American Misconceptions about China

Here are some common China misconceptions I noticed from my fellow Americans:

It’s like 1984

“So Mary, how is life in China?” my friend calling from America asked.

“It’s ok, but the Internet here is terrible,” I sigh. “The Chinese government sucks and they block everything. I’m surprised they even allow Skype to work.”

Silence.

“…Mary…” I could feel my friend’s eyes searching the room, almost like he was looking for someone behind the wall wiretapping our conversation. “Are you sure you can… you know… talk like that? What if the government is listening now?”

I laugh, “let them listen, maybe the internet will improve.”

“No, I’m serious.” My friend sternly warned me. “I don’t want you to go to a concentration camp.”

I can’t even count the amount of times the above conversation happened.

America indoctrinated me with this idea that China is an evil and communist nation that enslaves their people to Marxist ideal and strips them of all human rights. Even I went into China thinking that I should fear the government, watch my mouth, and be weary of the ‘brainwashed’ masses.

As we all know, China is not like 1984. China, although communist in name, is a thriving, pseudo-capitalist nation full of millionaires. They have a highly complex financial system. The media is full of American TV shows, and the highest grossing movies released in Chinese theaters (although slightly edited) are from the states. They love foreign brands and companies, and Chinese students probably know more about the world than the average American person does.

Hell, the government even let Hunger Games play in theaters. That’s saying a lot.

China is a developed nation with, believe it or not, free thinking individuals.

I’m not supporting the Chinese government, nor am I saying that China enjoys equal rights like we do in the States—but what I’m saying is, unless you’re an anarchist or a ‘free Tibet’ enthusiast, you can have a very normal life in China that doesn’t differ much from the states. Young people in China complain all the time about the government and its inequalities, and you don’t see the thought police plucking them from their homes and throwing them into a prison. As long as your rebellious ideas don’t garner media attention, you’re free to complain all you want in public, on the phone, and with friends.

China is a bustling, dynamic and growing nation that has now fully embraced an open market, and it shows. It isn’t a desolate 1984 wasteland… it’s the second largest economy in the world.

Everyone Speaks Chinese

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It would make a lot of sense to think that everyone in China speaks Chinese—but this is not the case.

China has an unknown number of dialects that are classified into seven groups: Gan (Jiangxinese), Guang (Mandarin), Kejia (Hakka), Min (Hokkien), Wu (Shanghainese), Xiang (Hunanese), Yue (Cantonese).

The Chinese government  realized that even people from neighboring villages struggled to have basic conversation with one another.

So in 1932, the early Republic of China picked a dialect from Northeast China and called it Mandarin. They then forced the whole country to learn Mandarin whether they liked it or not–and thus, Mandarin became the official language of China. Mandarin classes became standard within schools, and now most young, educated people in China can speak fluent Mandarin.

Still, it’s hard to enforce a country with 1.3 billion people to forget their dialect and speak some crazy language (Mandarin) that was, essentially, ‘foreign’ for them.

Although Mandarin is the official language of China and it’s used in all schools, the culture of each region still lives on strong—so basically, if you go anywhere besides Beijing and northeast China you’re going to be surrounded with dialect, not Mandarin.

The second most popular dialect in China is Cantonese. Thanks to Hong Kong and its long-term colonial status, they were able to preserve Cantonese and keep it as their own official language. If you go to Hong Kong (or Guangdong and Shenzhen, provinces nearby Hong Kong), then Cantonese reigns supreme.

Still, the dialects continue to thrive despite orders from the Chinese government. In Shanghai, I heard way more Shanghai-hua than I would have like and was hard pressed to communicate with some older Shanghainese residents, as they just plain refused to speak Mandarin.

So basically, there is no “Chinese.” There are a swarm of dialects, with Mandarin being the most commonly spoken.

Forget About What You Think Chinese Food is

Sweet and Sour Chicken? Wontons? Orange Chicken? Beef and Broccoli? Egg Flower Soup?

Think again.

