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.”


  1. I have seen this is Beijing where the number one topic is how many apartments one has. As if that makes one happy. Young women will steer the conversation immediately into how much assets a man has so they can decide if he is worth the chase. A sad state of affairs. Luckily there will be a growing amount of people breaking out of this rat race that can never been won and usualy ends in misery.

  2. Its pointless to compare lifestyles from one single metric. All that should matter to a human is how happy they are overall. In this sense you are worse off because you worry about material things like money and not enough about the true happiness you will find in friends and family.

    I have friends all over the socio-economic spectrum and guess what? My friends working $25/hr jobs aren’t any less happy than my friends making $50/hr. The ones making more have burdened themselves with more problems (mostly financial) while my “poorer” friends have vibrant social lives that keep their emotions in balance.

  3. What one has to remember is how difficult life in China is if you are poor.

    In a Western country, even relatively poor people can lead pretty much decent lives, as long as they have a job.

    In China, being poor for a lifetime is pretty miserable in all sorts of ways. There is also no proper welfare and support from the state. Thus, the Chinese do their best to make sure they will not be poor. This leads to an obsessive drive to succed, first academically and then financially.

    • I think this goes right along with the OP, as wasn’t it in exactly those conditions that the whole idea of the American Dream was born?

      The thing I find most interesting (scary) about poverty in the US, is how fast it has begun to slide out of that “poor but still comfortable” into “cold and hungry”. In the last decade alone I think there have been big changes in the level of poverty in the US (and many other Western countries).

  4. It is true in china,but I think this will changed along with middle class group in china become big enough,if the society became a rich and education one,let us see what will happened.

  5. Did I miss something about the “Dream”? or has the recent past moved back a few hundred years?

    Personally I see no difference in the burdens of the emerging Middle Class in Asia than what occurred in most Western countries from the 40’s and “50’s. Bragging rights of parents haven’t changed nor has the perceptual or conceptual goals.

    One only need to look back into their own Western family hierarchy a few decades and find the parents and grandparents had the exact same desires for their offspring to succeed for the family name and some major or minor niche in history.

    The single most historical difference at this time was the emergence of the Working Female. Out of the Kitchen and Into the Work Force changed how the middle class family emerged into what it is today.

    I see no difference, looking back 3 or more generations of immigrants to one country and not have the same goals. The migration is somewhat different but the basics remain the same.

    This does not qualify as any “” Dream but the never-ending patriarchal instinct to push children towards earn more through explicit higher education or marriage with the same results.

    The Root of All Evil. Money and what it can buy.

    Guess I missed that part of recent history.

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