Now that we’ve been here for over a year, we have a bit of authority in the ways of the “inscrutable Chinese.” So here is a list of the top 5 (or 10, if I can think of that many) stereotypes about the Far East that we’ve come to realize are, in fact, just plain wrong.
1. The pronunciation of Beijing.
No, it’s not French. The “J” is not soft. Think “jingle bells,” “big joke,” “Boy George,” “bat jinx.” Now say Beijing.
2. Everybody speaks Mandarin.
When the Communist Party came into power, they started a language reform that made Mandarin (or 普通话 -“Putonghua” – the common language) the official language. However, most people speak their local dialect in addition (or sometimes not in addition) to Mandarin. People living in towns adjacent to each other have a hard time understanding each other’s local dialects, and this is a source of amusement and joking to most people. Also, in our unqualified opinion, Beijingers talk funny.
3. Chinese characters are pictograms.
The ancient system of writing did, indeed, contain many characters based on pictures. However, most modern Chinese characters are called “phono-semantic compounds,” comprised of two elements: the meaning and the sound. So, even though the character for “mountain” （山）kinda looks like a mountain, it’s not like the character for dog (狗）looks anything like a dog, unless you really squint.
4. Chinese people don’t know English.
It’s safe to say that there are more Chinese speakers of English than there are Americans due to sheer population. The average college sophomore has been studying English for eight to ten years.
5. Chinese people eat anything.
Contrary to popular belief, Chinese people are by and large quite picky about what they eat. (However, my Chinese teacher has a belief that people in Guangdong* truly eat everything – including rats.) It is true that the cuisine of China includes eating the whole animal, not just the fillet of something – but there are many Chinese do not like food that is spicy or “western”.
6. Creature comforts of “the West” are unavailable in China.
There are more Starbucks in Hangzhou than there were in the last city we lived in in the US. We bought three kinds of European cheese and a giant block of Belgian dark chocolate at a German-owned supermarket yesterday. Hotels have HBO and CNN. You can buy Newsweek on Joels’ campus. We live within walking distance of a driving range. There are Rolls Royce, Porsche, Ferarri, and Mini Cooper dealerships (not to mention Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Dior, Sephora, etc.) within walking distance of Sarah’s campus. Granted, we live in the richest region of the country, and there are many people genuinely living in poverty — but if you can pay for it, you can get it.
7. Lack of a “First Amendment” here keeps people ignorant and afraid to speak up.
Most of my students are keenly aware of recent events in Chinese history and the role the media plays in telling or not telling stories on controversial topics. In fact, many Chinese internet message boards go far beyond rules of decent behavior and often dissolve into foul-mouthed flame wars.
8. All Chinese people look alike.
I’m not just talking about unique features for each individual; the people of China are ethnically different. When you think of a Chinese person, you probably think: black hair, shorter**, almond eyes, round face; you are, in essence thinking of a Han Chinese (the largest ethnic population in China). However, there are other minorities whose facial features, coloring, & height may seem more Eastern European/Southeast Asian/Middle Eastern, depending on where you are in the country.
Well, we got to 8, at least, to round off 2008.
* Where Sarah’s roots are.
** Although even that is pretty wrong – some people here are tall, and some are short. When we first moved here, Sarah was a bit disappointed that she still felt short.