My last week in Shanghai I got another email from my post on Expats.com about doing a language exchange. After several emails and text messages I met up with Judy at a subway station near her work. It was after six so she took me to one of her favorite restaurants. There was a wait to get a seat which usually is an indication of good food. I was not disappointed.
We had small side dishes of corn, greens, lotus root and a bowl of rice. The main dish was a large steel bowl of tender fish in oil with peppers and other seasonings. Though the meal could have fed 3-4 people we did our best to finish it off.
My Chinese was and is still far from conversational. She would teach me a few words and phrases here and there, but for the most part we relied on here significant English capabilities to learn about each other's background and culture.
Born in 1977, she is a year younger than me, but in China you are considered 1-year old when you are born, making us both 31. She is just old enough to be born before the advent of the One Child Policy and has a younger brother. The mother of a 23-month old son, she dislikes the One Child Policy, though she is not interested in having a second child any time soon. She and her husband live with his parents, allowing them both to work full time and rarely have to prepare meals. Her husband works as an IT manager and she is the assistant manager of a steel import/export company. Eventually she would like to open her own import export business.
In college Judy studied English, but she never had a chance to travel abroad and immerse herself in the language. As such she can read and write quite well, but there were times when our spoken communication broke down. That said we had lively conversations and I enjoyed hearing her perceptions of and opinions on the US and the world.
Whether it is the media, Bush, Clinton or Hollywood, big names and big institutions get much credit and much blame. For all the positive social changes popularized by Hollywood, movies and television have also exaggerated many negative stereotypes about people in the US. At one point Judy asked me about social interactions between men and women in the US, essentially questioning the impression that in the US people are very promiscuous. Is it true that people people meet, kiss and have sex on the first date? While this may be true for some people, it is far from the norm. Still this perception is common in many countries around the world, which can create awkward situations when romantic interests Americans do not progress as quickly as they do in the movies.
Judy was also curious why people in the United States are still prejudiced against women and blacks. That was a challenging question to field given language limitations and the significant variability in prejudices among people within the United States. In a nut shell, I tried to clarify that we all have prejudices and while the US has a long way to go as far to eliminate racial and sexual bigotry, we have also made a lot of progress, particularly in the past 60 years.
For me prejudice usually connotes racial bigotry, but feelings of prejudice or pre-judgement can easily apply to other groups as well. To be able to address prejudice on a societal level one first must be able to recognize it in one's self. I won't air my laundry list here, but I know that I harbor my fair share of negative opinions about some segments of American society. My opinions are part belief, part past experience and part lack of understanding for some points of view. As such I am inclined to pre-judge some people based on their political leanings or religious affiliation.
Interestingly Judy made no secret of disliking Indians and Japanese. She recalled an experience where she replied to a language exchange post similar to mine. The English speaker was a business man from India who was really looking for a Chinese girlfriend. This was not Judy's interest at all, and tarnished her view of Indians. As for Japan, the Chinese frequently protest Japan's unwillingness to apologize for atrocities committed against the Chinese and others during the World War II and Judy is no exception. Half teasing, I tried to give her a hard time for being prejudice, but she denied that it was prejudice at all. Unfortunately our language skills were not broad enough to explore the semantics of her assertions. While the prejudice in her remarks was blatant, I am sure her opinions and dislikes are more nuanced than she was able to communicate.
Since we did not connect until the very end of my time in Shanghai, we only met once. Since then we have exchanged a couple emails. I am in the middle of trying to explain the stereotype that Americans begin and end friendships as is convenient. In Asian countries and places where people tend to stay in the same place all their lives, friendships take a long time to build and are not lightly discarded. Examining the sources of American stereotypes is one of my favorite parts of these cultural exchanges.