Every weekday, we get the opportunity to practice our Chinese one-one-one for nearly an hour with one of our instructors. These sessions are very informal, and while they are meant to reinforce the grammar and vocabulary we have learned that day, they often turn into interesting conversations about friends, activities, politics, social media, and anything else that we feel like talking about – just like I would have a conversation in English with my American friends. Our second-year Chinese instructors are young, smart and interesting, and are always willing to discuss complicated topics with us. Here are five things I’ve learned from these conversations:
1. The American Dream and the Chinese Dream are extremely opposite. In America, personal opportunity is paramount, and we’re told that if you work hard enough, you, personally, can be extremely successful. However, in China, the success of the country is much more important than the needs of individuals. Even Chinese children are taught that they should not work hard for their own money and success, but rather to better China at large. This idea of sacrificing personal glory is much less common in the United States. However, while this cultural belief is definitely different, that doesn’t mean the people are very different – Chinese people want to provide for their families and feel proud of their successes, and Americans have a lot of patriotism and place a lot of importance and value on service.
2. In some ways related to my above point, discipline is extremely important in China. Every college student does at least a week or two of mandatory military training (i.e. physical training, learning how to properly make a bed and fold clothes, being yelled at by the equivalent of drill sergeants). Many Chinese primary and secondary schools have a rigorous class schedule in addition to daily physical training – many of my Chinese friends recount running around their school’s track in formation every morning while repeating some book knowledge. This discipline can be seen further in the strict parental guidance that is common in Chinese households – children must learn to be disciplined in how they manage their time, often placing extreme importance on grads and sacrificing all other activities to focus on school and homework every day. From a young age, Chinese people often must put their work and duties above their own desires and are taught to listen and heed the instructions of authority. There is MUCH less room to ask “why?” or question authority in China – from children to their parents to citizens to their government.
3. Perceptions of North Korea and Russia are completely different. In America, those countries are perceived as scary or bad, but that’s not necessarily the case in China. In fact, many Chinese people like to visit North Korea because they think it’s interesting or funny to see inside the secretive country! As an American, I would never even consider venturing into North Korea, but to Chinese people, the idea isn’t too uncommon.
4. Public safety is completely different in China. Before entering campus every day, I had to show my ID card to a guard at one of the four gate entrances. As an American, my initial, natural reaction was that this was to prevent bad people from getting on to campus, i.e. school shooters. However, it wasn’t until I took a minute to think about it that I realized threats like school shootings generally don’t happen in China. Private citizens are not allowed to have guns or weapons of any type, and punishments for crimes such as murder are generally harsher than in America. Additionally, China has not faced the terrorist threats in attacks that have been on the rise in America and Europe; while the police watch and monitor for those events very closely, from what I know the only terror threats they face are from small groups from the more rural eastern China. I felt very safe in Beijing, even when walking alone on the streets at night, which to be completely honest I can’t say about most of the American cities or towns I’ve been to.
5. There is an incredible blend of tradition and modernism throughout China, especially in big cities. China is a huge country with a storied history, which can clearly be showcased in the architecture and preserved parks in the cities, but also much more modern than I expected, which can be seen in things like modern buildings and public transportation, but even smaller things such as how people use WeChat or AliPay (phone apps) to purchase virtually everything in the city. This divide between old and new is also evidenced in the people’s attitudes and values – many people hold more traditional or “old-school” views about things such as marriage, homosexuality, and filial duty; however, at the same time, many people, especially young people, are becoming increasingly open-minded and aren’t much different from young people you might meet in America. I definitely didn’t not expect the level of modernism that I saw in Beijing, and I think this dichotomy of tradition and modernism will only continue to grow and change in the future.