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Going into China, I knew that the food was going to be different from Panda Express. I imagined it would be like the meals I often had in Chinatown, like exotic dim-sum.

Ok ok.. not everyone eats scorpions..

Ok ok.. not everyone eats scorpions..

I was so wrong.

Throw all your thoughts about what you think Chinese food is out the window, because it’s wrong. Even the most ‘authentic’ of Chinese food in the states is from Guangdong/Hong Kong immigrants, so it’s really a variant of just one region of Chinese cuisine.

It’s hard to slap a label on Chinese food because each region’s cuisine is so vastly different. Guangdong’s dim-sum platters are sweet and savory, Shanghai’s hongjiu laced cuisine is sweet and fragrant, Sichuan’s pepper caked food will have you scream for water, and the lamb skewers and freshly pulled noodles from Xinjiang will blow you away.

Did you know that in northern China, bread (mantou)—and not rice—is the staple!? Asian people not eating rice..!? Crazy, I know.

Here are some dishes from each region of China—and you won’t find these at Panda Express (or anywhere in America, really…. You’ll be hard pressed even in Chinatown).

Sichuan Spicy Fish

photo credit: isriya via photopin cc

Beijing’s Beijing Duck

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photo credit: isriya via photopin cc

Shanghai Xiao Long Bao

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Lanzhou Noodles

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photo credit: avlxyz via photopin cc

Delicious Hong Kong Dim-Sum

photo credit: williamcho via photopin cc

photo credit: williamcho via photopin cc

And my favorite cuisine…

Spicy Hunan Goodness

photo credit: avlxyz via photopin cc

China is Out to Get America

First of all, Chinese people love Americans.

The combination of our economic status, the technical strides we’ve made in recent years (think Apple and Google) and our flashy Hollywood movies and television have hypnotized the Chinese people. They hold America in high regard and are always eager to chat it up with an American. In fact, if you tell a taxi driver you’re from the States, s/he’ll most likely say:

“America, the best country in the world!”

Even on a larger scale, China doesn’t view America as a threat. Yeah, we may be a pain in the ass with our request to improve human rights, quit devaluation of the RMB, stop trying to take over maritime territory in Asia and other trade policies—but for the most part, America and China both know that we can’t live without the other, and we just have to put up with it.

China is Dangerous (or at least, more so than the USA)

I think it’s ironic that Americans view China as a dangerous destination when we have drive by shootings on a daily basis.

While many Americans think China is a rabid, third-world destination, it’s actually one of the most developed—and safest—places I have ever lived in.

I walked the streets of Shanghai, alone, at 4 AM and the only thing I was worried about was finding a taxi to get home—not my life.

Here in America? I don’t even dare walk around downtown L.A. alone after dark.

I’m curious if these misconceptions are similar to other countries? Is this how most of the world views China, or is it just America?

17 thoughts on “American Misconceptions about China

  1. Marta says:

    I would add another one: everybody in China is Chinese (as in Han Chinese).

    The misconceptions about the food and the 1984 kind of state are also believed by some people in Spain. A few years ago I read a comment online from someone who claimed that his uncle had visited China and couldn’t get out of the hotel alone, there were people following him everywhere. Seriously? If they had to follow every move of every foreigner in China… hahaha.

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Ah, that’s a great one! A lot of people don’t know about all the unique ethnic groups in China.

      Haha when did the uncle go to China, 1930?? Anyway, maybe in the countryside they might follow you but that’s probably because you’re the first foreigner around 😉 In the case where you had a history as a journalist or some other investigative reporter I wouldn’t be surprised… but.. still!

  2. Lani says:

    China is such an incredibly vast and diverse country that I think it’s normal for folks to “stereotype” it. I would just compare it to America in the scope of regional and cultural differences to help other Americans understand China.

    And yes, believe me, many people have colorful misconceptions of Thailand. Don’t get me started…no really 🙂

    • rubymary says:
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      Wow I would love to read about Thailand misconceptions… please write it!!!

      I went in thinking that Thai people were extremely kind and the food was out of this world–and I was not let down.

