The Culture Gap

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June 5th 2010
Published: June 5th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

Looking back, all of my entries have been centered around trips and things I've done and seen. I have wanted to write more about my day to day observations and experiences, and now that I'm down to a month left in China I figure I should get to work.

My year here has been very educational. I now have highly refined chopsticks skills, a basic grasp of Mandarin, and the ability to dodge traffic while listening to my ipod and texting all at the same time. I appreciate a lot more about America - freedom of information, freedom of speech, the rich diversity that I have taken for granted until coming somewhere without it. But I think one of the most important things I've come to realize is the following: in the nature vs. nurture debate, nurture wins. Hands down. We are so much a product of our upbringing, our environment, our culture, and even our native language. Before coming to China I entertained this romantic notion that people all over the world are essentially the same. Of course people everywhere, regardless of geographic location or ethnicity, are unique individuals with the right to life and freedom and happiness. Everyone needs shelter, food, love. But even beyond this, I had always rejected the idea of a 'national psyche' - how can you categorize people by their nationality, that's ridiculous stereotyping! Right? Wrong. Maybe at one time I flattered myself that I wasn't a "typical" American. Well guess what - I am. You are too. Similarly I have found certain traits are shared by every Chinese person I have met in my time here. It is a wonderful privilege to observe such differences up close, but I've also found that some cultural differences prevent interpersonal connections. This is something I have never encountered before, but guess what - all my previous "international" experiences were in Western cultures (Europe, Latin America). Making friends in China is a completely different story.

This is difficult to explain, it's hard to accumulate my many experiences and various conversations into a blog. So I'm not going to go into much detail or my theories why things are this way. Suffice it to say, even my friends who have been in China 10+ years and speak fluent Chinese agree - it is impossible to have a close relationship with a Chinese friend. Don't get me wrong, I have several Chinese friends and they are great! But no close ones, none that I understand and that understand me on that special level. This is a huge bummer. I didn't come to China just to hang out with foreigners all the time. But I get tired of telling people that yes, I do like Chinese food (they are always surprised) and no, not everyone in California owns a gun (one girl told me she saw a documentary that said we all did, so it must be true). Cultural exchanges are fun only to a certain point. People seem to have xenophobia laced with curiosity rather than genuine interest in me. Maybe it has something to do with the way the West is being blamed for many of China's modern problems. I think it definitely has to do with the prevelant "us vs. them" mentality, an assumption based in China's pride in its 5000 year old culture that assumes there can never be a true understanding with outsiders. Anyway, I wasn't going to theorize, back to the point - am I wrong for wishing for something more? This is one of the reasons the Philippines was so great, I met people and we actually discussed things of substance and about our respective lives, here it is always the same comments on chopsticks vs. spoons and how much they want to be my friend only because they loooove America so much. (America obsession is not a joke - I've had a few stalkers). I have even seen startling differences in my classes - kids here are terrified of saying the wrong answer (it's a whole "losing face" thing), and therefore refuse to answer open ended questions where there is not a right or a wrong. It's taken all of these past 10 months to get my second graders to write journal entries, they are finally doing them but before they would sit there until I gave an example and then would all copy my example word for word. Kids everywhere are indeed the same in that they love candy and stickers and funny faces, but let me tell you friends, nurture kicks in early!

Additionally I get sick of being stared at, pointed at, of giggling teenagers screaming "hello! nice to meet you!" every time I walk out the door, of people laughing to my face when I'm trying to speak Chinese, all everyday occurrences and all of which make me reluctant to interact with Chinese at all. There are some things I had read about and thought I was prepared for - for example, a bluntness that we are not used to. But even with this knowledge in my mind, when someone comments on how many pimples I have, it takes me a moment to collect myself. When they comment on how rich I must be because I'm American, or like my old roommate used to say that I was very precious to the school and could do anything I wanted (not true!), I cannot help but feel embarrassed. No matter how many times someone here elbows me or pushes past or cuts in line, it makes me angry. Or the aforementioned laughing to my face. I know in my mind they are not trying to be rude, they don't even have that concept of rudeness. But understanding it and expecting it is one thing, being daily in the middle of it and reacting is quite another.

Like I said earlier, this experience has made me realize a lot about myself, possibly even more than it has taught me about China. I've come into a firmer understanding of my morals and beliefs, but beyond that, where it all has come from. My previous arrogance of thinking myself a 100% "open-minded and adaptable international citizen" is gone. I am who I am, and...I can't believe I'm going to say this...I am proud to be an American! And I wouldn't want to change that. It took a while for me not to feel like a failure for not thriving as an expat here, but I've realized that I don't have to LOVE every single country I visit, and at least I did my best. Although China and I will part ways soon, most likely never to see each other again, that's not to say that my nomadic ways and global gallivanting are over...far from it! I have been learning and growing and, most importantly, adjusting my expectations, and am better prepared than ever.


6th June 2010

Hi Amy---It's been a while!! I loved this entry. Good for you! Everything about this was so interesting. I'm heading to Korea for the summer and we'll see how my experience there is. Hope you get back to the states safely and good luck to you!!! Emily (from swim school)

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