In the academic school year of 2008-2009, Steve Orton and his wife Elva, taught English at the Xi’an International Studies University, in Xi’an, China under the auspices of the BYU China Teachers Program. There they met and became friends with a number of students who have subsequently studied or worked in the United States. They have talked frequently about what they like about each other’s country. Here are their respective short lists.
Steve Orton’s List
Vibrancy: Coming originally from Utah I thought I knew a little something about the beehive and why it is the symbol of the state. But after a year of living in China I think I understand the symbolism of the beehive better. China is a 1.3 billion-strong beehive. Its crowded streets buzz — almost vibrate — with energy. The streets are crowded with buses, cars, bicycles and people — all going somewhere, doing something, busy, busy, busy.
One of my favorite memories is being in the park that surrounds the Temple of Heaven in Beijing where I saw whole families, whole apartment blocks, flood into the park to socialize and pursue their interests. On weekends, pavilions are packed with people playing cards or practicing their calligraphy by writing on the cement sidewalks in water, which then evaporates to provide a clean slate. Even in winter, folk dance troupes will be practicing and small orchestras will be playing.
China is at once a land of rice paddies and villages and a land of skyscrapers, the latter among the tallest in the world. Skyscrapers and apartment buildings spring up almost overnight. During the Olympics the joke was that the construction crane had become the national bird of China. Blue-suited businessmen and government employees file in and out of the tall buildings, the worker bees of modern China’s economic boom times.
Outside on the streets, the pace of life picks up. Here dozens of street vendors — sidewalk entrepreneurs — can be found over the course of just a short walk: jewelry, sock, puppy dogs, roasted chestnuts, MP3 players and earphones.
Taken as a whole, there is a vibrancy and energy on the streets of China that is exhilarating.
The Land: It is not that the landscape of China is any more beautiful than any other place on earth. Majestic mountains and beautiful lakes can be found on every continent. But there are some aspects of the Chinese landscape that are unique and endearing.
In southwest China near the city of Guilin, Nature laid down a bed of limestone that over time has eroded to form caves and karsts that today provide for some spectacular scenery. The limestone karsts jut perpendicularly into the sky not like mountains but like giant watchtowers, all sharp and jagged on the sides. Nevertheless, foliage has found purchase in the nooks and crannies of these forbidding structures, covering them and softening them with a dewy, green felt.
Through this tortured stone forest flows the Li River, which snakes among the crags at a meandering pace carrying human passengers who pole themselves along while standing only inches above the water on narrow bamboo rafts. On its banks can be seen villages, bamboo forests and water buffalo nose deep in the water munching aquatic plants. Low hanging clouds waft in and out of the peaks, lending a mystical air to the whole. It is a magical place that is close to the Chinese heart and is perpetually commemorated in everyday life on the back of the RMB 20 banknote
But perhaps there is nothing more typically Chinese than their terraced rice paddies. Although rice paddies are not unique to China, those in China almost rise to the level of high art as they sculpt the very faces of the mountains they inhabit. Delicate, dewy and green, the serpentine undulations of the paddies invite the photographer’s eye and grace the camera’s lens. But in some areas crops in addition to rice are grown, and therefore each terrace takes on a different hue, the whole presenting a rainbow of colors like a patchwork quilt.
What makes the land even more interesting is that it has thousands of years of human activity stamped on it, the activity of Buddhist monks being the most prominent. Over the centuries, many have lived monastic lives, and today their monasteries can be found in hidden away places, even clinging precariously to the sides of mountains
In their isolation they took to carving out grottos in the mountainsides in which to place the symbols of their religion, and in some cases their giant, carved replications of Buddha have taken over the mountain as in the case of the Leshan Buddha.
To me these were never detractions, but rather enhancements.
Filial Piety: This the Confucian ideal that is held above all others even today, millennia after it was written about in the Confucian classic Xiao Jing. It its heart, it means to be good to one’s parents, and by extension to be good toward everyone of the older generation, including ancestors. This concept is probably emblazoned best in the Western mind in Pearl S. Buck’s novel, The Good Earth, where the protagonist, Wang Long, carries his aged father on his back during an exodus from the war-torn countryside. He would have been an unworthy son had he left his father behind.
Today it is common for elderly parents to live with their grown children. Having several generations of family members live together is the norm, and even if they are not in the same household, the current generation still feels a sense of obligation to the older generation. My students often expressed this sense of obligation in their class writing assignments. In their bio cards I would frequently read words along the lines of, “I live with my parents and grandparents, and we are a loving family.”
In a practical sense, the concept stretches both up and down the family tree. Because both parents usually work, the grandparents often take over the duty of tending the grandchild. This arrangement often provided for some very endearing scenes of filial piety. I remember many scenes of elderly grandparents chasing after a toddler in a public park or a grandfather picking up a young grandchild from daycare and carrying him or her home on the back of his bicycle.
It was also manifest in the classroom. My students treated me well. I remember with fondness students meeting me at the gate of the university to help carry my heavy book bag. It was common for them to offer me their seat on a public bus. Emails to me often started out, “Dear Respected Teacher.”
Filial piety, as I observed it in both public and private life, is a great virtue and an aspect of China that I continue to admire.
Xi Xi Nie (Christi)
Steve taught Christi during her junior year at the Xi’an International Studies University, but she completed her senior year in 2010 at the University of Oklahoma.
She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in television journalism at Nottingham Trent University in England.
I enjoyed the friendly atmosphere in the United States. No matter whether on the streets or on campus, at markets or parties, people were all very polite and friendly. Whenever I walked to campus or studied in the library, I could always see a friendly smile.
