Perhaps due to its location on the opposite side of the globe or maybe because of its notorious closed-door periods in history, China is a place with a lot of misconceptions. I remember when I first visited China; it was absolutely nothing like I thought it would be. Since then, I’ve continually been surprised by China and have had the pleasure of watching several others break some of their preconceived notions on their first trips to this land in the Far East. While pretty much everything I post (let’s be honest, it’s mostly photos) is in some way shaping people’s views of this country I now call home, sometimes there’s a need for more explicit explanations. Some things just can’t be seen in photos, but can definitely be felt and discussed (and often are if given enough time). However, since not everyone can come to China and experience it all in person, I’d like to share some of my thoughts and discoveries (in written form) on some of the impressions that seem to have a strong effect on outsiders’ views of China, impressions that are often among the first to be thrown into question upon closer observation.
China’s One-Child Policy
The One-Child Policy always seems to be at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts on China, its policy, family structure, etc., and while, there’s no doubt it has played a role in many aspects of family life in China, it’s not as black and white as the name makes it seem. It actually began as the Two-Child Policy in the 1970s and was put forth as a way to curb the exponential growth of an already heavily populated country. The policy’s aim was to limit the overall population over time and more importantly bring attention to the fact that the previously held views (something along the lines of “more people = more power”) were not accurate and would in fact hurt the population as a whole. The policy also went through a lot of changes throughout its 36 years, which included many exemptions for people in rural areas, minority groups, etc. Even if you weren’t among the exemptees at a given time, the punishment for having more than one child was a fine, which families often found a way to get around (or just knowingly paid). During this time (and still today) the government also provided easily accessible contraception and family planning education, something that still astounds me as I walk into a convenience store that sells affordable, shame-free birth control. What a concept?!
Today, China is back to a Two-Child Policy, but of course, there are still many exceptions. I also want to mention that of my roughly 100 students, the majority of them have siblings, despite the fact that they were all born under the One-Child Policy. For me, I think the trickiest thing about the One-Child Policy is that it is inextricably linked with so many other events and policies in China as they ended one really rough era of their history and very eagerly worked to jump into a position of leadership in the 21st century. Because of these coinciding events (and in part due to our national predisposition towards individual autonomy) we tend to think very harshly of this policy (and sometimes of China as a whole) because we’re remembering things like unwanted babies, hasty adoptions, unprecedented governmental control or worse. However, as I’ve been reminded, these were effects of a much greater set of events, not one policy. China was in the middle of a famine and recovering from a revolution that rivals those of 19th century Europe. Ultimately, nothing is simple or black and white, least of all the effects of any government policy.
China’s Communist Government
After delving into just one policy that definitely captured the world’s attention, I think another misconception of China lies in the government as a whole. When I told friends and family I’d be coming to China, this was a main point of contention. How could you live in a country that’s not free? Aren’t you worried about the communists? In hindsight, it must have got into my head a little because I now realize that when I first arrived I was a little careful about what I said, how I interacted with Party Members, etc. Now I’ve been here for over a year, and I see that that was totally necessary. While the government has many features of communism, it’s actually a hybrid of several political systems. It’s much more complicated than I care to go into, especially because unlike the US, changes within the government here seem to be made more quickly. China is still figuring out exactly how they want their government and economy to fit and work together, and due to their long history of preferring guidelines to written laws, it’s difficult to nail down the specifics regardless.
It seems like many people are imagining China to look and feel like Cold War era Soviet Union, but it actually looks and feels much more like the US. Capitalism is here in full force, and the Chinese Dream is on everyone’s mind. One noticeable difference, however, is the safety. Cameras are everywhere, people are everywhere, and although I have no idea who (or if) anyone is watching, I know that there are less crimes because there’s a possibility that they are. We see children walking home from school alone in a city of 8 million, and I’ve never felt or experienced any sort of unwelcomed attention when walking alone at night (something that would be impossible in the US today). When my students talk about China one of the things they are most proud of is how safe it is, which I think is an incredible thing to be proud of. Political systems are often a factor in things like this, but culture is another.
Another point often brought up about China is the censorship and the Great Firewall. Many Americans have latched onto the censorship in China as a lack of freedom, but every time I hear this I can’t help but laugh. Seen any nudity on American TV as of late? We all live in various forms of censorship. It just so happens that China, coming late to the internet party, was able to pick and choose very carefully from the beginning what they wanted in or out. And of course, as anywhere, there is always a way around that (I don’t think I have a single student who hasn’t see Game of Thrones). I think what’s more interesting though, is that most Chinese people I know wouldn’t have it any other way. They often ask me, why do you want to be able to access media with excessive violence? Do you want young kids to be exposed to more negative influences than they already are? They’re usually tough questions to respond to. We love physical safety features, why don’t we look at mental safety the same way?
