Can foreigners ever really understand China?
The jury is still out on this hot button issue; the naysayers point to over 5,000 years of a deep, layered history and culture while the more positive among us maintain that foreigners’ understanding of China is entirely possible with study, an open mind, and time. Two students from Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) weigh in on the topic.
Annette Lee, US/Korea, 16, has lived in Beijing 11 years
Although there has long been a prevalent view that no foreigner can ever truly understand China, this viewpoint is marked by a pessimistic skepticism and is an assessment that underestimates true human potential. Can anyone, especially foreigners, ever really understand the culture, language, and values of a gargantuan country as large as China? Yes. Will this undertaking require tremendous effort and dedication? Of course. But it is entirely possible.
Foreigners in this context can be defined as people who do not biologically originate from China that is, people who are born to a non-Chinese family. Therefore, expats, international students, and travelers all fall under the “foreigner” category. Historically, ever since the McCartney’s visit to the Qing Government in 1793, when the West and China were able to interact, foreigners have continued to exponentially show interest in China – with both good and bad intentions. So great is the growth of foreigners residing in China, that, according to Jiang Jie in Global Times, a whopping 848,500 foreigners were living in China by 2013. Additionally, although it is true that there are numerous closed-minded people that may not seek to truly appreciate the beautiful culture, language, and values of their new country of residence, there are many more that are curious enough to take on the task of fully exploring it.
If a foreigner were to take intensive Chinese lessons to raise his or her levels of speaking, writing, and reading to those of a Chinese citizen, then it is entirely possible for this person’s literary ability to be indistinguishable from that of a local Chinese citizen. Additionally, by taking personal interest and by extensively learning about Chinese history, famous monuments, popular figures, and cuisine, it is similarly possible to build up an exceptional wealth of knowledge on Chinese traditions. Foreigners can even appreciate Chinese customs, values, and culture through various means, such as by befriending local Chinese people and interacting regularly with them. Then, what can stop a foreigner from really understanding China?
A fundamental counter-argument is that a foreigner will never be able to completely appreciate Chinese culture, because he or she will not be able to experience the culture in a personal, meaningful, and defining manner. For example, despite knowing what a hongbao is, how will a foreigner know the feeling of receiving a hongbao for a special occasion if he or she had never received one before? These types of situations suggest that fully understanding China as a foreigner is a quite difficult task, and that it requires a person to step out of their comfort zone, such as by living with a Chinese family. However, it is not impossible.
The best example of a “foreigner” who really understands China is Michael Crook, one of the founders of the Western Academy of Beijing. His Chinese is completely fluent – undistinguishable from that of any other Chinese citizen – and he is seemingly an expert in Chinese culture and history. He has experienced events that even the young local Chinese have not, such as the Cultural Revolution. Although it is true that Mr. Crook had been raised in China as a child, he nevertheless is a perfect example for me that even foreigners – those not of Chinese origin – are capable of truly understanding China.
Sara Nixon, US, 18, has been in Beijing one and a half years
I do not think foreigners’ true understanding of China is a matter of ability, but rather, is a matter of time. At some point, foreigners will be able to understand China. Not necessarily because foreigners are becoming more culturally aware, but because China’s culture is rapidly changing as it becomes more and more “international.”
China has recently become the world’s second largest economy, in terms of nominal GDP, and has also become a global hub for manufacturing. Furthermore, trade between China and the rest of the world seems to be increasing. As a result, more foreigners conduct business in China, whether it’s outsourcing manufacturing jobs, or direct investment into Chinese companies. In 2014, for example, China took the US’ position as the prime location for direct foreign investment. China, too, is engaged in business elsewhere, notably in Africa, where it has begun to exchange approximately USD 160 billion per year.
My point is this: all of China’s economic growth and increased interaction with foreign companies has promoted the exchange and adaption of foreign culture. A growing number of foreign businesses are becoming involved in China’s economy, thus promoting increased contact with Chinese culture. It has long been accepted that when people travel (or nowadays, post things on the Internet), they take their ideas and manners of behavior with them, and these ideas may spread to others.
To some extent, aspects of Chinese work culture has changed in accordance with this. According to Hoefstede’s cultural dimensions theory, China scores high on the “masculinity” index, meaning that society is highly driven by competition. However, that attitude seems to be changing in exchange for a culture more interested in personal accomplishments and less concerned with society’s litmus test for success. Just this year, a middle school teacher in Zhengzhou inspired many people when she resigned from her position in favor of exploring the world. What has changed, however, is not that that particular teacher left her job, but the approval she received from the other people in society. That idea of self expression, of putting yourself first rather than the collective came from foreigners, particularly Westerners.
That is, of course, is just one example, and what I’ve put forth applies singularly to the cultural aspect of China. There are of course different understandings of China; geographic, political, etc. However, when I think of understanding China, the biggest hurdle seems to be a cultural one. China is globalizing fast, and foreigners will find that it is just as quickly adopting other cultural traits. Soon, foreigners may be able to say, “I understand China.”
This article originally appeared on page 40-41 of the beijingkids February 2016 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Courtesy of WAB