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My China Experience - The People

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Isaac poses for a picture with a little girl in Shanghai. His picture was taken hundreds of times by curious Chinese people. SUBMITTED

People in China are concerned about what takes place in America. They are especially interested in the leadership of President Trump.

During this visit I did not meet with any public officials or business leaders. I did have several opportunities to interact with regular folk. My longest discussions were with parents of students that have attended or visited HCA.

"You know, what happens in America has a direct effect on us," one of the parents said. She opened the conversation by asking my opinion of the new President. Understandably, her perceptions come from the media she receives in China.

I couldn't help but give a quick American civics lesson explaining the three branches of government and the limitations every President faces. I'm not sure whether she experienced any great enlightenment, but she didn't seem as anxious about future Sino-American relations when we finished.

Pollution is one of the greatest problems the people of China face. I mentioned it in my first installment. It was not unusual for the first question from a new acquaintance to be, "What do you think about the pollution here in China?"

The cause of the pollution in China is debated both among officials and people on the streets. In my humble opinion, pollution in China is the undesirable side effect of the burgeoning economy. It is akin to the pollution woes of the United States during and following the Industrial Revolution. I believe the Chinese will determine and implement solutions. Their experience will be like ours. It will take years to bring about permanent solutions.

There are signs everywhere China's economy is booming. As we stopped at a bullet-train station on our trip from Beijing to Shanghai, I counted the construction cranes along the skyline of a typical city. More than fourteen cranes loomed above and between newly constructed office buildings and apartment complexes. This scene was repeated at least a half dozen times along the tracks on our five-hour train ride. Nashville's skyline is a fraction of the size of these cities.

People in these cities are enjoying the benefits of economic growth. Streets are filled with luxury cars. Restaurants are full. Shopping centers are stocked with designer brands from all over the world. Banks are on every corner. It is obvious the average person has discretionary income. Chinese generally don't make purchases with credit cards. The cars, clothes, and smartphones are, in large part, purchased with cash. In this regard, China is a generation "behind" the United States. Purchasing power in the U.S. hits a ceiling based on credit limits and not the size of a savings account.

I did observe poverty. Some living conditions I saw are deplorable by our standards and there were some beggars on city streets. I wouldn't say it was any greater than in our cities, though. We didn't visit any rural areas, so my observations are limited to city life. I purposely looked for signs of poverty as we passed through farming areas on our train ride. There were groups of cement shacks along the route, but they appeared to be abandoned or perhaps seasonal housing for migrant workers.

Hard work and ingenuity are characteristics I observed in Chinese people. Our international graduate, Luxian Li (adopted English name is Stephanie), works in an office in the heart of Shanghai. Stephanie lived in our home for two years while a high school student. During dinner, in Shanghai she described her career path in a very competitive job market. Her motivation and direction seems universal among recent college grads there. She talked about long office hours, the need to make an impression in a large corporation, and sacrificing a personal life for professional advancement. My heart ached a little for our "Chinese child" as she talked of the tough climb up the corporate ladder.

There were interactions with some people that seemed lazy or disinterested in quality service. Cab drivers were a mixed bag. The language barrier wasn't an issue for most of the rides since we were guided either by my daughter or son-in-law. Some were rude but others were extremely helpful.

One maddening experience took place at a drink cart in Shanghai. We stopped to buy a couple bottles of water and some soft drinks. The teenage attendant appeared to be playing a game on his phone. He never looked up when we picked up the drinks. When we asked how much we owed he refused to answer even though we prompted him two or three times. We weren't the only frustrated customers. Some left the drinks and walked away. I wasn't willing to give up. So, we continued to question him until we got an answer. We paid and walked away with the drinks.

Aside from a few exceptions, our interactions with the people of China were very positive. They are intrigued with Americans and want to know more about us.

The most interesting experiences were when they saw our grandson, Isaac. He is four-years-old. It was a common occurrence for people to stop us and ask if they could take his picture. This was especially true if they had a child of their own. It was not unusual for someone passing by to take his hand or stop him so they could squeeze his checks. A man in the grocery store gave him a pop on the bottom as he passed by (a harmless gesture that would probably create grave concern in the US).

We were a spectacle most places where we went. Even at Shanghai Disney, we were among only a handful of Westerners at the sold-out theme park. Our blonde daughters and niece created no small stir on several occasions. Phones came out quickly for pictures. It was quite comical to see folks on several occasions take our picture while pretending to take a picture of scenery or a companion. In one of the markets, a crowd gathered around us and would have penned us in if we wouldn't have pushed our way through.

To paint all Chinese with the same brush is as naïve as characterizing all Americans the same. One of the challenges to understanding culture is the ability to separate the personalities of individuals from the way of life of a large nation of people. Understanding the people of China is key to building both personal and business relationships with this economic powerhouse.

The next article will focus on the sights of China. Feel free to share comments or submit questions to me at w.slater@hcacrusaders.com.

William Slater is headmaster of Hendersonville Christian Academy.

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