The other night was my school’s end of the year dinner. It was at this new Japanese style spa/restaurant/hotel/resort/compound thing. Yeah, I’m not sure how to refer to it, obviously. There was a buffet, our school’s teacher-band played, and people gave speeches to those who are leaving at the end of this year. I gave a speech for a friend that I’ll miss (but will visit in Korea), and tried not to make a fool of myself at the mic. Oh, and we all had to wear sandals the whole time.
The next morning Xiao Ming and I had one of our talks about the night.
Not an I’m-in-the-dog-house talk. A culture-differences-pop-up-everywhere talk. I love the second type of talks, and mostly actively avoid the former.
For four years Xiao Ming and I have been attending events with my colleagues – birthdays, dinners, bar nights, anniversaries, memorials, concerts, and graduations. After nearly every single one she and I sort of debrief the event.
I’m constantly amazed at how objective, attentive, and curious she is about the world around her, so much so that I actually record some of our conversations because I don’t trust myself to remember what she says faithfully. And I do want to remember. Her point-of-view as a highly educated Chinese woman with extended experience abroad and a deep, objective love of her culture and country makes her a fantastic conversationalist on most topics related to China.
“Your co-workers are so free and expressive,” she said to me. Her opinion piqued my interests and I followed up, asking her what she meant.
What follows are parts of our conversation. All of the requisite PC statements are in place here – we’re not sociologists, harbor no agenda that would benefit anyone by championing one culture at the expense of another, know that generalizations are not entirely accurate all the time, and welcome all constructive dialogue that might spring up around any of these topics.
Thoughts on Expression
After crying through several of the farewell speeches, Xiao Ming told me that in China something as heartfelt as personal, touching, sentimental goodbyes like that would never happen. You’d get printed out speeches where people read completely from paper with little emotional register in their voice. You’d get words like “you’re great,” “good job,” and “good luck” with no humorous anecdotes, no choking up, no passion.
Inhibitions often control the masses everywhere, but maybe more so here. I myself am not much of a dancer without some liquid courage, but Xiao Ming says that so many more Chinese people are lead-footed because of culture differences. Dancing, singing, playing in bands, these are not Chinese habits. Our staff band, she claims, is something that wouldn’t exist in a Chinese company due to the workers not being “professionals.” My colleagues are good, but they’re definitely not moonlighting for Bon Jovi on the weekends. That doesn’t stop them from putting on great shows at many of our school events and getting teachers out on the dancefloor. Save for the nearly soundproof rooms at KTVs, Spring Festival events, and contest television shows, Chinese workers don’t perform much on a regular basis.
Sentimental statements of gratitude and love are simply not a part of the conversation for families and close friends. Any culture book about China will tell you this, and it is mostly true. Xiao Ming has no memory of her folks telling her that they love her, nor would she feel comfortable telling them that she loves them. They don’t even thank each other or say goodbye on the phone before hanging up! By comparison, every time my mom WeChats us she makes sure to tell Xiao Ming and me that she loves us.
Thoughts on Age and Decision-Making
I work with some pretty great people of all ages, and so many of them are full of a zest for life that quite frankly puts me, at only 30, to shame. Some of my co-workers are in their fifties and they dance, laugh, sing, and party like they’re still in college. Women of the same age in China dance a bit, too, but only in the city squares and only when they’re lead by people doing choreographed movements. There’s no way in hell they’d be in bars or dancing at parties.
“Old Yellow Cows,” Xiao Ming calls these types of women. Apparently a term used to describe some of the generation that’s in their 50s and 60s now. “When they don’t have anything to do they just stand there like they’re mooing, they have no entertainment. How many times has my mom said she wants to travel, but then at the last minute she changes her mind? She’ll watch the kids, or do something else. If she does go she comes back complaining about spending money,” Xiao Ming says without pulling her punches.
Younger people, mostly women since Xiao Ming likes to ease drop on them, constantly worry about not being married, losing weight, or shopping. Sit in Starbucks a bit and you can overhear conversations from those around 30 and under and they almost always revolve around obsessively wanting to find a significant other, going on blind dates, and-or their latest romantic fiasco. If they aren’t fretting about who their Mr/Mrs. Right is then they’re posting to WeChat about losing weight while also taking Food Porn shots of their daily meals. Or they’re just flaunting their newest bargain buy with selfies of perplexing angles.
Younger Westerners just don’t seem as bogged down by the same concerns, she theorizes.
I’ve talked to Xiao Ming about how financial burdens can seriously hinder choices in America, and how bills can all but annihilate your day-to-day happiness, but she still feels that Americans tend to have more flexibility than her countrymen and women.
“There’s so many times when I interact with your co-workers and I have these thoughts,” she tells me. “Like the other day when I asked Sherry when she and Ryan were leaving and she said they were all packed up and ready to start their new life next week in Singapore. You know, it’s their life, and I don’t totally want to do that, but I do admire that. They have the choice and chance to change their life. Their life is light, no burden. They can stay somewhere for a few years and then pack up and leave. Even Pat and Cassady. They have two kids and they are free, too. Nothing in their life makes you feel like they have a big stone on their heart. But Chinese people are different. They will always think about how to be stable. Find a house, a job. Settle down and focus on their kid.”
