Sunday, April 13, 2014

New Chinese Wisdom, Part 3: On Chinese Identity

The Great Wall at Badaling, China
[This is the third article in a four-part series on Chinese culture, business, and education from a visiting Westerner’s perspective.] 

I was surprised by the result when I Wikied how many Chinese live overseas, away from mainland China: merely 50 million. I would have bet well over double that figure. Perhaps my bias comes from the fact that my ancestors, the Maltese, number only 1 million worldwide, with 600,000 living outside and only 400,000 living inside of Malta. With the exception of Australia and Malta itself, no matter where you live in the world, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single Maltese, while Chinese people seem ubiquitous where I live (Central New Jersey) and mostly work (New York City). Meanwhile, the Chinese comprise nearly 1.5 billion people worldwide--no comparison, really.

Regardless of the statistical accuracy of my unsophisticated research, Chinese expatriates stand out to me more than any other because of how they view their homeland. When teaching an adult ESL class in the United States, I like to privately ask students whether coming to the America was a good decision. Most Eastern Europeans will say, "Without a doubt, yes," even if they left behind highly skilled medical, engineering, or managerial positions in favor of lower-ranking clerical ones in the US. Indians would agree, but many say they would enjoy doing business internationally between the US and their homeland so that they could live in both countries. The Chinese response to my question, however, is remarkably different, especially when the younger generation opines. A slight majority says, "I could be wealthier in China, but I prefer the way of life in the United States, so I'm staying here." Nearly as many say, "I would like to return to China because of the greater opportunities there." 

Clearly, China is a land of opportunity, as it will soon surpass the US as the world's number one economy in terms of purchasing power. This fact causes conflicting feelings for Chinese across the globe. While they understandably feel great pride in their homeland and strong confidence about its economic prospects, they still have reservations about its future for political reasons. 

My 2012 trip to the Great Wall at Mutianyu and more recent one at Badaling symbolize this Chinese dilemma. The Great Wall stands as a bridge between the past and the present, drawing millions of tourists a year to its magnificent architecture and sprawling expanse. How will the Chinese move ahead as an economic superpower while maintaining their glorious traditions and unique cultural identity? This unfolding story is being closely watched with deepening interest globally by business people, politicians, economists, political scientists, historians, anthropologists, and educators.