Part I As Chinese People, Who Are We?
Demographically, one in five people walking on this planet is Chinese (referring to the Han Chinese, which is 92% of the Chinese population, and close to 99% in many major cities in China).
In the U.S., chances are you will be running into a Chinese person at every turn walking on the street, clusters of them at most university campuses, and everywhere your eyes can see in Flushing, N.Y. We all look as if we were cast from the same mold: we play ping-pong, we are good at math, and we speak English often using the incorrect prepositions. But—as I know well from my first 27 years growing up in China and nowadays returning to it from the U.S. to visit each year for the last three decades–that is far from the truth.
As if the above is not enough to fathom the nuances of the Chinese people, which is true, here comes more. My hometown is in Shenyang, the biggest city in northeastern China and my wife was born and raised in Guangzhou, in the very south of China. Our family has another home in Shanghai for five years now (which we adore), on the east coast of the country and my favorite place to travel in China is Chengdu, in western China. I lived and worked in Beijing, the nerve center of the country, right before I embarked on my life journey to America. Once I open this gigantic can of worms, it feels like there should be a whole book dedicated to this topic to do it justice. But let me scratch the surface to start.
Chinese People don’t speak the same language
While there are more than 100 different spoken languages in the different regions, but only one official language, Mandarin, taught in schools in the whole country. Therefore, if you can’t understand a word of what people say on the street when you travel in China, especially in the southern regions, don’t feel too dispirited, because neither can I. Last year, our family traveled to Cheung Chau Island, Hong Kong. I turned on the TV, but couldn’t find any Mandarin-speaking channels (none in English either). This situation applies to the whole Canton province. Apparently, Cantonese people have a strong conviction to stick to their culture and to their dialect. Thus, anyone from outside is expected to adapt to it, which seems to have worked well so far.
Shanghai, on the other hand, also has their local dialect (Shanghainese), which I don’t understand either. But wherever you go in Shanghai–shopping, in the elevators, or at formal meetings—people rarely speak Shanghainese, including the locals. About 99% of TV channels in Shanghai are in Mandarin with a few in English 24/7. Shanghai seems to be far more ready and willing to embrace people from anywhere. It could have something to do with its history, though. Known as the Paris of the East in the 1920s, Shanghai had more foreigners visiting or residing there than any other city in China. This is still the case today.
One time while in Shanghai, during a dinner with some friends, I commented on domestic beers tasting too flat to me. We then walked right around the corner to a bar, where I felt like I was transported right back into the U.S. The decoration, music, servers, and most of all, the beer menu were just like what I could find in my current home city of Raleigh, North Carolina where microbreweries have proliferated in recent years. It’s no secret that Shanghai has been, by far, on the forefront of the economic development in the Greater China region. They built a whole new section of the city, Pudong, on paddy fields in a little more than two decades, amassing another five million people along the way!
In my childhood city Shenyang, however, as in all the northeastern parts of China including Beijing, people speak only one official language, Mandarin, with slight local accents.
We don’t eat the same food
Here in the U.S., if one mentions Chinese food, the first image which comes to mind for most Americans would more likely be stir-fried whatever in a wok often sautéed with the same sauce or just soy sauce. But for those who have adventurous palates and are ready for a foodie foray in China, they know that real Chinese food is far different than sesame chicken and General Tso’s. Depending on where you go, you will have completely different gastronomic experiences.
Sichuan style cuisine, for example, is quite well-known in the U.S. and your tongue will alert you blindfolded of its distinctive numbing-and-hot sensation each time you savor it. When done right, the essences lie in the authentic materials that should only come from that region. Some of our Sichuan friends carry a jar or bags of their local ingredients back to the States to fill the void of their hometown food cravings in America.
Nevertheless, in China, “Eat in Guangzhou” is a popular adage suggesting the superior Cantonese culinary status, including foodie style in Hong Kong. But, somehow, people may find it hard to come across authentic Cantonese restaurants in the U.S. The reason, as I see it, may lie in its deep culinary culture: the boundless varieties, delicacies, and complexities in preparing a Cantonese feast. It emphasizes lightness in appearance, subtleness in the aromas, and crisp but tenderness in the bites.
Besides, Cantonese cuisine may be too exotic for most American palates, like whole fish (often steamed), chicken feet, roasted goose, and suckling pig, to name only a few. You might have heard, if not seen, turtles, snakes, and even rice-field bugs are the best delicacies on the dinner table. Dim-sum has rendered a glimpse into the rich options of the Cantonese gourmet. And yet, it’s only served as a brunch for a reason. If Cantonese food looks bizarre but tastes delightful to you, then you’ve got it. More than touching the tongue of those who can stomach it, it could even touch your heart.
In northeast China where I grew up, the food culture does not have nearly as much to show for because, traditionally, we only ate what we grew. Therefore, our staple food choices were far more limited due to the brutally cold weather conditions lasting four to five months a year. During the winter, in my childhood days, potatoes and cabbage were pretty much our daily sustenance, plus something like German sauerkraut made from cabbage. But dumplings have always been what we do best. During the Chinese New Year’s Eve, as I recall, making dumplings was a 24-hour ritual of every family in the region. The whole family would make and eat dumplings, go out for fireworks, and then come back to make and eat some more… Nowadays, all things have become available year-round in the northern cities. As a result, the cuisine varieties have become far richer than before.
