Many people put significant effort into the cultural exchange in which our guests students are participating. In addition to the many host families who spend their time and resources caring for the students, by my count there are about 10 American “peer leaders,” 3 educators and 2 staff members involved in making the project work.
One of the things that is so interesting to me is the differences in the way that the Americans giving their time to the program and the Chinese students participating in it see things. I am going to speak in sweeping generalizations now. Insert all necessary disclaimers here.
I think there are 2 primary discourses that characterize the meaning of the exchange on the part of the Americans – the deprivation of the guest students and the hosts’ experience of the exotic other. In person and over email people share stories about how their guests students are trapped in cities and never get to climb trees, take hikes, paddle canoes and learn how to ride a bike, how they have to spend all their time studying in high pressure academic situations so they don’t get to enjoy life, how in China they must live without the luxuries we have because they arrive not knowing how to use the dishwasher and they are caught laundering their underwear in the bathtub. Folks also talk about how their guest students prepare Chinese food for them, show them how to use chopsticks. They speak enthusiastically about conversations in which they learn about how different life is in China. The underlying tone, from my perspective, is that China and the people that live there have lives that are virtually unimaginable to those of us on the other side of the world and that this exotic and largely incomprehensible culture and place excitingly become just a little bit tangible (even if still so foreign) through the encounters. “Oh, did you learn to use chopsticks this summer?” one of the American adults asked Jie-jie last night. Her tone suggested wonderment and approbation – the tone you would use when your child did something amazing and unexpected.
So, you have that going on among the Americans. Then you have something completely different going on with the Chinese kids. They are well-off city folks coming from a culture based to a very large extent on conspicuous consumption and the importance of establishing status hierarchies through the display of wealth. Nice cars, expensive foods, high-end labels, high salaries, prestigous schools and jobs… these things are the bread and butter of routine interaction. The urban-rural divide has a different meaning too. China’s internal passport system insures that the peasants who come to the cities do so as migrant workers without full rights and benefits within the locality. While the cities are developing at breakneck speed, the rural areas are considered undesirable backwaters populated by people without status. Coming from that perspective, you tend to see Central Vermont as undeveloped and primitive and the people in it as peasants. This typical interpretation is only confounded by the culture of central Vermont – where folks generally remain blissfully uninterested in and/or ignorant of labels and other widely-recognized signs of wealth/status. For example, our own guests know we are vegetarian but, have also shared that they think the people here must be really poor because they don’t eat very much beef and they buy bulk unprocessed foods instead of filling the cupboards with pepperidge farm cookies and other expensive processed goods. Although they may enjoy a hike to a good view, they find it hard to believe that we would choose to live in such a primitive backwater. Instead, they think it is likely that we are stuck here.
I have watched both of these camps with a mixture of amusement and resignation. The local folks think of themselves as privileged and the kids as deprived while the kids have the opposite understanding. In truth, the kids are probably much wealthier than their hosts but, even if that weren’t true, I think the two groups are generally blind to each others’ values and understandings of success. Teaching kids to ride bikes and getting them into the woods are great ideas but, in the Chinese cultural context, they don’t have the same moral or practical purchase. They are activities that are invisible in the landscape of everyday things that matter in China – academic achievement, Coach, ipads, Luis Vuitton, BMW. The same way that folks here fail to comprehend the social significance their guests place on what clothes you wear, what you eat and what you drive. It all leads me to wonder if widespread intercultural understanding is really possible. In my darkest moments I wonder if it might be better to not understand too much.
On a personal note, I am reminded that I value my position as a cultural outsider because of the distance it provides. Our guest students don’t see us the way that we see ourselves but I am fine with that and I don’t have to adopt the exoticization that characterizes some of what goes on from the American side. I must admit, however, that one of the things that gives me pause about being here in Vermont is the impression Jie-jie got when asked about chopsticks that there is something extraordinary and magical about her knowledge and experiences. People who use chopsticks are people too.