In my search to find out what I could about China, I interviewed two exchange students. Ding Wang and Weiran Zhang who are both here studying Digital Interaction Design and will be taking the Masters in Ethnography next year. They are here on the ‘3+1+1’ program, which enables them to earn dual degrees, one here in Scotland and one in their respective universities back in China.
I wanted to find out what they thought of China and to see how it differs from what I thought of China after having visited Xi’an in 2008 on a work expedition.
Allow me to start first, with my knowledge of my own country, Scotland. I cannot tell you all that much in terms of history, I was never interested that. I can’t recall any stories of Scotland’s history told to me by my family.
So when I asked Ding and Weiran about China I was a little taken aback when I found they had so much to say. Ding told me “China has a thousand faces,” that of the four ancient civilizations (China, India, Babylon, Egypt) China is the one who has kept its traditions and a lot of its culture has survived where the others have not. She believes China is a dynamic and energetic place, she also noted that life over here in Britain was particularly slow paced. They both referred to China as “the worlds biggest factory,” which, I was quite surprised by. I assumed that the Chinese would not mention something like that, given some of the poor living/working conditions and money the migrant workers get but as I later found they have strong values revolving around hard work which made me realize why she said that.
They both told me about the history of many of the major cities in China and about a few of the Dynasty’s too, they spoke for quite a while about China and its history. They knew a lot about it, which made me feel pretty bad for knowing next to nothing about my own country. It has never been a strong value of mine to know all about the country I live in, but they have a strong sense of honor over the motherland and they seemed to enjoy talking about it too and re-telling stories of China they must have once been told themselves.
China, to Ding and Weiran, is also a modern country. With, in their opinion, some of the most modern cities there are. They also noted that although China may have the richest city, it also has the poorest village. These villages are soon becoming cities they told me, with the ‘Open Door’ policy that can only be called to have come into full action by 1949. The Open Door policy basically meant other countries were allowed to trade with China, because of this China has been quickly becoming more and more modern since then. A village one day could be a city the next, this reflected Ding and Weiran’s knowledge of the history of the cities, they expressed that there was a huge amount of ‘young’ cities as apposed to ‘old’ cities like Xi’an. Even though the older cities are being modernized they expressed that it was a great tragedy that a lot of the heritage of some of these places was disappearing but were reassured by the fact that at the moment most cities have to retain some of their heritage and history and are not allowed to completely re-shape a city.
So I come back to the question in the title. A girlfriend asks her boyfriend, if your mother and myself were drowning, whom would you save? I found out that Chinese women sometimes ask this question to their boyfriends. At first you may think, what a weird question and as a westerner I’d probably agree with you. You may also think that it’s quite a silly question. I’d also agree with you on that. This question is full of pitfalls and problems, more than we could understand. Family is one of the most important values a Chinese person has, if not the most important. Everything revolves around the family and mostly the mother, as she is the one who gave birth to you. The Chinese work incredibly hard not for themselves but so they can support their families as it is their duty, responsibility and desire to do so. They have a huge amount of respect for their families. So given that family is the most important thing to a Chinese person and that their honour is at stake if they abandon them think again about the question the girlfriend has asked her boyfriend. Put yourself in the shoes of the boyfriend, you want to spend the rest of your life with this woman, so you want to please her but you cannot possibly disgrace your family by saying you’d choose her. How can you decide? The reality is that there is no good answer to this question, only problems. If the man chooses his mother, the girlfriend will feel unloved but if the man chooses his girlfriend he will disgrace his family honour and the girlfriend will feel horribly embarrassed to be with a man who would do that. When Ding and Weiran explained this to me, I couldn’t help but think, well why on earth would you ask a question like that? They told me, it wasn’t to see whom he would choose, it was simply to meddle and test him. Not everyone does this, I must stress that, but it’s not out of the ordinary if this were to happen.
So my question is, how do we connect with a country so vastly different from our own?