What’s your experience?

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?

9 thoughts on “What’s your experience?

  1. “Making college “about” getting a job is actually magical realism (of an albeit cross-cultural kind), rather than hopefully and practically idealistic.”

    Amen. I have lost count of how many students, parents and friends have told me that parents invariably want their kid to be one of the following: Cadre, Businessman (often meaning import/export), maybe Doctor (some say doctors make no money)… the list peters out fast after that. Of course, when the entire nation’s student body is encouraged to aim for the same careers, obviously most are going to be disappointed. It’s a bit like encouraging every high school student to become an NBA or NFL star. I rarely encounter anyone who plans to exploit a valuable, underrated niche.

    There is some realism to the Chinese perspective, however. There aren’t enough slots at even half decent universities for everyone who aspires to muddle through to the middle class, as so many of us do in the United States. How many brilliant gaokao washouts are washing hair or working in retail? I’ve lost count. Its true that the choices are limited because of the scale of the nation, but as I said, dogpiling the half dozen options that are perceived to be guaranteed riches doesn’t help.

    The reply that queueing in line is a “civilizing” issue has never quite sat right with me. In a country where education so often involves explicit moral instruction through morality fables or outright declaration of principles, how often do you ever see one Chinese person speak up to another in public about their butting in or cutting off? Civilizing, it seems, is something that authorities, whether it be government, teacher or grandpa, can lecture on but no one else can even repeat what that authority has so often declared. The other flip side of the 文化水平太低 argument is also that these people or their effect or public civic life are not anyone elses responsibility or concern, and there’s no point in reprimanding them for doing what so many banners, textbooks and campaigns have called on them not to do. They are what they are, goes the refrain, inferior, and there’s no expectation that they could become more.

    • Hi Dave,

      About the civilizing non-effects of government campaigns.

      Yesterday, I spoke with a friend about why waiting on line doesn’t count as “living for other people”.

      She laughed and said, “You don’t live for everybody, just a special few.”

      Me, “So people on the bus aren’t ‘people’?”

      More laughter, “In a manner of speaking.”

      On my friends reading (and yes this a biased survey of one!), it seems that civilizing campaigns don’t actually have an audience, if by audience we me an imagined “public” who ride the bus together. By extension, my friend’s answer also has me wondering about the success of campaigns to cultivate nationalism. Why is that bunch of ‘people’ relevant and busmates not?

  2. @MAO’D

    That would make perfect sense, that the civilizing campaigns are essentially ignored and impotent. I think nationalist campaigns get more traction because of how the state has traditional been seen as an extrapolation of the family (the ‘real’ people you ‘live for’).I’ve been wondering if phrases like 国家兴亡、匹夫有责 are based on older ones about filial piety.

  3. Great article, great question.

    Chinese filial piety and the educational track associated with supposed blind obedience to one’s parents is no greater or less than most places but is talked about as if it was a Chinese only thing. Most Chinese students follow their parents’ educational advice not out of some greater manifestation of filial piety but out of desperation and ignorance from a life of over dependence on their parents and blind pursuit of “grades”. They have little or no exposure to the variety of potential careers through involvement in extra-currcicular interests or hobbies. They don’t know about majors/careers other than the ones their parents did or suggested. So, in high school, when presented with the choices for potential majors in college, they choose the safest thing, the only thing they know, the thing their parents suggested, not because they are filial children, but because they’ve been crippled by over dependence and don’t know anything else. In China, for the educated elite, there is a much narrower group of ideal majors/careers. Many jobs considered respectable in the US are disadained in China, for example zookeeepers, entertainers, law enforcement, etc. even if they involve formal college education.

    In the US, many young people are also just as inclined to follow their parents suggestions or orders for their education and career. However, American young people have been exposed to a wide variety of potential jobs through the free pursuit of their interests and hobbies, giving them passion for and knowledge of numerous subjects before they even graduate from high school. They then have to figure out, through the college experience, which one of the many things they are interested in would make the right career for them. Finally, in the US, almost any career path can be looked at with respect and pride, based on the competence/success in that field and the happiness of the person pursuing it not just on some popular perception/stereotype.

