Extreme Culture Shock

The recent film Mao’s Last Dancer (trailer here) explores various themes and doesn’t necessarily focus on culture shock.  Having recently read the book the film is based on, the author Li Cunxin describes his first impressions of the United States when he arrives there for the first time.  To say the least, his experience is extraordinary.  As a poor peasant boy living in China in the 1970s, the shock of coming to the United States would be expected.  But what I found even more interesting was how his ideas about the US conflicted with the reality he found there.  In the chapter entitled “The Filthy Capitalist America,” Li describes how “nothing [he] had seen so far matched the dark, decaying, depressing picture of America that the Chinese government had painted in [his] mind.”  Prior to his arrival, he commented that “for so many years [he] had been told that the West, especially America, was evil” and that he’d heard of nothing but “the mistreatment of black people, the violence on the streets, the use of firearms.”

He thought the smiles, happiness and kindness of the Americans were fake and says they made him “nervous,” thinking that “behind their smiling faces will be a hidden agenda” and that he would “find out what it is soon.”  Upon seeing “high-rise buildings, wide clean streets, [and] a green and orderly environment” he became confused because he didn’t think the Americans could have “built these buildings just to impress” him.  It soon dawned on him that “someone had lied to [him] about America being the poorest nation in the world and China being the richest nation.”

Today, when people travel abroad they usually have a pretty accurate idea of what to expect.  They might have seen a film or read a book about the place they’re travelling to.  Of course it’s also possible to look online or in a guide book to find out a lot of information beforehand.  But prior to Li’s trip, he knew next to nothing about America and what to expect.  This lack of information, coupled with his Communist education and beliefs, presented quite a shock.

After returning to China, he was able to compare and contrast the different lifestyles and felt even more restricted by life there after experiencing freedom and prosperity in America.  If you’re familiar with the story, you know that Li soon defected from China and lived in the United States.  The main point of this post is to comment on a type of culture shock that probably doesn’t exist any more.  Perhaps awareness of this can make us more appreciative of the mild culture shock that we ourselves experience when travelling or living abroad.

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