Reflections of Culture: Newfound Perspectives from Spending Eight Weeks in China

I would say that I am very independent, as an American yes, but even compared to some of my friends and others I observe—both my age and older than me. Eating on my own, enjoying my own free time and interests, and wearing things that are a little off-kilter do not bother me as they would some. I value this sense of individuality, and find that living in America has allowed me to develop this aspect of my personality.

I would also say that I am by no means a slave to the mainstream popular culture of the United States. I haven’t listened to Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys since middle school, I don’t drink Coca-Cola or Sprite, eat at McDonald’s, watch Desperate Housewives or wear the fashion that appears in the latest Hollywood films and high-fashion beauty magazines. In fact, I make it a point not to read those magazines, I much prefer independent films (or at least those that have a bit more depth) and I listen to a wide variety of music that includes acoustic, alternative and classic rock, classical, and even things like Celtic and Bhangra. I rarely eat fast-food, and much prefer healthy, fresh foods and water to the classic American brands and chains. And as far as television, I’m a failure even by the standards of my friends, as I don’t even know which channels are which if I ever do turn on the TV.

I also religiously read National Geographic, as anyone who meets me soon discovers, and am always interested in learning more about others and their culture. That is why, arriving in China, I was a bit taken aback by how “American” I felt. I found myself immediately missing ice-cold water in a huge glass at each meal, and the simple American breakfast of cereal or toast and coffee (brewed, not instant). I noticed that I identified with the foods in McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, and have thoroughly enjoyed each time I have eaten at either restaurant, even if I overlook them both in the States. While Starbucks is expensive by any nation’s standards, it is not so much the name and the product I found myself missing, but the quiet escape it brings. I cherish quiet moments, and they are hard to find when out in public in China. I also noticed that I do visit Barnes and Noble and Borders often at home, and took for granted the availability of English-language reading material. Even things as simple as streetlights along less-public roads or overhead lights down a dormitory hallway— which are always shedding light in the United States— are frugally used to conserve energy here in China, a practice that hadn’t crossed my American-energy-consuming mind. I am now perfectly used to returning home to a dark, gloomy hallway outside my dorm room’s door, and believe it to be a very rational practice.

There are aspects of American life that I miss, but aspects of Chinese life that are much more sensible, and it has been a very thought-provoking process adapting my life for two months to that of an outsider staying in China, living among the Chinese. While I knew I would stand out, it became a very clear reality when walking down the street and feeling the eyes follow every step, aware that everything I am wearing and doing is being considered. While I do not consider myself a product or representative of the “mainstream” American culture, I do represent it to those people on the street who observe me—for better or worse. I came to terms with this reality, accepting the fact that I would be associated with things like loose moral values and Linkin Park. I also began to grow this little bubble of pride inside myself, thinking, Hey, it’s a pretty cool thing to be from the United States. I don’t mean this in a prideful way, I mean it honestly and appreciatively—it is a privilege to live in the U.S., and to maintain the lifestyle I have. No, I am not as rich as the people in the glamorous movies the Chinese see (and therefore consider to be normal American life), but the fact that I have traveled this far to visit their country already speaks volumes about my freedom and opportunities. This is not necessarily a new revelation, it is a very widely-stated fact, and people are always heralding how Americans take for granted how we live, and I agree with that.

What I am saying is that while I feel very fortunate and blessed to be an American, I never considered myself a stereotypical citizen by any meaning of the word. As such, living in China has stirred a new sense of identity as an “American,” in that I have realized how very well I recognize that culture in myself.

This trip has been much more than an introspective experience; I have learned volumes about other Americans, Chinese culture, society and life, traveling for extended periods, homesickness, human nature, food, shopping, bartering, language and communication—the list goes on. So I hate to leave my narrative blogs on a note of personal revelation, but I feel like this sense of identity is a good way of wrapping up the learning process as a whole. Considering all the things I’ve learned only reinforces this newfound perspective I didn’t know I had—it will come as no surprise to those who know me, but I’ve learned that I am in fact an independent, open-minded, curious and joyous American college student. My experience in China has added another dimension to this identity of mine, one that will become clearer as I return to the United States and merge my new perspective with the life I left behind in May.

China has changed the way I see things and has endowed me with stories to tell for years to come—intangible but valuable things I hope to share with all of you in person. Writing blogs until I ran out of words would not explain all of it.