This is a lesson that can be learnt from China.
I really hope that people will notice this theme in the film, "X plus Y", the film is in UK cinemas now.