China, Cultural Differences

Tackling China

I’m learning a lot being in China. It’s a whole new world. One that is so different from the way it appeared sitting in my suburban California home pondering my move here. When students ask me why I came to China, my answer is not one they were hoping for. No “I love China” or “I’ve always wanted to work in China”. Sorry. Actually, I never wanted to come to China. I came because it was here. Because I didn’t know anything about it. Because it was the country that offered me a job. Not exactly warm-fuzzy inducing.

As an ignorant Westerner, I’ve tried to keep my eyes wide open for China. To learn about it. To understand it better. In the West, China is all human rights violations, currency manipulation, and Communist Party. Maybe throw in a little Tibet and some kung-fu for good measure. The portrayal isn’t very human. It’s mostly political. If it’s at all human, it’s the suffering of factory workers or the extremes of China’s super-rich. There’s no middle. And there’s a lot of middle in China.

So it’s interesting to observe the life of the average Chinese: the things that are important to them,  what they want, what they talk about. After a while of being in China I started to feel that Western media was going overboard on its negative portrayal of China. It didn’t match with what I was seeing.  The following quote from James Fallows’ Postcards from Tomorrow Square expressed what I was feeling:

I think that even now the Western world’s limited familiarity with China…leads to two important problems: an overestimation of China’s power and a misestimation of its strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities….…Sharon Shirk, of the University of California, San Diego, who in 2006 published a book on China called China: Fragile Superpower…When Shirk discussed the book with Amercans, they always asked, “What do you mean, fragile?” When she discussed it with Chinese, they always asked, “What do you mean, superpower?”

China does not seem on the verge of taking over the world.

But in the West, China is portrayed as threatening, a danger. Our American leaders have been busy wagging their fingers at China in the last year of so. China must cooperate with us, they say. They must do _____. They make knowing faces. We know what you’re up to China! We’ve got our eye on you. No funny business!

Come to China and you’ll see how bemusing this all is. Really.

So that’s the first point of interest: the portrayal of China in Western media compared to the very non-threatening, pro-America environment in China.

The second issue relates to the place of the negative media, specifically the human rights violations, when everything appears so peaceful here.

The utter normality of my life here can sometimes lure me into feeling that perhaps these human rights violations are being exaggerated. Emphasis on sometimes. Everything just seems so quiet. Which is a little eerie. I think I came to China half expecting to experience trouble of some kind. Or at least to see it somewhere. Walking past Communist Party offices or even police officers gave me a slight feeling of tension. Don’t laugh. You hear stories. You come to verify whether they are true, even if in part. Plenty has been said about China. If you want scary stories, you can get them.

So lately I’ve been trying to feel around the edges a bit, trying to get a sense of the things that are not being discussed or publicized. Like Tibet. Like angry villagers rioting. Like the mysterious Falun Gong issues.

It’s not generally a good idea to ask the students about these types of issues. Not like they usually know that much anyways. Instead I prefer to talk to some of the Chinese teachers I know and trust. On the whole they seem a content bunch. Those that are Party members are almost shockingly flippant about it, complaining about the fees they have the pay and stating that that is their sole function as member. A few gripes about the one child policy. They understand the difference between politics and reality. Taiwan being an example of politics. A story of a previous Falun Gong coworker that went away for awhile and came back completely changed. On the whole, they’re very aware that as long as they keep their heads down and don’t rock the boat, then life will be fine. A peaceful progression from birth to death, with everything in between.

The boundaries are clear. To cross over is to open yourself up to an undoubted world of trouble. And it would be a very conscious decision. A deliberate transgression. So the danger is there, if you want it. Human rights violations are undoubtedly being committed daily, but you’re not going to hear a peep about that in the Chinese media. Which does allow you to sort of forget they are happening as you admire all the new infrastructure and buildings.

Sometimes I don’t know whether I should admire the practicality or abhor the apathy. But any such judgment is not that simple. China is a complex place. It’s also a gigantic place. The variety is endless. From the urban metropolises of Hong Kong and Shanghai to the dusty, dirt-poor plains of western China. It’s developed and developing. It’s rich and poor. In the words of James Fallows, “I suspected before coming to China, and now know for sure, that no one can sensibly try to present the “real story” or the “overall picture” of this country. It is simply too big and too contradictory.”

Perhaps I didn’t know before, but I certainly know now. There’s a lifetime worth of information that I should learn about China. And, of course, there’s still that vexing problem of learning the language. To get a sense of the vastness of China, please check out this fantastic photo spread in The Atlantic.

China. Understanding it is going to take a lot more than a year.


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