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Pop culture helps bridge gap between Chinese, Americans

By Stan Grant, CNN
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Cupcakes and rock 'n' roll in China
  • In China's biggest cities, teens wear Levis and Nikes, listen to iPods, and watch Hollywood films
  • Chinese-Americans help bridge culture gaps through music and cuisine
  • Chinese-American rocker Helen Feng: Some misunderstandings, lack of trust, persist

Beijing (CNN) -- Small in stature, Helen Feng is big on attitude. She fronts one of Beijing's emerging rock bands, Ziyo, singing songs of love and freedom.

Born in China, Feng moved with her family to the United States when she was a child and moved back to Beijing in 2003. She returned with more than just a strong American accent: she brought back knowledge of western culture, particularly a love of rock music.

Feng found a budding rock scene in China's capital. A new generation of youth was experimenting with new freedoms and using music as an outlet for rebellion.

"Rock 'n' roll is life ... rock 'n' roll is life, they couldn't really explain why, but it was rock 'n' roll is life," she says, recalling the slogan of the time.

In China's biggest cities, interest in all things American is easy to spot: Teenagers wear Levis and Nikes, listen to iPods, and watch Hollywood movies.

In one Beijing neighborhood, Carol Chow is cashing in on "Sex and the City"-inspired cupcakes. She has adapted the taste to suit locals and is crafting novelty cakes to cater to the Chinese fondness for all things kitsch: she makes cakes shaped like a Chanel handbag or a Louis Vuitton suitcase.

"When we first made cupcakes, we had the natural butter cream. And then one day, one of the girls said, 'where is the one that's in Sex and the City?' Where is the pink one?" Chow says.

Just like Feng, Chow was born in China and moved to the U.S. as a child. She and her family, an American husband and twin four-year-old daughters, now call Beijing home.

It's easy to meet people like Feng and Chow and imagine the U.S and China are moving closer together. But Feng says misunderstandings and lack of trust persist.

"In general, Chinese people don't distrust foreigners but they feel like foreigners don't understand us," she says.

Nationalism is strong in China and locals have vented their anti-American feelings during protests in the past. There are political flashpoints, too: some Americans are wary about China's military build up, accusing Beijing of manipulating trade and stealing U.S. jobs.

But where politics has created divisions, popular culture is helping to bridge the gap. Feng says she imagines a world without borders.

And for one afternoon, I get a firsthand taste of that. Playing guitar is one of my passions, and it takes little prompting for me to jam with Feng's Ziyo. An Australian CNN reporter and a Chinese rock band: no politics, no language barriers, just the sharing the pleasure of American rock.

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