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Comparison of the Chinese and American Cultures

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Ambereen Abdul-Alim
ANTH 135: Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
Dr. Xianghong Feng
Written Assignment #2

Comparison of the Chinese and American cultures
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, culture is defined as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” Culture is an aspect all groups of humans have and even though it is an aspect our species shares, the supposed differences make it seem like we are of different species! Culture is something that both connects and separates us. Culture is something distinct enough to create barriers among us, such as: linguistic barriers and behavioral barriers. And this is especially seen between the American and Chinese cultures.

River Town, by Peter Hessler, is a non-fiction novel that depicts Peter’s experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling, China. He was sent to Fuling (a poor town on the banks of the Yangtze River) in 1996 and taught English and American literature for two years at a teachers college. This novel, in reading, seems more of a journal and thus, his writing of China puts the people and his experiences on a more personal level. He describes, with immense detail, his observations of the social, political and cultural issues of China and his experience as a waiguoren (foreigner). At his arrival, the people of the teachers college showered him and his fellow Peace Corps volunteer with many gifts and did everything they could to make them feel comfortable and welcome. However, alternately, whenever Peter would walk outside the campus of the school, the people would stare and gawk at him and yell, “outsider!” and “hello” out of curiosity and their own amusement. This made him dedicate a large part of his day solely to learning Chinese. As he becomes more proficient in Chinese, he develops friendships and connections and begins to feel more accepted. He talks about the troubled history of China: the struggles of land reform, decades of misguided economic policies and especially the damaging effects of the Cultural Revolution. Peter spends a good deal discussing the, then, upcoming project of the Three Gorges Dam, which has an immense, detrimental impact on the people. The project will require millions of villagers to be displaced and will destroy centuries worth of meaningful history. The author gives a very vivid illustration of the beautiful landscape, history and the people he meets. He also portrays the, especially political, perspectives of the Chinese quite well through learning from his students and teachers.

According to Francis Hsu, the two sets of contrasts are: individual-centered versus situation-centered and the prominence of emotions versus the underplay of all matters regarding the heart. He believed Americans are concerned only of themselves and act according to what would be beneficial to them, and that the Chinese acted according to the situation at hand. The Chinese avoid direct confrontation, open criticism and controversial topics to maintain harmony. “In America, he saw the blind, often excessive pursuit of self-reliance and the inherent, permanent instability of human relationships as the root cause of many intractable social ills, including crime, racial discord, and the sale of influence in government. In China, he saw the traditional narrow focus on kinship based relationships had rendered their society unable to effectively counter Western colonialism, widespread poverty and famine, and even the practice of foot binding of women.” (Tong 2001)

One aspect of the book that really interested me was the education system and different cultural differences of how education is looked upon. In the book, the students all had the same thoughts on almost every issue and those opinions would be unwavering. However, “Perhaps by my standards they were politically brainwashed, but compared to the past they were...