According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, culture is defined as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” Culture is an aspect all groups of humans have and even though it is an aspect our species shares, the supposed differences make it seem like we are of different species! Culture is something that both connects and separates us. Culture is something distinct enough to create barriers among us, such as: linguistic barriers and behavioral barriers. And this is especially seen between the American and Chinese cultures.
River Town, by Peter Hessler, is a non-fiction novel that depicts Peter’s experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling, China. He was sent to Fuling (a poor town on the banks of the Yangtze River) in 1996 and taught English and American literature for two years at a teachers college. This novel, in reading, seems more of a journal and thus, his writing of China puts the people and his experiences on a more personal level. He describes, with immense detail, his observations of the social, political and cultural issues of China and his experience as a waiguoren (foreigner). At his arrival, the people of the teachers college showered him and his fellow Peace Corps volunteer with many gifts and did everything they could to make them feel comfortable and welcome. However, alternately, whenever Peter would walk outside the campus of the school, the people would stare and gawk at him and yell, “outsider!” and “hello” out of curiosity and their own amusement.
This made him dedicate a large part of his day solely to learning Chinese. As he becomes more proficient in Chinese, he develops friendships and connections and begins to feel more accepted. He talks about the troubled history of China: the struggles of land reform, decades of misguided economic policies and especially the damaging effects of the Cultural Revolution. Peter spends a good deal discussing the, then, upcoming project of the Three Gorges Dam, which has an immense, detrimental impact on the people. The project will require millions of villagers to be displaced and will destroy centuries worth of meaningful history. The author gives a very vivid illustration of the beautiful landscape, history and the people he meets. He also portrays the, especially political, perspectives of the Chinese quite well through learning from his students and teachers.
According to Francis Hsu, the two sets of contrasts are: individual-centered versus situation-centered and the prominence of emotions versus the underplay of all matters regarding the heart. He believed Americans are concerned only of themselves and act according to what would be beneficial to them, and that the Chinese acted according to the situation at hand. The Chinese avoid direct confrontation, open criticism and controversial topics to maintain harmony. “In America, he saw the blind, often excessive pursuit of self-reliance and the inherent, permanent instability of human relationships as the root cause of many intractable social ills, including crime, racial discord, and the sale of influence in government. In China, he saw the traditional narrow focus on kinship based relationships had rendered their society unable to effectively counter Western colonialism, widespread poverty and famine, and even the practice of foot binding of women.” (Tong 2001)
One aspect of the book that really interested me was the education system and different cultural differences of how education is looked upon. In the book, the students all had the same thoughts on almost every issue and those opinions would be unwavering. However, “Perhaps by my standards they were politically brainwashed, but compared to the past they were remarkably free.” (Hessler 2001:23) They would also communicate indirectly to Hessler; often times via their journals. Not only is the learning environment in China highly competitive and demanding, but expectations are high of students, forcing them to simply learn to achieve the highest grade possible. Also, Chinese students do not have electives they can choose from, they are assigned classes that best correspond to their scores on tests. Whereas in America, individualism and self-expression if looked high upon. Thus, in America, the individual student’s abilities and skills determine where they go in the future, and in China, what society or their parents want determines where they go. This is exactly what Francis Hsu talked about.
I believe Peter Hessler was relatively objective in his journaling. Whenever he brought up thoughts or opinions of his students or any of the Fuling people, he briefly gave the history and background of them so we can understand where they are coming from. However, there were a few times where you could sense his extreme bias, but this was never fully evident in his writing.
The difference between American and Chinese homes reflects the contrasting patterns of behavior in the family. In the US, children are highly regarded, cared for and have privilege, so far as to have laws and regulations protecting them. In China, children are taken for granted and have little to no reason to expect protection. Pediatrics was not a branch of medicine in China until just recently. In America, what is important is what parents should do for their parents; in China, what is important is what the children should do for their parents. This is a major reason why Chinese students are so focused on getting the best grades, so they can get a good job and take care of their elders. This is the basis for Filial Piety (virtue of respect for one’s parents and ancestors). American students focus on what is best for them and will usually move out the house at age 18 with no regard to taking care of their elders. Another difference between the two cultures is social relationships. The Chinese have formal, hierarchal relationships in which they feel most comfortable knowing their position. Americans have informal, egalitarian relationships in which they feel most comfortable among their equals and social ranking is not important. Ironically however, the Chinese tend to have a few, very close friends to whom they feel obligated to when it comes to helping them; Americans tend to have numerous “friends” and acquaintances that changes over time and to whom they feel no obligations.
2001 River Town: Two years on the Yangtze. HarperCollins Publishers. Aguilar,
Leslie, and Linda Stokes 1996. Multicultural Customer Service: Providing Outstanding Service Across Cultures. Chicago: Times Mirror Higher Education Group, Inc “CultureAbout Our Definitions: All Forms of a Word (noun, Verb, Etc.) Are Now Displayed on One Page.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2013 Li Qing 1995. “Face, Guanxi, Houmen(r) & Elastic Rules: Insight into the Chinese Culture.” Presentation at conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Tong, William K. “Excerpts from Americans & Chinese by Francis Hsu.” Excerpts from Americans & Chinese by Francis Hsu. Oakton Community College, 2001. Web. 22 Apr. 2013
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