Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Being American in China

I have been meaning to add more thoughts to this blog as new ideas arise; interesting topics are discussed and revealed to me. I have about 20 minutes before my next class, so I think it's a good time to jot down some aspects of Chinese society which I have contemplated and learned from others.

When I find moments of reflection, I often like to analyze my place in Chinese society and my overall experience as a teacher in this country. Coming back for the second semester has really been quite different from my first semester of teaching in China. Before, everything seemed so new and exciting; I was like a child in an amusement park -- all the rides seemed very big and grand. But, now China, and moreso Tianjin, has become my "home."

In this way, I no longer see myself as an "outsider," but just another resident among the local people. As a result, it's harder for me to separate my cultural tendencies from theirs -- my "sensitivity" towards Chinese culture has been somewhat... dulled. I might have mentioned this in a previous blog, but this kind of transition into another society is often good and bad. It allows me to truly experience China as a local; I take public transportation everyday; I come face-to-face with a lot of China's frustrating moments.

However, I too often approach these Chinese situations as an American. I expect a speedy, efficient service (as any other American), but then I am met with some of China's drawbacks in their overall organization and management; my patience wears thi and I begin to break down. I suppose it is because I can readily see the flaws; or, it could simply be that I haven't been exposed to it for so long that I still allow it to "bother" me. In other words, I feel that most Chinese people do recognize problems within their country, but they have lived with it for so long, that it almost becomes "background noise" for them; like a thorn in your side that you can't pick out.

For example, one thing that really bugs me is the phrase "mei you." The literal translation of this phrase is "doesn't exist," and it can be used in almost any circumstance when you want to express something that is no longer available; something that hasn't happened. Anyway, many Chinese service workers seemed to be programmed like robots to execute these two syllables -- "mei you." They will say it so quickly that you don't even have a chance to ask, "what do you mean, 'mei you'?" It is almost as if this phrase is the answer to everything. Sometimes, it's blatantly obvious that they have chosen not to help you, because they will say it too fast for a moment's thought.

So, essentially, when they say "mei you," you are expected to understand this, not ask any questions and simply move on with your life. I really don't want to dwell anymore than I have to on this phrase, but it does highlight a very common trait among most Chinese people. It's this... solemn acceptance of "failure"; that, along with "mei you," you should just accept the way things are and not question your "hardships."

One of the other foreign teachers defined this as "Chinese contentment"; that most Chinese people lack any real ambition to change the way things are in their society; they are apathetic towards such things as pollution, corruption, or anything else that would normally irritate an American. I feel that most Americans rarely take "no" for an answer; we are usually very head-strong about our opinions and desires that simply saying "mei you" (which is essentially a negative reponse like "no") will not deter our ambition/drive.

Of course, by drawing up this quick contrast between "American" and "Chinese," I am obviously one-sided in this affair; I portray Americans as "strong" and "determined" people, whereas Chinese people are "weak" and "subservient." This, naturally, isn't a fair summary -- I should probably acknowledge the system of government, as well as the history and culture of both countries. That, in China, people have less of a "voice" when it comes to policy-making and -enforcement.

For example, almost everyone I know in Tianjin recognizes the city as a very dirty and almost uninhabitable place. Lily said she had read somewhere that Tianjin could very well be the 4th most polluted city in the world; yeah, world. One then has to ask, if the city is so dirty; if people dislike the environmental degradation; if people would like to have clear blue skies, then why don't they change their actions and environmental standards? Why not cut back on the pollution they are creating?

If you ask a Chinese person, they will almost automatically blame it on China's "development"; that, just like America, when America was developing, China too will have to undergo a period of environmental disregard in favor of "development." In my opinion, I think this is a very weak argument -- it's bullshit. In my view, I see this in 2 ways -- well, actually I see it in 1 way. I believe most people are led to believe such environmental degradation is inevitable and unavoidable for the sake of China's prosperity. But, I feel the government and many of China's corporations (yes, just like America) are the drive behind China's environmental disregard. To cut the costs and gain more profit, many Chinese companies and industries prefer the old methods (the use of nonrenewable resources such as coal and oil) over newer developmental techniques. And, in the process, the people here are, again, led to think that for the sake of their "motherland," they should accept the smoggy sky and contaminated water. Sure, America created a lot of environmental decay when it was "developing," but that was something like 200 years ago! Think about all the technology that is available today, such as solar power and microprocessors... I know, expensive, but there has to be less sophisticated methods for striking a balance between development and environmental conscientiousness.

On the other hand, often times, when I'm walking in a public place, I'll see a mother have her kid squat and either piss or take a dump on the sidewalk. Or, I'll see a Chinese person chuck their trash on the ground as if the trash will magically disappear into thin air. I confronted my friend Lu Kai about this and he said most Chinese people do this because it is more convenient and comfortable for them; they don't need to hold onto their trash for a moment longer until they find a trash bin...

So, in regard to a few things that I have come to really despise in China -- "mei you," apathy and environmental disregard -- I feel Chinese habits and a history of limited freedom in political/public affairs has led to these shortcomings in China.

It seems that these things never bothered me so much before (fall 2007), but now that I am becoming more of a "Chinese citizen" by living and working in this country, certain issues begin to arise and creep up above from the surface; these issues have also become a part of my daily life...

Moreover, I know that there might very well be some critical explanations for some of China's problems; and I will admit this is simply a rough sketch of my experiences (not to mention, a biased view towards Americans). But being an American in China, I can't help but think China has space for change and better development... that just as an American will not take "no" for an answer; or that an American would probably stand up for their beliefs, Chinese people will also one day put these behaviors into everyday practice and realize true development and progress...