Last weekend, our team split up to go on our personal trips — half went to Shanghai, while the other went to Beijing. Most of the non-Chinese speakers in our group, including me, decided to go to Beijing, because it represents the heart of China as its capital (a good amount of students in the other group had already visited in the past). Our flight was delayed by 12 hours, but we were finally on our way after boarding our plane for the third time. During our stay there, we visited the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall all in the span of two days. The city was an incredible combination of modern and ancient features, and the atmosphere reflected its long history and rich culture.
I felt like I got a more intimate perspective of the city during our first night there, once we met up with a DukeEngage alumnus that now lives in Beijing and was a part of this program the first year it was established. The night started with a dinner with him and a couple of his past high school students who now attend college in the United States. That was the first time we got to interact with students our age, meaning we could have much more relatable, in depth conversations. During dinner, we talked about some of the expectations versus reality of our experience with China and their experiences in America.
After dinner, the alumnus took us over to one of his favorite parts of the city: Houhai. This was probably the highlight of my personal weekend. The area consisted of a beautiful lake surrounded by music live houses and small shops. There were many young people walking around, talking, cycling, eating, listening to music, and just enjoying the view. The lake reflected all the lights from the surrounding buildings. This sort of lively outdoor ambience is something we don’t get to experience as much in America. We ended up sitting in one of the live houses, where local artists perform live music, and I spent a couple of hours having a wonderful conversation with the Duke alumnus and one of his students. I asked the student about what she thought about American college students/her experience making friends, and she noticed that many Americans use sarcasm to bond. She said that it took her some time to adjust to that, considering sarcasm is not as popular in China. My family is originally from Greece, and this reminded me of when my parents said that sarcasm to them is very cold and distant. I really do not notice how much a lot of Americans use sarcasm and “roasts” to get closer to each other until I travel to other countries. Making fun of each other tends to be a go-to ice breaker and a popular way to show we are comfortable with another person. She also commented that Chinese friendships are very complicated, and that she thought American relationships were simpler in comparison. When I asked her why, she said that people in China often try to be friends even with people they may hate for the sake of harmony and the larger community, while people in America are more likely to just keep their distance from people they don’t like.
The conversation went on until we were even talking about the drastic differences in the dating culture in China compared to America. Something from this conversation that stood out was how boys in China usually compose a well-thought out public proposal to start relationships with a girl, and that the risk of public humiliation only adds to the sentiment of how much they are willing to put on the line just to be with them. These relationship proposals reminded me of marriage and prom proposals, and I wondered how different the relationship culture in America would be if we had similar elaborate methods even for casual dating. I don’t know how much of this information is applicable to the general Chinese public, considering this all came from one conversation with one Chinese native and a recent resident, but their comments prompted me to think about how our personal cultures influence our daily lives, opinions, and behaviors.
The Duke alumnus told me a definition of culture that one of his professors at Duke had shared with him: culture is like a transparent body suit that shapes you every day, though it can be hard to figure out where it comes from and how it is made. How has my Greek heritage changed the way I view the world around me? Why do I instantly have certain images in my head when I think of Greek culture, but I have a much harder time pinpointing some for America? What makes up American culture? The United States is still so young compared to other countries, and I feel like its immense diversity that is usually referred to as a “melting pot” can also simultaneously create a dulling of individual cultures for the sake of assimilation, cooperation, and convenience. We are largely a country of immigrants, so how much of American culture can be considered original? Is the originality a result of the collision of different languages, traditions, foods, celebrations, and ethnicities? As I continued my conversation revolving around these questions, I completely forgot that I had barely slept the night before and that I had to get up very early the next day. I feel grateful that my interests in Cultural Anthropology will lead me to more conversations of this nature in my future, and I hope my professional career somehow compliments further exploration of this field of study.