  4. I think you also have to take other factors into consideration. It is after all a developing country with one billion, and you don’t really get so many choices. And the differences between jobs are not only a few luxuries, but between worlds, sometimes even between survival and death. I think you can find the same desperateness in other developing countries, to more or less extent, for example the Phillipines or Mexico.

  5. I think Mike Fish is applying a fundamental attribution error to his reasoning, that somehow it’s ‘Chinese’ while neglecting the situation of a developing country of a billion people.

  6. Mary,

    First off I want to say that I’ve admired your postings for their perceptive reads on Chinese culture and society, starting with your essay on Naomi Klein’s all-seeing eye.

    I was thinking about your post on education and idealism, and living for others or oneself, and the experience of Americans vs Chinese.

    It seems to me that at a certain point in America’s development (probably as a consequence of the G.I. Bill) it became possible for a large swath of the college age population to have choices of what to do and study, and not focus only on the practical and what might lead to a remunerative career.

    This led to a sea change in attitudes on what were acceptable paths for education between the older generation and the new. I am reminded of this by watching the recent musical film “Across the Universe”, set in the Beatles era – in the Thanksgiving Dinner scene where the college age son rebels against the suburbanite and careerist father and uncle and runs away to New York City. People of a certain age may also remember the “Plastics!” conversation from The Graduate. It seems middle class Americans moved from seeing “education for job advancement” to seeing it as a opportunity for self-fulfillment.

    By contrast, I don’t think this kind of change has come to China as yet.

    Education in China, likely because of its historical linkage with the imperial civil service examination system and the path to status and wealth it represented to successful examination candidates and their families, is associated among Chinese almost everywhere with economic advancement and security for the individual and his/her family. I think that traditionally many Chinese parents supported their children with some expectation that the children, when grown, will carry out the obligation to support the parents economically.

    As long as there remains economic uncertainty for many in China, it is unlikely that these attitudes will change.

    For example, a couple of years ago I knew a young investment banker from Shanghai who had gone to good schools in China and the U.S. I asked her (at a time when investment bankers still had jobs!) what she did with her savings – did she invest in stocks or property? She said neither – she bought a flat for her parents to live in.

    Good for her.

    This is probably not at all remarkable to Chinese listeners, but it made me think of “xiao” – filial piety – and reflect on cultural differences. I can tell you that very few American investment bankers in their 20’s would likely buy a place for their parents as the first thing they do with their salary. No doubt there are some, but not too many. (Perhaps if there were more of such people, investment bankers would not have such a bad reputation right now in the U.S.!)

    By and large, with the exception of poorer immigrant communities, most American parents do not expect their children to support them economically; the general expectation seems to be that the children should simply become independent and not be a continuing burden for the parents. This lack of a positive expectation for support gives children the freedom to pursue what interests them.

    There are also those parents who have achieved economic security (in America and in China) who believe that their kids will have better odds of happiness in life if they can get a good job, and will push their kids to meet certain standards of academic performance.
    These are the parents that will take a close watch over their kids’ education to make sure they get into the right schools, take the right courses, have the right activities and prep courses, the right consulting service for college entrance, the right internships, etc. These parents want their kids to be achievers and will allow their kids some leeway as to what they choose to do, as long as they are good at it.

    For this group, are the kids doing this for themselves, or their parents? Are the parents doing this for their kids, or themselves?

    Hard to say; the “pure achievement” oriented types in China and America are pretty similar actually. At the risk of stereotyping, these are attitudes one which are said to be prevalent among Jewish Americans, a behavior type that resonates with familiarity among the Chinese. See for example,


    The last point to be made is that the “freedom to study what you want” that Americans are told may be, at the end, a hopeful illusion. These days, there is less and less money available for study; student loans put young people in debt for a very long time; and the exploding federal debt makes each citizen (on average) liable in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for the financial misbehavior of lots of people they don’t know.

