Over the past few weeks I have been randomly asking some native Chinese about their impressions of the United States. My subjects include: teachers, students, friends, parents, and other adults. In collecting answers, I have found, as expected, that some are more knowledgeable than others. Recently it seems like everyone has formed an opinion on America’s new President, meaning their views on America have been influenced by social media and news reports. So far, the attitude toward Trump has been negative. One father expressed his sincere beliefs about America’s future. He feels that China will soon surpass America, especially with America’s new president. China is in a state of growth and development that he foresees will place China at the forefront. I asked an international student who is currently attending college in the US about her attitude toward the US. For the most part she enjoys the freedom that America has to offer and she upholds and overall positive opinion. Yet she finds that the also freedom has its drawbacks. She feels like some Americans are overly vocal and cross boundaries. A few people have asked her if she feels sad that China does not have as much freedom as America.
Another realization hit me — many people are only familiar with the big-name places such as New York, Los Angeles, and other popular settings for American movies. Some have never heard of my home, Pennsylvania. Moreover, these movies have formed many people’s perception of the United States. Some people have images of the southern towns full of cowboys carrying around guns, others picture college students running around green university campuses, and still others expect the US to be like Europe. Our teachers and tour guides have warned us about the general belief that Americans are extremely wealthy. For this reason, foreigners ( wai guo ren) are often targeted by market sellers and taxi drivers. The bargaining culture in China is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. Only if you are strategic and somewhat aggressive can you buy reasonably priced items. Haggling truly is a skill, I have personally unintentionally overpaid for a few items, so I respect those who are learned in the ways of asserting themselves in the marketplace.
Image below: Muslim Street in Xi’An.
A few weeks ago, our class had an opportunity to visit a middle school in Beijing. During our visit, a few ND students gave presentations on Christmas, schooling, and camping in the US. The middle school students were astonished to hear about our light work load in middle school as well as our freedom to engage in extracurricular activities and leisure time. In turn, the pressure that the students are under astounds me. Some students learn the material I encounter in college as early as middle school. After our visit, I asked a teacher how else students spend their time, to which she responded that their lives primarily consist of studying. Even when they are not in class, many students attend supplementary classes.
After middle school, the pressure continues to build. A high school student’s future education relies solely on their performance during this one major pre-college exam, gao kao. In China the schools are categorized into different tiers. When students prepare for the gao kao they apply to two schools in each tier. In the case that a student is weak academically, they are discouraged from even applying to the top colleges.
Another one of my teachers recently described her high school life to me. Compared to my own high school experience her high school days sound exciting, yet rigorous. I feel like her high school experience resembles my own college experience a bit. She lived in a boarding school, meaning she learned to be independent at a young age. I believe her school is relatively standard, but I am not certain. After a full day of classes (literally a full day), she had an extremely strict curfew. A sort of hall monitor makes his or her rounds through the dorm. Whether they are tired or not, the students must sleep. They cannot talk, because they will be heard. Additionally, the power is shut off at a certain time every night. In recalling her experiences, she also nostalgically talked about the moments with friends, shopping in the on-campus market, exploring the different cafeterias, and attending different school events. According to her, the ultimate consequence for misbehavior or misconduct was a call to a student’s parents.
Considering that a child’s behavior is often seen as a reflection of his or her upbringing, when a child misbehaves they disappoint and embarrass their parents. I’ve noticed that more traditional Chinese parenting is more so tough love than in America. In America, political correctness is widely upheld; most people put in effort to not offend anyone for fear of creating to conflict. Children are often encouraged to find and pursue their dreams. In China, parents often project their wishes and hopes onto their children. The most common dream involves schooling, a well-paying (or better yet prestigious) job, marriage, and a household. A lot of parents are critical of their children, when their children do well they ask them why they didn’t do better. Comparisons are drawn and criticisms are thrown on children in hopes of motiving the child to strive and succeed.
So far, I have only been able to record a few of my contemplations. For the remainder of my time here I intend to continue learning and observing. By now, I have come to the obvious conclusion that my life would be drastically different if I had grown up in China. Sometimes I try to imagine an alternate life, but I can only speculate. I believe a trip to the country side would greatly enrich my experience, but I will not have the opportunity to visit the countryside during this trip here. Hopefully I will have a chance another time.
Until next time,