(Ed Note: With several major projects in the works and with a gig next week guest blogging for James Fallows, I asked my lovely wife and co-conspirator Yajun if she’d like to help out for the next few weeks.)
I was born in a country where 90% of the people share a single ethnicity, where we have no national religion, but where we do have the stomachs to eat any living creature on earth. So it came as a shock to me, later than it probably should have, that some people may not eat certain things out of choice or because of their religion. Sure, China has Hui people who are Muslim and who eat Qingzhen (Halal) food, but prior to university I’d only met a handful of Chinese Muslims in my life. And even in school, it wasn’t that I didn’t respect my friends’ aversion to pork, but it was just completely outside my own upbringing. I don’t think I lacked sensitivity, just a sense of perspective about what diversity means.
This problem is even harder for my mom. During Spring Festival, some of my husband’s students came to our place for a dinner party. One of the students was Jewish. Since he has trouble finding kosher food in Haidian, he chose to become a vegetarian. This just amazed my mom and all of the Chinese guests. As we were cooking, even though my husband explained why the student couldn’t eat any meat, from my mom’s confused and curious facial expression I could tell that the idea was just beyond her understanding.
It didn’t stop my mom making delicious vegetable dumplings for him, but the poor student had to explain why he couldn’t eat meat to the Chinese guests over and over again.
China is not a country that celebrates true ethnic and culture diversity. Officially, we are 55 ethnic groups making up one China, but the Han are definitely the dominant and normative culture. Other than the fact that minorities are happy while dancing on stage during gala shows, very little information about them is presented in the mainstream media. Since the media is under the government’s control, minority voices and their cultural and historical perspectives are nowhere to be heard. China lacks social awareness of what diversity truly means.
Furthermore, a sense of individualism is also often suppressed in China. Many Chinese, like me, are taught since they were children that it is not okay to be different. We are not individuals, but a member of a group, a group which defines our identity. Everyone has to use the right hand to write or to eat. We have to find the one correct answer to the questions in exam. If a child’s creativity and imagination fails to match the content of text books, he or she is labeled as a bad student. Same thing with food. If somebody doesn’t eat a certain kind of food, that’s being picky and is sure to draw the parent’s ire.
However my experience in the US a couple of years ago showed me another perspective. Some people I met were vegan who even couldn’t eat eggs. Others were Muslims who could not serve themselves from anywhere near a dish containing pork. Practicing Jews could only eat meat prepared in a certain way and had to avoid other foods or combinations of foods. Plus, there were also people who were lactose intolerance or had food allergies. I also knew people who couldn’t eat wheat or other grains.
So I saw vegetarian burgers, kosher butchers, and lactose-free milk. In the supermarket, there were specially-prepared foods to meet the need of various consumers. It was totally fine to be different and picky about food. You didn’t have to change, because other people understood and prepared something special for you.
I am amazed by the social awareness and understanding in the US. Part of it, I’m sure, is that the US is a nation founded in large part by immigrants. The other important reason, I believe, is that different — sometimes even completely contradictory — voices can be heard in the US. Dr. Martin Luther King called for the rights for African-Americans 50 years ago. Today Amy Chua teaches Americans how to be a successful Chinese mother. Public information and communication turns ignorance to acceptance and, finally, to a point where difference is no longer seen as different, just part of the greater whole.
Certainly, some people choose fear rather than acceptance. After September 11th strong anti-Muslim sentiment spread in the US, and throughout US history people have been harassed or even killed because of their race or religion. But these are problems which are openly discussed and debated in the US media and society, sometimes painfully and divisively. Martin Luther King was persecuted for his beliefs, but without him and his story Barack Obama would not be the US President today.
With more and more foreigners coming to China, many Chinese will have to grapple with this kind of cosmopolitanism. Different concepts and values may clash with one another at the beginning, but it is an inevitable phase. I am sure the next time when the next guest from a different religious or cultural background comes to my parents’ home, it will be my Mom explaining to the other guests about what she’s learned about the diversity of the world’s cultures.