As I was applying to study abroad in China, I had a professor tell me something I will never forget: "When I studied in Spain, I didn't so much learn about how Spanish people live as I learned how American I was." At the time I did not think much of it- I know I'm American. I'm a white, Christian, middle-class male, a runner and a drummer. I love being a part of what I have always been told is the most powerful nation on earth. I also happen to be interested in languages and particularly in non-western languages like Chinese. Naturally I knew that culture and language go hand and hand, so I was eager to explore the depths of this relationship, even electing to live with a host family.
It's been several weeks now that I've lived in China, learning the language and culture from my family and teachers and I've been thinking about that lesson a lot. I never realized that in order to understand how something is different (like a culture), one must first understand the one side of the equation. Instead of noting that Chinese are crazy drivers who pay no heed to the lines on the road, I've begun to examine why my American self is so appalled by this behavior- why do I, as an American, see the Chinese style of driving as reckless and crazy? Is there something hardwired in me that says that lines in the road are meant to be stayed between and turn signals used? Along those same lines, I've also had to reconcile who I am as an intellectual being. As an American, I attend a prestigious university, and express myself very well in English- that description doesn't work in China. I'm now the outsider who can't speak the language beyond expressing yes or no and who my family members are. I've had to look at myself and see the lumbering ignoramus that the outside world sees.
That reflection has driven me to think before I judge. I am an American and I will have certain opposing ideas about how the world should run, but these are not necessarily the best ideas for every situation. In the eyes of the Chinese people around me, I know nothing about how they live and their values. My goal is to change that perception ever closer to the Chinese way of seeing the world in the coming weeks.