David C. KERBEL*
【Abstract】 During these times, China is modernizing faster than any country ever has. In this article, an American foreign teacher shares his observations regarding this environment. While the rush to modernize is what makes the headlines, he finds a special kindness in the villagers he meets. This is confirmed when he asks his students what they feel about city life. Ultimately, the author finds his greatest impression of Chinese culture to be the bond which all Chinese share. China is like a big family, and he is taken aback by the great lengths people will go to help each other.
My interest in China began when I was studying in Boston College. A professor of Western Philosophy gave me a copy of the Tao Teh Ching (as it was there spelled) saying that he thought I would enjoy it. Enjoy it I did, and this led me to other English translations, with such titles as Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Lieh Tzu, The Analects, and I Ching, which all in turn led me to study Chinese philosophy with Professor Frank Soo. Now, I am living in Qingdao, a member of that profession which likely holds more foreigners in China than any other- Foreign English Teacher.
I first came to China in 1999. I landed in Hebei Province, Baoding City, about an hour from Beijing, to a teaching position at Hebei Agricultural University. Being so close to Beijing was very nice, as I was able to visit the nation’s capital many times and develop a good feeling for the city. However, Baoding is a city with almost no foreigners. During my stay there, I was under the impression that I was the only one. It wasn’t until I was due to leave that I found out that there was another. Still lonely, I returned to the U.S. to resume my career in computers.
As time went on, I could feel China tugging at my insides. It seemed inevitable that I would return. That time arrived in February of 2003. This time, I landed in Qingdao, China’s beautiful seaside city, to a position at Qingdao Binhai College.
I live in Qingdao Kai Fa Qu- the Qingdao Development Zone. This is a small area separated from Qingdao by Jiaozhou Bay, much like Marin is separated from San Francisco. “The Zone”, as we call it, is but a tiny hub of what will be a modest, yet bustling little city. It is only a matter of time. The construction never stops.
This is a fact which was quite a surprise for me. Before arriving this time around, I did not fully understand exactly how fast the development was happening. Five years ago, it was not as apparent. Beijing had some shiny, modern buildings; the Wang Fu Jing shopping area had just been completed, yet you would not call the city modern. This time around, though, I see modern Qingdao and can watch the development explosion over in Kai Fa Qu.
If the current, rapid modernization is magic, then the government is the magician. They just wave their magic wand and declare, “We are going to build a city HERE,” and just like that, it happens. I suppose that Shanghai’s Pudong is probably the most famous example of this, but we see it here, as well. A very good example is on the periphery of The Zone. Nestled in a valley next to Little Pearl Mountain lies one of the government's instant cities. Two years ago, there were only villages. Looking at this place, you can get a good idea of how the government's plans its development.
First came the factories- many of them. These mostly belong to the Haier and Aucma companies. All around the blue factories, construction is rampant. Cranes dot the horizon, rising from new buildings shrouded in scaffolding. Maybe there are twenty or even thirty large buildings going up. In the center of things is a brand-new private college, an institution which you expect will fill the valley with a few thousand graduates every year. With this expected influx of people, it would only be natural to build some shopping plazas. We see these, empty and waiting to be filled, along with the apartment buildings going up everywhere else. It is complete urban planning, prefabricated before the population arrives.
Back in the development zone proper, we see the people becoming more and more modern right before our eyes. Each new season brings fashions with a more and more modern look. Out with the old, and in with the modern. The people are excited about it, too. They love shopping, and you can feel that they are excited about all of the new stuff.
However, while all this is happening, out in the countryside, there is none of it. My girlfriend is Chinese, and we spend a fair amount of time with her grandmother. She lives in a village, which lies perhaps an hour from The Zone. Out there, you cannot find any modernity- not in the homes, not in the fields, not under any stones. With the exception of a few conveniences, like electricity, a simple tractor device, some pesticides, and a scant few farming implements, I reckon that this is peasant life as it has been for a long, long time. I cannot help but think that I am going back in time when I am in the village.
The peacefulness of the villagers strikes me. Life may be more difficult than modern city life and the people more poor, yet they exhibit a warmth and friendliness, which we do not see in the modern areas. In my last semester at Binhai College, I talked with my students about this. It was one of the topics in their oral exam: “Why are villagers more friendly than city people?”
What surprised me was not only how many students chose this topic, but also how many walked up to me and told me that they knew the answer. They seemed happy that I noticed. Replies were generally similar. “City people are too clever.... only think about how to get money.... don’t think about ‘what is friends’.” City people “want to be treated well by others, but they do not treat others well.” “In city, life is full of competition... village is like a warm and sweet family.” In the city, there is “no time to talk to your neighbors.” Many students mentioned this as a problem. Still, young people are leaving the villages. It seems that nowadays, the villages are populated almost exclusively by old people. They work the fields. You see few people younger than 40. They have all left.
It brings me such joy to sit in the village and eat jiao zi. With a little vinegar, they are delicious, and I just love the tradition. Some will tell me it is 4,000 years old; some will say 5,000. Either way, I get the point. In my case, they’re made by a 78-year-old woman with little feet. I know that she’s making them the old-fashioned way. It’s such a different feeling, having come from the ever-modern U.S.
