Current senior Politics major Abigail Scanga spent the spring semester studying abroad in China. Below are her thoughts on what she learned from Chinese students about their views on America and its domestic and foreign policy.
Every Friday night, 9 pm, at Xiamen Daxue (Xiamen University) in China, you can find a crowd of Chinese students gathered around a contemporary statue, eager to practice English. As a native English speaker, I was a rare commodity among the students, who often only get to practice with each other. With my large, round eyes and brown, curly hair, I could not hide or escape the notice of several Chinese students who would rather practice English with an English speaker than a fellow Chinese student. Some were more fluent than others, but no matter the fluency of a student, I was always asked the pivotal question, “What is your major?” I must admit that I was perplexed by this question, especially in the face of native Chinese speakers. Do I tell them that I am a double major in Chinese and Political Science? But I knew that that answer would lead to a conversation in Chinese, which was the opposite of what I was there to do: help them practice English. Instead, I more often than not chose the route of just saying Political Science. And more often than not, I was in for a night of criticisms about both American domestic and foreign policy.
University students in China are not just concerned about one particular area of American politics, but rather a multitude of topics, ranging between both domestic and foreign policy. The most common question I received was, “What is your view on gun ownership?” The Sandy Hook Elementary shootings had just occurred two months previously, and Chinese students wanted answers: why would the American government allow its people to own such dangerous weapons? Through conversation, I also learned that Chinese people believe that every typical American family owns a gun. When I explained that my family didn’t own guns, I was further grilled, “Why doesn’t your family own guns?” “Does that mean your family is against guns?” “Have you ever shot a gun before?” “Can anyone get a gun, and how do you acquire one?” After much discussion, I finally found the root of all the questions: how could you feel safe living in America, knowing that your neighbor owns a weapon that could kill you? Though any American could respond by saying that even a kitchen knife could be used to harm, it is a very real fear for Chinese students who are not accustomed to living in a country where the citizens can own such dangerous weapons.
After the whiplash of hearing criticisms of America for allowing its citizens to own guns, then chastised for not protecting myself from my neighbor, the topic usually turned towards a more passionate venue: the Diaoyu Islands. While I was in China, tensions between Japan and China over the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Islands had increased dramatically. Chinese students vehemently opposed American involvement in this issue, and demanded answers from me: Why is the United States involved? How does this conflict have anything to do with Americans? Why were the Americans siding with the Japanese? I tried my best to explain the historical reasons for American backing of Japan, but the students did not want a history lesson. They wanted America to leave the conflict within Asia. At this point in the conversation I usually felt helpless. Yes, I am a student of politics, but do they really expect that I can change American foreign policy? I could feel that the students wanted to convince me that America was in the wrong, so I would try to retain neutral objectivity, riding out the conversation until they changed the topic.
I was studying in China when the bombings of the Boston Marathon occurred. It was shocking for me and my fellow American students to walk into the cafeteria one morning and see pictures and news reports flashing over the TV screens. We were all horrified, and a sense of nationalistic pride washed over us as we read about how Americans were helping each other through the ordeal. It was not as easy to comprehend from the news reports what the Chinese perspective was about the event. I realized that I could ask my newfound friends at English Corner what their take was, expecting a similar reaction that I held felt. To my surprise, the Chinese students were not overly concerned. It was a shame, they said, but America was asking for it. Just like 9/11/01, they referenced. When America involves itself in other nations’ affairs, it is only a matter of time before they will be attacked. The world is not a place where America can exact its influence and then not expect something in return. And with that, the conversation was over, and they moved on to congratulating me for re-electing President Obama.
I came to realize through these Friday night conversations that Chinese college students do not have a particularly positive opinion of American government and its policies. That does not mean that they do not like American culture or people; many were looking forward to traveling to the U.S., and all enjoyed Hollywood productions and entertainment. They were especially welcoming towards me and my fellow American study abroad students, and often invited us to go to karaoke. From a political standpoint, however, the students were confused, perplexed, and angry about how America conducts itself both domestically and internationally. Because I am a student of political science, it was my duty to explain the American perspective to them, though honestly I felt as if I took quite a beating. And even though this was the case every Friday night, same place, same time, same conversations, I decided to keep owning that I studied politics. Because I think it was, and still is, important to have these tough conversations in order to expand our worldview. It was one thing for me to debate American policies in the confines of a Messiah classroom with a community of people I trust, and it was quite another to accept the criticism from Chinese college students in their country, while trying to practice a second language. Though English corner was a rather humbling experience to say the least, it was a valuable one, for now I am better prepared to expand my worldview in international politics. With that, I now turn the tables to you, fellow students, alumni, professors, or people just generally interested in politics: how would you have responded to the Chinese student perspective, had you been in my place?
Thank you, Abigail, for sharing your experiences of studying abroad! We welcome any comments that readers may have regarding our posts.