Day 202: A Commentary on Modern Chinese Culture

12 Mar


We’ve had another two great days of teaching and have even planned our next trip. This Friday we will be heading to Luoyang in Henan Province to check out some temples and, most notably, the Longmen Grottoes. We’re very excited to be touring again and there will definitely be a post after this weekend (with pictures!).

With little to report about the routine of the past two days, I’m going to relay some thoughts and conversations Duncan and I have been having recently. It’s time for some social commentary and analysis.

There is a stereotype in the West that Chinese people (and other Asians) excel at logic and reasoning (i.e. all Asians are good at math and play chess) to the exclusion of creativity. Though it is true that the Chinese education system (at least the part that I have come into contact with) is void of pretty much all creative thinking (unless students go specifically to an arts school), it is also void of critical thinking and logical reasoning. Almost all classes are focused on and taught with the intention of students scoring well on pre-defined tests. Primary school students (we would call it middle school) have to pass the zhongkao to get into a good middle school (what we would call high school) and then middle school students (high school students) have to pass the gaokao to get into a good university. In their final (senior) year of (undergraduate) university, students do not take any classes, though they are still technically university students, because the intent is for them to either find an internship that will lead them to an immediate job upon graduation or to spend that entire year studying for the graduate school exam. As a result of all this test focus (and extreme pressure from family and cultural expectations) students spend their entire school career memorizing answers to tests (often) without knowing exactly what they are memorizing (especially in English classes). Duncan and I have seen the backlash of this in all of our classes – students have memorized English sounds in certain orders (often right out of their textbooks) but have no clue what they are actually saying. For example, when you ask a student who has been technically “studying” English for the past ten years, “how are you today?” and they respond with “yes”. Give them a test, however, that they prepared for by memorizing the questions and answers, however, and they’ll excel.
There is no critical thinking, logical reasoning, asking questions, or producing original or self-concluded answers. There is only meaningless, test-focused memorization (even in the best of schools). Students can function quite well if they remain in and dedicated to the Chinese system, but once out of it or in the world where some kind of critical reasoning is necessary, they are often stumped because they have never had an opportunity to practice critical thinking. We see evidence of this all the time in subways and on roads, where you see people stopped in front of a barrier, refusing to find a way around, and instead just seem to push into it until it moves (human or not) or they get impatient or when they look right at you as you are driving down the street on your bike but yet they step in front of you anyway.
Recently, there was a news article about the Chinese people lamenting the popularity of a Korean soap opera and Japanese anime worldwide and yet the Chinese (as self-defined examples of Asian culture) are lacking. I think it has to do, somewhat, with the fact that creative and original thinking is not supported within the Chinese system. I also think it has to do with the intense mimicry of other things, especially the Western world, (i.e. convincing fake designer products and a disregard for copyright infringement) that is (in my opinion) quickly coming to erase ancient Chinese culture and becoming a new modern Chinese culture.

It’s no wonder that the Chinese are sometimes stereotypically known as “professional mimickers”. Mimicry of products and culture is so pervasive here that you cannot assume something is real and, in fact, we’ve come to assume first, like many people, that something is fake. We’ve seen fake cars so convincing that the only way we knew it wasn’t original is because they misspelled the brand name on the back of the car (inexplicably). And despite the hundreds of “Apple” stores in Baoding, all claiming to sell the new iPhone “5S”, we had to travel to Beijing to find a store legitimate enough to actually support real Apple products.

And with all this mimicry, comes pervasive lying that we have found to be quite grounded in Chinese culture (based on some reading I’ve done, I think this particular feature originated or at least came to dominance during the Cultural Revolution). But lying isn’t really seen as lying here; it’s more like expected embellishments to make the truth sound better and to save face. Stretching the truth has become so much a part of life and “the way things are done” that most often I don’t think people consciously realize they aren’t telling the complete truth.
And, when it comes right down to it, people here, like anywhere else, are selfish (especially, it seems, in North China). It’s ironic and contradictory, but it seems that people here are more selfish and more egocentric despite their communal society than in the US and other parts of the “Western world” that are defined as individualistic societies. From what we have seen, the average person functions on what works best for them and them alone without any regard for how their actions are affecting those around them (the exception is familial obligations). There seems to be very little empathy and sympathy and decisions do not seem to be made through the line of thought “what’s best for everyone involved” as I would expect from a communal society but rather “what is the most convenient way/thing for me”, what I would expect from an individualistic society. You can see this reasoning in the disposal of trash (“I don’t care where it goes as long as it isn’t with me anymore”), driving (responsibility is on the person behind you; as a driver you don’t ever need to look in the rearview mirror), the treatment of animals (“It’s not my dog, so what does it matter how I treat it?”), and the attitude towards the environment (“it’s not my responsibility” coupled with a lack of education and awareness). It’s quite the unexpected paradox.

