At home with Helga later in the evening, Gallimard complains about the arrogance of the Chinese people. He and Helga mock the Chinese tendency to describe their civilization, proudly, as “old.” Gallimard jokes that “old” can mean the same thing as “senile.” Helga tells her husband that the East and West will always be different, and that he can do nothing to change that.
Gallimard and his wife have no patience for the ethnic pride of Chinese people; they do not see Chinese culture or history as being worthy of such pride, and they have no respect for the history and traditions that have produced the society around them.
Gallimard tells Helga about his conversation with Song, whom he calls “the Chinese equivalent of a diva.” Helga is surprised to learn that the Chinese have opera of their own, and even more surprised to learn that Song was able to perform Puccini in Italian. Gallimard speculates that Song must have been educated in the West before the Communists came to power in China.
Helga has just expressed the belief that there are irreconcilable differences between Asian and European cultures — meaning, implicitly, that Asians will never be as sophisticated and advanced as Europeans. That the Chinese people can appreciate Western art and create art of their own in the same style surprises her; she seems to have assumed that Chinese culture is too primitive to see the value of high art.
Helga says she is sorry to have missed Madame Butterfly that night, and expresses her appreciation for Puccini’s music. Gallimard tells her the Chinese hate Madame Butterfly “because the white man gets the girl.” Helga is irritated by the infusion of politics into art, and wishes the Chinese could simply accept Madame Butterfly as a beautiful piece of music. She asks Gallimard what the Chinese opera is like. He has no answer, but jokes that he is sure the opera is “old” — like everything else in China.
For Helga to be able to ignore the political implications of a work of art is a testament to the racial privilege she enjoys. Because Madame Butterfly perpetuates a dehumanizing stereotype about Asians, people like Song have strong personal reasons to talk about its political content and point out its prejudices — to let the story exist unquestioned would be to accept the ways in which it undermines their humanity.