“The U.S. Is Like An Old Man”: A Chinese PhD Student Shares Her Thoughts On America–And China

From 2015 Profiles magazine, published by the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota

Xi (Cassie) Guo is an international student at the University of Minnesota. In the lab, she studies diseases. Outside of school, she’s made some interesting observations about life in the U.S.–as well as about her home country. 

After sharing some of these insights with me, I asked Cassie for an interview. Graciously, she responded to my questions below.

***

How long have you lived in the US?

4.5 years

Where have you lived in the US? 

I have only lived in the Twin Cities.

You came to study at the University of Minnesota, correct? Are you still studying or researching or teaching? What is your field?

I’m in a PhD program at the U. I study epidemiology and virology. I do research on flu viruses. My study is about the ecology of bird flu in Minnesota.

What did you think about America before you arrived? Did you think about American celebrities or politicians or wealth? 

I got the impression about ‘merica mostly from TV shows, such as “Desperate Housewives.” I also used to be a big fan of the American band called My Chemical Romance when I was a high school kid. I listened to all sorts of music: rock, hip-hop, etc. When I was in college, I had a hip-hop dance crew with my friends, and I got to be a dance instructor for high school kids. I learned that hip-hop is an American urban culture.

Were your friends in China envious of you for coming to the US?

My friends are not very envious mostly because I’m away from my family.

Did the US meet your expectations when you arrived? 

My only expectation about ‘merica was the way people are educated here. In grad school, you are required to challenge the professors, to learn by yourself.

Were you surprised when students would challenge the professor? Have you been able to challenge your professors? 

I’m not surprised by the fact that students can challenge the professor. I think people here have more freedom and are very individual-centered. I tried to challenge the professors, but most of the time I came up with really dumb questions.

Has your impression of the US changed since being here? 

Not much to be honest. Mostly because 1. I’m in school and people are nice, and 2. I’m in Minnesota and people are nice. I haven’t gotten a real taste about what the Southern US looks like.

Has anything else surprised you about life in the US? 

I was a bit surprise by the living style of many young Americans. Like they are really thrifty and care about money, not as I thought that people in capitalism spend lots of money.

Do you like the diversity of cultures?

I like the diversity.

Has your impression of China changed since being away? 

Changed a lot. I started to perceive things in China different than my peers in China.

Can you explain this? How has it changed? How are your perceptions now different than your peers? 

I’m shifting my view towards more spiritual things instead of material things. I started to think about the actual value of things rather than the appearance of them. My peers in China care much about the things they see around their lives. There’s no right or wrong way about which one lives, but I guess I care less about external things since I came here.

Cassie recently traveled back to China over Winter Break. Visiting her parents in the large southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, she made additional observations about China and America’s changing cultures and roles in the world.

Cassie with her parents at a music festival in Shenzhen

You don’t need cash or credit card nowadays if you are in Shenzhen. All you need is a cellphone with WeChat. My mom even can use e-pay to buy street food. I don’t know why China looks like a prodigy while the US is like an old man. Cities in China are expanding, people are purchasing stuff. The scene goes against my belief in being thrifty and being a minimalist (buy less to be more happy). I don’t know if that is a good thing. On the bright side, it feels like Chinese young people have become more open-minded, very eager about new things. I barely see this eagerness about new things in people in the US. Things here are very advanced, articulated, stagnant, and polarized in some way.

Has the culture changed in China in just the past 6-7 years? When I was in China, people were reserved.

I think they are still not that expressive. The Chinese will always look reserved to Americans. It is just a cultural norm to be reserved. Haha.

As a foreigner, how do you interpret the political change in America? Do you think this explains (or is a symptom of) America being “like an old man”? 

I interpret it as bed-wetting liberals being too emotionally fragile to tackle the disruption caused by working class. Yes I do.

Bed-wetting liberal? Where did you get that line? 

I invented it. Haha, it is a bit sarcastic.

How did people in China react to the election of Trump? 

Most people are very optimistic. (It might be bad for Chinese manufacturing business, but still people speak highly of successful businessmen.)

What are two things you like better about China? 

Secular attitudes, Wisdom accumulated through generations

What are two things you like better about America?

Diversity, Absence of censorship (freedom of accessing information)

What’s one thing America can learn from China? What’s one thing China can learn from America? 

  1. Eating healthy food
  2. Breathing fresh air

Any other thoughts? 

Some words I heard from NPR these days (I enjoy the expressiveness of Americans).

A Trump supporter addressing a Hillary supporter: “It is over. No matter how much you like about Clinton, PULL UP YOUR PANTIES and get over it.” (The rough language of Trump supporters.)

Senator Chuck Schumer said: “Making America great again requires more than 140 characters per issue.”

