Before coming to China, I had almost no idea what to expect of the Chinese society. Though traces of Chinese culture exist in America, they are often fragmented into an abstraction that doesn’t fully capture the essence of the culture. Similarly, in my experience, the American media’s portrayal of Chinese life alternates between the traditional Chinese stereotypes (the Great Wall, pandas, etc.) and China’s totalitarian government and recent issues with air pollution.
Regardless of my intent, I came to China only knowing the information I had gleaned from this mainstream media, my Chinese language classes and trips to Quan’s Kitchen in Allston. Having only lived in China for two weeks so far, I am not exactly an expert on the Chinese culture. However, there are a few common misconceptions that I’ve noticed since arriving in Shanghai.
The first misconception is, of course, about the food. Chinese food in America is confined mostly to General Tso’s Chicken and Sweet and Sour Pork— in reality, the food in China is far more diverse. Though Shanghai is noted around China for its relatively sweet cuisine, food in Shanghai makes a meal at Quan’s Kitchen back home feel like a trip to the candy store.
On the opposite side of this topic, authentic Chinese food is not as different from its American doppelgangers as some suggest. In fact, the ingredients are mostly the same. I’ve seen common American Chinese dishes like dumplings, pork buns and fried rice all over the place in Shanghai. I had Sweet and Sour Pork in the Fudan University dining hall the other night.
More than anything, rice is omnipresent. Just how corn is in everything in America, I can’t eat a meal in China without eating rice. I was eating an egg dish the other day and even found rice in that — I even get worried that it’s in the water sometimes. Before I came to China I understood that rice was a large part of Chinese culture; regardless of what I knew before I came to China, the sheer presence of rice in Shanghai has given me an interesting instance of culture shock.
Another conception of Chinese culture that I found to be false is the idea that China is a mostly manufacturing-based economy. For most of my childhood, nearly everything that was manufactured in a factory had a “Made in China” label on it. From Nike shoes to plastic toys, the fact was that China’s cheap labor market allowed American corporations to outsource labor and reap the benefits.
However, in recent years, the growth of the Chinese economy has created a burgeoning middle class and a growing service sector. More often than not, American companies are now turning to China for China itself, rather than the cheap labor it provides. Shanghai is a clear example of this; I’ve been to a few of the local malls and stores such as H&M, Uniqlo and Apple that are common in America have different branding, marketing and products catering to the Chinese market. Though China is still by and large a manufacturing economy, it’s interesting to see the manifestation of the growing middle class in Shanghai.
Of course, my experience in this regard is limited to the city environment of Shanghai. China has higher income disparity than many other nations, and though the middle class has grown in recent years there are still 150 million Chinese living under the United Nations poverty line. Interestingly enough, living in a metropolitan area like Shanghai I have been in a sort of bubble. I am eager to travel outside of the city and experience as much of China as possible.
Another common idea about China that I have found interesting is the Communist Party and governance in China. Though China is often made out as a strict, totalitarian regime, the influence of the government is only noticeable to a foreigner such as myself when I try and find it. For instance, while taking the bus and subway there are often TV screens readily displaying news, sports and occasional videos of cute animals.
However, I didn’t fully realize that the news displayed on the Chinese televisions was censored until I checked BBC for the first time in a week or so. Instead of pictures of cute animals, I was confronted with images of the recent overthrowing of the Ukrainian government. I have been somewhat interested in this subject, and I wrote a final paper last semester on the nation’s future. It was shocking to me that I had gone days without hearing so much as a peep about an issue with such worldwide ramifications. It seems that the government takes to playing a more behind-the-scenes role than I had previously thought — I’m interested to study more of this as I begin my internship and classes in the coming weeks.
Tate Gieselmann is a College of Arts and Sciences junior studying abroad in China. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.