A Letter from China
October 3, 2000
"Quing wen, ni shi shei?" ("Excuse me, who are you?")
By and large Americans have a rather antiquated and distorted view of China and Chinese people. Some of us still tend to see China as the land of rickshaws, Emperors with hundreds of concubines, women that bind their feet and wear long dresses like robes, men that grow goatees or tie their hair in a queue. True, almost every Chinese citizen must boil his water before drinking. True, they have been through much in the past 20th century that has destroyed many of their historical relics, manuscripts, and educational institutions. True, they have had internal civil wars that divided the country and caused a lost sense of direction for government and society. True, they do not have the standard of living in many areas we enjoy but so take for granted, e.g., cars, air condition, food conveniences, True, the opportunities for education are not as open. On the other hand, they have made great strides in the last 15 years toward industrial and technological modernization. Everywhere one looks a new highway is being built. Every college campus I visited has several new buildings (still only 3 % of the GNP goes into education). China is reportedly in the top ten nations in industrial output. I'll go out on a limb and bet she is in the top five with USA, Japan, Germany, France, and Russia given another 15 years.
Having said that, let's talk about some differences between China and America. It seems to me there are three very basic differences between us. First, Chinese are strongly group conscious, whereas Americans are strongly individualistic. It can be seen in the classroom where each Chinese student has a desk mate (Americans would rebel against being tied to another desk), or in the marriage. Once married most Chinese move in with the parents where at least three, sometimes four, generations of a family live. Try to require that system in America.
Second, there are obvious differences in the Chinese Communist/mercantile system of government and the American democratic/capitalistic system. This will be a topic for a later "Letter From China."
Third, there are fundamental and significant cultural differences. Take courtship and marriage for instance. Typically Chinese do not marry before 27 or 28 years, go with only one, two, at most three different people before marrying, do not display affection publicly, have higher moral standards than most westerners, do not permit homosexuality, do not permit sex shown on TV except as health advertisements, and do not have many divorces. Married students are not permitted in college except in graduate schools. No married housing or dormitory is provided. I have asked many students in college about how they court and I often get this response: "sorry, I have had no experience." Women can visit men's dorm rooms, but men cannot visit women's. In my school, students had to be in their rooms by 10:30 p.m. every night, at which time the water and electricity was cut off until 5:30 the next morning. If you saw a girl and boy together you could almost assume they were going steady. The late marriage age fits well with preserving the one-child-one family policy (and let's give the Chinese credit here for realizing the over-population problem and trying to do something about it --imagine what a howl would go up if the US government tried to impose that limit on us).
Another cultural difference is the way they honor the deceased. They have one day each year in April, I believe, that I wish we Americans would adopt where all family members go together to each separate grave site and remember their dead. They talk to and about the deceased, burn fake money and incense over the site, recite poems or sayings and generally have moments of silence in memory. In past years anyone could bury the deceased in the fields, or woods, or mountains. Since the Red Guard days, however, when Chinese were discouraged from burial, and since burial has become expensive, cremation has become more popular. They still have the all night vigils, parties, singing, moving the body from relative to relative as in the past --somewhat similar to the "wakes" of bygone era.
Still another cultural difference is some strange taboos I've stumbled upon. One does not write the names of people in red -- it means their death; nor give a clock as a gift -- the sound of the Chinese word is an evil omen, nor give one an umbrella for a gift -- for the same reason, or praise another in public -- it is considering asking for favors; nor do they give cards and flowers much at graduation, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays; nor is it proper for male strangers (foreigners) to be very friendly or courteous to women. I was walking with the family of one of my students in a garden path and her mother's shoe came untied. I knelt down to tie the shoe, trying to show off my American politeness, and she jerked her shoe away, frowned, and gave it to her daughter to tie. I was being too familiar. In some walks, especially across water, the bridges or paths zigzag. This is because of the belief that evil spirits must move in a straight line and can not change directions -- hence the zigzag. They also have a different view of dragons. Western societies are prone to take them seriously and as powerful forces of evil ("Beowulf," for example); whereas Chinese are quick to tell you that a dragon is a composite of 8 other animals and are thus more likely to be seen as harmless, funny, loving creatures.
Finally, I want to indicate some differences between us just by listing a few of the many inventions Chinese have done. Recall that their civilization goes back 6,000 years and basically evolved from the same locale. Ours in the USA is more recent and diverse, since we are called the "melting pot" of many nations. Gunpowder, noodles, the compass, the use of the horse in war, block printing, the umbrella, lacquer, silk and silkworm raising, tea, calligraphy, jade used in jewelry, inlaid gold and silver porcelain, brocade, irrigation canals, earthenware (5500 BC), chop sticks, bronze (1600 BC), lyrical epic, standing bells (770 BC).
One could go on with other cultural and custom differences, but I hear these bells gonging for dinner, and I'm hungry -- besides, that's the topic for our next letter -- FOOD
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