I was on a train from Shandong Province to Beijing when a little boy of about 8 or 9 approached at the behest of his mother.  “Go talk to the foreigner.  Ask how old he is,” she said to him.  The boy buried his head in her lap in bashful protest, but finally summoned the energy.  “Uncle,” he said, “how old are you?”  I told him that I was twenty-two and he retreated to his seat grinning from ear to ear, probably not even paying attention to my answer but satisfied with himself for asking me in the first place.

It was a simple gesture for the boy and his family, perhaps more for the benefit of them than it was for me, but still, it made my day.  It wasn’t that the boy talked to me in the first place, but that he referred to me as his uncle.  In China, you address strangers with titles of family members.  A man that is perhaps the same age as your father is uncle, and a woman is auntie.  Elderly people are grandmother and grandfather, and people of the same age are brother and sister.  I find these monikers to indicative of China’s communal society, in which the well being of any individual depends on the well being of an entire community.  In a sense the Chinese live the motto of the Three Musketeers, all for one, and one for all.

You see it in the way Chinese girls curl up with one another on trains to catch a quick nap, and in the way they often walk hand in hand, protecting each other, as if they are stronger if they walk as one.  You see it in when Chinese men go to take out a cigarette and they always take out two, one for them and one for their friend.  You see it in the way bicyclists hold onto the shoulders of their friends riding mopeds so they don’t have to pedal, and in the way that two people always carry a heavy load together.

You see it in the way a Chinese person will travel around a city for an entire day with a foreign friend, taking them to restaurants, arranging train tickets, haggling for the right price.  You see it in the way they always walk you to the door, in the way they say “Man zou,” walk slowly, be safe, when parting.  In the way they always ask, “Leng bu leng,” or “Rib u ri,” are you too cold, are you too warm? In the way they always ask if you have eaten when greeting them.  In the way they show their pride for their nation, their province, their village, their family.  In the way they always refill everyone’s cup of tea at the table before they fill their own.  In the way they repeatedly tell their dinner guests to eat more, try this, try that.  In the way they always go home for Spring Festival every year, no matter where they are.

Americans pride themselves in being deeply individualistic.  The American Dream is the self-made man, a rags to riches story that involves no leg ups on the competition. But in China it is important to know that you have the backing and support of your family, your village, your nation, and most people in China become successful because of relationships or guanxi that they have.  For example, if you have an uncle who works in the government and you want to become a politician, your uncle will most likely be the best bet for getting a job.  In America we might regard this as somewhat corrupt, but throughout my time here I have felt a certain sense of warmth and comfort in the people I can now call my friends, and I know that if I ever need anything they will always go the extra mile for me.

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