January 26, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
The layers of diversity in China are deep and broad. There are, of course, ethnic differences. The government of the People’s Republic officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups – up by one since my trip to China last year.
I am fascinated by the faces in crowds at the Forbidden City and other places popular with Chinese tourists – folks from the provinces who now have the freedom and affluence to travel internally. For our students who carry stereotypic beliefs that Chinese people look alike, asking them to study faces is a life broadening experience.
There are language differences, too. The Chinese have a common written language but dialects so different that those who speak Mandarin from different cities or provinces can have trouble communicating with one another. Imagine if English speakers in New York couldn’t communicate with English speakers in Chicago or LA.
There are growing economic differences that often reflect urban vs. rural distinctions.
But the differences that are most striking for me are in the mindsets of the generations who live together in China today.
In the United States, we’ve talked about generation gaps for, well, generations. Howe and Strauss in the Atlantic Monthly have a good piece on the topic. The origin of generation gap in the U.S. is the flower-power, trust no one over thirty period of the last 1960’s. And we now speak about the generational differences between the digital natives and those born and raised pre-computer and Internet. My colleague John Palfrey and his co-author Urs Gasser capture that divide well in their book, Born Digital.
But to understand the meaning of generation gap in China today, you need to imagine a nation with a digital divide of its own: where cell phones, computers, social media, and digital music are standards for urban young. Add to that the reality that the experiences of those born every decade in China since the 1930’s has been informed by a markedly different political, ethical, and economic reality.
A young entrepreneur with her BMW and bank account may have parents who enthusiastically sacrificed all to participate in the Long March and grandparents who lost much so as to be “reeducated” during the Cultural Revolution. Continue back through Chinese history is great grandparents are still on the scene.
We take for granted in the United States consistent political, economic, and educational systems. Higher education has been a part of our national profile since colonial days. Expanded access to it has consistently grown over the course of our nation’s history, with huge participation jumps fueled by the GI Bill post-World War II and the Woman’s Movement in the 1960s and 1970’s. Underpinning all this is morality of freedom, choice, and opportunity.
The advent of Communism, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the re-education of academics and professionals, the evolution of Socialism post-Mao, the introduction of socialist capitalism, and more have taken the concept of generation gap to new heights.
Those looking for a simple definition of China today – its values, ethics, expectations, beliefs, practices, policies — need only remember that the Chinese cannot even answer that question. The markedly different life experiences and opportunities of those now in their 20’s, their 40’s, their 60’s, their 80’s have created generational divides and multiple lenses on life.
China’s generational diversity within its diversity is another good reason for us to enhance our tolerance for ambiguity and our cultural intelligence.