3. Final Reflection

You’re Chinese, why don’t you speak Chinese?

I’ve been getting this question since the first trip to China that I can remember when I was eight. After people got over my strange appearance and learned that I couldn’t speak Chinese fluently, it was always the first thing I heard. This country has a way of claiming people as its own even after generations of ancestry removed from the homeland. This question, which often disregards the fact that many Chinese families have been in the US since the 1800s and have no need to speak Chinese, comes from a different conception of citizenship based on culture and shared ethnic ties, that stands in contrast to the multicultural conception of citizenship that I’m used to in America. (Though China has many national minorities,  the largest ethnic group and the biggest cultural power is still the Han).

What’s interesting to me is how that question has changed. In 2006 people used to ask it with an air of lightly disappointed chagrin – especially my Chinese family. Didn’t I know that Chinese would be the most important language in a few years? This year I heard it with a tone of frustration and a bit of disbelief. Chinese is popular, and China is the most powerful country in the world, so why don’t you know the language already? Whenever I meet with new people in China, after they ask me where I am from, the next question is always about my language skills. People ask me why I didn’t speak Chinese as a child. Sometimes, if my mother is there, they question her parenting.

But it was on this particular trip that I heard something for the first time: the idea of “爱国,” or loving one’s country. This probably means I haven’t been listening. But for some reason, in the few trips I’ve made to the country between 2006 and 2016, Chinese people never came across to me as especially patriotic before. Yes, there is the CCP, and the government-sponsored yearly culture showcase that is broadcast on CCTV, and there is the CCTV broadcast itself and the very patriotic national news – but I never connected this overtly patriotic national media to the thought processes of the average Chinese person. I always thought that Chinese people found the concept of overt patriotism funny, maybe even American. Yet here I was in a circle of professors and students, talking uncritically about the concept of love and loyalty to one’s country (even one’s ancestral country). Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention, but I think it has something to do with China’s economic and political rise.

On Change

The funny thing about the Nanjing Population Training Center is that its umbrella organization – the National Health and Family Planning Bureau – dissolved earlier this year. I think in May. Therefore the place that I worked for had to go through a scramble to change its focus in the few months before I arrived. They seemed to do it well. By the time I showed up to work, everything from the organization’s research projects to the focus of the presentations it gave to healthcare workers was geared toward healthy aging.

This change seemed to affect the professionals who gave the talks as well. I met a professor who, until a few months ago, had been doing research focusing on gender inequity among rural females. She switched over to aging studies recently.

Though I am just an outsider looking into a system that is far too opaque and complex for me to understand, I think I may have witnessed the change in family planning policy from a microscopic perspective. It affected everyone from average people to the university professors and researchers with whom I spent my time, who were all helpless to resist this change.

I had an illuminating conversation with Zhu Laoshi about this change. She is from the Hui ethnic minority. I mention this only because she was the only Hui person I have met on this trip. She was a quick-witted, fast-talking woman in her early thirties, who also believed wholeheartedly in the Chinese government’s ability to take care of its people. She explained to me the problems with the new family planning system (not everyone wants to have two children, but now there are more older people than ever) and described the disparities in quality of life and educational attainment between rural and urban youth. She also was honest about China’s problem with pollution. But she was convinced that all of these things were getting better.

To me, this seemed sad at first. How could she trust the authorities to protect the interests of average Chinese when she had no control over what they chose to do? But then I thought about my experiences. I stayed in a hotel and training center paid for entirely by the Chinese equivalent of the department of health – meaning that up-to-date health information was disseminated to eldercare workers all around the country. I visited a new model for a holistic health care center, a pilot that was intended to be spread to the rest of the province if it was successful. And I saw my grandmother get a CAT scan for only 200 yuan out of pocket.

All this is not to say that everything in that country is run correctly – but I learned that there are other ways of caring for people than in democracy. And the concept of a government that is fair to its people is not exclusive to a Western democracy. When I was in China, I witnessed a healthcare system that was actually meant to care for people – and that represented a belief in a common right to health that I just don’t see in the US.