A few weekends ago, I was invited by one of my Chinese friends to attend an English speaking competition. It was a little awkward at first because some of the people running the competition thought that I (along with a few of the other Americans in attendance) were judges, and we had to explain that we were just there to watch. There were a total of 13 contestants, and each contestant was to have a memorized speech no longer than 3 minutes prepared, and were then given a question that they had to answer in under two minutes. After this, the judges asked them questions concerning both their speech and the contestant’s answer to the question. I thought that watching this competition was going to be like pulling teeth, but it ended up being an incredibly eye-opening experience.
All of the contestants were students, naturally, and many spoke English rather well. This alone gave me renewed vigor and drive in my studies of Chinese because if these students can obtain such a firm grasp of the admittedly difficult English language, then I, surely, can become fluent in Chinese. Chinese is, after all, much easier than English particularly in terms of grammar. Listening to the students give their speeches really gave me insight into the Chinese way of thinking and (what feel to me as an American, at least) cultural abnormalities. Many students spoke of college life, and one topic in particular really stuck with me. It is still very rare in China for student to take out student loans to pay for their college education–the parents are supposed to provide that for their children. Working during the semester is also very frowned upon, because it would distract from studies. This contestant’s speech was about how he would like to do more for his parents right now, but he cannot. He can only see them every once in awhile, and how he wants to repay them for everything they’ve done for him, but he cannot because he’s still a student. So, he studies even harder–he wants to be the best student he can be so their money isn’t wasted and that he can find a good job after graduation to provide for them in their old age. I can’t say I’ve met a single student in the US who have a similar feeling of responsibility towards their parents concerning their grades or their future careers. Similarly, another contestant’s topic was that growing up means relinquishing your dreams and studying something you can use to find a good job to care for your family. This seemed like a very Chinese thing to say. Often in America I hear it said or see on television shows to “follow your dream”, even if it’s not very pragmatic. We don’t like telling people to put their dreams on the shelf and to get a job that isn’t glamorous or fun but pays bills because America is the Land of Opportunity (or used to be). Chinese people cannot afford to think like that, and so you are urged to go with the option that is more likely to produce the most financial gain. It isn’t necessarily that money brings you happiness in China, but money definitely brings you comfort, and that is something that many people still don’t have. In Kaifeng, many of the houses do not have heat or AC, and with temperatures currently at about 4 degrees Celsius, I can’t imagine these people are living in any sort of comfort.
Some of the contestants’ topics paralleled my own thoughts–one of the girls’ topics was that she thinks the media stresses thinness too much, especially in women. She stressed that everyone should love themselves for who they are and what they look like, and not to hate themselves for who social media reminds us we aren’t. This message is something that is really being stressed in America recently, and it just seemed so amazing to me that even in a culture completely different from my own and about 7000 miles apart that there are so many people who share similar ideas and views. It’s nice to know that, even on the other side of the world, there are people who, despite cultural differences and a language barrier, are just like me.