The Terms of Exchange: A Reflection Upon My Visit to a Chinese University

February 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

In December 2012, I traveled to China for 10 days as part of the Center for American Culture, a State Department program that sets up mirrors between Chinese and American universities.  I briefly toured Beijing and Shanghai, and visited and gave a talk at a university in southeastern mainland China.  When asked to write a report on this trip, that report came out in the form of an essay.  This is the essay, a little rough around the edges, but my attempt to capture my experience of this exercise in cultural exchange.

* * *

“Are you saying that in America women and men are still not equal?” the student asked incredulously.  “Well, yes. What about in China?  Are women and men equal?”  “In jobs we are, yes.”  Others piped up cautiously, suggesting that maybe there was not perfect equality in the negotiation of career and family.  “But maybe women in America want too much,” one woman suggested.  “Perhaps,” I responded, “but isn’t it our job as a society to continue to reevaluate the relationship between our ideals and our opportunities?”  I reiterated the central argument of my talk, “American Career Girl: Jobs, Romance, and Family” that the gains of feminism from the last fifty years did not mean that there were no more battles to be fought.  Rather, Americans today continue to engage in an ongoing debate about the terms of equality.  The host professor then rose to provide her own assessment of the conversation.  With a curious twinkle her eye she intoned, “As you can see, America is not a perfect utopia” and yet, she implied, in many places the revolution is not quite finished.

I hoped that my audience had gained some appreciation of the complexities that women face in contemporary America.  My talk connected American women’s history with analysis of popular culture today.  After providing a quick historical overview of the expanding field of women’s employment across the twentieth century and the watersheds of Second Wave Feminism, I used the characters in the HBO series Sex and the City to explore the dilemmas that young women continue to face around the expression of their sexuality, work-life balance, the ideals and realities of domesticity and motherhood, and the ongoing search for and revaluation of the ideal partner.  I concluded by suggesting that the struggles of feminism would never be over, but that each successive generation needed to revisit these questions anew: in many places, the revolution is not quite finished.

As I suspected, the question of gender equality, like the question of social equality or even terms of citizenship and capacity for dissent, were far from resolved for modern Chinese.  One of our guides observed privately to me that there continued to be major obstacles to gender equality in government.  But I quickly discovered that the terms according to which Chinese men and women evaluated their society differed in subtle but significant ways for the terms in which I framed my questions. For the graduate students at Guizhou University who showed us around the beautiful countryside, let us shadow their lives as students, and shared their dreams and passions, education was the key to their visions of personal and professional fulfillment and social mobility.  Mobility more so than equality seemed to be the central theme of many conversations.  I learned about the thousands of Chinese men and women, the “immigrant” masses who left their natal provinces seeking jobs and education in China’s burgeoning cities.  Physical mobility to achieve the dream of social mobility.

One of our interlocutors described the advice given by her parents—themselves the children of property owners who became twin outcasts in the wake of the Chinese Revolution—to “cherish this life” and its range of opportunities.  In America, partisan politics has frequently played on fears of a rising Chinese threat to America, representing Chinese students as heartless automatons coming for American jobs. The profound lack of empathy—indeed, the jingoism behind these representations astounds me.  As Americans today face real, even insurmountable obstacles to our own dreams of mobility we must be careful not to dismiss the diverse and complex human strivings and histories that shape the growth of our industrial “rival.”  But I also found myself wondering about the degree to which the recognition of a legitimate shared human striving is enough of an end in itself, to what degree it can stand up to the growing intensity of this global political and economic rivalry.

In Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that the positivist stance of cultural relativism is not a real strategy for negotiating our global world.  Rather, we must resist the frameworks of us and them, reject the “clash of cultures” model and engage in dialogues that strive for recognitions of similarity and difference.  “Depending on the circumstances, conversations across boundaries can be delightful, or just vexing: what they mainly are, though, is inevitable.”[1]  To confront this new global modernity we must engage.

American news media fixates upon the rampant corruption in Chinese bureaucracy.  Today I read about evidence of China’s use of technological warfare targeting America’s power grid. Missing from this media coverage is any real sense of how the textures of people lives and their dreams relate to the transformations of the Chinese state.  These were questions I could not ask my hosts.  The silences within our conversations were deep and wide.

But surely the questions they ask of us form a close mirror.  When I spoke in my talk about contemporary political struggles over the question of social family policies like paid maternity leave or explained how women had used the court system to test the terms of the civil rights legislation, a palpable ripple of discomfort crossed the room.  What did they know about our political institutions?  What did I truly know of theirs?  One of our guides told us about her determination to join the Party.  We were surprised.  This is the only vehicle to change, she explained.  Our other guide seemed less sure.  She wanted to engage with the wider academic world, she looked outward.

But this binary of looking inward and outward fails to capture the complexity of cultures and forces shaping the lives and dreams of young women and men in modern China.  During my time in Guizhou, I was confronted with a recognition that the key mediator of cultural exchange, and perhaps the most lasting, is neither the state nor the school, and even continues to defy China’s widespread state censorship.  In 2013, cultural exchange is principally mediated by a global mass culture.  Consider our (truly delightful) visit to a local primary school, where students held a birthday party to illustrate their most recent English language lesson.  They paid tribute to us as honored guests, feeding us a dizzying array of local delicacies before serenading us with karaoke to Pink Floyd and Lenka songs.  Everyone was taking pictures of everyone, unabashedly, intensely, as if the gaze could both distill and dispel difference.  It took very little prodding before my companions and I joined them in a rousing group rendition of “Gangnam Style.”  We all knew the dance and the words even though we could barely talk to each other.  The hour we spent with this class felt intensely intimate and completely superficial.  I was left wondering whether engaging through a global hit song softens the hard angles of cultural and political difference or creates a neutral shared space within which we can recognize our shared dreams.


[1] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2007), xxi.

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§ One Response to The Terms of Exchange: A Reflection Upon My Visit to a Chinese University

  • catharina schimert says:

    Hi sweetheart… WOW, Written as by a true ‘Cultural Diplomat’. The part about ‘palpable ripples of unease’, Pink Floyd, and – I can’t believe it – Gangnam Style!! That must have been a riot…

    And i really learned something about the prejudicial ways in which politicians and the media characterize our ‘rival’.

    Love it! XOX, Mom

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