10 Unexpected Revelations About China

After returning home from a year in China, I have realized that many Americans mistake the modern Chinese populace for a huge den of scheming digital pirates and hackers, a brainwashed mass of Maoist automatons à la North Korea, an army of ambitious MBAs and bespectacled engineers eager to call in U.S. government debt and take over the world, or some terrifying combination of these. There may be a kernel of truth to each of these stereotypes, but any American who has traveled in China, especially rural western China, will tell you that the Chinese people are incredibly hospitable and filled with curiosity about the U.S. Politicians on both sides love to scapegoat the power looming across the Pacific, but average Americans might be surprised at some of the common passions and unusual differences shared between themselves and the common Chinese people:

10. Chinese people love the NBA, Michael Jackson, and American culture in general. After listening to countless Chinese guys sing the praises of Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, I actually began to feel guilty for not being a basketball fan. European soccer leagues are also popular in China, but the NBA is an obsession for many. And even 3-4 years after the King of Pop passed away, nearly every day I would hear Thriller or Billie Jean blaring on a shopping mall or car stereo. I also witnessed more than one moonwalk demonstration. As for the Muslims, they eagerly and stubbornly claim MJ as a coreligionist. Some Chinese might have critical words for the American government, but American celebrities, movies, and music, are all the rage.

9. New is good; old is bad. It’s been a long time since the Cultural Revolution campaign to “破四久 smash the four olds” and wipe out traditional Chinese culture, but despite of the rehabilitation of Confucius and the promotion of select elements of Chinese history, most citizens of this modernity-obsessed nation have no use for dusty old objects or ideas and are eager to replace them with shiny and expensive new items, preferably imported, and preferably from the West.

8. Big noses are considered attractive. In a classic case of desiring the rare and unattainable, Chinese tend to admire big, round eyes, tall height, and pale skin. These last few may be considered attractive in many cultures, but I can’t count the times I laughed when someone complemented my 高鼻子, literally, “tall nose.”

7. American-style fast food is classy and expensive. McDonalds and KFC are good places to impress a date. Pizza Hut is the crème de la crème. Multiple times, I narrowly avoided being treated to dinner at American fast food chains or Chinese imitations of them, because many assume that Americans eat that crap all the time. Only with diligent insistence could I persuade my well-meaning hosts that I would prefer Chinese food that would be at least half the price and more than twice as good.

6. Teenagers worry about getting jobs, getting married, and caring for aged parents. College students focus on their studies. Businessmen party. Preparing for the dreaded college entrance exam throughout high school is widely regarded as the most difficult period of one’s life. If one manages to “test into 考上” a good university, one is virtually ensured a diploma and a prosperous career afterward. However, while most young Americans retire from competitive drinking after leaving campus, Chinese business culture requires many long nights filled with shots of baijiu 白酒 and probably some karaoke in order to build the connections necessary for advancement. But even this last step is not mere fun and games; the one child policy and lack of a strong pension system for retirees means each couple is legally and morally obligated to care for four elderly people, adding a great deal of pressure to succeed in each of these phases of life.

5. Most don’t entirely buy communist propaganda and will speak freely discuss their views, but not publicly or in print. Foreigners reading about the admittedly dire fate of Chinese dissidents may assume that it is a totalitarian prison state like North Korea. China certainly is not a free country and censorship abounds, but people are aware of this and have some access to outside voices seeping through the Great Firewall. People even joke about the state media newscasts, saying the first third says the rest of the world is suffering, the second third shows how the Chinese people are happy, and the last third explains that the leaders in Beijing are busily working on the people's behalf. However, people are still more likely to blame society's problems on corrupt local leaders or uncivilized Chinese people in general than the central authorities, and many often insist that China is too big, diverse, or undeveloped for a multiparty democracy to work.

4.Bookstores are filled with biographies of Americans. From Steve Jobs to Lady Gaga, Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, Chinese people not only admire America’s wealth and position in the world, they also emulate individual American titans of business, politics, and culture (in that order). Sometimes, people would reference random anecdotes from the life of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg as if they were common knowledge, comprising a modern mythology of millionaires. Of course, bookshelves feature many past and present Chinese luminaries and notable non-American foreigners, but Americans outnumber all other foreign nationals combined and even rival the Chinese.

The delayed arrival of iPhone 4 sparks a riot in Beijing
 3. Iphones (all things Apple) are many times more popular, and expensive. Sure, it’s a worldwide phenomenon, but Chinese people of all ages wear clothing bedazzled with rhinestones in the shape of an Apple logo. Even Tibetan monks in rural villages lacking paved roads sport Apple trucker hats with traditional saffron robes. As something modern, expensive, and highly visible, iPhones are essential status symbols.

2. “Made in China” is a joke to them, too. Did you buy a poor imitation of a foreign product, something that doesn't work, or breaks immediately after opening? Chances are, even your most monolingual Chinese friend will switch into English, say, “Made in China” and laugh uproariously. Chinese people see this English phrase printed on tons of cheap merchandise, and it turns out to mean the same thing to them as it does to us. But they are even more familiar with the dangers of “Made in China” products due to several domestic scandals involving exploding produce, cooking oil recycled from sewers, and rodent meat passed off as mutton, just to name a few. On the plus side for those on this side of the Pacific, this makes American brands even cooler.

1. Hotel California and Arnold Schwarzenegger: two things everyone knows about California. They’ve almost certainly never been there, they probably can’t find it on a map, and it’s nearly impossible to understand their pronunciation of its name because for some reason it has been transliterated to start with a “J” (加利福尼亚 Jialifuniya), but upon mentioning my home state, everyone I met would mention one or both of these two things. The popularity of Hollywood movies (especially action films) no doubt accounts for Schwarzenegger’s fame, but they are also aware of his role as California’s governator. American music is certainly popular, but mostly the modern top 40 variety. I doubt anyone could name any other Eagles song, but I guess music is the universal language, and who doesn’t like Hotel California?


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