The farther I verge beyond the warm waters of academia, the more evident the importance of blogs– and cultural blogs, in particular– becomes. After spending four years at Brown University, one of the most open-minded 143 acre plots of land in the world, my attitude towards unknown cultures or stereotypes changed from being naturally judgmental to honestly curious. Rhode Island, after all, maintains a kind of quirky love for individual freedom after going down in history as the first state to declare independence from Britain and the first center of religious and political tolerance in the 17th century.
My Chinese coworkers often ask what sets Brown apart from other Ivies or colleges in the U.S., and above all, I say, that its students, professors, and campus culture is one of the most “宽容” or accepting. I’m not claiming a lack of social cliques– exclusive groups of likeminded people arise no matter what the environment– I’m talking about an overall vibe, whether it be the diverse perspectives covered in lectures, the ridiculous traditions (naked donut run, SPG), or even the way kids dress around campus, that vitalizes a spirit of individuality and in turn reinforces a necessary acceptance of that which is different, foreign, or initially unsettling. Once upon a time, religions used to encourage acceptance among all people, but somewhere along the road, that ideal was lost amidst petty political fights over abortion, marriage law, and immigration.
I came to China in 2012 with a straightforward goal: to do whatever I can to increase understanding between China and the U.S. People call me crazy. Literally. An elderly neighbor once asked, kindly, if I had a mental illness and thus decided to move to China. Friends, coworkers, and general acquaintances of my parents constantly give them grief about their daughter’s decision to move to China and date a Chinese man. They say things like, “Chinese students only come to the U.S. to steal our ideas, bring them back to the mainland and COPY, COPY, COPY. Why would your daughter work to help Chinese steal spots in our most prestigious academic institutions?” Even my own friends poke fun, asking how my Chinese lover is possibly “capable” or if I “throw fortune cookies” in large crowds so that Chinese scatter and clear a path for me to walk. These jokes are cruel, overflowing with stereotypes, and frankly, racist. It’s 2014, and yet to me, many Americans’ vision of China is no better than it was towards Japan in the ’70′s and ’80s, when counterpart businesses in Japan were making major inroads into U.S. markets.
Yeah, the New York Times has a PhD in reporting on China’s negative air quality, human rights abuses, corruption, underdeveloped legal system– the works. Yet I challenge that politicized company to explain the bizarre happiness that persists among those who are worst off in Chinese society, or to understand the incredibly complex tapestry that lies behind some of the world’s most loyal, unshakable relationships in China. See, a culture isn’t like an app that you spend 15 minutes to “get the hang of”. A culture is something that you spend a lifetime trying desperately to understand, and then some. Heck, it wasn’t until after moving to China that I started to see my own culture in a new light. We are continually blinded by conflicting information, a perpetually transformative present, and an infinite sea of perspectives. The key, then, is to go out and experience the world for yourself.
Humans are imperfect. Our pursuit to objectively transmit information is inherently restricted by the fact that we have natural opinions, agendas, and, well, jobs to uphold. There’s no need to point fingers, yet we cannot keep tricking ourselves into assuming we know it all. We need to be more willing to identify and admit the knowledge that we still lack. It’s just as impossible to describe something as complex as “culture” in words, for example, as it is to capture a complete moment in time, what with sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feelings. Thus, the “resources” that we use to understand the world– whether they be newspapers, magazines, documentaries, or even academic research– are helpful but incomplete representations of reality.
To me, then, the only way to form true opinions of the world is through personal experience, and even then, those opinions almost instantly expire, as the present is merely a flash in time.
First-hand experiences that allow us to interact with other cultures offer the best opportunities for untainted informational exchange. This includes extended travel, frequent conversations with classmates, coworkers, or friends from diverse backgrounds, and, most importantly, a persistent desire to listen.
In the name of one of Lu Xun’s greatest literary works, I’d like to take up a second “call to arms”– a call to listen, to think, and to accept.