Rashad Williams is an official CAPA blogger for summer 2015, sharing his story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A Strategic Communications and Political Science major with a concentration in Pre-Law at Hampton University, he is studying abroad in Shanghai this summer.
Below, Rashad takes a look at some of the typical stereotypes people have of China and what it's really like from his perspective as a study abroad student living in Shanghai.
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Before coming to China, I had many preconceived notions about its people and their culture. These notions were based on things I’d never seen for myself, rather than what I’d see or hear second or third-hand. The thing is that there are still many others who are in the same predicament as I once was.
Fortunately, I have the opportunity to see a tidbit of Chinese people and cultures, recognize stereotypes that may linger in the minds of those who have never been to China, and dispel those stereotypes, based on what I have seen first-hand.
(*Disclaimer: I have not seen all that there is to see in China, nor have I been to every part or met every person. While there may be some people that adhere to a certain stereotype, I want to disseminate, explain and negate subjective, yet common generalizations made about China.)
1. EVERYTHING IN CHINA IS CHEAP. China is the most populous country in the world as of 2015 and is home to one of the world’s largest economies and the fastest developing cities. Shanghai, alone, serves as China’s financial and economic center and a major location for importing and exporting. China has always been known for manufacturing, producing and trading. With that being said, yes; there are a lot of things that are inexpensive in China, compared to consumer-based countries. This is because things in China are more than likely made in China. There is no middle man. Many of the things that are inexpensive don’t have import taxes on them because they aren’t imported, and are made in surplus, at a mass production rate. On the contrary, not everything in China is inexpensive or low-quality. Just like any other country, China does import goods. China also allows businesses to establish themselves in its major cities. Granted, there may be quite a bit of imitation and “falsification” amongst businesses and their products, there are just as many high-end, high-quality, original and innovative brands that are available in China. Chinese products are relatively inexpensive, but not everything is cheap or fake.
2. CHINESE PEOPLE ARE NOT GOOD DRIVERS. It took me a while to get used to the roads of China. They can be quite dangerous, and China does have a high accident rate, comparatively. There are many fatal accidents that occur in China per year, and I can attest that the streets seem a bit chaotic. Nonetheless, I have noticed that many Chinese drivers have a common understanding of the rhythm to the roads and are able to cooperate with one another. It is understood that what westerners refer to as the “right of way” belongs to the more dominant vehicle. It is understood that the “blind spot” is nonexistent, which leads to strong defensive driving. It is understood that pedestrians are to be alert in looking both ways before crossing, because a “one-way” direction is not guaranteed. It is understood that honking is used for different purposes, in different ways, at different moments. It is understand that road rules are more suggestive, so don’t assume or feel entitled to anything. The reason why I don’t agree with the notion that Chinese drivers lack skill is because they abide by a system that isn’t concrete, but is understood. The streets can be dangerous, especially to someone who is not accustomed to them, but that is not to say how good or bad the average Chinese driver is. Perhaps, a western driver would be a poor driver in an eastern country, and vice versa. “Good”, in this case is subjective, and what seems reckless to an American driver like myself, may be perfectly normal to a Chinese driver. This doesn’t necessarily make either driver “good” or “bad”.
3. CHINA HAS POOR AIR QUALITY. Depending on where you are in China, the air quality may differ. In my travels to both Beijing and Shanghai, I have experienced different levels of air quality. In fact, both cities emit harmful gases and pollutants into the air. This is because smoking is more common, and so are motor vehicles. Also, being that China is as populated as it is, there are more motor vehicles than there are in a less populated country, simply because there are more people. In some places, you can tell the difference, and other places, you can’t. Some people may be affected by the air quality, and others aren’t, depending on how healthy their respiratory system is. I cannot dispute that China faces challenges with air pollution and greenhouse gases. What I can say is that China is aware of these issues and is claiming to take strides toward a cleaner environment. Whatever the case, every city has different levels of pollution and every person is affected differently. The air quality has not yet been a hindrance on my experience in China.
4. ALL CHINESE PEOPLE LOOK THE SAME. This stereotype is absurd and ignorant in my opinion, but it is still in circulation, particularly amongst people that have not taken the time to pay attention to detail. For some reason, there is a “typical Chinese profile” stereotype that describes every Chinese person as being short, small, lean, and with similar facial features as one another. In reality, China has about 56 different ethnic groups, with ‘Han Chinese’ being the most popular. Features vary with identity. Therefore, certain Chinese ethnicities are known for having a taller, more slender profile and facial structure, and others may carry a shorter, rounder profile. Standing at 6’0”, I am far from the tallest person walking around Shanghai, and at 160 lbs., I am not the heaviest, nor the lightest. The average Chinese person I’ve met prioritizes a healthy lifestyle, but there are also some that are stouter and heavier. Think of it as 56 different ethnic groups with well over 56 different sets of physical features, and millions of profiles. Any one of those 56 ethnic groups is just as distinct as any western ethnic group. It may seem as though all Chinese people look the same to someone who has never seen many Chinese people, but in fact, they, like anyone else, come in all shapes and sizes.
5. CHINESE PEOPLE ARE RUDE. From my experience in China, I have come across some of the most pleasant and virtuous people that I have ever met in my life. At the same token, I have come across Chinese people that aren’t so nice and easy-going. I’ve had experiences where people want to meet me or take pictures with me, and I’ve met those who’ve bumped past me as if I was invisible. Anytime you have a place with a population of roughly 1.4 billion, you are going to have a plethora of different personalities. For some Chinese people coming from more rural areas, it is not common to see an African-American or an American in general. Those people may react in such a way that westerners accustomed to a diverse environment aren’t used to. It isn’t to be taken offensively if you are being stared at or approached by someone wanting to touch your hair or take a picture. These are signs that you are opening people’s minds, just as your mind is opening. Understand that Chinese culture is very intimate, and if someone approaches you and is unfamiliar, be receptive to mutual growth. If someone brushes past you on a subway or honks at you while you’re crossing the street, don’t be offended. You would too if you had to pass 1.4 billion other people and get to where you’re going.