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Tasting Glimpses of China
By Terry Hsieh January 17, 2007

As a teenager of Chinese descent, living in America has always been a good experience. Since we live in America, a country that is constantly changing its cultural and societal makeup, it has been always up to the individual to forge his own identity. That means, as an American, the individual doesn't have to follow any specific cultural stereotypes or traditions common to all other cultures. To prove my point, I once asked my father why we didn't speak much Chinese at home. His reply was that we didn't need to- he'd come to America because he wanted to follow his own ideals, not Asian ones. Since then I had always felt this way about being Asian living in America.

It's something unique in the way it makes me feel unique. Something that made me feel like an individual in a sea of other people.

Wait, we do have our stereotypes, don't get me wrong. We have to get A's in school, play classical piano and violin, excel in mathematics and sciences and grow up to be doctors and real-estate managers. I've lived with these racial stereotypes since a very young age. For a while, I did play classical piano, surged ahead in math and didn't get all but certainly lots of A's in my school.

But look at me today.

I mean, it's great and all that, but I study languages and humanities now, not math. And in my honest opinion jazz is far more superior in diversity of style and soul. That's one thing I really felt that we Asians lack a lot: soul. I had the idea that a lot of first generation Asian Americans tend to "de-soul" themselves, that is, grab their souls by the ears, stuff them in a trunk and stow it away in the back of their closets while they wait passively in aggravating sitting positions for their parents to finish eating dinner. And they always speak politely, in the "ultra-polite" declensions of their language, answering only when called on. Call it a generalization if you want, but it was my honest opinion that Asians had no souls.

So you would probably be surprised to hear that some of the most soulful experiences I ever had in high school happened this summer, when I took a trip to China with a study program called Glimpses of China. In Shanghai, simply put, I learned what all that "lack of soul" meant.

One of the first things that stands out in my mind when I think about my experience in China are the people I met. Not only did they help me understand more about my culture, but also we shared so many memories together that it is hard to forget them. Zou Ben, an economics graduate of Peking University, my teaching assistant and mandarin tutor was one of the closest friends I had during my stay in Shanghai. We spent many hours walking along the booming streets of Shanghai discussing the differences and similarities between Chinese and American economies. I felt like we were two diplomats, each representing our respective countries, holding educated discourse over our differences in the shadow of one of the greatest cities of the world.

I felt like there was something monumental about what we were doing: an American and a Chinese face-to-face, talking about who we were, without the politics or the policies.

The truth is, that China is a rapidly developing nation, there's no doubt about it: the skyscrapers of today's Shanghai indicate a difference from the death and starvation of the Cultural Revolution, which dwindled China's population no more than seventy years ago in conjunction with the gazillion other years of hardship Chinese people faced. In fact, the Cultural Revolution and The Great Leap Forward were directly aimed at successful Shanghainese people.

However, today's Shanghai certainly didn't show any sign of mass famine, although poverty is still a problem in many other parts of China, proving in my mind, that hard times make people work even harder. Shanghai's streets buzzed with activity and commerce, undistinguishable from the streets of New York had all the signs been in English. It was undeniably a shopper's dream come true. I remember my first day in Shanghai, staring out from the windows of the small bus to see the monolithic skyscrapers sprouting out of the ground all around me. I remember feeling dizzy at the sight of each colossus, aiming upwards into the sky, a monument of industrial might, as if it were paying homage to an older, sadder era. Zou Ben told me that in China, provinces are divided so that each one is dependent on all the others for something else. In this way, the massive country of China is held together not by forced regulation, but by economic need. It reminded me that China is no longer the communist, totalitarian state that it once was, and that being Chinese no longer has anything to do with being the brown-shirted, red-book-waving, capitalist-shooting, fanatical communist that dominated the political age of the forties through the seventies.

I guess, now that I understand my history a little better and I realize the kind of changes and hardships the Chinese, and Asians in general, have gone through, I can give them a break on being "soul-less". It's about survival. All those years of famine and starvation taught them about staying ahead of the game through success- get those A's, be a successful pianist so you can play at Carnegie Hall and by all means, be a doctor. If being in China has taught me anything it's about pushing ahead. Like I said earlier, hard times make people work harder. In a country where 6 million people apply to one college annually, you've got to push a little harder and run a little faster to get ahead of the race. And if you have to kick a few people out the way… well, that's the mentality of the Chinese.

I haven't changed my tastes in music, food and certainly haven't changed my choices of college because of this trip, but seeing China in all its splendor and filth allowed me to understand some of the logic behind what appeared to be "soullessness".

It's not about showing.

It's about surviving.

I can't say that I agree with it, but then again, I've never pushed through a crowd of 6 million people to get my college essays in.

Copyright © 2007 by Terry Hsieh

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