More Understanding Less Stereotyping
“Every coin has two sides” is a popular idiom globally that seems to be well-known in China. It’s a common response to questions, and my girlfriend informed me that everyone learns it in school. It’s a ftting fgure of speech for a lot of what is said about China.
Love it or hate it, China pierces the soul and becomes an integral part of a person if he or she stays long enough. Any foreigner who spends much time here tends to develop strong feelings and opinions about the country. During my three year stay here, China has evolved from a stop on the map and a step on a journey to something more like a second home.
Perhaps this is why I often fnd myself playing devil’s advocate on many issues related to China. It’s part of my personality: I like to test various sides of an issue and challenge my own assumptions about things. And perhaps I’m a little contrary by nature.
Any country of the size and scale of China is going to be hard to understand in a comprehensive way. The more I learn about China, the more I realize I know so little. The same could be said for the United States. China and the United States are both massive countries of beauty and complexity as well as plenty of contradiction and controversy.
Considering both the physical space that separates our countries and how our cultures have developed along different lines, China and the United States certainly have their share of differences. When reacting to stories in the news or the people we encounter on the streets, Americans and Chinese both tend to generalize and rely on stereotypes for their understanding of the other. And, really, such behavior is only natural when there’s limited knowledge of the other and often little direct contact in daily life.
In the United States, you can fnd a mix of positive and negative stereotypes about Chinese people. On the positive side, many Americans view the Chinese as super smart and think that they can do calculus in their heads, play the piano or violin, know kung fu, and dominate on ping pong tables. On the negative side, Chinese are often considered loud in public, overbearing parents and terrible drivers.
In China, anyone who doesn’t look Chinese gets lumped together under the laowai or waiguoren (foreigner) label. It’s common to hear statements like: “Foreigners are so polite!” “Foreigners are so rude!” “Foreigners are rich!” “Foreigners are just here because they can’t fnd work in their home country.” “Foreigners don’t care about their families like Chinese do.” “Parents kick their kids out of the house when they are 18, and the kids don’t take care of their parents when they get older.” “You’ll like this, because foreigners all like this food.” One girl, upon meeting me for the frst time, asked, “How are you so thin if you only eat junk food all the time?” Based on the two years I spent teaching in China, I’d wager I eat less junk food than most of my students do. But in the eyes of many Chinese—who are largely exposed to American food via the plethora of fast food providers such as McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks and Pizza Huts in Chinese cities—junk food is all Americans eat.
Being a minority in any country and dealing with these kinds of expectations can be exhausting, frustrating and depressing at times. The good news is that change is possible. A lot of people in China and the United States are genuinely curious and would like to know more about each other.
When I polled my friends and family on Facebook (most of whom are from the United States and other countries) to gauge their opinions of China and Chinese culture, the responses were almost all positive and curious. Many Chinese feel the same way.
As much as may be different, we have a lot in common. Chinese people love watching Tom & Jerry just as much as Americans do, and Coco was a hit in both countries because people everywhere can identify with themes of remembering and honoring those in our families who came before us. Parents work hard to make a better life for their children. Children want to help take care of their parents as they age. We all want to fnd work that is fulflling.
As individuals and as countries, we have plenty that can unite or divide us, and real issues remain in both the United States and China that need work. We often have different views and perspectives, and sometimes our assumptions about the other aren’t fair. As popular as it is for Chinese netizens to selfcriticize about “glass hearts,” it’s easy for anyone to react negatively to criticism, stereotypes and overly simplistic views. Whenever I hear something complex described as simple, I want to argue for richer understanding. Maybe that’s a noble intention, but it doesn’t do much good without maintaining grace and seeking common ground frst.
In the United States and China, we have our differences. But when we focus on what we share in common and look at both sides of the coin before judging its value, we’re all better off. When we discard stereotypes we start to see real people. And it always turns out that on the inside, they’re a lot like us.
The author is a senior training specialist at Objectiva Software Solutions.