Even though I didn’t know the other person, a friendly smile or greetings from them, like “How are you?” or “Hi!” could put me in a good mood.
What impressed me most was that every morning when we got off the school bus for class, the bus driver always said, “Have a good day!” These simple words made me feel warm inside. Sometimes when I was stressed out by homework or exams and heard this, I felt that life was still as wonderful as usual. I made many great friends, and we shared various ways of cooking or dressing as well as ideas about how to live a good life. From my American friends, I’ve learned new ideas about this world that could not be learned from textbooks.
Another thing I grew to appreciate about the U.S. were its science museums. This was because they were family friendly. Parents brought their children to the museums on weekends to broaden their knowledge. Chinese parents do that too, but what was notable about American museums was that the museum displays catered to the children. For example, in St. Louis the museum not only explained how the famous arch was built but had tools for the children to build their own arch. In the science museum in Portland, visitors could experience a real submarine tour. When I walked inside it, I could truly imagine what the crew’s life was like during the long time under the sea. These museums truly inspired children’s creativity, and I liked that.
Wang Xiaoqing (Charlene)
Charlene took a creative writing class from Steve along with Christi and also attended the University of Oklahoma. Now she is working as a translator for a large company in Xi’an, China.
What I liked about America was the favorable ratio between salaries (relatively high) and the cost of living (relatively low) when compared to China. This is another way of saying that the gap between rich and poor did not seem to me to nearly as severe in America as in China.
Consumer goods, such as housing, cars and luxury items are now in high demand in China, but they are way overpriced, especially in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing. There are very few single-family detached houses in China. Most people live in apartments, and these are very small and very expensive. A typical apartment might be about 70-80 square meters (750-860 square feet). If in Hong Kong it would take 20 years to pay the mortgage on such an apartment, in New York City an apartment the same size would take only 5.7 years (if paid for at the same percentage of salary). Part of the reason is that land is limited and most people want to live in big cities.
The same is true of cars. Owning a car in China is like owning a yacht in America. A Camry that would sell for $20,000 in the United States would cost the equivalent of $33,824 in China, largely because of heavy taxes. Even a Chinese-designed and manufactured entry-level car is beyond the reach of most Chinese.
I am not a material girl, but I am a big fan of skin care and beauty products. If I were working in the U.S. and earned a modest salary, I estimate that Lancome and Estee Lauder products would take up 1% of my salary. In China, such indulgences would consume 10% of my salary. So in addition to the memories I took back to China of the wonderful friends I made during the year I lived in America, I also took back the much-cheaper beauty products to my family.
In perspective, however, I realize that the perfume and skin creams will fade away, but the memories will live forever.
Zhao Rui (Vivian)
Vivian is now in her senior year at Xi’an International Studies University, but during the summer of 2010 she worked in a fast food restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia.
My trip to the USA was a really wonderful experience, and if you were to ask me what I liked about it I would say, “everything.” I liked the sky, the trees, the air, the people, the food, the culture and so many other things. But let me mention just one thing, although you may find it a bit odd.
The first time I went to cross the road in Williamsburg I did it the same way as I did in China. That is, I stood at the curb waiting for the traffic to clear. In China, drivers are not known for stopping for pedestrians. To my surprise, the oncoming car stopped, as did the following cars. I wondered what they were stopping for, and while I debated whether or not I should take advantage of the opportunity to cross the street, I hesitated. Finally the driver in the lead car extended his hand out the window and gestured for me to cross. I continued to hesitate, and the cars refused to move.
Finally, to break the impasse I hurried across the road. I was a little embarrassed, but I was also amazed. It took me several days to get used to this little act of road courtesy. I soon learned that the same courtesy shown by these drivers could be found in countless other acts by the American people.
Elva always remembers Maggie because she sat in the row of the Business English class with her bright smile. She also worked during the summer of 2010 in both Virginia and Louisiana.
I have been impressed a lot by several things I found in America. First of all, the people I met were very nice. When I met someone on the street, he would smile at me in a friendly and welcoming way. This is not always the case in China, where there is some degree of coolness between strangers.
Second, I loved the natural environment in the U.S. Every day, I could see the blue sky and white clouds instead of the gloomy, smoggy skies over China these days. I loved the broad grasslands and the many trees growing on the both sides of the street, which showed the harmony between humans and nature. It made me feel like I was in a dream instead of reality.
Finally, the price of highly praised consumer goods is affordable to almost everyone in the U.S., whereas such quality goods in China are much too expensive for ordinary people. I loved living in America, and I enjoyed myself a lot.
Adele stayed with Orton’s at the end of her work program. She is also a student at the Xi’an International Studies University.
After graduation and perhaps some further study in the West, she would like to become a diplomat.
During my three-month stay in America, what impressed me and what I liked most were the friendly and kind-hearted people. Even now I can still remember the warm and heartfelt welcome I received from my colleagues in KFC on my first working day. I learned a lot from them. I always proudly tell my friends back home that I am such an expert on KFC that I can even be a manager of any KFC franchise in China.
I do appreciate the American people’s kindness of going out of their way to help anyone in trouble.
On the first day we visited New York City, we took the wrong subway and got lost. When we were struggling to make heads or tails of the map, a lady came to us and asked if she could help. Seconds later, two guys came to lend a hand. Eventually we figured out the best way to get to our destination. Thanks to them we did not go astray in the big city.
Now that I’m back in China, in addition to the extremely heavy luggage I hauled along with me, I brought back across the vast ocean the warm-heartedness and friendliness of the American people. I do hope the people of both countries can solve misunderstandings and get to know each other better.