“Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So the flexible overcome the adamant, the yielding overcome the forceful. Everyone knows this, but no one can do it.”
--- Lao Tzu
Humans don’t process differences very well and living in China the seemingly natural tendency to generalize kicks into high gear. There are many reasons stereotypes spring up and many reasons why they persist – some certainly better than others – but it’s something, like syphilis, we should try to avoid passing around.
It is way too easy to generalize, to see a Chinese person spit and decide that all Chinese love to hock loogies in the street; in no time at all you’re thinking that spitting must be up there with ping pong as the national sport. Lack of cultural understanding and language barriers go a long way in promoting and perpetuating this sort of thinking.
Here are 3 things I thought misunderstood about Chinese people before I came to China:
1) Chinese people are small
This turns out to not be true. Everyday in the morning I find myself jammed into the tiny elevator with 16 other people, and invariably, one of them is as at least as tall as I am (188cm or 6’2”).
In fact, Chinese people are getting taller. In 2006, the Ministry of Health reported that Chinese children are growing, on average, 6 cm (2.34”) taller and 3 kg (6.6 pounds) heavier than they were in 1975. The main reason for this is nutrition – Chinese are no longer starving and, despite the dairy scares, Chinese are consuming far more dairy products than they ever did before.
When I first returned home to the US after a couple months here I was surprised to find that my fellow countrypeople weren’t noticeably taller than Beijingren. Immediately obvious, however, was how much wider Americans are. Except for the poor girls that work at the McDonald’s on Xueyuan Lu, Chinese people are generally quite fit - despite eating large amounts of oily food – stocky is about as big as they get. I hope China manages to fight the preservatives, chemicals, and lifestyle habits that have made Americans an average 20lbs heavier than they were in 1960 (and we weren’t exactly starving then).
2) Chinese people (all 1.3 billion of course) are quiet, prim, and proper
I’m not sure where this misconception originated, perhaps I was subconsciously mixing half forgotten impressions of China and Japan gathered from old movies – but whatever I did, I was shocked by the din of Chinese restaurants, some offices, and cities.
And, for the most part (fireworks and mass chainsawing of trees should never start before 8am) I’m totally into it. The re nao – liveliness – is one of the things I love about China: the back and forth between old people shuffling along opposite sides of the street, or the give and take between fuwuyuan and customers in a restaurant. Many Americans find it funny that Chinese sometimes consider us to be loud. I fall into the loud category, by anyone’s standards, and love the energy and action bubbling all around me everyday in Beijing.
3) Young Chinese look at their government the same way I look at mine
I suppose I should first explain where I’m coming from. In American political terms I would probably be considered left of liberal. Certainly, my friends have always been interested in politics and on a damp day I once almost caught pneumonia participating in a “die-in” (lying on the ground and not moving for a period of time) to mark the anniversary of the Iraq war.
Now I knew the last 8 years in America have been like bungee jumping with a piece of twine while in China growth has skyrocketed along with individual wealth and consumerism. I knew the media here was state run. I knew people might be cautious about expressing their political opinions. What I didn’t realize is that young people in the cities are content. They are wealthier than previous generations ever were and their options infinitely varied. Instead of Mao suits they can buy Prada, or more likely, the thousands of brands constantly offering new styles and fashions (and amazing variations on the English language printed on T-shirts).
At the same time, the hyper-competitiveness of the school system and increasingly clogged job market keeps their focus on supplementary English textbooks for computer programming, and going to dozens of cattle call-like mass job interviews. What place in that life is there for armchair quarterbacking of Chinese government/business interests in Africa? And even if one has those feelings and thoughts, what do you do with them? I failed to realize how far widespread voting goes in making citizens feel involved in the process, and how much that little act – even if people only get their wide selves off the La-Z-Boy every four years – does to make us feel like our opinions matter.
I’ve been surprised enough times by China and Chinese people that I’ve finally come to realize that I will never really know what’s going on here. Living in China requires flexibility in many ways: when squeezing into the subway, when finding out payday isn’t actually a day so much as an undefined period that happens (hopefully) once a month, and when realizing your expectations were uninformed and incorrect.
