Hannah Nation serves as the blog editor for China Partnership. She is studying Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and works part-time doing international outreach for her local church, Christ the King Presbyterian Cambridge.
Though I have been trying to engage Chinese students for a decade, I still find myself learning about the world from which they come. Recently, I’ve been conducting a number of interviews with students I’m particularly close to. None of these students are professed Christians, though they are all in various stages of spiritual seeking. All are interested in the Bible and the Christian God and have been variously committed to Bible studies while in the United States.
Sometimes in my interviews with these students, their answers are so familiar – the words they speak echo the scores of similar answers I’ve heard over the years. But at other times, their answers are truly surprising, reminding me that what I as an American can learn and study about China, the Chinese worldview, and the experiences of Chinese people will still never fully prepare me for the individuals I face. Everyone’s story is unique, even given the cultural similarities and traits I recognize. Over the next couple of months I plan to share some of the interviews I’ve conducted on this blog.
For this second interview (you can read the first here), I spent time with a married couple I’ll refer to as X and Y. X and Y are some of the sweetest and friendliest people I’ve ever met. When I first met them over hotpot at a friend’s house, X spoke hardly any English; however, he refused to let that stand in the way of his ability to make new friends. Naturally gregarious and socially gifted, X engaged thoughtfully in the table conversation, unafraid of his linguistic limitations. Y is a graduate student at a local university and cares deeply for people and for her country. She is incredibly thoughtful – carefully considering all new information and every different perspective she comes across. Conversation with these two is always engaging, insightful, and delightful.
If you are familiar with young, urban Chinese culture, one thing that stands out immediately about X and Y is their commitment to their marriage. Unlike many of their contemporaries who part ways in order give both people space to pursue their careers unhindered, X gave up his high powered job in Beijing in order to follow Y to the United States for her education. Though they both were in search of life answers they weren’t finding in China, it is clear that prioritizing their marriage was a significant factor in the decision to come together. With such a strong commitment to each other, their spiritual journey has also very much been a united effort. Attending Bible study together, they frequently discuss their thoughts and ideas with one another throughout the week. In short, they are best friends.
How would you describe your childhood?
Y: I grew up in Wuhan, a city in central China. China is so big so that different parts have different characteristics. For example, in my home city I lived by the Yangtze River, the third longest river in the world. So when I was a child, I liked eating fish. The reason I mention this is because when I went to Beijing for my master’s degree, I found that different parts of China have such different tastes and flavors. For example, my husband didn’t like seafood before we met each other. So I think where a person grew up will influence not only their tastes, but their opinions about many things.
X: My childhood was really happy. Really happy. Both of my parents worked for the same construction company. They were coworkers. They worked all over the country, all over China. Wherever there was a construction project, they would go there to work. Before I went to primary school, my parents always brought me with them. Because their work focused on industrial construction, the locations were mostly wild nature. So most of my childhood memories are of playing under the sky on the land. Big open sky, big open land – with all kinds of plants and animals. My parents really got along with each other well. So the atmosphere in my family was really good. All was happiness.
After I went into middle school and high school, I lived with my grandparents because my parents worked in another city. They moved very frequently, so I needed to stay in one city to go to school. So from that time I felt a little lonely. And in high school and university I lived at my school. After I graduated from Chongqing University I returned to Beijing and lived together with my parents.
Y: That made me think about two things. One thing is that my childhood was so different from my husband’s childhood, because I grew up in an urban area, so I’m jealous about his experiences. He had so many chances to be close to nature. I remember that the most I would visit nature was in the city parks during my spring break. So I didn’t have many ideas about rural areas or natural areas. So I’m really really jealous of this.
And another thing is that the family I grew up in was different from my husband’s family, because my family, especially my grandparents’ generation, was very poor and a very typical working family. But I love my family very much because my grandparents’ generation and my parents’ generation really worked hard and they cared about each other greatly. So in my family they were not very rich, but they had very great relationships with each other. They loved each other, cared about each other, and things like that. They worked hard to improve the quality of life for the whole family whoever was in the family. It was a big family. I have a lot of relatives. Whoever was struggling in the family financially and materially, the rest of the family would try their best to help him or her. So in this kind of family, we were not very rich, but I found that I was happy. I was loved by them and feel so warm and grateful to be part of this family. This kind of atmosphere in the family influenced me a lot. I learned a lot about how to care for others and help others and think from others’ perspectives and things like that.
X: My parents really love my wife.
When you were growing up what were you taught to believe in?
X: We were taught to be atheists. We were taught not to believe there are gods in the world.
Y: When I was a child I didn’t think about this question because my grandparents were not well educated, so they had no idea about beliefs. So when I was a child, they just taught me to be nice to people and to be independent and to work hard to afford a better life.
X: Me too.
Y: Before I came here, I never thought about this question.
When you were growing up, how did your parents or teachers teach you to decide if something was right or wrong?
X: Most Chinese people, especially in our parents’ generation, are not believers. They are atheists. China has a long tradition of being a secular society for a long period of time. Because we were a society based on an agricultural economy, this kind of society lacked mobility. People lived together. So it was very important for the government and for big families to make sure every person was taken care of. So Confucian values are social values to help Chinese people deal with relationships between people.
We partly follow this tradition, and on the other hand there is the Communist Party. No matter what it really is, at least what the Party told us is good – to work for the country, to work for others, to be devoted to the whole of society, to not pay too much attention to yourself.
