Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Doesn't everyone in the US have a gun?"..... or how a Chinese student sees America

From china

See the photo above? That was from a quick assignment to compare and contrast American and Chinese culture in Venn Diagram form. This was all them. I was struck by the "more and less independent" comment, but upon asking I found out it actually referred to the life of teenagers (which we had been studying) rather than political independence. One of my girls leaned over once the group was finished and whispered, "Kacie, you know, I have never thought that American loved peace." I nodded - I have to admit that while the Chinese government may confuse security at all costs with peace sometimes, I would have to say that Americans certainly don't seem very peace-loving to the world most of the time.

Midway through our conversational English program in China, the teachers had our students write down three things they knew about American culture (didn't have to be something they'd learned in our class). Some of the things my girls wrote down were pretty funny.

"If someone says you're beautiful, you say 'thank you'."
That would be different than their area of China, where such a blunt compliment would be rather surprising and perhaps rude. It's an observation on the free compliments between men and women in America. They actually asked me later if it would be normal for a man to tell me I was sexy. I told them that while they see this on the movies, if a stranger said this to me I would think he was being a been forthright, though it could happen in a party scene. Being told you're beautiful, though, is an acceptable compliment.

"If you love a boy, you say, 'I love you'."
Along the same lines here. Romantic love hasn't been freely expressed in their past, and while Western dating practices are catching on, most of my girls were really grappling with this cultural difference. They didn't want arranged marriages but they also didn't know how to be openly romantic.

"After marriage, you don't live with your parents."
It's still true in most of China that you live with your husband's family and care for the parents until their death. My girls marveled at the independence of newly married couples in the US. Many of them appreciated the idea of not being under a mother-in-law's thumb, but they thought living alone would be really lonely. In general they expect communal living. Whereas people in the US are constantly shocked that Isaac and I live with roommates, in China it is no big deal. When people found out I was staying in a hotel room alone, they all worried about me. "You will be too lonely!"

"You can get citizenship if you are born in America, even if your parents are foreigners"
They marveled at this. America's welcoming of many types of people was really amazing to them. Many of them harbor hopes of living here someday.

"There are many Cristian and Baptist Universities"
Hah! This was an observation stemming from the fact that the four teachers (the rest of us were group leaders and volunteers) were PhD teachers at two Baptist universities in the US, and they had explained the difference between the public and private universities. Pretty funny that the kids had drawn from this that the US is filled with Baptist schools!

"America has a more free lifestyle than China"
Don't get too patriotic here, they mostly mean morally loose, particularly in dating and for young adults. They seem "free" in the Hollywood sense. 

"You can have guns in your home"
This was so funny - they all knew that we are legally allowed to have guns. The misconceptions were huge, though. One girl thought pretty much everyone carries a gun, they were surprised that we don't have on in our home, and one girl thought the government gives every family a gun. Hah! I explained that it's actually an ongoing debate in our country, and the debate was reflected in our volunteer group. One guy, a former cop, shared his view that gun ownership actually decreased crime, whereas I told them I wished we could do away with gun ownership because it no longer fills the original purpose that it was written into the Constitution.  It's still very foreign to them. After a leader briefly discussed violent crime in America (mostly that it's nowhere near as bad as you see in the movies and most places in the US are very safe) in which guns were mentioned as a brief aside, I asked my group to summarize the social problem that we'd discussed. They said, "guns". Hah.

"Is America as sexually free as we see in the movies?"
Sexuality was a HUGE question for them. They were college kids, but in this way they were like middle schoolers because they were really facing the possibility of dating and romance for themselves for the first time. Their lives in high school and middle school are crazy - morning to night (literally 8am  to 10 pm) they are in class, studying, testing... there is no time for romance.  Their traditional values in this area are gone, and at least have the girls in my group had parents who were separated or divorced. They don't date casually, but there is also no reason to keep sexuality relegated to marriage. They were SO curious about me, my marriage, how I chose to date, etc. I was open that there are "many kinds of Americans" and you can "choose what kind of American you want to be" and that I had chosen to be very conservative in my standards of dating and marrying and sex.

From china

It was actually fascinating to watch the students during our discussion of the American Independence Day. We introduced them to songs like America the Beautiful, we said the Pledge, we showed lots of elements of American patriotism. I was all set to be totally uncomfortable, but none of it phased them. It turns out that moreso than anywhere else I've been in the world, China understands flagrant patriotism. Europe is uncomfortable with it, the Indonesians aren't that patriotic, etc.... but the Chinese just agree that we should all be proud of our own country. I'm not sure if this relieved me or made me more uncomfortable with it... considering that this is CHINA we're talking about.

They were confused by racism and prejudice in America. In our class times we'd talked about Black History month, about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, and how people now have equal rights in the US. However, they pointed out that in the movie we watched together one night, Blindside, the black community lived all in a poor area and the white community all in a rich area. WHy is this? Valid question, and I talked a lot about how discrimination still exists in some individuals, but the great social ill at the moment is poverty as an economic trap, and how America grapples with how to move the urban poor out of the cycle they are stuck in.

It was fascinating to see them attempt to understand America, and then to compare and contrast it with their own culture. More on that tomorrow. It was SO fascinating to see how a country that regulates the media forms the mind of the people and how they view themselves. When I told them some of the things the West things about China, they were completely shocked.


Wiley said...

Heh... you could give that class here and get some pretty similar results. Especially on the gun thing!

Rae said...

So interesting. I tend to think of China as sort of like Canada in terms of the level of difference from the US so it is always good for me to get a bit of a reality check.