What are your plans for the future? Will you stay in the US longer? Will you move back to China?

I can see my life in the US the next five years. (I want to enjoy the freedom to access information as Americans can.)

***

Two points in the interview struck me:

  1. This apparent drift toward the materialistic in China — When I was there in 2010-2011, I came across a Chinese book about the US that pointed out yard sales as evidence of America’s obsession with consumerism. Meanwhile, Cassie said she learned minimalism by coming to the US.
  2. The counter-intuitive truths of American politics — This one made my mind bend. So plain was Cassie’s statement. Yet coming from her, it hit me how unique the truth was: “liberals” not able to handle the “disruption of the working class”? Isn’t this political group supposed to be on the side of the worker? After the election, I read somewhere that we can now throw out our understanding of the political Left and Right (at least in the US). Cassie from China made clear the oddity of Trump: new and strange bedfellows and adversaries.

Thank you, Cassie, for sharing your thoughts–and for working to eradicate disease!

 

If you have any follow up questions for Cassie or thoughts on the interview, please comment below. If you have anyone you’d like to have interviewed on The Periphery, or if you have a story or idea to share, please email me at brandon@theperiphery.com.

 

5 Responses

  1. Hsu

    I agree with her sentiments as a Chinese immigrant to America of over 2 decades. America’s meeting the challenge of his power, grandeur, and self identity shrink and change by burying it’s head in the sand and then lashing out like a baby. Basically America is proving all the classic CCP propaganda about America’s liberal Western humanist values and enlightenment thinking as simple hubris. I literally laugh when I see people in America espousing positions taken by Chinese nationalists. My favorite is that questioning America’s actions or our own history makes you self hating, feminine, and somehow less patriotic. Or drawing conspiracy theories when faced with changes in modern society and our own self image.

  2. Jacob

    I’m a Minnesotan teaching English in Shanghai. It was really interesting to read this!

    I love how even Cassie is excited about WeChat Pay and Alipay! Personally, I haven’t found them to be that much better than cash or card (UnionPay). Using e-pay isn’t much faster as you must confirm details with the cashier. Also, you have to keep your phone charged up. I think you can get special deals with AliPay, but you must understand Chinese characters as most of the promotional details aren’t translated into English.

    I do miss the fresh air of Minnesota. Shanghai is the first time I have ever experienced pollution like this and I’m honestly quite shocked. I also miss the freedom to access information. My VPN hasn’t been working in China and I’ve had difficulty visiting the website I frequent easily in the States. It has definitely made me feel a bit sour towards China. I feel like a prisoner who is free to walk across the street and buy cola and cheese. Weird!

    I like Chinese people for the most part. The spitting does get to me. I don’t mind the pushing and shoving as there are a lot of people around. I also love the Metro! The communists can certainly build things quickly! Maybe they build too quickly. I wish they would add insulation to buildings!

    1. Haha. I related to a lot of what you wrote. Were you able to access this website just fine? When I was in China (Zhuhai) in 2010-2011, my wordpress site was blocked. Where in MN are you from. I’m a small-town boy originally from outside Bemidji. Now I live in Minneapolis. Regarding payment systems, have you heard much about Bitcoin?

  3. Harland

    It’s sad that someone like her got those ideas about Trump. Panties? People who voted for Trump are either 100% behind his bigotry, or they are 100% okay with it; there is no effective difference between the two. Apathy is just as dangerous as active hatred.

    Yes, actually, if Hillary had said something so blatantly abusive, had run on a platform of racism, sexism, Islamaphobia, classism, ableism, and basically further disenfranchisement for anyone who isn’t a white Christian straight cisgender male – yes, I’d feel exactly the same way about her and anyone who voted for her (and probably be looking for a bridge to jump off, if both of our candidates were so uniformly awful). Because it doesn’t matter who does it, it’s equally as crappy. It’s not about championing a particular issue, it’s about not championing the administration who literally wants to institute policies that will kill people.

    It hit me so hard because no matter how much I gave dire warnings to the people who handwaved Trump’s chances away, I never truly expected him to win. I never, ever, in my heart of hearts, believed that so many people in my country believed in his racist, sexist, ableist, vile rhetoric.

    The US is much more racist and backward than we ever thought.

    1. In my opinion, you need to separate a vote for Trump and the condoning of the bad things he’s said. I think you can do this–the same way you can separate a vote for Hillary from the malicious things she’s said about the women her husband abused. I’m sure you know good people who voted for Trump. So use them as an example of how people can justifiably vote for unsavory leaders. I also think that people tend to assume too much of their lives into the hands of politicians. I’m not sure what the Trump presidency will look like, but I can say you’ll be surprised by how little your life will change because of it.

What say you?