My parents, especially my father, was educated by the Party and he was a man who worked hard and didn’t care about how much the government paid him. He just worked hard. I remember that my father got up every day at 5am and went to exercise and prepare breakfast for the whole family and then went to work. After he returned from work he prepared dinner for the whole family and he always went to sleep at 10pm. He lived a very regular life. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink. He didn’t like a very luxurious life. His hobbies were growing plants and keeping pets, like birds. The government and his company honored him and gave him a lot of prizes – not money – just medals and certificates. He had a whole box of them. I am really proud of him.
There are many members of the Party who pretend they believe the ideas the Party tells them. They act like they want to do something for society, for the country, but actually they only want to benefit themselves. But there are really a lot of people like my father who really believe these kinds of ideas to do something for the whole country, for all of society.
So that is the environment I grew up in and I partially believed them. But now I think it’s understandable for them, for their generation, because China was suppressed and beaten by foreigners for almost two hundred years. So the Chinese people just wanted to rebuild the country, rebuild the culture. We have the memory of being suppressed by other cultures, so they wanted to be devoted to the whole country. But now China has already developed and is much richer than in their generation, so the problem of survival is not the biggest problem for Chinese people. Internal competition has replaced the survival problem and has become the main problem inside China. So market economics and mechanisms fit better than socialism or communism for China now. So the values of our generation are diversifying. Some of us still believe we should do something for the country. But we also need to earn money to improve our lives, to enjoy life. These are the two kinds of ideas that exist in our minds.
Y: What is right and what is wrong varies between generations. In my grandparents’ generation, they just worshipped Chairman Mao’s words. They just believed in what he said for what was right and what was wrong. But in my parents’ generation, they thought they were victims of the Cultural Revolution. Because they were forced to do labor in rural areas, they were deprived of educational opportunities. So unlike my grandparents’ generation, they didn’t believe what Chairman Mao said. But they also had no idea what was right and what was wrong.
In my generation, when I was a child, I was taught what was right from books or teachers. But when I grew up, when I got more education, when I experienced more in the workplace, I found that I was confused about what was right and what was wrong. Because a lot of things were so different from what I learned in school and from teachers. So that’s part of the reason we decided to go abroad to study more, to see something different, to see what exactly is wrong or right. So I think the historic process in China greatly influenced the different generations involved.
X: Just like us, most of our friends are anxious about the future of the nation. We don’t have a certainty about the future of the country. They are also confused about what kind of values they should have. That’s part of the reason we wanted to go abroad to study.
What events in China have impacted you or your family the most?
X: Ok, there is a very good example in my family. My parents are very friendly and kind and optimistic people. They have a lot of friends. When I studied in primary school and high school, my mother often invited my classmates to our home and cooked a good meal for them. She loved kids. But though my parents both had very good temperaments, about 1997, the year I went to high school, they both quit their jobs at the state owned company and started their own business. From that time on they got richer and richer. But their work pressure and social pressure obviously increased. So they became anxious and easily worried about a lot of things and were easily angered.
Before I got a job, I could not understand them. But after I went to work, I really understood them. I did even worse than them. My wife worked at a consulting company and I worked at a large multinational business. We commonly worked more than ten hours per day. Sometimes more than twelve hours. It was very crazy. There was no time to enjoy life. We were tired and had a lot of pressure. Not only us, but most of our classmates and friends experienced the same thing.
So the whole of society became more anxious. People need to be comforted. This has been the biggest impact the changes in China have had on me. Society has been changing to be more competitive and anxious. People have lost their certainty about the future.
In the early stages of my parents’ generation, China was still in a planned economy. Everything was controlled by the government and allocated by the government. The life between people was really equal. Really equal. My father was a manager in his company and when I went to visit a classmate’s home whose parents were workers, the settings between the two families were almost equal, almost the same. In 1978 and in 1985 the World Bank issued two reports about China’s economy and society. The index which measures the difference between wealthy people and poor people was amazing. The World Bank commented on that figure and said it was incredible. Maybe it was the most equal society in human history. But very quickly, maybe in one or two decades, that figure changed. Now there is a big gap between the wealthy and the poor. At the beginning the government was in charge of people’s healthcare, retirement, and children’s education. All of the things. The government was in charge of everything. But now people need to prepare for these kinds of things largely by themselves. The education fees and healthcare fees are relatively lower than in Europe and the United States, but they are much higher than decades ago in China. So it’s a big uncertainty and a big change that has happened in China.
So the Chinese have become anxious.
Y: Yeah, I agree with my husband. I would also mention the Cultural Revolution. Because of this event, my family really encouraged me to get an education because they had no chance to get a high education. In my experience, I think educational opportunities are most important for people to change their mindset. Another thing is the reform and openness that started in China about thirty years ago. Because of this reform I think China is becoming more open than before, so there is a chance for people to learn about the diversity of the world.
Educational opportunities and the more open environment in the country – I think these two things influenced me a lot. Before the planned economy didn’t allow for any returns based on effort or contributions. But the market economy gives people chances to improve their quality of life. In my opinion the material life is the foundation for opening the mind. That’s the first step. Because you have to make a living first. And then you have the chance to think about other things. Even if there are so many problems with the fast growth of the Chinese economy, I think it is the first opportunity to open up people’s minds because they don’t have to worry about surviving. They have the chance to think more about their personal lives. So I think these are big changes that have impacted me.