If there is any place that an American will be found with expectations differing from reality, encountering Chinese culture is one of those experiences. For myself, I was raised in the Appalachian blue-collar dominated city of Altoona, Pennsylvania, in the United States. Here, I was limited in my exposure to Chinese culture while growing up. The only experiences I had related to Chinese culture were limited to grabbing a takeout order or eating in a Chinese restaurant, which any Chinese citizen will tell you has very little to do with authentic Chinese cuisine, let alone Chinese culture.
I couldn’t really ask restaurant staff any meaningful questions about China, and how it differs from life in the US. My expectations were largely a seed of curiosity planted within me, waiting for the authentic knowledge of the people of China to take root. These seeds of curiosity started to be watered and take root when I began studying at Penn State, and later when I became an ESL tutor.
To be fair, it’s no surprise that my fellow Altoonans have misplaced ideas about China and Chinese culture in the 21st century, despite the interconnectedness of the modern world in which we live. Most people in my area have little to no contact with Chinese people or Chinese culture.
For me, my outlook on Chinese culture, as well as many other cultures, changed when I began college at Penn State University. Like many new college students, attending college expanded my worldview. As a music major, I often passed students from China, who worked just as hard as I did, practicing piano up to six hours a day. Though limited, I often had social interactions with these fellow music students from China, Taiwan, and South Korea. These friendships were an early example of cultural exchange for me. Since college, my worldview has continued to grow, especially regarding China. As an online ESL teacher, it was inevitable I would experience cultural exchange through communicating and interacting with my Chinese students.
Fast forward to this week:
This week my internet connection needed servicing, so an internet service tech came to my home. He entered my home cautiously and did something out of the ordinary that I had only ever previously seen doctors do. He donned his brown boots with plastic covers and searched his work bag for blue plastic gloves. I felt terrible needing this service tech to venture into my home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic reaching the US. Still, I require a reliable internet connection to teach English online to my students in China. The tech’s curiosity was piqued when I mentioned my line of work. Like many Americans, he was hungry for a better understanding of Chinese people and culture in light of the COVID-19 geographic origins. He turned to me and asked, “So you talk to these students, living in China, every day? They’re actually okay over there?”
“Yes, the students I have now live in Wuhan, Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu…” I told him.
“From what we hear from the news here in the United States, we get this impression that everyone died from the virus… but people are okay? I mean, obviously, they must be because you still have work,” he asked.
Closing my eyes for a moment, I realized it would be hard to answer Ryan’s question simply. The ways I had experienced China in the two years prior, and even a few months ago, were not the same compared to what expectations Americans may have now, in light of the pandemic. Americans may expect devastation and desolation in China now, but the reality for me was memories of more joyous times experiencing Chinese culture.
Rewind to Two Years Ago: Good News From China!
Rewind to two years ago, and you’ll begin to understand precisely why I must have a stable internet connection. It was just as crucial as having stable teaching quality and being a positive influence on my colleagues. After a little over a year with ALO7 never missing check-in for classes, expanding my work roles, following the examples of excellent tutors, and doing my best to meet the teaching quality control standards, I was presented with an exciting bit of news.
One morning in June 2019, I checked my phone for my usual morning alarm but noticed it was a bit before I needed to wake up. I saw a WeChat message from my colleague in Shanghai that said, “Congratulations!” My colleague Mandy proceeded to explain that I had been selected as ALO7’s Online Teacher of the Year, which included a trip to Shanghai, China, to meet my colleagues in person! I squealed upon reading the message and leaped out of bed instantly energized for the day and months to follow. I tried to prepare for what I felt would be language barriers, foods I would get to eat, and the beautiful places I would get to see on my journey. Despite the joy and excitement of the upcoming journey, there were challenges ahead, which included being tested and examining and refining my ideas about the world.
From the US to China: A Journey of Cultural Exchange
Five months later, and I was boarding a plane to Shanghai from Dallas-Fort Worth. I realized there would be some big adjustments regarding language. I sat by an older yet very sweet couple that seemed to speak some sort of dialect of Chinese and understood Chinese, but they couldn’t understand my most earnest attempts to communicate, nor could they understand me speaking English. Not all Chinese culture is the same; there are 56 ethnic groups in China, and there are many different dialects of Chinese spoken among those groups as well. Even on the plane, I was already finding that Chinese was certainly more than one uniform cultural identity that I had thought as an American: “Even within one ethnic group, there are probably diverse groups of people. Various groups of the Miao minority, for example, speak different dialects of the Hmong-Mie languages, Tai-Kadai languages, and Chinese, and practice a variety of different cultural customs. Typically each minority group has its own costumes, festivals, and customs.”1
An American in Shanghai
I arrived in Shanghai thoroughly exhausted, but thankful for the gym membership I had maintained for most of the year. I was first struck by realizing how much of a workout traveling through a metropolitan area like Shanghai was going to be. Before I came to China, my friends in my hometown thought the cities in China weren’t bigger than ours.
“Shanghai is about the size of New York, right?” One of my friends asked.
“No way,” I replied. “Shanghai is four times the size of New York! 24 million people live in Shanghai. It’s the biggest city in the world!”
