So tell me…

I gave a big demo class today. We’re trying to sell our courses, and in order to do so we need audiences to come and sample. This was my first big class for Business Communication. I thought I did pretty well. I had them laughing when I wanted, and answering questions with minimal prompts. Then again, my intro lesson was full of flash.

But I want to talk what happened at the second class – my boss’ “Cross-Cultural Communication” demo course. The point of the lecture was to identify cultural differences and how to address them professionally. This meant talking about stereotypes.

“For example,” he says. “Americans think all Chinese people can do kung fu.” (Note: My boss is Canadian. I think he’s stereotyping us stereotyping them.) There’s not much of a reaction from the class. “Jean, what else?” I didn’t know he was going to ask me, so I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

“Dragons. We think you all have dragons, wear flowing silk clothes…and do kung fu?” As far as stereotypes go, it’s kind. A little “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” a little Chinatown. I wanted to keep it light. No way was I going to mention the negative stereotypes I know about. That would have darkened the mood quite a bit, though I bet it would have helped prove my boss’ ultimate point.

Sated, he asks his follow-up, “What are Chinese stereotypes about Americans?” I’m really interested in this – a little masochistic I guess, but I want to hear how we are perceived here in Sichuan. I prep mentally for the chastisement, the criticisms I’ve heard from other places I’ve traveled. Our brutishness (France), our imperialism (Jordan), our arrogance (Greece – yeah, I know), our guns (I want to say Australia?). I’ve heard it all.
“Americans are open-minded!” says one girl immediately.
“And….friendly!” says the boy sitting next to her. Again, my boss doesn’t seem particularly thrilled with these answers. These aren’t the negative stereotypes he needed in order to go to his next point about not relying on stereotypes to form judgments.
“Anything else?” he prompted.
“Americans are all white,” says one girl. “But that’s not true. We just think it here in China.” This sentence confounds me, taking amused notes in the background. It’s like the student just admitted to living within the structure of a lie. My boss digs deep, and finally gets a female student to admit that she once offered to take an Indian friend of hers to a restaurant because it had great beef dishes, not remembering that Hindus don’t eat beef. My boss is obviously relieved – this is at least a foothold into the shadowy world of stereotypes and the impact they can have on our relationships.

It’s nice that the stereotypes of America were positive. I don’t know if it was because I was in the room, or if in the heartland of China the idea of America is somehow diluted into what Mickey Mouse and Obama stand for. They’re not jaded, I guess. There’s a lot of childlike enthusiasm in these students, and part of me thinks that there is much we could do to encourage these sentiments, as these will be the grown-ups eventually. It’d be nice if such good will could be maintained through adulthood. Or perhaps they only know the positive because they only know that much English. It’s like when I taught my class various forms of the word “happy.” They know to say they are happy because they don’t know how to say they are sad (I cited Douglas Adams – that was a tidy little post). Perhaps they don’t know how to express a negative stereotype because they don’t have the English words for them. That would make me the jaded one – correct on certain days.

It doesn’t seem likely, however. These young adults don’t have a lot of information at their fingertips. They’re allowed to see what the government shows them. Most don’t see much beyond their own national news. Yet they believe that America is an amazing place (which it is). I didn’t get a sense of sarcasm, or doubt, or hesitance from their descriptions. It sounded almost infantile in its optimism, but I immediately felt like I wanted that mentality to remain untarnished.

(I want to say “duh” to myself – of course I want them thinking good things about my country. Duh, Jean.)

During the rest of the lecture, I tried to think back about my initial stereotypes about the Chinese, about coming to China. They weren’t positive. I was ambivalent about the people, and very much in contention with the government. I won’t say that my opinions have changed greatly, but being among the normal, everyday lives of the small area where I work makes my grander qualms seem less tangible. And I’ve seen the better sides of the culture, the parts a tourist misses. I’ve met good people.

I once expressed as much to my friend James, who was confused as to why government tension wasn’t affecting my relationships with Chinese. At one point he conceded, “I imagine in the smaller communities they just seem like people.”

China shuts down Google and won’t let me access swaths of the internet. Pirated movies still in theaters show up the little internet TV box we have. The guards outside the school have batons and shields. I can’t drink the tap water.

Weekdays I teach my classes. I walk across the street to the convenience store to buy “French” bread (individual loaves the size of twinkies), milk tea, and candied melon. I get noodles at my favorite restaurant. I’ll drive my scooter along tree-lined roads and dodge certain death every time. I’ll stop at a produce stall and pick up some apples. I run around the track.

It’s about perspective. Zoom out and I am angry. Zoom in a little and there are annoyances. Zoom in close enough and we all wind up in the same pattern of day-to-day life. We eat. We sleep. We don’t disturb the rats in the trash cans.

“Americans are friendly?” my Boss asks me incredulously after class. “Americans are open-minded?!” His voice is full of sarcasm, maybe a little bemusement. I think of stereotypes.

Oh, Canada…..

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