The US & China: How Well Do We Understand Each Other?

Written by Chris Vandiford, (Middlebury College) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Beijing, Fall 2015

“Do all Americans really have guns?” I couldn’t help but laugh as I sarcastically responded to my roommate’s innocent inquiry with “Of course we all do!” The first few weeks of living with a local roommate create a series of opportunities to dispel and sometimes confirm stereotypes, myths, and pre-conceived notions. My roommate may very well still believe that I live off a steady diet of daily hamburgers and that each day of school in America is like living in a Carly Rea Jepsen music video, but despite all this we have built up a great friendship over our common interest in Bruno Mars and Apple Crisp Nature Valley bars. Yes, it’s true. Western culture has flooded into even the farthest corners of the earth. From the golden arches of the McDonald’s empire to the Nike swoosh; the Chinese are soaking up Western goods as fast as they can, associating the accumulation of these possessions with wealth and success. However, those deliciously processed calories are merely a sugar coating to capitalistic expansion, but may I argue not a true representation of American flavor. No, I do not eat hamburgers every day, and dancing along to a Carly Rae Jepsen song only happens on occasion…or maybe more often than I would like to admit.

However humorous as these impressions may be my classmates and I were able to take these very topics and discuss them on a national radio and Internet broadcast to millions of viewers in an attempt to the break the ice between two very different cultures. On Thursday night, we had the opportunity to guest star on China Radio International’s 2015 broadcast “From University to the World”, a panel of international students assembled to address and explain differences in Chinese and American culture. The following is an excerpt of the dialogue that took place:

Classmates at the international cultural broadcast in downtown Beijing

Classmates at the international cultural broadcast in downtown Beijing.

Announcer: Which one is your type? (Pointing to a collage of photos)

American Student: I would say…its uhh, personal, but if I had to say I would choose the woman on the top left, but honestly they are all very pretty.

(The crowd chuckles at the response of the American student.)

Chinese Student: So personally I like the actress in the middle the most.

Announcer: I think most Chinese men would answer the same way.

Once again the crowd laughed as we acknowledged our different views, but then became very solemn as the question was asked as to why tension existed between China and America. As a guest in a foreign country, I didn’t want to say anything offensive but still felt passionate about taking the opportunity to share my views. I responded with the following:

I don’t know how many people here can relate, but I have a little brother and sometimes we don’t get along, but that’s ok. We have our differences, but it’s better off for the family if we get along. Likewise, China and the US have a long history of different economic and political values, yes we may disagree, but I think everyone can agree that it is better off for the international scene if we get along.

Classmates along side local students at the annual international cultural broadcast in downtown Beijing

Classmates alongside local students at the annual international cultural broadcast in downtown Beijing

Now in reflection of my three months in China I think this has been one of my takeaways that it’s ok to acknowledge and have differences, but to not let them hinder your ability to connect with the person next to you. I don’t have to love the squatter toilets or enjoy eating fried chicken feet to be friends with my roommate. However, our differences have been our greatest source of bonding and yet I look forward to being able to defend this culture as my own.