How lucky was I that I had both a bird’s eye view and an in-person experience of the impressive size and amount of people in Shanghai. I grew up in a small city in the United States, so dealing with a crowd is something I thought I was familiar with; however, Shanghai is on an entirely different level. The people of China moved efficiently from one platform to another; crowds of nearly fifty people were easily and efficiently moved without as much of a complaint or a bump into one another. I was able to see these crowds move efficiently through the underground rail systems, and through crowded tourist areas at the Shanghai Old Street (七宝老街), the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (东方明珠塔), among the many places my guide, Hannah, took me to see. The most striking impression of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower was seeing the city sprawling endlessly across the horizon. Even seeing New York City, you know there is an end – but for Shanghai? There was seemingly no end to the city.
After visiting ALO7’s sprawling offices and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, Hannah and I traveled to another part of Shanghai to shop. During this trip on the underground, I thought of an oft-heard complaint in my hometown; many disgruntled older Americans complain that too many Millenials are on their cell phones. While in the underground railroad system in Shanghai, I was first struck by the stunning silence – then I noticed something curious. A seemingly senior-aged man on his cell phone, wholly engrossed by texting. Then, I looked beyond this older man to the rest of the silent majority on the train. Nearly every person was looking at their cell phone. There were no older men in the corner criticizing and sneering at the youth on their cellphones; they were just as engrossed in their phones as the youth. What an interesting contrast to see, based on what I was used to at home.
Something uniquely intriguing about present-day China is seeing the marriage of ancient traditions with a modern lifestyle. Penn State confirms this marriage of these contrasting elements; “Present day Chinese culture is an amalgamation of old world traditions and a westernized lifestyle. The two co-exist like the traditional Yin Yang formula of balance. This can be seen in the juxtaposition of towering skyscrapers with heritage buildings, the contrast of western fashion with the traditional Chinese Qipao dress, the people’s paradoxical affinity for both dim sums, and McDonald’s.”2
A Quick Side Trip to Beijing
Part of my trip included visiting Beijing, which perfectly illustrates the Yin and Yang of ancient and modern in China. We don’t have anything nearly as old in the United States to visit. Despite it being cold, Hannah obliged my request and took us on a two-hour bus trip to Changchun, where we entered the Great Wall at Badaling. And since the Great Wall is, well, a wall, it somehow before this fact escaped me that we would actually have to climb it! For that reason, I was hot, tired, and again, very happy for that gym membership I invested in once we reached the top of the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Once we reached the top, it was a view I will never forget for a lifetime. The sprawling modern metropolis of Shanghai might stand in contrast with the ancient splendor and beauty of the Great Wall. Still, both stand as a testament to the hardworking and tireless innovations of the people of China.
Cell phone usage, cuisine, and the sound of the crowds may not be something that the Chinese people and Americans have in common, but I learned we do share a fundamental love of food. One of the questions I had before I went to China was how I would deal with the Chinese cuisine. I knew it would be different from what we consider to be Chinese food in the United States, but I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Our first meal in Shanghai included an array of seafood and vegetables, all quite spicy. Many of the foods I had after were not what most Americans would consider “weird,” they simply used a combination of different ingredients we often don’t include together in our meals. You don’t find anything close to what we consider to be “Chinese food” in America. (Remember what I said about Chinese restaurants at the beginning of this post?)
Some of the most memorable meals and snacks I had were traditional style fried dumplings and frog in Shanghai and trying Tanghulu (candied hawthorns, 糖葫芦) and dolphin soup in Beijing. And, I learned the difference between how hot pot is made in Shanghai compared to Beijing. It’s hard to say which food was my favorite meal; everything was so delicious and different from what I was used to! I love food, and I thought I could happily eat my way through China, but by the time we got to Beijing and had Peking duck, I exclaimed to Hannah, “I simply cannot eat anymore!”
Thanks to these experiences of true Chinese culture, I find my life as an ESL teacher and as an American facing a world with a deep connection to China in light of current events wholly changed.
Furthermore, I was introduced to a very personal level of Chinese culture through my guide, Hannah, and she made it a truly life-changing trip for me. Before I left for China, I had wondered if I would be able to get along with my guide? Could two women who grew up on completely different sides of the planet and in different cultures get along for a week, let alone become good friends? The answer may surprise you…
Did you miss part one of this series? If so, find it here.
Citations for From the US to China: Expectations vs. Reality:
1 “Chinese Culture-a Short Introduction.” Stunning Tours. Accessed March 24, 2020. https://stunningtours.com/chinese-culture-html/.
2 “Chinese Culture, Tradition, and Customs.” Chinese Culture, Tradition, and Customs – Penn State University and Peking University. Accessed March 24, 2020. http://elements.science.psu.edu/psu-pku/student-resources/resources-for-penn-state-students/chinese-culture-tradition-and-customs.
Annette Nagle is a native of Altoona, Pennsylvania and works as an independent musician, music teacher and language teacher. Annette has a Bachelor of Arts in Letters, Arts and Sciences from Penn State, with honors from the Schreyer Honors College. She is a classically trained pianist and opera singer (lyric coloratura mezzo-soprano). Previously, Annette has sang with her college choir in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria. She has previously taught introductory music at Penn Highlands Community College for several semesters. Annette has been working with ALO7 since February 2018, and was selected as ALO7’s Online Teacher of the Year in 2019. In addition to teaching ESL, she does secondary work with the company as a member of the academic team, video production team, and is part of the recruitment team during hiring periods as well. In addition to working with ALO7, Annette currently teaches piano and voice privately, and is a freelance organist, pianist and choir director for local churches and music groups.