I know an American man from India and an American woman from South Korea, who on separate occasions shared with me their similar experiences traveling to their mother countries: people there could tell right away that these ethnically identical visitors were, in fact, visitors. In addition, the Indian man told me that people in his ancestral homeland could even tell he was from the US.
Similarly, I expected something other than eyes and skin tone to differentiate the Chinese child from his or her American counterpart, something so encompassing it’s hard to point out—attitude, demeanor, carriage. If I had to take a stab at it, I’d say that this X factor is ease of expression—and these children had a surprisingly high level of it, a comfort and looseness I’ve come to identify with Americans and opposing the relative rigidity I’ve seen from folks in other countries.
Whatever this factor was, though, I’d find that on account it, my children students would blend right in back home in most classrooms…that is, until they opened their mouths. During a speaking drill practicing the verb to be, I said, “I am American. You are Chinese.” And they responded with, “I am Chinese. You are American.” I went down the line from student to student repeating this. After the sixth or seventh student, I paused a beat and thought, “Hmm, these little buggers are Chinese.” I forgot.
The variables I could think of to account for this blending between students here and back home were prosperity, modernity, and globalization. These students lived in a city and came from families with enough extra income to afford these English classes. I assumed they had internet and television at home by which they watched the latest media and trends. It seems once on this prosperity/modernity/globalization plane, a universalizing element in humanity occurs.
The counterbalance to this trend is that while students found themselves on the same plane of global prosperity, their resources now allowed for greater individual expression. This magnified their idiosyncrasies of style and greatly undermined the idea that “all Chinese look alike.”
Sometimes, though, there was an unfortunate familiarity that may have also been due to China’s growing prosperity. My class of eleven-year-olds had a real “this is boring and we’re not going to go along with your stupid lesson” attitude. One day when trying to keep the attention of this hard-to-please group of fifteen students—some with eye-rolling expression—I thought, “You little brats.” Reynold from Oregon told me that some of his students regularly called him fat and said unmentionable things about his mother. He knew the language so caught all of it.
The thought occurred to me that having the best of both worlds—prosperity and contentment—requires enhanced discipline as the former increases; that as the ability to appease oneself or one’s children with more stimulation rises, so does the potential difficulty to realize that true happiness comes from things that can’t be purchased. I guess this is a growing pain of a developing country.
This essay was an excerpt from my recently-released book – Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China – a chronology of observations, experiences, insights, and photographs living in China from 2010-2011. It is available on Amazon.