Though I wrote the majority of this post before leaving, I was undecided whether to include it at the end of my blog, as I did not want to end on a negative note. Looking back on China now –from almost a year ago–, I have extremely fond memories, but believe it necessary to include the following. On a side note, please excuse awkward tense shifts, as I am writing in the present about the past, and combining these ideas with subjects written already.
Having safely returned to the land of the free, I intend to comment on subjects that could have drawn the attention of China’s “proofreaders”. Before seemingly bashing the society that I lived in for four months, I would like to preface my remarks by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed studying abroad in China. I do wish to return to China, but only to explore smogless landscape, not to live.
Although one of the first words that comes to mind when people think about China is communism, the first time I even considered China a communist country was a month into my trip. Around the (fiftieth?) anniversary of the school at which I stayed, a few students with red armbands were stationed at its entrances to welcome visitors. I saw the same red armbands on random individuals through the city during the transition of China’s highest officials. The armbands are supposed to signify that the wearer is some form of volunteer that is in touch with government officials.
From simple observation, I would assume China was communist in name only, but after getting to know my teachers, my impression changed. One of my teachers never intended to become a teacher, but was told to become a teacher. Although he was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, he simply had no other choice than to teach; however, I do not believe this is as common today. From a political perspective, China may be rather communist, but from an economic standpoint, the country is slightly more capitalist. [That being said, I am almost as far as one can get from being knowledgeable about both political systems and economics. These were just my impressions from both my observations and from a single sociology class.]
Although communism was not obviously present, nationalism (coupled with racism) was overt. From the few conversations that I either participated in or overheard in the company of native Chinese students, the students were willing to yield that China has issues with the environment and human rights. However, their first attempt at rebuttal usually involved pointing out the problems of other nations, accusing the US of doing the same, or underplaying the issue within China. Although this is my subjective opinion, I think even world-conscious individuals are influenced from a young age. I cannot say whether the people are fed distraction, or whether “leading by example” means significantly more in Chinese culture.
Moreover, I have heard some of these students admit that they take most of what they learn in school about government with a grain of salt; they accept that censors play a role in most everything they encounter in the news and historical texts.
The activism surrounding the F!@#ing Islands epitomizes the nationalistic nature of China. [And in hindsight, I do not believe this subject means anything to the American public anymore, nor did it at the time, but it was a heated topic during my stay in China]. In order to use the internet in my dorm, I had to go to a site to log on. On said website, a rather large picture took the place of what would have been an advertisement on an American website. The picture displayed an overlook of the Diaoyu Islands, and was accompanied by the bolded words, “The Diaoyu Islands is forever Chinese territory” [please note their grammatical error].
One could interpret this statement as propaganda, or as the internet sellers’ support of the China’s side of the controversy. It is interesting to note, however, that this statement was in English, not Chinese, and was viewed by all of the international students at the university trying to access the internet. I can only speculate the intentions of the statement, but it certainly made me feel uncomfortable because many Chinese held hostilities against the US for siding more in favor of Japan on the controversy.
Around one month into my stay, when I was in the car with my martial art instructor, we saw a sign on the back of the car in front of us calling for war with Japan and the US. Also around this time, my language partner’s father’s car was keyed simply because it was a Toyota.
Although there are (or at least I hope they are classified as) extremists, everyone I’ve spoken with, including my martial arts coworker/instructor, does not care at all about these islands. In addition, the consensus is [or was, at the time] that the Chinese government itself will prevent the situation from escalating because of economic relations with the US.
That being said I also saw iPhone cases with nationalistic remarks on the Diaoyu Islands and coin purses with racist anti-Japanese slang, akin to the n-word, sold in market places.
Concerning the government’s influence on the people themselves, the subjects for our research projects had to be approved by the teacher and the director of the program to avoid attracting the government’s attention. Typing certain subjects into a search engine triggers programs by censors, [the internet is set up in China in such a way that there really is no such thing as an anonymous internet use] and the school does not want to be known for housing dissenters.
Someone told us that his internet was shut down for several hours because he was unintentionally directed from one site to another that discussed forced abortions. At one point during the semester, one of the students in my program could not access facebook despite having a VPN that should have allowed her to get around censorship.
Because I did not know much about China before studying abroad, was unaware but only heard notions of how there are many human rights issues within China. I witnessed the discrimination and maltreatment firsthand, however, of nomad minorities during an extended trip to rural China. China’s government, in an attempt to feign an interest in environmental protection, recently quarantined a family we met to a reservation. It reminded me of the relocations of Native Americans in US history.
