By Amy Young
I had no idea how American I was until I moved to China. Sure, I had been out of the U.S. on multiple trips before, both service trips and to visit friends living in other countries. I had earned a Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Second Language and valued the differences in the cultures I had been exposed to via my students. Yet I had no idea America was so deeply in me until I was no longer deeply rooted in her.
Another young American teacher was assigned with me to teach English to adults from the rural Sichuan province in a two-year training program. We came armed with menus from American restaurants, holiday decorations, and a sense of adventure. This was pre-Internet days, so all we knew was that Sichuan was a tea culture, had spicy food, and was famous for pandas.
The school provided us housing, which included three hotel rooms with one balcony converted into a narrow kitchen. We had arrived late at night and after a warning, “Please mind the rats,” had fallen into our respective beds. The following morning a school official took us on a walking tour of the neighborhood. Outside of the school’s back gate was a vibrant open-air market where food was bought from individual vendors by the weight.
Recently butchered hunks and sides of meat hung on hooks with smaller pieces placed on metal trays. Of course I had heard of eels, but I’d never seen one—let alone buckets and buckets of them wiggling in water. Once purchased, they were flung onto a bloody board with a single nail and sliced open.
It was exciting to know this was where we would buy our food. Where later we would get our very own egg lady or apple man and over time foster relationships with vendors and move from foreigners being charged a higher price to loyal customers, treated as insiders. But on that first day what I remember were the flies all over the meat. The vendors would lackadaisically wave a hand in the general direction of the flies.
It seemed we were the only two people who were very concerned with the lack of proper meat handling. This was the mid-1990s, not the dark ages. The spread of disease was no mystery; shouldn’t more attention be given to the flies? Though we came to learn that the Chinese do value food safety, we did not buy meat for three months.
Safe or Confined?
Another cultural difference we experienced involved walls. All property in that area of China—such as schools, parks, or apartment complexes—is walled with front, back, and side gates. Most gates have a gatekeeper/guard who watches the comings and goings. In certain cases, like an elementary school, you might need to show your ID to pass through the gate.
To show politeness in China, you can state the obvious. “You have been out” or “You bought apples.” But to be asked where I was going every time I went out got a bit wearying. I had not learned it was equally acceptable to simply reply, “Out.” I also wasn’t sure how to respond to the constant comments on how fast I walked. I wasn’t walking fast . . . for an American.
One day, standing inside the front gate of our college chatting with a group of students, we started talking about the walls and the embedded broken glass at the top to discourage people from entering our campus. “Don’t the walls make you feel safe?” a student asked. My jaw nearly dropped and thankfully I had the momentary insight to choose my words carefully. I realized then that culture is woven into everything. As an American, no, I did not feel safer because of the walls, I felt more constrained and monitored. When I shared how I felt in a polite and understated way, the students looked at me with the same, “You have got to be kidding” look I had given them.
Occasionally my Americanness could not be squashed down. Blood donation is still viewed with a bit of suspicion and taboo, so to encourage it, students were given a week off from class if they would donate a pint. An entire week? What nonsense was this? I say, take an hour or two to donate and then get yourself back to class. I did not earn nicest-teacher-of-the-year points when I made a student return to the dorm and bring back those students who were lounging on their beds, recovering from donating several days before.
Respect or Love?
I think about these things I learned about being an American especially during political seasons like the one we are in. These times can be a bit like picking low-hanging fruit—it is easy to be cynical and see all that is wrong with our country. It is true that we have serious problems facing us; but if all we focus on are the problems, chances are all we will see are our shortcomings instead of our strengths.
I lived in China during Bill Clinton’s affair and impeachment, the election of 2000 when Florida’s votes were decided by the Supreme Court, the attack of 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the election and reelection of Barack Obama. During those years I experienced parts of Chinese culture that were unfamiliar to me as an American. In general, Chinese people are deeply loyal to, proud of, and in love with their country and history. If you study Chinese history, you know it is no less messy than our own. What would it be like to live in a country where the shared narrative was one of pride and love, even in light of the wrongs done?
In China when there is a semester break, teachers spread all over Asia would gather in Thailand for meetings and trainings. One of the highlights for me was seeing movies in a theater in English. Oh the joy! Before the previews started, everyone in the theater stood listening to their national anthem and watching a video about their king. The movie changed each year, but the sense of love in that room for the king was unlike anything I had experienced as an American. Sure, we stand for our own national anthem and people generally respect the office of the president. But respect and love are not quite the same. What would it be like to live in a country where the shared narrative of our leader was both respect and love?
Amazing or Doomed?
One challenging part of American culture I’ve experienced as I have moved back from China is our dichotomist tendencies. We tend to be this or that in our thinking. Either everything is amazing about this country or we are all doomed. As Christians, we can do better. We come from a heritage of both/and: The kingdom of God is already here because Christ is active in our presence. Yet the kingdom of God is also not fully here because we face broken systems, broken relationships, and even brokenness within our own bodies. We can view our country with both its positives and negatives, seeing the need for change but having hope that we can help change it.
In The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis, he wrote, “Be sure it is not for nothing that the Landlord has knit our hearts so closely to time and place—to one friend rather than another and one shire more than all the land.” Just as Lewis expressed, I am tied to my land—living abroad has led me to make peace with my Americanness. I love our public libraries—I love how easy it is to get information. And I love our culture of volunteerism—I cannot think of one person I know who does not volunteer in some way. The ways we can serve our communities and be a voice for the disenfranchised is not only American, but as Americans we express it in a unique way.
The prophets reminded the people again and again of the true heart of God. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). In this season when we are weighing serious issues for our country and choosing the next leader, be encouraged that this is part of what it means to be an American. It may be a flawed system, but it is our system. So let us act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
Amy Young, author of Looming Transitions, lived in China for nearly 20 years and blogs regularly (messymiddle.com).