I came to Beijing full of expectations, ideas, unknown prejudices and a burning desire to learn, have a good time and eat a lot of street food. I openly acknowledged I was channeling my inner Anthony Bourdain and hoped that my 4-month stay would be akin to one long No Reservations episode involving psychedelic street scenes and heroic meal choices. 

I also hoped that I would leave China with a deeper understanding not only of the business culture but also of the people who live there. What do Chinese people think of the rest of the world? What do they think of the monumental changes and challenges occurring in their country? These were my questions for the people of China.

As someone who does not speak Mandarin and arrived with no friends, living in China was very hard at first. Life quickly devolved into a series of individual successes and failures in the pursuit of recreating my American lifestyle upon which I had unwittingly become so dependent. However, these endeavors pushed me to understand life in China not as a tourist but as a Chinese citizen. Going to a Chinese Ikea to buy an extra blanket is a very different experience as a tourist.

I was confronted with the same decisions Beijingers struggle with every day. As a result I was forced to break down my Western assumptions. I learned many Beijingers do not have washing machines or dryers. Cleaning my clothes frequently involved a plastic basin, hand washing and hang drying in the drying room I shared with the other students in my building. 

Many purchases in China are made after haggling with a seller in a store or in a market. Most Westerners are uncomfortable with engaging in hard-nosed haggling (except in car dealerships to everyone’s enjoyment) and many urban, middle-class Chinese consumers are choosing to move away from this model as well. For instance, there is a large shopping mall near campus with a popular Japanese clothing store, Uniqlo, which uses flat pricing, and they always happened to be busy. On the other hand, the Chinese brands that surrounded Uniqlo used a more traditional sales model staffed with bored and at times aggressive staff.  

Now that I am back in Richmond, I have found I am more self-aware regarding my own culture while being more receptive to others’ cultures. Furthermore, I am aware that one must take nothing for granted when communicating in another culture; it is easy to forget how very different the West is from other parts of the world. Many Westerners expect food safety and we unknowingly rely on our huge food delivery infrastructure and government regulations to protect us. These institutions do not exist in the same way in China, and that shapes the decisions consumers make. For example, I stopped eating food from street vendors. My original expectations were challenged, and through my time abroad I learned in ways I did not expect.   

China answered my initial questions differently than I had expected. Many Western media outlets cultivate an image of Chinese culture as a job-stealing dystopia combined with fortune cookies, chopsticks and communism: too foreign to rationalize. I found that China had a similar sentiment towards the West. While many Chinese look to the West in admiration, this is not without an air of cultural defensiveness. Didn’t the Chinese create many of the technologies and institutions upon which the West is built thousands of years ago? Seeing this perspective firsthand reshaped my view of China profoundly. The recent explosion of wealth and success among the Chinese is not a narrative of China’s ascension to an existing world order. Rather, China is merely returning to its historic seat at the world’s center.