A different kind of bubble
When I first got to Chengdu, China, ready to begin a summer internship where I was meant “learn about a new culture” and “gain perspective,” it became obvious to me how arrogant I had been. I’d shown up to a country that I had very little prior knowledge of, where I knew no one, and where I couldn’t speak a word of the language.
But, that was okay. I would learn. I would meet people. I would pick up words in Mandarin, or rather, in the Sichuan dialect that is prevalent in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan, a southern province in China.
The catch: things I learned were mostly through conversations with other non-Chinese people. Most of the people I interacted with were from countries like the United Kingdom or the United States. Clearly, language remained a barrier.
The observation that knowing the language of a country helps you understand the culture is not a new one, but what has fascinated and worried me is how not knowing the language can cause biases even in people who are well-traveled and well-educated.
On my first day in Chengdu, I was told “the Chinese are very rude and will try to rip you off.” I was also told “girls in Chongqing [also a city in Sichuan] are the hottest” while the “girls in Guangzhou [a city in Guangdong Province] are mostly known for being timid.” I was told that “the people in Chengdu were simple and lived uncomplicated lives.” I was told to observe the strange custom of Chinese men holding their girlfriends’ purses like an aspiring zoologist is told to observe particularly strange animals. Following these series of generalizations were many attempts by the people I met to “explain China” to me.
Maybe my disdain at the comments was an overreaction cultivated by my “liberal Ivy League bubble,” as I was told. “Don’t be such a snowflake. This is China. They don’t care about political correctness” was a chastisement often repeated to me in my first couple of weeks in China. It took me all of a week and a little reading on the Chinese government’s political censorship to see the irony in that “political correctness” comment.
I hoped to find friends there who would not make such generalizations. Maybe even Chinese friends who lived in Chengdu, instead of just expats. But before I knew it, a bubble had formed around me.