I hope you set aside your cynicism long enough to enjoy the Olympic opening ceremonies on Friday evening; it was an unprecedented visual spectacle. Yes, I'm well aware of the fact that the Chinese government has acted in typical authoritarian fashion, displacing 1,500,000 residents, censoring media access, and rounding up dissenters to create the image of perfect harmony that we see. Fully recognizing that, I cannot help but be impressed by the magnitude of the "show." They succeeded in making every previous Olympic ceremony look like a county fair and in terrifying London into wondering "How in the hell can we top that?" Every aspect of the coreographed performance was perfect, giving us the greatest hybrid of a circus, concert, and action movie ever made. Visually, they didn't miss a beat. Just look at the Beijing National Stadium and Swimming and Diving facilities. The Centennial Olympic Stadium from Atlanta 1996 looks like an Amish barn in comparison. Such is the advantage of a semi-authoritarian regime – they can command and direct the entirety of the nation's resources toward putting on a show.

One seemingly insignificant aspect of the ceremony really bothered me. Not because of what is says about China, but for what it says about us.

In the early portion of the ceremony, synchronized dancers formed the shape of a boat and oars to symbolize, Bob Costas pointed out, the ancient voyage of Zheng He. Without cheating, do you know who Zheng He is? I didn't. I had to look him up to discover that he was an explorer who sailed to a greater number of places than any famous European explorer – 100 years earlier – and is likely responsible for the spread of Islam in southeast Asia. Now, humility aside, I believe that I know a good deal more about world history than the "average" American, a simple function of the fact that I spend a lot of time reading about it. But I wouldn't know Zheng He if he blew me.

In reality, I don't know dick about "world" history. I know European and American history. In 21 years of formal schooling I have not once been exposed to any discussion of China. None. As I believe that I am representative of most Americans in this regard, the opening ceremonies made it clear that we know absolutely nothing about the largest nation on Earth. One out of every five people on the planet lives in China, the oldest civilization on the planet, and for all intents and purposes we Americans (and probably Europeans) know more about Albania. To us, China is communist, has a big wall, and gave the world Yao Ming, fortune cookies (which isn't even true), and General Tso's chicken. That's what we know.

This is corny, but I feel like China's stated mission of "introducing itself" to the world is an appropriate metaphor for these games. And "the world" – the overwhelmingly Eurocentric West in particular – sorely needs it. Maybe it doesn't need the cloying, coreographed, everything-is-perfect-and-harmonious face that China is presenting, but it does need to start paying more attention to the world's largest population, 3rd-largest economy, largest conventional military force, biggest industrial polluter, largest foreign holder of U.S. debt and dollars, and most prominent trading partner.

Perhaps I'm projecting my own ignorance, and in reality you and the rest of America are well-versed in Chinese history. Maybe Zheng He and his exploits are well-known to you and I'm a big dummy. It's likely, however, that you're in the dark too. Even though we can't learn much from China's idealized presentation of itself, I'm chastened by how little we do know.