Writing an article while on location during SST gives me a rare opportunity.I have the opportunity to share a portion of my experience in China so far to an audience back in Goshen. However, I’ve learned so much here that it is hard to decide what I should share. Yet considering what words come to mind when Americans think of China – communism, pandas, “Made in” – I realize just how little we as Americans understand about the world’s number two economy.
Being here, moreover, I’ve also realized how little China understands about Americans. China is difficult to understand because of its long standing isolationism. Dating back thousands of years, China has been cut off from much of the rest of the world. Vast mountain ranges (the tallest in the world) cut China off from its western neighbors, while ocean cuts off China from neighbors to the east.
Even today, physical boundaries contribute to China’s continued isolation as immigrating and travel are often only possible through plane flights. Information wise, China is also estranged from much of the world. China’s bans on Facebook and anything owned by Google are well known, and limit much of the country’s interaction with citizens of other countries. Even inside China, there is little ethnic diversity. China is over 91 percent Han Chinese and the other over 50 ethnic groups which make up the remaining eight percent are located mostly in western China (Tibet), and in the far north (Inner Mongolia). The result is a largely culturally and ethnically uniform country, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.
After being in China for just over a month, I can say that I’ve noticed effects of this isolationism. A big reason for this has been that Nanchong is a “small” city in China at about seven million inhabitants. As such, foreigners don’t frequent this city. Our local coordinator, Wang Ying, explained that we might get strange looks here, and gave the following explanation: “Nanchong probably has around twenty foreigners and you’re here bringing in twenty more.”
I’ve been to a dozen countries and never have I been gawked at before as I am here.
In China, ‘waiguoren’ is a word meaning “out of country person.”
Every day, I am faced with a myriad of shouts of ‘waiguoren’ while out in Nanchong. By far the most peculiar instance was when four classmates and I visited our host university’s version of Kick-Off. When my friends and I showed up to the stadium of 11,000 cheering Chinese students, not only were we given VIP seating in the front of the stadium (which we had done nothing to deserve), but we were also waved to and greeted with enthusiastic “Hellos!” as we walked down to our preferential seating.
Much of my treatment in China has been to this likeness. I will often be given priority seating at places, or given extra attention at shops, or even discounts on merchandise. Yet, much of this special treatment is only because of my skin color.
The people of Nanchong, and perhaps much of the rest of China, have an idea that whiteness of skin is preferred. People carry umbrellas around on sunny days to ensure that they are kept as pale as possible. Reality TV stars wear an overbearing amount of white makeup. In fact, one of the most obscure things I’ve seen here is that at places where tourists can pay for photos, they will often apply a ‘white filter’ to pictures that makes the objects of the photo seem whiter.
Moreover, in conversations with non-white members of our SST group, they have confirmed that their treatment in China has often been different to that I have experienced.
Oftentimes locals are surprised, and even have a hard time believing that they are Americans—forcing them to reconcile their encounters with the image of every American as various incarnations of Captain America.
I can’t imagine how much harder SST would be if you couldn’t even pretend to resemble the white, blue-eyed prototype many (yet I’m sure not all) locals were expecting.
And yet despite this, the Chinese people have by and large been nothing but hospitable and amazing to the whole group. China’s isolation from much of the world simply activates certain innate human prejudices towards people they don’t understand.
And herein lies one of the most important impacts of SST in my mind. Ultimately, SST is a cultural exchange. Just as I have learned so much about the beautiful culture in Sichuan, we as an SST group impart much about our own culture in return.
In Nanchong, a place isolated to much of the outside world except by way of a select few movies, we as an SST group have a unique power to shape many people’s ideas of America.
I can only hope that our host families and others here learn from the people who we are that the United States, at its best, is a place where people of all creeds and colors unite together to create something greater—something that I hope we as Americans will also one day come to understand.