    I’m not sure what is worse: the moral/cultural obligation to take care of one’s aging parents in a society with very little social safety net (as in China); or the economic obligation to pay crippling taxes to a government that has poorly managed the public fisc such that the economic failures of a wealthy few must be borne by the many (as in America). And in the latter case, the pension fund and 401(k) plan that one’s parents may have been relying on for retirement has been lost through mismanagement or fraud; and healthy care costs for uninsured persons will bankrupt even the richest family.

    See http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1883149,00.html

    So it seems that to maintain the idealism about the desirability of education for its own sake, one has to forget about the practical aspects for awhile and “live irresponsibly”. The trick in American higher education seems to be, how does one get other people to pay for one’s educational advancement and fulfillment if one is not already independently wealthy?

    Americans like to say that if you really believe in something, and are really passionate about it, then the money will come. This is part of the “idealism” that Mary referred to in her post. I don’t want to dismiss that idealism, because at some level I think it is true. It is ingrained in American culture that if you believe in something, you can survive and thrive on it if you stick to it and have gumption and spunk.

    I think this is what Barack Obama means when he called it the “audacity of hope”. Our elected President is the very symbol of that. This is related to our understanding of the American Dream, and it offers a vision that some find irresistibly compelling.

    • I think one of the more interesting aspects of non-Chinese discourse about China is the iconic status of “filial piety” as if listening to (including the idea of obeying) and taking care of parents defined what makes Chinese people recognizably Chinese. I think that filial piety is an example of “living for others”, however, it is neither the only, nor necessarily the most important arena for expressing intimacy.

      A Chinese friend and I were once discussing differences between Chinese and American high school rebellions. I was curious about why even the most extreme of my Chinese students seemed relatively well-behaved compared with even my more moderately rebellious American students. I was well prepared to offer the “filial piety” explanation. However, before I began, my friend mused, “Maybe it’s because American mothers don’t love their children enough.”

      She continued to give examples of all the ways a Chinese mother lives for her child(ren): making them good food every meal, taking them to and from school, insuring that they have spending money, making sure they always have a clean place to study, arranging all family activities around the child(ren)’s study life. In fact, many mothers take vacation time to make sure their child(ren) has/have a perfect study environment leading up to the gaokao. And this was just the tip of the maternal iceburg.

      Again, moi, American was thinking “over-protective”, but that wasn’t the point – at different points in their lives, Chinese people foreground particular relationships that demand the most attention, commitment, and sacrifice. These are the people that one lives for. Students just happen to be at a point in their lives where they are living (mostly) for their parents. This status is complimented by the fact that their parents are reciprocally living for them. The child(ren)’s circle of those they live for thus changes and grows as they age and enter new forms of intimacy – romantic, friend, marriage, business…

      Being human, in this context, seems to me to mean establishing the proper degree of living for someone else given one’s age, status, and gender in relationship to that other person, who in turn, has complimentary and a reciprocal obligation to live for the subject. Living in Shenzhen, my “Americanness” manifests as a reluctance to live for others to the same extent that they would be willing to live for me, or more precisely, disagreement over how much living for each other is appropriate given our level of intimacy.

  7. The “public impoliteness” is – to my knowledge – not a solely Chinese phenomenon. In just about every developing country using ones elbows in the public is the norm rather than the exception. Maybe somebody would like to share some experience from other countries?
    On the contrary the Hong Kongers don’t do the thing. People will swear at you if you dare to cut short in a queue. So we can’t simply invoke the Chinese culture/自家人 argument to account for this behavior.
    I usually don’t buy that the civilizing campaigns have any effect whatsoever and I have the suspicion that as long as a genuine conviction that everybody no matter if he happens to be a CCP cadre, a rich guy, or a peasant deserves basic respect isn’t backed up by a appropriate and enforced institutional structures the behavior pattern won’t change. Yet, I was still surprised recently when I bought train ticket in Shenzhen Luohu. I was already prepared for a battle against people who cut waiting time short. Yet to my surprise everybody queued as if they had done this for all their life. And not that the queue wasn’t long – on the contrary, there were at least 30 people in front of me when I arrived. So sometimes China still surprises me. 😉

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