Story-sharing saves us from stereotypes

Allison Zhu
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Allison Zhu

IMAGINE you are visiting China for the first time and you are waiting in line at a crowded dumpling shop. A woman holding a screaming child bumps into you and does not apologize. Another customer, sitting under the no-smoking sign, frowns at you while smoking. After being seated, the waiter impatiently takes your order, tapping her foot and darting her eyes.

Alternatively, you are waiting in line at a small dumpling shop. A woman holding her child bumps into you, but immediately apologizes. A man smiles at you from across the waiting room. After being seated, the waiter continuously apologizes for the long waiting line, and offers you a free drink. You thank her, and she responds, “Bu ke qi,” meaning “you’re welcome” or “you’re too polite.”

If you experience the first story, you may conclude that Chinese people are rude, but if you experience the second story, you may conclude that Chinese people are nice. That is the danger of a single story, Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, talked about in her 2009 TED Talk. And it is the single story many Americans know about China.

I grew up in California, and had visited Shanghai when I was in elementary school. I watched Nickelodeon, listened to FM 106.5, and read my city’s local magazine — none of which ever mentioned China.

Little did I know that less than ten years later, I would push open the airport doors into the humidity of Shanghai, and enter a world that used to exist only in photographs.

List of ‘dislikes’

I made a list of “dislikes” upon my arrival: heat, mosquitoes, crowds, inconvenience, not many youth sports teams, poor internet connection, impolite people, smoking and pollution. China’s underdevelopment was my single story.

A few years passed, and I began to understand how wrong my single story was. And I came back to this list when I left China once again to study in the United States.

My teacher had asked me where I learned to speak English so well, and my classmate had asked whether there were movie theaters in China.

When talking about global warming in a Humanities class, a girl said that when she visited the Forbidden City, not only was there acid rain, she could barely breathe in Beijing’s polluted air. She asked how I could survive in Shanghai, and when I mentioned an air purifier, she was surprised that people in China could develop something so advanced.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Statistically, stereotypes do not make sense. One cannot form a conclusion from such a small sample size: sampling error arises from estimating a population characteristic by looking at only one portion of the population rather than the entire population.

But I realized that if I had not lived in China, and if all I knew about China was from American media, perhaps I too would think that China was a place of job-stealers, polluters, and corrupters in big cities, and families waiting for foreigners from service programs to save them from human-rights violations in small villages.

However, single stories are not always negative. Due to the influence of American media, many Chinese hear positive stories about the US. A friend told me that many Chinese have the misconception that since the US is a developed country, it must be very safe. Thus, many are surprised to learn that in major US cities, people are cautioned not to walk on the streets after dark. According to the FBI, in 2015, an estimated 1,197,704 violent crimes occurred in the US, whereas China has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world.

In 1980, Chinese economic output was a tenth of the US. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that in 2020, China’s economy will be 20 percent larger.

This makes me wonder: When will my American teacher know about the English curriculum in many Chinese local schools? When will my classmate finds out about bike-sharing in China? When will she hear about China’s Five-Year Plans? When will these diverse Chinese stories be seen all over the world?

Having two of the world’s largest economies, it would be beneficial for both China and the US to have a strong understanding of each other. This basic level of miscommunication between cultures has much larger implications, and that is why the stories matter.

If China and the US can promote a better understanding and cooperation between both nations, instead of undermining each other, the whole world would benefit. This is currently happening. As China is on the rise, more Americans are open to a new perspective on China — in particular the American expatriates.

The degree to which people believe in a single story is based on the amount and diversity of stories they hear.

So to those who have the opportunity to experience Chinese culture first-hand: ask questions and share stories.

We may realize that we share more than we think. I hope that one-day, America’s answer to “What is China like?” is beyond a single story.

The author Allison Zhu is an intern at Shanghai Daily.



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