      I guess it’s called the ‘land of smiles’ so it’s assumed that Thai people are smiling all the time and go out of their way to treat you with kindness. I mean, in Bangkok not everyone was smiling but still they were some of the nicest people in Asia I’ve ever met.

  3. Marielle says:

    Loved this post. I try to remember to call the official language Mandarin instead of “Chinese” but usually I forget! It’s definitely true that most Americans don’t realize there are different ethnic groups and dialects – but then, we don’t really learn a lot about the rest of the world in grade school; it’s kind of crazy!

    And I always thought it was SO ironic that my Chinese students and colleagues would think America was dangerous, because everyone back home seemed to think I was in constant danger in China. I could wander all around Chinese cities, no matter the hour, and never even get harassed; it was great!

    • rubymary says:
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      Yeah I think we need to add more about Asia to our history books, I think in my high school we only really discussed Japan in regard to Commodore Perry and Hiroshima, and China is described as being a communist authority and nothing much else (what about all the dyansties beforehand!?). Learning about Europe is good too, but ignoring the rest of the world is kind of bad… I was embarrassed when I first went to China and realized that I didn’t know much about the country’s history.

      Yeah I love how Americans fear for your safety when you’re in Asia, when actually you’re 100x safer than they are (crime wise, and in terms of traffic accident!). On the flip side, I worry about innocent Asian students coming to America. A lot of Chinese students come to the USA to study abroad and view America as this rich country where nothing could go wrong. There have been so many incidents in Los Angeles where Chinese students from abroad are shot in the street at night while walking home from their study sessions–although walking the streets at 9PM is safe in China, it’s not in America. I remember when my naive little Japanese students came and visited America and booked a hostel in Hollywood… noo!!

  4. jennifer says:

    I spent a month in China earlier this year. It is one of the safest places I have ever been.

    I always have people tell me about how over crowded it is, people pushing and shoving and the pollution oh my! It is quite a big country. You do not have to go to a huge city with a massive population. You can go to lesser knows places and see some incredible beauty. Hell, I even saw clear blue skies.

    • rubymary says:
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      America’s portrayal of China made me think it would be some third world wasteland where I’d wake up with my kidneys gone–but actually, it’s quite safe. Of course there are pickpockets and people out to swindle you but it’s nice knowing that you never have to fear getting shot.

      Yeah I saw in your blog you went to Guilin (Yangshuo)–that was one of the most peaceful and pleasant places I have ever been (and who’da thought, in China!). Tibet, Yunnan, Inner Mongolia–so many places in China where, actually, there’s more nature than people! Just don’t go to Beijing and ride line one on the subway… sardines in a can!

      Thanks for the comment! Your blog is amazing and I’m inspired by your ‘late’ travels! There are so many blogs on the net about 20 somethings discovering the world, but I’m more interested in those getting a ‘later’ start to travel in life. Just goes to show it’s never too late to start exploring!

      • jennifer says:

        It is so interesting that the same people who are shocked that China is not a huge overcrowded mass of black smog, are also the same ones who ask me “How was the Great Wall!?!?” Uh, I did not go to Beijing.

        Thanks for the comments about my blog! It is a weird thing being older because there are certain things that are Backpacker 101 that do not apply to me – one example is dorm rooms. I live alone in a two bedroom apartment, I could not ever share a dorm room with ten other people.

        I completely agree that it is never too late to start exploring. I do wish I had started earlier, but as long as I did start ever, I am okay with it.

        • rubymary says:
          Profile photo of rubymary

          Yeah after a while the backpacker dorm room just isn’t worth it. I think the older you get, the more you think: “I’ll pay 5 bucks more for my own room with a private shower.”

          On my last journey I met a few women in their 50’s traveling (solo!) and I was so inspired. I definitely want to be one of those women!

  5. Q Yang says:

    I would say, as a ordinary Chinese person, many Chinese people share the same view that China is on one hand thriving, of course, yet on the other aching from many problems resulted from the burden of population. And most important of all, China is not as monolithic as many people would think it is–and it never was.