“Even your older co-workers are so free. You can tell they live for themselves. They’re confident. Happy. I can’t even do that. I can’t stop thinking about how other people will judge me. So many Chinese people are this way. Very few Chinese people live for themselves. Even the most selfish actually do things in their life for other peoples’ eyes and judgement. There’s always a thing you have to get done or follow. Like on WeChat you can see that they post about finding a husband, losing weight, or what they eat so others can see.”
“Also like your co-workers in the band. They played instruments and sang. None of them are professional, right? I don’t see Chinese people do this if they’re not professional. They don’t play like that just to relax. Unless it’s KTV, they won’t, and that isn’t real because the machine helps your singing. They can’t be in a group and be themselves.”
Thoughts on Education
“I think this is connected to the way the kids are educated. Even with something like music it’s not about enjoyment. Chinese teachers won’t just let students play songs to get interested. They will force them to do the Doe, ray, me, fa, so, la, tee again and again for a month. There’s no creativity or passion. We can be great students, but we can’t apply the equation or function in the real world. Everything is too practical. Teachers think they need to train the kids to answer the questions as fast as possible. You know that even for GaoKao preparation the teachers will show the students how to answer the questions without even reading the whole sentence. It’s all test-taking skills, not about the knowledge itself.”
When I ask her what she thinks of this Xiao Ming says without hesitating, “I think this way of education kills the intelligence and innovation of students.”
“I thought it was only in schools, but since I teach in college now I see that it’s even there, too. Some majors are better than others, but still most are the same. I attend meetings and the heads of these departments just focus on what score will get you what job. Everything is about the score. They list and rank people for everything!”
“They had this so-called good student who gave a speech about how he was ashamed that he couldn’t go to Tsinghua (one of the best in China) like his brother. In the speech he talked about how important it was to get the scores, how hard he had to work, and he sounded very proud of himself. But I thought it was all bullshit. It wasn’t about the knowledge at all. He made it sound like everything is about fighting and the final result, not the process. No one talks about what you learn, what you can contribute to society, how the information makes you useful. They are still hooked on their scores, they’re still in GaoKao mentality. Maybe this explains a lot. About how Chinese people can’t innovate and why they copy so much. It comes from the education. They’re made into cows by the culture and what their parents tell them.”
“I can see this boy’s future. He will graduate and try to find a good job, a good wife, and won’t be able to change anything or be truly productive. The only kids that will be different will be the ones who aren’t great in this school system. Sometimes they’re naughty and they seem very strange to people, but they will become successful and useful people. I feel that even though you have people like this in America, some who just follow and others who stand out, in China most are followers. In America even if they’re not great, at least they have their own thoughts and personality.”
“No one can just express themselves here. It’s like in the speeches. Most of your coworkers spoke without reading from paper the whole time, but even our president can’t do that. He reads directly from his paper. And he never smiles!”
“We never had a charismatic leader, at least beyond that first generation of New China. Today they just don’t have that leader quality about them anymore. They can’t even give a speech well. And when I attended your school’s graduations these last couple years I feel that some of your students are different. It’s clear they have picked up a part of the American culture when they express themselves. A lot of the kids who studied in your school are very good. They have charisma because of the way they were educated. I think that is a great spirit.”
Thoughts on Parenting
“You can’t imagine how often I think of this when I interact with your co-workers. That’s why I always want to go. I don’t always talk or something, but I always watch and observe. I’m trying to understand them, understand your culture. It’s just so deeply different.”
“And I think all this is the same thing, the same phenomena come from the same root. It’s the philosophy of life, the way we think. Your people are all about being yourself. But the thing that Chinese parents often say to their kids is ‘kan bieren jia haizi,’ which means ‘look at other people’s children.’ They want you to be the same. You’re always told to follow examples.”
“Like the woman who works in the little store in our complex the other day. She was complaining about how worried she was about her son because he is getting 80s in class. She’s so worried about his future, and he’s so young, in fourth grade. And 80s aren’t bad! She said she’s so worried that he will become a useless person. It’s her main concern in life right now. So I told her that it’s okay, to calm down. It will be fine. But this is how obsessed Chinese parents are.”
“For Chinese parents everything is about their kid,” she continues. “If the kid fails in study the parents will feel like failures. They’ll feel hopeless. You can listen to the middle-age men and women talking about their children. They talk about needing to buy them a house, get them a car. They’re obsessed. If it’s a married couple they talk about this, but if it’s a younger person they talk about clothes, shopping, places they’ve been. It’s just, I feel that so many people now have no spirit. I don’t know why. Is it because we were farmers for so long? Is it just a farmer’s mentality?”
There’s no way to answer her last question, or at least I am hopelessly without an answer, so she takes a step back and considers again the role of the parent.
“The kid’s future is his. That’s the way it should be. Er sun zi you er sun fu, ‘your son and grandsons will have their own luck’ is a Chinese phrase that people should remember, but parents try so hard to control things.”
It’s at about this point in the conversation that we pause and just sort of look at the people in the coffee shop. Who are we? Two over-caffeinated yuppies with too much education bashing everything around us like we have the answers? Maybe. But it beats playing video games and watching bad television.
Look what a senior made me!!! She surprised me with it on her last day. Very touching!