Chasing the Chinese Dream

Chinese students salute during a flag-raising ceremony at a junior high school in Shanghai. Photo from NPR

Chinese students salute during a flag-raising ceremony at a junior high school in Shanghai. Photo from NPR

Growing up on the east coast of America in a typical Chinese family, I feel that I’ve come to a general understanding of how two different cultures can clash. Oftentimes I find myself at odds with family members and Chinese family friends alike who regularly voice thoughts and opinions that I just can’t 100% agree with. A big issue, as I’m sure many Western children of Chinese households can attest to, is the importance of getting good grades, attending a “good” university, and eventually, having a financially successful career.

I constantly have this battle with my mother, who despite having lived in America for over 25 years, still maintains a strong Chinese mindset. Every now and then she’ll bring up the fact that neither I nor my sister managed to get into a top 5 university. Perhaps our neighbors down the street have a daughter who was just accepted to Princeton, or she hears of an old friend whose son recently graduated from Columbia; no matter the case, there will always be constant reminders to my mother that her children have, in her eyes, not met her standards. For the record, I went to a fairly reputable university and my sister is about to start school at an Ivy League in the fall. However, to my mother, success = Harvard, and even though compared to the rest of the world, my sister and I may be considered extraordinarily successful, my mother cannot help but feel that it’s not good enough. I’m not trying to antagonize my mother; she has wholeheartedly only ever wanted the best for my sister and me, but I think her attitude speaks a great deal to the difference of thought between the Chinese and (in my experiences) Americans.

In the past, America was a land of opportunity; a place where immigrants could start fresh and succeed in a way they never would have in their home country. Yet, as the years have passed, the perception of the American dream has changed. For many people, no longer is the goal in life to get rich. Rather, it’s to pursue your own passions and dreams. Most colleges in America emphasize a liberal arts education – one where students supplement their minds with a broad spectrum of subjects before settling down with a major that truly stimulates their interests. In China however, the idea of making choices that leads to a wealthy and comfortable lifestyle is still held steadfastly in the minds of many.

I work at a high school in Beijing. Recently, I read an essay written by a student responding to the question of whether giving up is ever the right thing to do. She told of her passion for music and her struggle with whether she should give up playing instruments in order to have more time for her studies. In the end, she heard a story of a different girl who faced a similar situation. This girl gave up her extracurricular pursuits in order to focus on school, and eventually was admitted to Peking University. This girl’s decision led to success, my student concluded, and so she should do the same. Later, the same student came in to ask for advice on how to talk to some visiting US admissions officers. I suggested that she talk about her intended majors: either finance or engineering. When I asked her why she chose these two majors, she replied: “Well honestly, it’s because they make the most money.”

More and more, I hear of Chinese people speaking of the importance of financial security. “If you can’t succeed career-wise,” I was once told by a family member, “at least try to marry rich.” And while I personally can’t bring myself to gold-dig my way into a permanently comfortable lifestyle, this type of trend has been growing in China. From surveys that show that 60% of Chinese college girls aspire to marry a 富二代 (Rich Second Generation) to classes that teach women how to attract rich suitors, it seems that for many women in China, “financial assets” has become the number one quality a woman looks for in a man.

I’m not trying to place judgment on the mindset and ideas of the Chinese. After all, differing cultures have differing definitions of “happiness” – as long as no harm is done, who am I to judge whether someone’s actions are “right” or “wrong”? But as a girl who grew up around the liberal values of America, I’m personally more willing to give up a life of comfort and luxury if it means that I’m pursuing real interests and passions. However, I can also understand people like my parents who, having lived the harsher life of the Chinese Revolution, don’t want their children to go through similar hardships.

“What do you think is more important?” I asked my mother last week, “Going to Harvard but being miserable, or going to an average school and being happy?”

“Well of course Harvard,” my mother replied. “Life would be so much easier for you. That’s the dream.”