Today’s post will be devoted to exploring some of the most common questions I receive about China, and explaining some of the more shocking cultural differences.  I will begin by asserting that China is, literally, on the other side of the world, hence the name of this blog.  Whenever people ask me what China is really like, I always begin by saying this, because I think it’s the easiest way to fully describe the cultural differences between the East and West in as many words.  And not only is it the other side of the world, but it’s been around for about 5,000 years.  (Those people who remember the American bicentennial might be humbled by this thought.)  During that time, what we know as China today has gone through a series of different dynasties and societal paradigms, including very long periods of time in which they were entirely cut-off from the rest of the world, both in ancient and more modern times.  The result is a modern-day China with its own set of cultural norms, unique to the rest of the world, and especially the far West.  This is something westerners must always take into account when thinking about China, and perhaps something that’s a little hard to grasp until you’ve experienced it yourself.  Speaking from experience, I will whole-heartedly acknowledge that once you do, the world will seem far larger than it ever did before, yet at the same time far more exciting and open, waiting for you to live it.

Ok, so,  dogs.  The answer is yes, Chinese people do in fact eat dogs, as well as variety of other animals Americans would never consider as food.  And no, I have never eaten dog meat.  That said, if I’m ever offered dog meat by any of my Chinese friends, it would be a serious faux-pas not to at least give it a try, despite the fact that I’m a self-confessed dog lover.  That’s because dog meat is actually considered a high delicacy, worthy of a distinguished guest and often times one of the highest priced items at a fancy Chinese restaurant.  But let’s be real for a second here.  We’re not talking about the family Labrador.  Historically, dogs have rarely been regarded as companion animals in China, and more often as means of security.  If you go to the country side of China, most dogs you will see resemble wild dingoes most commonly found in Australia, and are usually more like communal stray dogs instead of belonging to one family in particular.  In a lot of other cases families keep small “yapper” dogs specifically for their tendency to announce the arrival of any newcomer into the household, wanted or unwanted. “Security dogs” are often fed table scraps or largely left to fend for themselves.  Dogs are increasingly becoming regarded as companion animals, particularly in affluent urban areas, probably due to more western influence coming into China.

As for what it’s like living in a communist nation…In the United States communism is often associated with totalitarianism and dictatorship.  While historically there may be some truth in this, every day life in modern China is nothing like the Stalin-era Russia.  It is true that China sensors much of the content on the internet, a right granted to them by the WTO, as well as a right practiced by other nations in the world.  You may have heard a lot about this topic lately due to Google’s ongoing negotiations with the People’s Government. On my last visit to China I was saddened to find, for instance, that Wikipedia, which is perhaps the largest amount of human knowledge ever amassed in a single place in the history of the world, was blocked.  I was pleasantly surprised upon my return to find that the block has since been lifted, and one can even read about the student protests at Tienanmen Square in 1989 and the subsequent massacre that occurred (Thought the world-famous photo of “Tank Man” is not available).  This is a huge step towards the opening up of free speech and distribution of information in China, and one that the Chinese government deserves a good pat on the back for.  Due to a set of complex cultural traditions in China we in the West refer to as “face” (as in saving face, loosely translated into ego, or self respect), it is customary for Chinese people to disregard past events that may be embarrassing or bad for reputation.  While information about the massacre at Tienanmen is limited, it still says a lot the Chinese government is now allowing the fact that it did occur to circulate via the internet.

That said, there are still a lot of issues when it comes to censorship in China, not to mention China’s cruddy human rights record.  I’m not going to go into any detail about human rights in China because the internet is flooded with this kind of information, but let it be known that China has a lot of catching up to do on this front, especially when it comes to the population’s less-favored upon people, i.e. the minorities, the criminals, and the poor.

The one thing I’ve noticed about China though is that it’s not a police state.  In fact I would even say that America has China beat on this front.  I see far less cops exerting far less authority over the masses here in China.  Liaocheng University is a school of about 40,000 students, and the only figures of authority that I’ve seen is a handful of cops that hang out at the entrance gates, smoking cigarettes and playing cards all day long.  There isn’t even such a thing as an RA at this school.  If I wanted to I could probably start a meth lab in my apartment and no one would notice.  But of this stems from another set of cultural differences.  While American prides itself on being a very individualistic society, in China it’s always the nail that sticks out the most that gets hammered down first.  This was illustrated by a conversation with my Chinese friend Huang.  Huang is an incredibly intelligent, diligent, and free-thinking individual.  He speaks very good English, and in my opinion would benefit vastly from time spent in a culture where individualistic thinking is more valued than it is in China.  But when I suggested this to him, his response was that he didn’t want to live in America because there he would be in the minority, where as in China he’s a member of the Han majority.

That’s all for today folks, but if anyone is wondering about other aspects of life in China that you think are just too crazy to be true, please drop me a line and I’ll see if I can set the record straight.  Until then, zaijian!