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how infinitely complex we all are...stereotypes are merely something we use to sum each other up...and should be avoided in public discourse, but even in our own minds we tend to try to keep order, and sum things up so that they're manageable to think of, including, and maybe especially, how we think about people. Only by experience with them can we really know who people are, and even then, there is so much more to know over a period of time...you are having a wonderful experience, and thank you for sharing this!
Mar 17, 2009 04:16 Report Abuse
It's easy to generalize the Chinese or China for that matter, it's opposite land. Anything we take for granted or assume is common sense doesn't happen here, or at least not in away we assume it'll happen. So as long as you go into 90% of any situation while you're in china or dealing with the locals knowing the opposite of what you're expecting is likely to happen, you'll have a much less stressful time here.
Feb 20, 2010 09:42 Report Abuse
your article is ignorant and honestly, not amusing whatsoever, especially when one of your misunderstandings about chinese people is that they are small...yes, all 1.8 billion of them. Granted, any article with the title "misunderstandings of..." are going to contain such sentiments of stereotyping, but the first two points go beyond stereotyping to simple ignorant stupidity. All chinese people are small? They are prim and proper (submissive?) come on, seriously??? I'm sure you have encountered Chinese people at least once in the states/canada/wherever you're from. It's not that China and the people don't make sense, it's your predisposed judgments.
Apr 12, 2010 05:49 Report Abuse
Did you not read and fully understand what was said? The author clearly stated that "all chinese people are small" was a one of the misunderstandings that people have and also clearly stated that from his experience he now knows this to be totally false. Please take your time to read and fully understand something before raging about it.
Jun 02, 2011 23:57 Report Abuse
there are many good preceptions Chinese have of America or westren countries which when they travel there turn out to be false. Such as "freedom" which does not exist . It is more of a dictatorship in West and a policed state than in China. The freedoms here in China are better and truer . If not, then why so many Westerners here but not in their own countries?
Jun 06, 2010 20:53 Report Abuse
"The freedoms here in China are better and truer . If not, then why so many Westerners here but not in their own countries?"
pretty sure there are more Chinese in the West then Westerners in China! Why does every country have a China town? Chinese don’t want to live in their own country.
Aug 31, 2010 02:04 Report Abuse
The Chinatowns were built more than 100 years ago as a result of the wave of migration from the turbulent political situation in the country as it changed from monarchy to renmin power.
It does not mean Chinese do not want to live in their own country. We Chinese loves our 祖国 because there is no better place than one’s home country. And home is not in hostile foreign land living with hostile and prejudiced people with their strange customs and traditions.
Sep 01, 2010 22:11 Report Abuse
First of all, Chinese people are short compared to Americans. They are not tall like you are saying. They are getting taller than the original 4'9" that they were only 15 years ago, but they are not as tall as Americans. Second of all, the fact that they are getting taller doesn't really have to do with them eating meat or whatever else, since Mexican people eat meat and whatever and are still 5 feet 2 1/2 inches. Third, Chinese people exercise a lot (bike or walk everywhere), eat lots and lots of different kinds of fruits and vegetables (tangerines, kiwi, bottled juice drinks, bok choy, etc.) throughout the day, even while they are talking to people, and they eat millet, meat, vegetables, sometimes eggs, and more meat for breakfast. They are growing, because food is very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very cheap there compared to food in the U.S.
Dec 28, 2010 17:16 Report Abuse
"It is more of a dictatorship in West and a policed state than in China. The freedoms here in China are better and truer . If not, then why so many Westerners here but not in their own countries?"
I am as critical of the current political climate in the US as the next person, but to imply that China is freer and that the political system is more responsive is simply ridiculous. Take the press, for example. The liberal bias is very strong and undeniable in the US, but it still beats the heck out of state run and censored press like they have in China. The fact that we have the right to vote (even if that right is compromised by the influence of big money) is certainly better than not having a say so in the nation's leadership.
As far as why so many people are emigrating to China, could it have to do with the rate of economic growth and therefore the financial opportunity? How many of those people do you think are moving to China so that they can have more freedom to express their views?
Get a clue, man.
Oct 10, 2011 07:52 Report Abuse
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