What Do I Believe?

When I approach the world, when I must make decisions and when I interact with others, I am always concerned with justice and equity. My favorite words are balance, moderation and fairness. I do not believe in black and white; extremism is dangerous in all cases. At a base level, this is the principle I use as my ethical foundation. I have come to understand the importance of balance – of always finding a middle ground – from my experiences abroad, my immersion in poetry and philosophy and my understanding of art.

One of the first times I encountered a stark contrast of lifestyles – a true black versus white experience – was when I studied abroad in China. Chinese culture, I learned, is collectivist. Individualism is a western ideal that the Chinese regard as selfish and inefficient. I spoke to journalism students who said their drive to become reporters stemmed from their drive to represent their country kindly and proudly. In their eyes, the journalist does not act as a government watchdog, but as a pedestal for which to tout the accomplishments of China.

From career choices to family relations to the dinner table, it is crucial for the people of China to share and to build a foundation with individuals acting together as one unit rather than each individual working alone to build her own tall tower.

In an interview for my summer internship last year, the president of the company for which I was interviewing told me he hated China because no one there thinks for himself.

I was shocked. In China, I saw cooperation, care, brotherhood and family everywhere. The president of this company, on the other hand, saw sheep trotting mindlessly along as the government controls them from afar.

German philosopher Hegel theorized that the development of one’s moral conscience comes from encountering what is “other.” He argues that when one confronts something unfamiliar – be it a strange piece of art, a confusing poem or even a person of another race – she has the opportunity to learn from it, to come to terms with it and absorb it as a part of her own understanding of the world. From this emerges a third self: a new consciousness more aware than the last. Hegel says that this process can continue all throughout life, with the emergence of many “third selves.” I found a third self when I experienced Chinese culture: a self that wished for a blend of two cultures.

When I encountered collectivist culture in China, I understood it as fairness. I found it refreshing compared to the cutthroat, competitive culture in America.

However, I also fear for a population so concerned with supporting its government that it forgoes its own rights and allows injustices to occur with no further thought.

American culture and Chinese culture are two extremes. Stark individualism is not effective because it teaches us to hurt one another for the benefit of our own success. Stark collectivism is not effective because it teaches us to abandon our own passions and drives for the good of protecting the “establishment.” An ideal society exists somewhere between these two points. It exists with a compromise between individual happiness and the well being of others. It exists with sacrifice, with some level of discomfort, but never so much that we lose our own selves in the process. In my own actions, I always search for my own ideal: a compromise.

When We Eat Together

It was my second hot pot dinner of my trip to China and I had already fallen in love with this signature meal of the Sichuan province. The waiters brought out the familiar favorites (chicken, beef, noodles) and the Chengdu specialties (duck tongue, quail egg, lotus root), and, immediately, hands from every direction collided over the boiling broth in the center of the table. Chopsticks flew from plate to plate. Our Chinese friends dumped more food on our plates than on their own and spent most of the time searching on their phones for English descriptions of the mystery meats we were all devouring. It was then that our new friend Mike (I failed to learn his Chinese name) announced to the table: “When we eat together, we are like brothers – like sisters.” And for a moment – there was quiet (the most shocking thing to experience in a hot pot restaurant).

I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss American food while I was in China, but it lacks a crucial element of Chinese dining culture: the community built at a dinner table. Ordering food was a discussion – a table-wide compromise determining what food would satisfy everyone equally. After that came the delicious chaos of actually eating. Elbows collided, food flew, broth splashed, chopsticks clamored, and everyone shared everything. Nothing was claimed by anyone. The food belonged to the table.

Not only was it a chance to share food, but also a chance to share ideas. With our friends from Sichuan University we talked politics, language, education, and even High School Musical. The food was a bridge over an ocean – a shared experience to shatter any cultural barriers we once had. After that meal, I really did begin to see these friends as family. Mike’s words were the truest words I heard in China. And that meal was the best meal of my life.

Months before I embarked on my trip to China, I was not so excited. In fact, I was mostly scared. Every time I shared with someone my plans to fly overseas and take part in Sichuan University’s Summer Immersion Program, I was not met with encouragement, but with confusion and fear.

“China? Why?”

“What do you expect to gain from that?”

I met with the unfortunate discovery that we live in a world of borders; we see the differences in each other rather than the similarities. We plug our ears and refuse to listen to the wisdom other cultures can offer. In this heavily globalized world, we have become more divided than ever.

Mike opened my eyes to the importance of learning from our friends across country lines. He taught me to drop my prejudices at the boarding gates and enter new countries with an open mind and an open heart. I owe it to him to hold this knowledge with me and to continue sharing it with my future friends around the world. I owe it to him to continue my travels abroad.