I was born in the middle of the United States — St. Louis, Missouri — but I never really lived there. Within a few weeks of my birth, my dad’s parents whisked me away to his hometown of Beijing, China, where I lived for about two years. I don’t remember any of my time there, except for what’s been saved in photos or videos. My sister was born two years after I was. By then, my parents were living in New Jersey, and we were swapped out: I “came back” to America, while she took off with my mom’s parents. I didn’t see her again until she was 4.
In the decades that have passed since I came back “home,” I’ve been to China too many times to count — oftentimes for months at a time during the summer, wherein my Chinese would improve and I’d begin to see my place as a second-generation immigrant sharpen into focus. Then I’d leave, and arrive once again on foreign soil.
When you spend so much time in your home that’s not your home, you see it move at a different pace. As someone who’s traveled back and forth between the two countries all of her life, here’s what I’ve noticed Americans get wrong about what’s happening in China:
1. On the day-to-day level, people aren’t really engaging with Communism as anything but lofty ideology.
Most Chinese people see communism simply as just “how it is,” the aftereffect of bitter policies that relentlessly but surreptitiously control information and the flow of money. At least among my relatives, Communism is in its swollen middle age; gone is any trace of revolutionary fervor. While they don’t challenge its ideology, they’re now at a place where they can almost joke about it…to a point. Jokes about government corruption: Okay. Mocking a picture of Mao Zedong in a public place: No.
2. When you’re visiting factories in Shenzhen or observing one of the neighborhoods uprooted in the wake of 2008 Summer Olympics construction, you notice that China’s alleged economic “boom” is coming with a domestic price.
As China has emerged as a major player in economics and politics, people have whispered fearfully of a new Red Scare, one where MADE IN CHINA is a deep threat, specifically to American business. But there’s less talk about the internal backlash happening in China itself, and the turmoil its rapid industrialization has caused upon its 1.3 billion plus population. For starters, the new industrial economy is a dangerous labor market, and often preys upon the naivety and desperation of the poorest classes of workers. And while China as a country might be poised to “make” $40 trillion by 2018, like any nation with growing pains, its wealth isn’t growing proportionally. Income inequality is becoming more and more of a public issue.
The government has also been criticized for tearing down huge swaths of older infrastructure, including historic neighborhoods, in place of new business. This has led to the displacement of many families. I remember the day my family rode in a taxi through a street of glittering strip malls. My father looked through his window and murmured, “These used to be homes.”
3. Traditional Chinese practices and customs might seem “primitive” to visitors, but they actually come with a far more complicated history.
So many visitors quickly and simplistically categorize Eastern practices as “unsophisticated” or practices of “the uneducated”. But several Chinese customs are far more advanced than people think. For example, though “Eastern medicine” is often given less credibility in the west, it’s far more complex than random incantations or the drinking of random herbs. Chinese people consider it a serious practice with rules and standards. A “quick” primer on Eastern medicine will take you hours to fully comprehend, and spans everything from internal energy flows to natural cures and salves for every sort of ailment. Lately, Eastern medicine has also started attracting the attention of Western pharmacological companies.
And, though squatting toilets may seem strange for a Western visitor, they are arguably more effective than the common Western sitting toilet. Some have argued that squat toilets are better for our human physiology, and one study that employed x-rays to track, err, “food movement” through the body noted that “the squatting position led to less abdominal pressure and strain.”
And a note on dog eating, one of the pejoratives hurled at me and my Asian American friends the most: The practice is limited to certain regions and socioeconomic stratums of China. There are plenty of Chinese activists working on ending the practice; and of course, American meat production has its own considerable animal and human tolls.
4. Not all Chinese people look the same. Like the United States, the country comes with far more ethnic diversity than many believe.
Comedian Jenny Yang has a bit where, while trying to rent a pair of ski goggles, she’s told she has a “chink face.” Westerners often imagine Chinese people with light “yellow” to snow white skin, black hair, flat faces, slanted eyes. But what’s singled out in Western culture is the ideal in China and born of the pre-Communist nobility idealization of people who could escape the sun and thus preserve their delicacy and fine features.
In actuality, it’s not what most Chinese people look like in China itself. From Tibet to Tianjin, Chinese people come in all sorts of colors and ethnicities — after all, China shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, North Korea, Nepal, India, and a slew of other countries. Thousands of years of trade, conquest, and politics in the region means that there’s an incredible diversity of facial shapes and color expressions. Though 91.5% of the mainland Chinese population identifies as Han (majority) Chinese, that still means there’s a whopping 115,093,400 strong ethnic minority population (that figure is splintered between over 56 official ethnic groups), a bit less than a third of the population of the United States.