Over the summer, I participated in an 11-week Chinese intensive language program in Tianjin, China. My time abroad gave me a unique perspective not only on the mysterious, unfamiliar Oriental society, but also the Western world, particularly America’s place in it. Ironically, it seems that I had to travel to the other side of the globe to recognize what being a native of my home country means in the context of the global community.
Tianjin is the third-largest city in China, with a population of 14 million, and is a short two-and-a-half hour drive from Beijing (only 69 miles, but traffic is horrendous). Because Beijing and Tianjin sit in the same valley, they share the same poor air quality. The sky is almost always gray from smog, giving one the impression that this major metropolitan area is trapped inside a giant iron dome. The vibrant buildings within try to compensate for the lack of natural coloring from the atmosphere.
Despite the listless sky above, the perpetual gloom did little to affect the kindness of the Chinese people we encountered daily. My program consisted of 37 students, most of whom attended the University of Wisconsin, allowing us all to stave off any form of complete cultural immersion because of the buffer of white faces around us. However, the locals did not allow us to forget that we were in the minority. Even in this major city, many of the people had never personally seen white foreigners before. While we were treated a bit like oddities with regular photo requests and stares, there was never any hostility and everyone was polite.
In China, we were regarded with curiosity rather than distaste; locals tried speaking with us in English or slower Chinese, rather than scorning us because we were making communication challenging due to our lack of familiarity with the national language. This is such a different reality than what we find in America, which once took pride in being a safe haven for all peoples. Today xenophobia is unchecked, racism has moved underground (but has bubbled over in Ferguson, Missouri) and despite the lack of a formal national language, Americans take it as a personal offense if an individual is not fluent in English.
Temporarily living in China also thrust the United States into a more positive light for me. The relationships between the people, the government and the media vary greatly between the two countries. We were in China over the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, and none of our program staff so much as acknowledged it, especially around native Chinese people. We even went so far as to ask one of our tutors about it, but she (a native Chinese woman about 20 years old and an undergraduate at the university we took classes through) did not know its significance. Even though censorship in the U.S. does occur, and some important American history events that paint the country in a negative light have been unfairly de-emphasized here, it’s nowhere near as drastic as the complete event obliteration seen in China.
Furthermore, the U.S. unsurprisingly has the upper hand in other basic freedoms, particularly religious expression. While I had expected religious suppression, and was warned prior to going to China that one can be deported if found practicing, experiencing it was still startling. It was especially jarring due to the prevalence of Buddhism in society; most people are Buddhists, and there are temples everywhere. During orientation in Tianjin prior to the start of class, we received brochures from our university which told us that meeting in groups to talk about religion is illegal. However, there were a few churches and a synagogue within the city, making it seem that these freedoms weren’t actually restricted.
There are many other areas in which China and the U.S. differ, and some in which they are very similar, for example gender inequality. However, what it all really comes down to is that we are just people; we share common fears, desires, loves and goals. And once you understand that, it seems we aren’t so different at all.
Studying abroad has helped me develop a global perspective and challenge the feelings of nationalism and patriotism associated with growing up as a citizen of any country. I not only came to appreciate America more in some areas, but I also became more critical in others. While I retain pride in my home country, I believe it is crucial for everyone to take a step back and see the world as others see it. Only then can we hope to achieve greater international unity in addition to a greater understanding of our own cultures and countries.
Briana Reilly ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in journalism and international studies.