This pervasive mimicry, unconscious lying, and selfishness have created a culture of distrust. When I was explaining to Li Laoshi about how to get a driver’s license in the States, her first question after I explained that my parents signed off on my driver’s permit hours was “how does the DMV know their signature was real and that you really did practice driving?” “Well, I guess they don’t but since you put your name on it, they assume you’re telling the truth. Besides, what would they have to gain by lying? Nothing other than an incompetent driver risking their life and the lives of others.” But in China, people don’t trust each other. I found out today that a fairly common practice when you get a new job is to put down a hefty deposit that you don’t get back if you quit without a month’s prior notice in order to protect the company or business owner. When we went through the Visa process to come here and when we were applying for residence permits once we were in Baoding, every step was riddled with bureaucratic nonsense, permits, official stamps (not signatures, because those could be forged), and only certain people were allowed to interact with certain documents and certain parts of the process in what seems like a vain attempt to avoid forgery, lying, or corruption. (Of course, despite all this drivel, corruption is rampant, but that’s not unique to Chinese government.) Further concern from Li Laoshi arose when I was explaining our house situation in the States. She wanted to know how we trust our neighbors if we don’t know them; how can we be sure that someone won’t break into our apartment (explanation of dead bolts); do you have an alarm system; how do you deal with a thief (I have Duncan as a bodyguard); and myriad other questions all centered on the fact that during our regular life in the US, we trust and believe we can trust most people around us to behave civilly and without any intention to do us harm. By comparison, I wouldn’t be surprised if life in the US seems more secure, at least in that respect.

I do think it’s important to note, however, that we function in a specific social domain in the US mainly comprised of friends and family, those we have close relationships with because we trust them. During our time here, the exceptions to most of what I noted have been primarily found amongst our friends and close colleagues and I’m sure it’s similar for Chinese people. Whereas strangers may not be the most courteous, in either country, we forge close and friendly relationships with people by and because of mutual trust, respect, and a personal connection. (Woo! Relations theory!) As I’ve said before, so many of China’s problems stem from the fact that there are just too many people and it’s very likely that the culture of distrust is partially created and maintained because you cannot feasibly maintain relationships or some kind of personal connection with the 1.4 billion people living in China. We function in a largely impersonal social domain here (on top of clearly being outsiders) and I’m confident that is skewing our perception of people and culture (cue Durkheim).

When I was anticipating our move here, I was excited to experience life in a country without a religious system and with a rich and long history of moral philosophers and thinkers. I assumed, as a communal society, that I would see others taking care of or at least being aware of others at a level not normally present in the US. I looked forward to the exploratory conversations of good-deeds, morals and ethics, and community development that for some reason (probably related to China’s history) I believed would be daily conversation material rather than the scholarly and academic dialogues in Western universities. It seems that I had China and the average Chinese person on a very high pedestal and reality has hit harder because of those unfounded expectations.
But I have found a whole new world, once that I did not expect, that is not all bad either, despite not aligning with my pre-adventure day dreams of China. We appreciate the dedication to creating communal spaces (frequently in beautiful parks) that allows for groups to meet, do activities (like the old people dancing and the young people roller blading and jump roping all in the same space), and interact and participate in something as a community. I am amused by the tendency to and frequency of napping. There is an astonishing depth to this country’s history and culture that continues to prove more and more fascinating the farther we delve into it. I love the seemingly endless opportunities for travel to see beautiful places, experience new cultural nuances, and explore historically important sites (I will miss these things a lot once back in the US). I deeply appreciate China’s diplomatic intent to remain peaceful and cooperative. And, the characters that define the written language are beautiful mysteries to me. I have grown fond of how safe I feel here and I’m sure I will experience a significant culture shock upon returning home when I re-enter the world of frequently visible gangs, guns, and violence. And if there is one thing (and there are many things, the Chinese excel at other than tests), it’s hospitality and making guests feel welcome, safe, and cared for. And that is something I will definitely miss.

Until next time, thank you for reading,


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Posted by on March 12, 2014 in Baoding, Uncategorized


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