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Comparing Cultures: From Shanghai to Meriden

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Change is good, but it almost always comes with challenges.

I spent more than a decade in the metropolis of Shanghai, China’s economic center and one of the most developed cities in the world. Then, in August 2015, my family moved to Cary, North Carolina, a countryside city in the south of the United States. It was a big change: the lifestyle, the way people communicated, the food, even the correct time to put out our garbage cans was different.

Chinese culture tended to favor practicality over idealism. Shanghai, like all international business-oriented cities, presented a rapidly-paced life with opportunities, competition, and dreams of success. Public transportation extended to the edges of the city, with convenient digital payments allowing citizens to pay with nothing more than an app on their phone. Glass-curtained skyscrapers on the coast of the Huangpu River cut sharp edges in the evening sky with their brilliance, forming the iconic futuristic skyline.

The city even held the World Expo once, and the remnants of those buildings had been retrofitted into theaters and museums. Information and technology was always the most up-to-date, as some of the most important conventions and corporate announcements had been held in Shanghai.

The three famous buildings in Pudong – Shanghai World Financial Center, Jinmao Tower, and Shanghai Tower. Taken on my way across the inter-city bridge.

It had been quite exciting, as my apartment was not far from the city center. However, it was an “every man for himself” scenario. Shanghai had a population of nearly 25 million, 3 times that of New York City. A significant portion of those were inter-province immigrants. China’s province system, a counterpart of American states, was much more unforgiving to them. Medical care, education, housing, and wages were all dependent on having a stable job, which was much more difficult to obtain for immigrants from poorer provinces.

They had to be relentless in a competition for basic social status. Even for locals, education stressed academic excellence in math and science, and an assessment grade was nearly the sole factor for school admissions. Intense rivalries between classes were a normality, even praised in a subtle way. The idea of “survival of the fittest” was instilled in almost every child, as our population size and schools offered few alternatives.

Advocates for compassion, empathy, and kindness became ubiquitous in propaganda posters, but the reality reminded me of that passage in the Gospel of Matthew 13:12, “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” This became the well-known Matthew’s Law in economics: Those born with a golden spoon would be allowed to advance Shanghai’s grandiosity, as the already disadvantaged members of society held less and less sway over politics and economic trends.

My neighborhood in North Carolina

And then I moved to America – North Carolina, to be exact.

North Carolina was the polar opposite. The town of Cary, as my new American home base, was a calm, peaceful place where nature was all-prevailing. Despite my new serene surroundings, it turned out to be difficult adapting to a less populated area: my parents needed to drive our car to get to the grocery store. Instead of heading to the mall around the corner or on the next block, I had to buy my pens from Germany on the Amazon website. Instead of having an insulating cement wall preventing pests and cold from getting in, there were toads, spiders and snakes just in my backyard and sometimes in my house.

It appeared that coexistence, instead of competition, was the general vibe of society. Neighbors lavishly spent their time cultivating their lawns and seldom came home late from work. For school, our standards were worlds apart from the rigor of Shanghai. I could write a 26-page mini-novel for an assignment while my peers barely put in enough effort to fill half a page.

But these were only the superficial results of a deeper cause – North Carolinians simply enjoyed, well, enjoying life. My peers would joke  and make pop culture references that I could not comprehend, or they would hang out in each other’s houses nearly every weekend. That life was joyful and relaxing, but meanwhile somewhat concerning. How would this lifestyle prepare me for the rigors of adult life?

KUA appeals to Chinese students and seeks them out:KUA’s Banner during the faculty trip to Shanghai.

It’s several years later, and I have come to KUA in search of a blend of Shanghai and Cary.  I now live in the middle of nowhere, and even UPS drivers are too lazy to visit quickly. But that also means that nature is a regular part of my day, and people take time to enjoy the sunshine and the mountain views.  Despite the rural environment, I am also enjoying fast internet access on a state-of-the-art MacBook Pro, going to Dartmouth for seminars, and planning for summer trips to Europe. I often feel at home here, but the challenges that come with KUA life keep me on my toes.

Sometimes – and this may be true for many international students – I still fail to “get the point” of American culture: Why do they appear careless yet sentimental in minor conflicts? What constitutes as a friend when “being nice” is the common way? What’s the standard response to “What’s up”? My knowledge of perfect grammar does not suffice. But there are certainties. This is a community with the technological advantages of Shanghai, the calm environments of Cary, and people who know friendship and tolerance more than any poster can tell.

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Comparing Cultures: From Shanghai to Meriden