Despite the horrific smog in Beijing where I studied, the Chinese government wishes to preserve the grasslands to convey an interest in environmental protection (likely because environmental protection is a growing issue in the US and other developed countries). This is one of the more mild instances of a lack of human rights, but is similar to the others in the way that these issues simply are not discussed. In China, the people may know that there are significant human rights abuses, but the government does its best to hide the details, and the people do not feel they can make a difference.
Because of this mentality –the general acceptance that nothing can really be done so why not save the trouble– I have gained a greater appreciation for America.
I have never been so proud to be an American.
Concerning random people that I met that were unjustly treated, one was an English teacher that was put under house arrest for a month because his student attended a protest and wrote on a sign in English. (The student is presumably still in prison). Another individual was tortured for over a month for attempting to enter Tibet. (He was assumed to be a spy, but actually just wanted to visit family). I was informed by another individual that if I wore all white (a symbol of mourning the loss of life) in Tiananmen Square as a sign of protest around the time of the appointment of the new Chinese president, I would have been shoved into an unmarked van in less than a minute.
While discussing China’s history with a different Chinese individual, he mentioned that he was at the Tiananmen Square protest, saw the tanks, and knew classmates that died there. Although I wished to learn more about his perspective, I do not think it appropriate to ask. I think it would have been akin to asking a Vietnam veteran about war stories before he or she had time for the scars to heal.
Honestly, I was taken aback, if not awestruck, because I never made the connection that those individuals around me had personal connections to major, tragic historical events.
On a side note, this man said casually in an appropriate juncture in the conversation that he is a socialist –a word that is thrown around far too much in the US in my opinion.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to learn from him.
Another tangent that I did not necessarily feel appropriate to address while I was in China involved the subject of medicine. It was my impression, mostly imposed upon me by a close Chinese friend of mine, that old-wives-tales are accepted as legitimate forms of care. When faced with a serious medical condition that could easily be remedied in the US, she was given old-fashioned Chinese medicine. In addition, in our Chinese language textbook, we were taught the distinction between Western medicine and Chinese medicine.
Another side note: This same close Chinese friend told me that she knew she was studying hard because her teeth were bleeding after brushing them. I tried to understand, and believe what she meant was that significant mental effort/exertion can manifest in physical form.
For my capstone project, I dissected a number of scientific articles about acupuncture. In summary, I do not believe there are proven conclusions on the subject to validate its implementation as a legitimate treatment. There are apparently benefits, but nothing conclusive about the origin of the benefit has been found.
Moreover, all the articles that supported acupuncture employed deductive reasoning instead of inductive. This is a huge distinction, not like old and modern, but more akin to medieval humorism and current empiricism. Instead of being able to create predictions (theories), I received the impression that acupuncturists put pins in peoples’ backs and tried to draw conclusions on why it helped. I could not find any research that related the layout of acupoints to the physiology, such as nerve or muscle arrangements, of a person.
What bothered the hell out of me on the subject was an article published by a renowned research facility in Beijing. Not only did it lack (inductive) evidence and proper methodology to back its conclusions, but it was also highly subjective, even mocking western science in its introduction.
All of the aforementioned material aside, I find myself squashing the negative preconceptions people have of China in conversation. It is NOT a backward place (in parts). I will also, however, disagree with people that believe China is a “sleeping dragon” that will eventually rule the world.
Moreover, I abhor generalizations about China because, frankly, no two places in the US are very similar. I believe China is a land where there is no black and white, but a mosaic of grey. Even the majestic and celebrated Great Wall has a backstory of travesty. I have learned to appreciate further the understanding of context and background.
I will NEVER consider myself an expert, let alone someone proficient in understanding Chinese culture.
I have learned a ton from this whole experience, and am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity. Although one inevitably uncovers things one does not like anywhere one goes, I maintain that China is not a bad place. That being said, I do not want to live there. I made friends with the American students I traveled with and with locals alike, and intend on staying in touch with them for as long as possible.
Despite that almost a full year has passed since I left for China, I still relish in the memories, occasionally bring up my experiences and observations in conversation (hopefully only when appropriate), and continue to appreciate and reflect on all that I have learned.
I will always continue to appreciate and reflect on what I learned.