Yesterday, a journalist interviewed me about differences between US and Chinese education systems. The heart of the matter was how might Chinese students apply successfully for US university and college admissions. I blah-blahed for a while – on the different social functions of testing, on the relative importance of excelling in one subject, rather than having good grades in all subjects, and on the advantages of finding an environment that fits the student, rather than choosing a college based on how famous it happens to be in China. Thus far, a rather ordinary interview. Or so I thought.
At the point when I was blathering on about how the ideal function of a US college education was for students to figure out their intellectual interests and then professionalize at the graduate level (as opposed to many other post-secondary systems, where professionalization happens at the undergraduate level because many countries track students into the humanities or sciences as early as high school), the journalist sighed (?!) and said, “You’re really idealistic.”
I’ve heard this. Frequently. It’s as if idealism was a bad, bad thing. My stock answer du jour is, “In the context of the US college system, it’s practical to assume that students will change majors once or twice, may transfer to another school, or could take time off to follow other passions. It’s safe to say, most will stumble into a job after college and then professionalize on the job (and even more likely professionalize through a series of jobs) with a possible detour through grad school.
“That’s just it,” the journalist jumped in. “In China we don’t have so many choices. It’s even worse when you reach middle age. Then the job chooses you. Living for one’s passions is a luxury that Chinese people don’t have.” And then he added the zinger designed to end the conversation, “You don’t have this experience of living for other people because you’re not Chinese.”
Bracketing the fact that the journalist was younger than me and I haven’t yet admitted to middle age-dom, his rebuttal was similar to other responses (especially from parents) that I’ve heard. What’s interesting to me is what makes my response seem “American”. On the face of it, the journalist’s rebuttal assumed that realism means getting a secure, high-paying job right-out-of-college. This seems to me a pretty standard response to capitalism as we know it wherever we happen to live. Specifically, I think Chinese and American parents share this definition of realism, especially about their children’s college education, because they are anxious about what will happen to their children once launched and they know that it’s harder to make a living in an uncertain economy.
Making college “about” getting a job is actually magical realism (of an albeit cross-cultural kind), rather than hopefully and practically idealistic. Imagine parents stirring the pot of destiny, thinking, “If I can control what college my child attends, then I can protect them from unemployment, debt, and exploitation. My child will never experience the humiliation of unemployment and the sadness of insufficient medical care.” Fingers wiggle, green smoke appears –Poof – “You won’t ever have to suffer the arrows of outrageous multi-national fortunes.” In contrast, it seems to me that protection from the injustices of an economy out-of-control (and I think that’s a constant state of being, rather than a momentary aberration) is more likely to come from discovering and nourishing passions that will make our lives more meaningful, and by extension, make the world more beautiful than it is to come from placing one’s faith in name-brand schools and top-ten jobs.
So I return to the question of what made my understanding American, rather than optimistically idealistic within a global context. I believe my American-ness hinged on the journalist’s belief that “Chinese” people live for other people and “Americans” live for themselves. Unsurprisingly, I’ve also had this conversation with other Chinese friends. When it’s pointed out to me that “Chinese” people live for others, the examples tend to be about sacrificing oneself for the greater good. – 牺牲你一个，幸福千万人 and 舍小家为大家 being two recent contributions to the debate. When I counter that I’m not opposed to living helpfully, I just don’t see how my unhappiness (and even death should sacrifice go so far) would improve the world, I have heard, that this is precisely the cultural difference that they are talking about. The sacrifice of a few for the many does lead to greater happiness. If I had the experience (体验 – which I understand to emphasize embodied knowledge of the walked-a-mile-in-a-man’s-shoes variety) of living for others I would know in my bones that this was true.
And yet. Throughout the public sphere, Shenzhen inhabitants butt in line to get on the bus, cut off other drivers to make a U-turn, and push themselves in front of me to buy breakfast buns. Why don’t the activities of lining up and waiting for one’s turn count as “living for others”? This kind of living for others I do quite well. However, my Chinese friends tell me these behaviors are examples of 素质 and 文明 – breeding and civilization. In contrast, living for others is about one’s relationships to 自己人 – one’s people. On this explanation, “living for others” defines degrees of intimacy; it is not about one’s relationships with strangers. So two points. First, what makes me American is an unwillingness to participate in forms of intimacy that are defined by a willingness to sacrifice myself for my family and friends. Second, in those contexts defined by a lack of intimacy, what makes one Chinese is full throttle “living for oneself” and giving over to one’s (unlimited) desires.
It seems to me that in defining cultural difference between Chinese and Americans, it’s more important to establish where and when self-expression (defined as giving over to one’s desires) is socially acceptable, rather than positing “selfless” Chinese and “selfish” Americans. Certainly, many Chinese have experienced the liberating effects of Shenzhen in terms of being unconstrained by the desires of family and friends back home. Indeed, this lack of constraint is what makes Shenzhen seem “un-Chinese”. My experience has been that the more friends I make, the more is asked of me in terms of social commitments. So that despite a zero intimacy starting point, I have been and continued to be socialized according to Chinese norms that are tempered with the “knowledge” that I am American and hence of the selfish ilk.
What’s your experience?