“Facebook started the wars in the Middle East.”
“ALL boys like watching soccer. ALL girls like shopping.”
“Girls should find men who are handsome, rich and good at cooking.”
These are some snippets of the misled comments I hear in my Chinese classroom everyday. At first, I just blamed my poor Chinese skills and assumed I had misunderstood their sexist or uninformed opinions. Then, I realized that they really do believe these things that would sound wrong to most college students in the US.
Granted, I’m in intermediate-level Mandarin classes, so the teachers must simplify many things to help us understand, but I have found it very interesting how Chinese culture sneaks into the classroom.
What I have learned about Chinese culture while studying Mandarin:
1. Sexism is alive and well in China.
Professionally, women are respected in China much more than you would assume. They hold powerful, leadership positions, study abroad,and are encouraged to work and be moms. Wives and husbands share household chore responsibilities, so they are seemingly equal.
They still have very distinct social roles and assumed characteristics based on their gender in ways that Americans would find sexist. For example, “All boys love working out, watching sports and eating, and all girls want to lose weight, shop, and find husbands.” Personally, I find it a bit insulting to men and women. To paint people so two-dimensionally is very limiting and narrow-minded.
1b. Teachers love to make blanket statements and stereotype
My teachers often say things like: All Americans love McDonalds. (Yup, all 315 million of us like those Big Macs, even your vegan cousin and your Buddhist neighbor…Oh, I forgot: All Americans are Christians…) All Europeans are white, beautiful and tall. All Koreans want to be rich/find rich husbands. ALL (:p) Americans value individuality too much to try to put everybody in a box like that.
2. Jokes that make Americans uncomfortable
My teachers often make jokes about people committing suicide because their boyfriend/girlfriend broke up with them or because they’re only children and they have too much pressure from their parents. Because suicide is more prevalent here (especially among the younger people), people treat the topic much more lightly than Americans would.
If you’re a little overweight in the US, you will be considered VERY overweight in China, and they will make fun of you for it. Complete strangers, teachers and well-meaning friends will let you know if you’re fat, you gained weight, you have pimples, etc. Teachers in class joke about fat people and ugly people in ways that would embarrass and horrify most Americans.
3. MEMORIZE, MEMORIZE, MEMORIZE
Chinese education is built on memorization. It makes sense, really, because in order to be literate, Chinese people must memorize 5,000-10,000 distinct characters. However, the memorization goes beyond characters. They memorize entire responses, essays, formulas, etc. While memorization has its place in education, it annoys most of my European and American friends because of the blantant lack of critical thinking encouraged or even allowed.
For example, we read a dialogue in class. Then, our teacher asks me a question about the dialogue. From my memory, I put the dialogue into my own (Mandarin) words and respond and answer the question. The teacher tells me I’m wrong and tells me to read the sentence straight out of the book. So, I read someone else’s words like a robot with no mind of my own. My teacher tells me I’m right and continues the class.
Disclaimer: I have learned a lot in my classes, and like most of my teachers. Most of them are vey invested in the students and are passionate about teaching Chinese. However, there are always surprising comments or techniques.