My View from Beijing: Adventures in a Multinational Classroom
“Is this what you imagined democracy would look like?”
Seems like a big question for a Wednesday.
As an undergrad at LSA studying international affairs and Chinese, Beijing was a known quantity but a distant concept. During my time at Michigan I had studied abroad and traveled in China, but never envisioned making a life 7,000 miles from my home. I envisioned a life in DC or New York, perhaps grad school.
I definitely didn’t foresee that six months after graduating from Michigan, I would be sitting with classmates from 22 different countries as a Yenching Academy Scholar at Peking University to wait for the results of the 2016 American elections. Nor did I expect that after the outcome instigated decidedly divided reactions, we would be off to an awkward discussion seminar, where we failed to cover the day’s agenda in Chinese studies, but did share many thoughts on elections, American politics and its impact on world affairs. The question, “Is this what you imagined democracy would look like?,” came from our Chinese TA, and was said with a smirk that signaled she intended to be ironic with her line of questioning.
Changing countries and environments raised many significant questions for me, and not just about democracy or American politics. The language that China uses to discuss its foreign and domestic policies took on new significance. “Crossing the river by feeling the stones,” “win–win cooperation,” “mutual benefit,” “a shared community for the future of mankind”: this policy jargon, once vague and seemingly empty, shifted and coalesced into something totally new once I had the opportunity to observe its usage and meaning in context. At one point my classmates and I proposed adoption of a drinking game in honor of this jargon, but quickly gave up after we realized such an exercise would promote immediate intoxication due to constant propaganda overdrive. Our next favorite game was seeing how long one could carry on a conversation exclusively using buzzwords (win–win cooperation works for almost any topic).
These quintessentially Chinese phrases, as well as and the countless others, encapsulate how China is projecting itself as it globalizes and becomes more confident internationally. No longer do we hear that China wants to ‘grow in strength and bide its time.’ Now China wants to project itself as a strong, sufficient nation that is simultaneously not going to be pushed around and is ready to be the new defender of multilateralism.
Between relentlessly positive Chinese rhetoric and almost universally relentless negative language about China from the US, evaluating Beijing’s language feels like a constant tightrope. One must balance China’s propaganda, and America’s as well. Walking that tightrope has changed not only my read of international relations, but my personal life as well.
Two years after graduating from Michigan, my life looks far different than I could ever have imagined. I’m now working as the geopolitics analyst and editor at China Policy, a policy research consultancy based in Beijing, and last month I recently graduated from a the Peking University master’s program in Chinese studies. I am fortunate to have a community of friends in China from a wide diversity of nations, friends whose experiences, race, religion and economic background inspire me daily to think more critically both personally and intellectually.
I have found that engagement with this community has been most difficult in the following areas: academic culture, expectations of bureaucracy, modes of expression, and relationship to hierarchy. Compounding this mismatch in expectations was a Chinese environment unprepared to deal with diversity and preconceived attitudes from students (often American) that their way of approaching problems must be superior. My takeaway is that talking about cross-cultural communication is far easier than accomplishing it, especially if your goal is to have both sides walk away feeling successful and positive.
I was hoping to be able to write a precise, confident conclusion to wrap up my continuing journey in China. At the moment, my thoughts feel confused, even cynical: I no longer believe in the supreme moral high ground or efficacy of democracy, nor do I want the rest of the world to look like China. I have experienced cross cultural communication that is largely ineffective. As a result, I'm amazed that any two nations can negotiate successfully and “both win.” I hope that such cooperation is truly possible moving forward, because I hope for the best for the two nations that have shaped me most.
Hannah Feldshuh graduated in April 2016 from the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts with high honors in Asian Language and Cultures and International Studies. She wrote for the Michigan Journal of International Affairs during her Junior and Senior year, first as a writer on Asian affairs then as a Regional Editor. Following her time at Michigan, Hannah earned her master’s degree in Chinese studies from the Yenching Academy of Peking University, a new scholarship program focused on promoting scholarship on China among global leaders. She now works as the geopolitical analyst and editor at China Policy, a policy research firm in Beijing.