Transformation is a central idea in every essay. The English teachers arrive in China with certain preconceptions and long-held assumptions about Chinese people and Chinese culture. Upon their arrival, however, these beliefs are challenged and tested. Is the economic system of Communism in China as evil as Americans believe? Are Chinese cultural traditions the charming and unmitigated treasure that we have presumed or do some of the traditions actually bind the Chinese to archaic and perhaps destructive customs? Is the American view we have accepted on romantic feelings and attraction unrealistic and overemphasized, as the Chinese think? These and other questions are wrestled over by the writers, who often find their lifelong beliefs changing as they encounter Chinese culture first-hand.
These teachers went to China expecting to teach their students English, but they often found that their students actually taught them more about life and Chinese culture than they taught their students. The teachers learn humility as they discover how much they do not know. One teacher relates how she was termed a “foreign expert” when she arrived in China, but quickly realized that she was in actuality just one of many foreigners who “see only the surface of this culture and who often do not dig beneath.” (100) As she begins to discern deeper layers of the Chinese culture through her students, this teacher says that she is able to “stand back from my own culture and identify some of our locked in attitudes. …Nothing in China is as clean and simple as it looks from the Western perspective only.” (101) She realizes that everything she thought was black and white previously is actually not as clear-cut as she believed. And by learning the humility that comes with this realization, these teachers are transformed into people who are more understanding, more loving, more gracious, more accepting of others, and more open to ideas and cultures different from their own.
Some of the cultural differences between China and the West are shocking and funny. In some parts of China, keeping a coffin in your living room or answering the door in your underwear is no big deal. Privacy in bathroom stalls is apparently overrated. A Chinese son is given a female name to save the honor of his grandmother, who had the names of her future grandchildren carved on her tombstone before they were born. Other differences are sobering and perhaps tragic. The pressure of China’s make-or-break examination system contributes to a high suicide rate among Chinese youth. Chinese culture dictates that one should not demonstrate open expressions of emotion, leading to difficulty empathizing with others and criticism in place of affection. Chinese education emphasizes lecturing students rather than engaging them, making students afraid to speak up and voice their own thoughts. They are taught what the approved opinion is and expected to follow it.
But there are many cultural norms in China from which those of us in the West could stand to take a lesson. Family values are much more deep-rooted in China. Family is one of the foundations of society, and children live in light of that, respecting and caring for their parents throughout their life. Courtesy to others is ingrained in the Chinese from a young age. Marriage is about finding a spouse of good character, not about finding someone handsome to whom you feel attracted. Chinese culture is rooted in traditional values, and the Western teachers found themselves drawn to it in a way none of them had expected.
Through the writers, we learn about ordinary Chinese people – students, farmers, grandmothers, etc. We learn about how easily they open and share their homes with these foreign teachers. Hospitality is second nature for them. The Chinese see it as their duty to take care of others; love and responsibility are intertwined. They exhibit this through making noodles for someone who is sick, escorting foreigners around cities and on errands, reminding friends to wear warm clothes in the winter, and a myriad of other ways. They are very service-oriented and want to do everything they can to make others feel comfortable.
In one story, a Westerner wanders away from her Chinese tour group and gets lost, forcing the whole group to wait for her. When she returns, one of the Chinese women hugs her and puts ointment on her mosquito bites, showing genuine care rather than the annoyance the writer had expected. The Chinese strive to look after foreign guests through the posting of English signs, warning English-speakers about slippery surfaces and other such dangers. Chinese people do not often vocalize their love for each other, but their love is apparent in other ways, most noticeably in their actions.
“Things that are Easy to Get”
Although Christianity in China is not a central focus of the book, it is touched on briefly in some of the essays. We are especially struck by a conversation one of the teachers relates where a Chinese friend asks about the passion of Christians in America. When the teacher answers that American Christians are not necessarily zealous, the friend replies, “Ah, things that are easy to get are easy to lose.” (13) We feel the truth of that statement in many ways as we read through these essays. As Westerners, much of our preconceptions about other cultures have come to us easily, passed on almost unconsciously through the comments of others, things we see on the television, or beliefs of our friends and family that we simply adopted as our own without much thought. But these beliefs that were taken up so easily are also quickly discarded as a person encounters true Chinese culture, as these teachers did. They cannot continue to believe everything they once did about China when they see the reality of it firsthand. As we read through their essays and see China through their eyes, we may also find that many of our previously-held assumptions will not stand up under scrutiny.