Although I spent a lot of time with the other foreign teachers when I first arrived, I have since been working hard to build relationships with Chinese teachers at the school. After all, that is why I am here.
Two younger Chinese English teachers at the high school were kind enough to take me to dinner. Rather than help me explore some foreign dish or traditional fare, they wished to give me what they thought would be a taste of home: Pizza Hut.
Keep in mind that this was not your typical Pizza Hut! It was serious fine dining mixed with what you’d expect: rack of lamb next to a personal pan pizza. It was a strange hybrid of East and West. We used forks and not chopsticks, yet still we all shared every plate of food in the middle of the table. There was a salad bar, but each table would only order one turn at the salad bar and send up the best engineer to cram as much as possible into one bowl for everyone to share. People actually stack cucumber slices 20 high around the edge of the bowl to increase the volume, and then fill it with yogurt and fruit! It is the strangest thing I have seen here; a perfect example of two cultures blending together into something neither of us can recognize.
The meal was very expensive, about $17 US per person, almost $50 US for the entire meal– enough money to feed a modest family for weeks. Yet, they were eager to pay and insisted I do not contribute. Part hospitality, part pride; the burgeoning middle class in
Our discussion only casually addressed politics, however when I commented on the general wealth of the community, one of the teachers answered excitedly: “We can have anything we want; there is a lot of freedom for us here.” She gave a big smile, and then poured some more ketchup on her pizza, another Chinese habit that surprised me at first.
As an American History teacher, what she said really caught my interest. To describe freedom as the ability to “have” something is a little different from how I would view it. But, I did not press on with questions about her statement and kept the mood casual as we finished the fantastic meal.
One week later I was sitting on a cushy sofa, 8 stories above the street in the new apartment home of a bright young couple. Every fixture in the house was new, the fridge full of good food, and the furniture very comfortable. It is clear that the lifestyle of many people in
My hosts that evening were two teachers from the school. We enjoyed a magnificent dinner made of five savory dishes. The Chinese English teacher who had invited me spent much of her night translating the ideas, questions and comments of her boyfriend. The boyfriend, aside from being one heck of a cook, has been teaching at the high school since he graduated from the university. He has a round face and wears square glasses, has a serious passion for history, and smiles at controversy with the curious enthusiasm of a scholar.
We spoke freely about world history, both of us energized at the opportunity to chat privately with someone from the “other side” who shares a common interest. He was surprised that some Americans describe
While we did not see eye-to-eye on everything, we were able to speak easily about it all; from the
In a moment of transition between subjects, I expressed that it seems the American media’s portrayal of everyday life in
This time he himself answered in English without help. “Yes, we have freedom to do what we want, but of course we must also follow the law.” On the surface, this statement can also be said about living in
A friend here recently lent me a book: Reviews of Selected Chinese Classics, published by China Reconstructs Press in 1988. The book is a sort of cliff notes addition of multiple classics from Chinese literature, and a first edition in English.
The afternoon before I wrote this entry I read the first selection, a 14th Century novel entitled The Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. The plot of the book has three kingdoms in a 3rd century conflict over who will unite and control all of
This story, and for that matter what I witnessed at Pizza Hut, puzzles me – but I am certain it helps to explain how Chinese traditional culture approaches the concept of freedom.
The Chinese desire the freedom to enjoy life and condemn tyranny just as we do. Yet, the traditional story views loyalty to a government as a higher virtue than loyalty to a conviction. On the one hand, this view is very pragmatic; after all, your convictions will probably not put food on the table, but stability and a good government can. Yet, as an American, my instinct is to be weary of government and prize my principles ahead of any leader. What at first puzzled me now feels more familiar, and similar to a classical debate about the nature of man and his relationship with government.
From an American perspective, and in a very fundamental way, our concept of freedom is imbued to value independent thinking. At least that is the ideal.
I am growing to believe that the Chinese approach to freedom is far more pragmatic. It values the opportunities created by the stability that loyalty to a government can achieve.
In other words, in
So, with this mindset, the best indicator that you have freedom is your ability to have things because it demonstrates that the system is working. And, to be frank, it appears to be working in Jinhua even if it is different from my perspective.
Now, I am not writing this to forsake my own American world view, and also please know that most Chinese people I have spoken with are far more complicated than the simplified extreme of the novel The Three Kingdoms or my black-and-white analysis.
So please, do not take me too seriously; I do not. Instead, I only offer this reflection in hopes of sparking conversation about a subject so central to our own identity as Americans.What is freedom? Is it more closely related to the ability to act as an individual or survive within a group? Is it best demonstrated by the ability to have what you want, or do what you want?