What strikes me the most about the culture is how close everyone is. China is like one big family. People will ask me (in Chinese), “Do you like our China?” When I hear that, my ears always gravitate to the phrase “our China”. It shows how differently Chinese and Americans think about their country. Few Americans would think like that, for if China is like a big family, I would say that the U.S. is more like an association, not knit as tightly together. Both, of course, have their advantages and disadvantages. Yet for me as an American, this togetherness really stands out.
My girlfriend and I will be anywhere, and people will come up to her and ask about me, as though I were not even there. “Where’s he from?” they’ll ask, “Who is the foreigner?” This, of course, would be inconceivably rude in the U.S. It would violate our privacy. Here, though, there is that Chinese bond, and I am... well.... a “laowai”.
You can see evidence of this close-knit feeling in the Chinese language. It shows up in the words used to describe relationships.
Let’s start with a sort of distant relationship. When a baby is introduced to a person she does not know, the attendant parent will always encourage the baby to say, “叔叔!” - Uncle. Even me, as a foreigner, I have little kids who call me Uncle. This is amazing. What a congenial expression. American children must learn to say a Mr. Poindexter or a Mrs. Wilson. When I was a kid, this was sometimes intimidating, much different from the Chinese.
Next, take the word “朋友”. This word is closely associated with the English word “friend”, and while this is an accurate translation, it does not tell the whole story. Virtually anyone can be a “friend”. All you need to have is a small relationship that is on good terms. In English, we might call this kind of person an acquaintance, but in China, you are elevated to the status of 朋友- friend. Maybe it is a “laoban” in a restaurant you frequent or a taxi driver you have met a few times. All you have to do is smile and say to him, “我们是朋友!” and he will invariably say, “对... 朋友.” (Then, the next thing you know, you’re giving excuses; saying you’ve got to leave, because you don’t feel like drinking baijiu right then.)
Looking at a still closer relationship, a Chinese person would refer to his general circle of friends as “好朋友”- good friends. For this relationship in English, we would use the term "friends". The Chinese, once again, elevate the relationship, this time to “好朋友”. Then, regarding one's best friends, the word “朋友” is abandoned entirely, and these people become brother and sister, “大姐” or “小弟,” whatever the case may be.
In other words, the same relationships mean more to the Chinese. The Chinese pull people closer into the family. I met a guy once at a gym. It turned out that we both knew this one Chinese friend of mine. “Oh!” he said, “She is my sister!” But, when I asked my friend about it, she laughed and said, “No, he’s just a good friend!”
The Chinese will do everything they can to help their friends. In English, we might say that they “bend over backwards” for them. Truly, this is one of the most warm and touching things that I have learned from China.
Recently, my girlfriend started an English school. We have worked very hard on this, and seeing her friends come out of the woodwork to help has been truly inspiring. Right when she started, her “brother”, a friend from college, gave her his hand phone. I was astonished. “Doesn’t he need it?” I asked. “He knows that we need it more,” was the answer. Her cousins, aunt, and uncle worked to help us find a location for the school, spending untold hours. Meanwhile, I was sitting there wondering how we will ever be able to repay them. “Don’t worry,” my girlfriend told me, “We’re Chinese.”
Finally, I came to understand it all this past week. I went to Qingdao to work with a friend of my girlfriend. We were to make some new flyers for the school. She runs an advertising company in the city, and this was our third time working with her. After each of the first two visits, she did not charge us for her design work. “You are starting a business,” she said, “You can start paying me when your business is successful.” That was very touching, and the feeling really hit home. Now, though, on this visit, it felt appropriate to begin to pay her.
I went to her office, and we spent an entire working day on the flyer. At the end of the day, I gave her the necessary money to print the flyers and then asked her how much for the design work. I did not want to use that much of her time (for a 3rd time) without paying her. Yet as I reached for my money, I heard a very soothing voice saying, “Oh, no.... do not pay me,” but I responded, “I have to... you have helped us so much.” Yet again, I heard that same voice, and I came to realize that I should not insist. I put my money away, and realized that this is how it works here. Friends really help friends, and now I have a duty to help everyone else as much as I can. This is what I see in Chinese culture, and this is the single most important thing that I will take home with me. When everybody helps each other, everyone does better.
Much is said in these times about China and its rapid development. We see China learning from America; from the West. It is adopting capitalist ideas for the economy and many other ideas regarding lifestyle and technology adaptation. This is a good thing. I do believe it to be a very good thing for China. Still, while this is happening, I do worry that China might become corrupted by some of the bad elements of the West, like materialism and consumerism.
While cultural exchanges are now happening, it is mostly on a one-way basis of China learning from the West. Yet after living here and getting involved in the society, I can see that there is much that the West can learn from China. It is my hope that more and more westerners will come to China, learn Chinese, and learn about the Chinese way of thinking. This would be a very beautiful and healthy thing. As the world comes together, I find myself thinking that America and China could well be like a Yin and Yang, and that if we could incorporate the best of the two, we could make some wonderful things happen in this world of ours.