We don’t act the same way
Sichuan is a well-known place for cultivating the happiest people in China, Chinese media widely confirm that. Many people, myself included, who have been to Chengdu in Sichuan province would describe the place as “once you get there, you don’t want to leave.” For me, I felt it in my first 10 minutes after arriving in Chengdu, starting from our cab driver. His candidness and unhurriedness, in sharp contrast to the similar experiences in other cities, made me feel at ease instantly.
Then again, what occupies people’s minds can separate them dramatically. WeChat has a widespread picture portraying three large groups of people standing in three queues in Beijing. Each is about 100 meters long: one in front of the Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall, one in front of the gate of the U.S. Embassy, and one in the building of Letters and Visits Bureau (filing complaints). These three crowds represent the three major but rather distinctive tendencies in China today.
It’s natural, even healthy, for a country of 1.4 billion people to have such diverse mental states. We may look alike but think and act completely different even though we all live in the same dynamic era.
Interestingly, in northeast China, lifestyles are much more laid-back and slow-paced. Their motto is “contented people are happy people.” But the next generation of kids, after finishing college, are more likely to either go to southern cities or abroad to pursue a life with more potential. As a result, the three northeast provinces have been ranked near the bottom in economic development in China. They have all the same characteristics of the rustbelt states of the U.S.: declining traditional heavy industry (machinery, steel, and mining) and a shrinking population. No one would argue about the exacerbation of uneven developments in different regions in China over the last a few decades. But determining how much is due to historical reasons and how much is culture related is a matter of opinion, though.
We are a resilient people
If people are more likely to achieve success in life because they are resilient by nature, being able to draw strength from adversity, then the recent success of many Chinese people is another testimony. One study shows 75% of super successful people in America had grown up in harsh conditions or overcome enormous obstacles in their childhood (from Oprah Winfrey’s scarred childhood to Bill Gates’ first failed business endeavor, and then Howard Schultz, Lebron James, Sonia Sotomayor, to name just a few). In fact, all Chinese people had to endure the hardships of life by any standard just a few decades ago. But look around now.
One time last year, Mr. Ma, a Chinese businessman, sat by my side on a flight from China to the U.S. He started a factory in Ethiopia eight years ago and currently employs 700 people there. In Africa today, most Chinese business people are private entrepreneurs just like me, he said, having come from China in recent years. As a consequence of the higher labor costs in China, rising more than 10% annually for the last decade or so, we’ve chosen Africa to set up or expand our businesses, in various business fields.
“How hard is that?” I asked, being immensely intrigued by his experiences.
“Let me just say, no Westerner could do what we did,” he responded calmly. “Then again, the village where I grew up in northern China was no better than Ethiopia in many ways. We had no tap water, electricity was never reliable, and all the houses were built with mud and thatched with straws.” Mr. Ma continues, “And yet, I started my first factory in my village 15 years ago, making shoes. So, I knew I could do it again in Africa or anywhere else in the world.”
Inadvertently, his life story mirrored some of my own earlier experiences in China, provoking me to reflect on the short history of the economic development of this country. Three decades ago, China’s GDP per capita was lower than that of many African countries. Now, it has become the second largest economy in the world, with tens of thousands of Chinese entrepreneurs playing a role in transforming the African economy. Furthermore, over the last 30 years, China has achieved a miraculous feat in human history, lifting more than 500 million people out of extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, China’s poverty rate fell from 88 percent in 1981 to 6.5 percent in 2012. It’s primarily the product of the resiliency of the people.
But we all have something in common
Inherently, the Chinese people retain some identifiable national characteristics shaped by the deep-rooted Confucian influences for more than two thousand years. The same idea spreads into many other south and east Asian countries. Generally, people are humble, respectful, believing in perseverance, top-down authority and bottom-up obedience in their families, schools, society, as well as at work.
In the meantime, this unison national character of such a colossal country has produced a massive “herd effect” that can be seen in many ways. That means, people tend to follow a social trend at any given time. In schools–we have seen it—all kids are battling for higher scores starting from the first day of their elementary schools. In the stock market, this effect produced the greatest volatility in history, driving up Shanghai Stock Index from 3000 to more than 5000 points at one time, only to fall back down below 2000 within a few months, until the government stepped in with tight controls. And in real estate, the bubbles have been in the making in major cities despite restrictions set by the government.
In the U.S., however, the Chinese people are not as apt to conform, perhaps because of the ethnic diversities in this country. When seeing their Indian ethnic or American neighbors doing something different, for example, like buying a much flashier car or maintaining an impeccable lawn, the Chinese family would not succumb to the temptation of catching on to the ideas.
Then again, today we all cohabit in this one global village with boundaries between countries becoming more symbolic than ever before. Far more people journey across oceans, learn each other’s languages among all other things and marry cross-culturally. Most strikingly, all of us are intertwined by the internet 24/7, so things are bound to change now. But the question comes to mind of how long and to what degree each of our cultures can remain intact or be assimilated into another, it remains to be seen.