I attended an old classmate’s housewarming party the other weekend in Guangzhou. It was a small gathering of primarily young American college graduates with eye-catcher scholarships like Fulbright or PIA on their resumes. Within the first five minutes, I met a young American guy who, when approached by English-speaking Chinese at the party, responded confidently in Mandarin with that few-decibels-higher-radio voice that essentially asserts one’s superiority over the listener. Most ivy-league students are aware of this kind of cocktail party-dweller, who very often proceeds to give a long, passionate account of his research interests and in-depth knowledge of an area or culture that, upon appearance, one would assume he knows nothing about. I am far too familiar with this kind of figure because I myself have hid behind a similar wall of pride or passion for a subject at no small number of gatherings. The passionate acquisition of knowledge sometimes comes with an intense desire to share that knowledge with any and all ears that merely pretend to listen. Unfortunately, while passion about a topic should be expressed for the benefit of all, it is also often accompanied by a dangerous sense of mastery. The greatest wisdom of all, I’ve found, comes in admitting that which you don’t know.
When I first studied abroad in China, I happily ate steamed buns everyday and decided I knew something about “real” Chinese life after staying with a native family of strangers for a few days. On my second trip to China, I considered myself flawless in the realm of bartering and naively professed myself an expert on societal problems like income inequality and gender discrimination. By my third trip to China, I passed on various dishes I had previously called my favorite and proclaimed myself more familiar with China than Chinese themselves— many of whom had yet to travel to the rural locations where I’d set foot. This evening marks about the tenth month of my fourth time in China, and I am happy to admit that while I’ve reached a level of assimilation that I’d previously aspired to in my study-abroad days, I have barely proceeded beyond a surface-level understanding of this culture.
One reason, perhaps, is that I approached my time here with the attitude that I would dive into Chinese culture headfirst without looking back. For some time, I avoided my old world like the plague, believing that all exposure to expats and nightclubs and morning showers would somehow inhibit my integration into Chinese society. One look at my iPod or Internet history or cell phone would prove that I let no area of my life escape from the embrace of the mainland. I spoke Chinese back to store clerks who approached me in English, and glared whenever any waiter offered to bring me a fork. It was as though proclaiming my preference for China would allow me to discover and value its nuances, through and through. I thought I was getting ahead, which is funny now, seeing how far I’ve fallen behind.
It seems now that when trying to understand something or someone new, it is imperative to first have a grip on oneself. In other words, one must fully understand each and every cultural component that comprises one’s own soul, one’s own mind, one’s own logic or values. A person must first objectively assess exactly how he or she has been raised, how his or her own country has shaped his or her values, and how such factors will influence how he or she views another country. It is only when one holds onto this knowledge of native culture while simultaneously distancing oneself from it that one can attempt to make a humble analysis of the “other” and expect to do it objectively and fairly.
For example, it was easy for me at first to dismiss young Chinese girls who married for money and wound up disappointed and regretful years later, unhappy with their spouse. I found little sympathy for what I saw as selfish decisions, which, unfortunately, perpetuate a spiral of divorces, cheating, and the moral destruction of something I had always considered sacred. It is when one stubbornly and passionately believes one is right, after all, that it becomes nearly impossible to consider the other side’s point of view. Still, when an only child has the responsibility to care for her parents under a stingy government welfare system, limited career opportunities, and no sense of religious obligation, it is understandable and even reasonable for her to consider men according to their financial situation. To see the rationality behind these girls’ decisions, I needed to first consider why I held such a strong opinion of what marriage is “supposed to be” in light of how I was raised and what kind of society I grew up in. It is therefore only by letting myself remember where I come from that I can more easily understand and appreciate this new world.
Similarly, it pays to let some elements of cultural assimilation go… let them go and live a little. Like coffee, or drinking things iced, or going to bed with wet hair. The more time I spend abroad, the less I try to man up and act like I’m not an American. I need my dark beer on the weekends, I need to dance at weddings, and I need to spend far too much money on something like greek yogurt. Instead of finding satisfaction in some naive Chinese expertise, I’m finding comfort in who I am and where I’ve come from. There is no point in breaking down cultural barriers only to build up pride that you’ve completely “assimilated”. The greatest joy I’ve found is learning how to balance my Chen Yixun and Passion Pit days, knowing when to skip the latte for a steaming cup of pu’er tea before heading to bed with a few episodes of Gossip Girl… XOXO. 😉 Here’s to carving out happiness wherever you may find yourself.