In addition to the safety and influence arguments made in support of the Firewall is an economic one. Of course China would prefer its citizens not use Facebook, YouTube, etc. That advertising money is going into other countries’ GDPs. China has cornered their own market by creating essentially the same apps, sites, and services here, but through Chinese companies. That’s how I have come to have double the social media options now. For Facebook I have WeChat, for Twitter – Weibo, Amazon – Taobao. Censorship seems to be part business strategy in China, and to me, it seems a lot like the US move towards more American-made products – it makes sense economically. However, most people aren’t especially concerned with who is benefiting from their use of a free app. Usually it just comes down to how good is the product, and I can tell you without a doubt that WeChat is way better than Facebook.
China’s Cheap Quality Products
Speaking of Chinese products, another misconception is that everything here is cheap. I assume this one comes from the fact that we get all of our cheap stuff with “made in China” stamped on the back; however, I’d wager some of your most expensive items also come from China. In my experience, just like in the US, there are places you go for cheap stuff and places you go for expensive stuff. We do most of our grocery shopping at a large chain grocery (like Walmart) where if I were to buy a whisk or something like that I would expect it to break in a few months. However, we could go to a nice home goods store and buy a quality whisk as well. Unfortunately, I think the preference for cheap and fast has been an influence the US has had over a lot of countries – it’s something we hear people complain about on every continent we’ve been to.
I’m not sure if this fits into my “misconceptions” post, but I think it just needs to be reiterated how big China truly is. Like the US, it would take days to drive across it, and many years to visit all it’s provinces and regions (there are 34 by the way). However, even with it’s massive size (and extreme geological features: tallest mountains in the world, one of the largest deserts, a few of the longest, widest rivers, etc.), it’s actually incredibly easy and affordable to get around. It took my family 8 years of concentrated effort to visit all 50 states. Between the incredible amounts of planning, purchasing of flights, renting of cars, and the hours upon hours of driving, it was a challenge. We’ve been here in China for about a year and a half and have already visited over half of the provinces. The ease and affordability of the public transportation situation here definitely makes China feel a bit smaller – it means that without a car and without speaking the national language, we can still explore the whole of the country.
Something else that makes China seem very big is the fact that it’s not crowded. 1.3 billion people live here, but it almost never feels that way. Another misconception I think people have is that there are lines everywhere you go in China, and that nothing can be enjoyed because there are too many people. But I hope this is something I’ve been able to show with my pictures – we find ourselves alone even at the most popular of tourist destinations quite often. Chalk it up to the vast spaces or the well-designed properties, but honestly, only on the major festivals have I ever really felt the population of China.
Another common insight people often have when visiting China is that it’s not as rigid as they thought. Perhaps this comes from the movies, where we see actors portraying the demur, obedient Chinese brides or stoic martial arts instructors of China’s past, but whatever it is that has given us this mental picture, it’s one of the first to be debunked. In my experience people here love to laugh. I think my favorite are the taxi drivers. They love guessing where we’re from, asking what we’re doing in China, if we like it here, etc. In China we’ve also experienced random strangers smiling at us, which after a year in Europe, I had begun to think was just an American thing. Sometimes the older generation here is a bit slower to smile or laugh, but I think it’s because they’ve been through a lot of changes in the last 30 years or so, and maybe they’re waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.
A final misconception I want to touch on, since it’s so near and dear to my teacher’s heart, is how the students of China are always seen as studious and highly motivated and how the teachers are often seen as aloof and uncaring. It’s very difficult to describe what education is like here. As a whole, I think China is a land of contradictions (some of the newest technology coupled with the oldest historical sites, some of the most stringent internet restrictions with the largest number of internet users on the planet, etc.), but especially in Chinese schools, can these dichotomies be seen. Students sort of have to be studious; a lot rides on their performances, but really they’re like students all over the world, a bit lazy and more interested in other things. Teachers have similar struggles; they are extremely motivated and often become teachers because they love learning themselves, but the pressure for them is high as well, and like most places around the world, they don’t get paid near enough.
Ultimately a key difference for me in teaching in China is the amount of respect the society at large has for students and teachers. Students enjoy discounted tickets at most tourist attractions and are not expected to work or support themselves until after they’ve graduated. Teachers also enjoy a high level of respect in the form of our very own holiday (September 10th) and the general admiration of students and children everywhere we go. In the US, education is treated much more like a business, which I think has turned many people off to the importance of education, but in China even with some of the negative effects of test-based systems and low salaries, the push for education is as strong as ever, and the importance of self-improvement can be seen in and out of universities.
Yikes! That was a lot of information about China! I should probably start writing a book or something because I have learned so much from my time here. More than I could have possibly imagined, and the longer I’m here, the more I know I’ll learn. I’m extremely thankful that I have been given this opportunity to better understand the people and the culture of the China, and I love sharing what I learn on both sides of the world. Recognizing some of my own misconceptions has been fascinating, but equally interesting is discovering others’ misconceptions of me (and America as a whole). Maybe that’ll be a future post! For now, I’m going to continue soaking it all up, remembering that things aren’t often as they first appear.