October 2, 2009

Lessons from Beijing

Study abroad reveals similarities, not differences.

What prompts a guy like me to spend more than a year in China? A fascination with the exotic? Cheap beer? Beautiful women? The answer is all of the above, at least at first. Yet what makes it all worthwhile in the end is not some distant appreciation of a strange culture, but the understanding that we’re all the same in the end.

The foreigners at the university I attend here in China come from all over the world. To an American who has never been anywhere farther than Canada, this is an awfully enlightening situation. What is one who has never met actual Dutch people to think of them? That they’re all tall, Erasmus-quoting polyglots, right? Swedes and Norwegians? Pretty much the same, but blonder and more fond of Ibsen. I don’t know—you can’t blame me. Heck, before coming here, I’d pretty much never in my life spoken with any non-Americans, or at least with people firmly outside the Anglo-American cultural sphere.

When you actually meet people from these countries, you realize that you’ve been wrong the whole time. More or less, people are approximately “human” wherever you go. We have the same desires, the same tastes, the same looks. People from every country seem evenly distributed—some are smart, some not; some beautiful, some not. But our minds like to categorize and will do so even with very little information at hand, reliable or not. So, until you actually encounter people from other places, you almost certainly have erroneous, subconscious impressions of them, even if only from a single example in a movie or book. What else would you think of when they came up in conversation? Surely not just the word of the people itself, right? And even if you claim not to subscribe to an image, you can’t prevent it from entering your mind every time you hear “European” or “African” or “Asian.”

Now, in truth, I am here to study Chinese, not to carry out cultural exchange. But even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t find much to talk about, because there aren’t really many differences. The impression that there are is often created by books discussing certain interesting practices in depth, or by people who don’t speak the language and find the culture impenetrably deep, as of course it will be if you lack the means of communication. So in fact, learning the language is a form of cultural exchange, because the more you learn, the more you talk to the natives (and the scads of Koreans, Japanese, Thais, Laotians, and even Europeans who speak Chinese but not English), and the more you realize that in reality, they’re all just like you.

There are perils to traveling abroad, though. Like the time some French acquaintances tricked me into eating snails, the name of which in French was so dazzlingly elegant that I couldn’t help but try. Or when I mortally offended the North Koreans who live down the hall by denying that kimchi, which I do love, was invented in Kim Jong-il’s basement. Or when I almost fell for this intricate Kazakhstani badger game involving…well, it’s best not to get into that.

To be a bit more serious, there are some cultural differences (the Chinese tend to be more reserved, for example), but none so large as to create misunderstandings. To conclude, then, I urge you to travel to another country for language training, which, provided you don’t hang out exclusively with Americans, I promise will add something to your education that cannot be found in the United States.

Arieh Smith is a second-year in the College. He is spending the year studying abroad in Beijing.