    However I still would like to point out that the use of Mandarin was not simply a decision made in the 20th century. Mandarin the word means bureaucratic or official. Establishing a “lingua franca” to ease the conversation among government officials of different origins has been used at least since Qin dynasty in 3rd century BCE, after the establishment of the first central government. Mandarin, or more explicitly, the “official tone”, evolved along with all other languages spoken in the country. Therefore, in many cities where the provincial governments were located in ancient times, like Chengdu, Wuhan, etc., the local dialects almost merge with Mandarin and distinguish themselves from the “rural tones”.

    What I am going to say might be a surprise to you, but the modern standard Mandarin has it roots in the old Nanjing dialect. Yes, modern Mandarin is the direct heir of the official tone of the Qing dynasty, and yes it was widely spoken in the North, yet in 1368, during the Ming dynasty, the emperor moved the capital from Ying-tian Fu 应天府 (nowadays Nanjing) to Bei-ping 北平 (nowadays Beijing), and this historic event gave birth to the Beijing dialect, from which arise the modern Mandarin. So if we were to trace back the history of modern Mandarin, we see it was first the dialect of Nanjing, and then spread to the north by the change of capital.

    Anyhow, I am really happy that you enjoy your life in China.

    • rubymary says:
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      Yang, thank you very much for your comment–it was EXTREMELY educational. I actually did quick research to see when Mandarin was first implemented in order to put this fact on the list, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to dig way, way back.

      I have actually heard Nanjing dialect before and it was almost incomprehensible to me (it didn’t sound all that familiar or similar to modern day Mandarin). When I was in Shanghai, I was blown away because it sounds NOTHING alike (and later I learned this is because it is from the ‘wu’ family of dialects, so it sounds similar to surrounding area dialects such as Ningbo-hua, Suzhou-hua, etc..). When I heard Sichuan-hua, however, I was pleasantly surprised that I could understand 70% or more, and I imagine this is because it was a city of provincial government like you mentioned above in your explanation.

      I heard the oldest and most “pure” form of “real” Chinese is actually Cantonese. Is this true?

      I don’t live in China anymore, unfortunately. I’m back in the USA and I miss China terribly (as ironic at that is).

      Thanks for your comment and stopping by! It was very enlightening

  6. Sthitapragnya Deshpande says:

    You are spot on. People in India have the exact misconceptions about China. One would have thought being neighbours we would be better informed – but my friends ask me the same questions. or worse – they feel I was a perfect ass to leave UK (which Indians still think of as the fourth best place to migrate to – after USA, Australia and Canada)!

    I find myself enjoying as much freedom in China as an expat, as I did in India as an Indian.

    Of course – one thing I do miss is Indian food and Indian Chinese food. At best, I find some Chinese dishes tasty, most are palatable (I eat Chinese food daily for lunch!), I stay away from the feet, tongues, heads and the “exotica aquatica”. In all fairness, my Chinese colleagues think likewise of Indian food 🙂

    Btw, one correction – most people in Shenzhen rarely speak Cantonese (Guangdonghua) – the exceptions are those who actually are natives of Guangdong. But most of the Shenzhenren are immigrants from other parts of China. in fact, I have rarely heard people speak in Cantonese here during my stay.

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Wow! Didn’t know that India would have the same misconceptions about China! I think China gets ragged on pretty hard in the media–I mean, all things said and done, it’s one of the safest countries in the world!

      I think after a foreigner lives in China too long they start to tire of the food…. mostly all of the oil (at least, that’s how it was for me!). Luckily Shanghai had a lot of other options, such as Indian, Japanese, American etc.. food (although it was way more expensive than the local food stalls!). I heard food in Southern China tastes better… at least, when I went to Guangzhou the food there was to die for.

      I heard Shenzhen is a really great place. All of my Chinese friends wanted to move there, haha. Also jealous that everyone there speaks Mandarin! That was a hard find in Shanghai.

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