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Paynesville Press - Sept. 1, 2004

Guest Editorial

U.S. visit shocks Chinese journalist

By Wenjun Gu, a World Press Institute Fellow from Shanghai, China

WPI Fellow Wenjun Gu If it weren't for dozens of Hollywood movies and pirate DVDs of friends that I had seen back home in Shanghai, I may feel tremendous cultural shocks seeing the U.S. in person. So, I knew that Americans like to wear baseball hats, despite their ages and genders, they eat vegetables uncooked, they dry their clothes in machines rather than in the sunshine, and they make jokes anytime they want to, even on live TV news! But still I have been shocked a lot by my first visit to the United States.

The first shocking thing about the United States is its size. I came to realize that everything in the world's only superpower is big pretty soon.

The second day after I arrived in St. Paul, my host mother took me out for lunch. I ordered a cup of ice tea. When the ice tea was delivered, I was stunned - the mug was so huge that it could serve at least three people in Shanghai! I did not finish that ice tea. In fact, I did not eat up my food - a plate of salad with spinach and chicken - either. That was mission impossible for me, who weighs only 45 kilograms and is skinny even according to Chinese standards.

As I see more, I realize that everything here is in extreme, large size - automobiles, houses, chairs, refrigerators, and even dogs. They are reminders to visitors that this is a BIG country.

So, food is a big deal for American people, who either are eating or talking about what to eat when they are not eating. In grocery stores, foods are in all possible status - fresh, frozen, pre-made, and ready-to-eat. How could they ignore a great delicacy that is planted in magnitude such as soybeans?

I was sent to a farm last week to have a taste of rural life in the U.S. and to see real Americans instead of imagining how they live their life from briefings in a classroom. On the vast land of Minnesota, farmers plant three major agricultural products - corn, alfalfa, and soybean. I was told that most of the crops are feeds for livestock or used as raw materials for industrial purposes. At that time I was not quite sure that if the soybeans we were talking about was the same we had in China. So when I saw soybeans in the field, I was stunned again. It is one of the most popular foods in the summer in Shanghai and one of my family's favorites. We eat soybeans either when they are green or yellow. Cooking them is as simple as boiling water. But here, it's cows that enjoy the delicacy of soybeans. Differences cause shocks. But sometimes similarities have the same impact on me.

Before I came to the U.S., I had an image of American people that they are liberal, indifferent, and self-centered. They don't care about their neighbors. They don't care about their folks. They don't care about their families. But after three weeks in the country, I have totally changed my mind.

My homestay host in Pope County is one of the reasons that changed me. The couple, who are in their 60s, have several albums with each having about 100 pages. What impressed me is that in these albums I saw not only pictures of their own family and their sons' families but also families of their siblings and even their nephews' and nieces' families. Each family has a full page of snapshots of lifetime moments, such as birthday, weddings, and family reunions. I can't recall all those names and faces but I remember when I flicked through these pages I felt strong love, the love that keeps family members adhering to their roots and to each other.

This may be a special case. But at places I have been to, most of which are grocery stores and parks, I saw parents with their children shopping or walking the dog. I don't think those things are so significant that a whole family should be involved. I think they just enjoy being together.

That is what Chinese people believe is important in life - family. China has a recorded history of 3,600 years. For so many years, people have lived in big families, which means children always live with their parents no matter how old they are and whether they are married or not. Although we have lost many traditions during the progress towards industrialization, the importance of family remains in our mentality. More and more young people can afford to buy their own apartments after being married now, but they would buy apartments that are within several minutes walk from their parents' home.

Shock may be the wrong term. It is more like feeling relieved to learn that we, people from the east and the west, share the same values despite our different races, religions, cultural backgrounds, and political systems.

I still have little idea about how Americans think about the Chinese. They may have prejudices, as I once had. But I believe they will find we are not so different as we seem to be. The key is more communication, less confrontation.

(Editor's Note: Wenjun Gu is one of nine working journalists who are currently attending a four-month fellowship sponsored by World Press Institute based at Macalester College in St. Paul. Peter and Lynne Jacobson, publishers of the Press, were her smalltown media hosts last week. During her stay, she will learn about the politics, the economy, and the education system of the United States, as well as the First Amendment rights Americans enjoy. The WPI fellows are now in New York City to watch the Republican National Convention. In Shanghai, Wenjun works for the International Service of Dragon TV, a English -language satellite channel of Shanghai Media Group.)

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