Jing Tian

Though some experts say that it is impossible to learn a culture thoroughly without learning its language, a lot of people prefer to learn about the culture first and then decide whether they want to learn the language or not. And some people just want to know about the culture and have no interest in the language. To meet this need, the Confucius Institute offered courses in English like Chinese Culture and Customs and Chinese Film Appreciation.

I’ve been teaching the Chinese Culture and Customs course for four semesters at the University of Idaho. I loved it. This is an introductory course to Chinese culture. We talked about the Chinese history, philosophies, geography, food, education, economy and medical services. The course is a time for me to communicate with my students, discussing our experiences in different cultures and the impacts of cultures on us. Here I quote two of my students of their final paper for this term to show how they understand the Chinese culture and the differences between the Chinese culture and the American culture.

“While US culture is emphasized, showcased and taught around the world, Chinese culture has been developing for so much longer.  Chinese culture has gone through thousands of years of different dynasties with different rulers.  Yet amazingly the Chinese people, despite all the regional differences, still have uniting societal wants and needs from clear back to the Xia dynasty.  In the US our culture is only a few hundred years and has less uniting aspects of culture.  Even so, a few similarities can be made between US and Chinese culture.

Starting with education, in both countries in order to be successful, it is expected children make it into college.  Income and prestige are tied to how well a student succeeds in school. The pathways parents take to get their children there is different between countries. Partly because of the one child policy and because of the academic emphasis parents have. In China children have very stringent school rules and study times.  The tests for college acceptance is hours long and several books worth of knowledge, and it is the only thing that determines your fate for college.  Many students repeat senior year for another chance to pass the senior test with good test score.  In the US, college is important, but the pathways to get to that end goal is varied and there is less pressure for students.  Like in China, we still have the academic merit, but we have the choice among SAT, ACT and it is factored in along with our grades.   Even if a student does poorly on tests and grades, volunteer work and family experience can get a student into a community college.  The biggest difference is many parents have an emphasis on sports.  In the United States the best scholarships a student can get is through sports ability, not academic ability. Most universities will give full ride scholarships and fill most main sports positions. Within the school curriculum there are some major differences I noticed in how schooling has evolved over time.

The United States has had a long and tumultuous battle with how schools should operate with religion.  School in the US was originally created by Quakers and the only things taught in school were writing and reading through a biblical lens.  Eventually the first amendment was made to the US constitution stating “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Or as we call it, separation of church and state.  Modern day, there are still conflicts with school and communities on what can and can’t be added to curriculum based on religious beliefs.  In China, even though there are multiple “religions” they seem to work harmoniously together and complement student education rather well. Daoism emphasizes concentration on oneself, especially in terms of balancing the yin and yang.  Buddhism emphasizes getting rid of desires so you don’t suffer.  Confucius teaching help navigate your life in the world.  Chinese students really draw from these “religions” and I think it makes them feel connected as a community, more introspective, more selfless and very humble.  There are no wars fought over religions, and these teachings transfer from both the home, to the classroom, to the community rather effortlessly. That isn’t to say that the United States has nothing uniting its communities.  Like China, we too have very big celebrations that require school time off.

Overall the Chinese and United States culture have an increasing amount of similarities as time goes on.  But in comparison, China has been around thousands of years.  The education, holidays, and religions are engrained to Chinese society.  The United States has a continued influx of people from many countries and tries to separate religion from education.  As business and education becomes interdisciplinary between the two countries, I think that we will only compliment and the US will grow to be more akin to China.” (Audrey Martinez)

“….From the beginning of this course the most striking difference between the United States and China, I believe, stems from our historical roots.  The United States defines itself in large part based upon the tenants espoused in our nation’s founding document, the Constitution; however, the way in which we follow these tenants has always been open to a great deal of interpretation.  We are a nation that hinges its identity on the winds of change.  This is in great deal due to the fact that our nation is, compared to much of the rest of the worlds states, relatively young.  Because of this we have not had enough time to truly solidify just what it means to be an American, which in fact may be something that never actually manifests.  The United States has since its inception been a nation build upon the mixing and matching of ideas and identities from those people who have immigrated here from all corners of the globe.  In contrast, China’s rich history spans some 5000 years of history. This unbelievably long and rich history has enabled it to cultivate a national identity represented by a general sense of unity as a people.

To put this into perspective, the Chinese civilization has existed on this planet roughly 20 times longer than the United States.  In that time China has reinvented itself from the ashes time and time again, though without ever letting go of its three major schools of philosophical thought.  These three schools of philosophy, Confucianism, Legalism, & Taoism, while different in their own respects all share within them this common ideal of unity of both body and spirit.  This sense of unity represents a way of thinking quite different from the way most citizens of the United States tend to follow because we are instilled with such a sense of self determination.  We do not, in most respects, base our lives off of any sort of historically based cultural normative ideal. Instead, we tend to either inherit said ideals from our individual family groups or through a type of idea assimilation based upon whatever we happen to find meaningful at the time.  There is nothing that makes us inherently Americans, where as we have learned that there are a number of core traits that are intrinsically shared by the Chinese people.  That is not to say, however, that differences throughout the various regions of China do not help them to stand apart from one another.  It is within these regional differences that I feel the United States and China become more alike than in any other respect.

Much like the various regions of China, the United States is comprised of a number of different regions.  Though unofficial, these regions of the United States offer their own unique pocket cultures that stand as unique aspects of the greater whole of the nation.  As China has the Cantonese, Sichuan, and other regional cultures with their own takes on food and language, the United States is also home to various subcultures of which I myself am an example.  Having grown up in a region known as the Ozarks in southeastern Missouri, I was raised within the Appalachian culture of the South Central United States.  Other examples of regional cultures include the Louisiana Creoles, New Englanders, the Deep South, etc.  Each group, like those found in China, have their own individual characteristics which set them apart in at least some small ways from the greater populace in general.” (Clinton Johnson)

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