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.”
“…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
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?
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.
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
Beijing’s Beijing Duck
Shanghai Xiao Long Bao
Delicious Hong Kong Dim-Sum
And my favorite cuisine…
Spicy Hunan Goodness
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?