World Citizen: Freedom

BY LU SHEN | OCTOBER 10, 2013 5:00 AM

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The first time I left China for the U.S. was in the summer of 2011. My destination was Conway, Ark., to spend four months in an exchange program organized by my university in Hangzhou, China. A sense of elation washed over me the moment I landed on the new foreign soil. I remember that the first word out of my mouth, when people asked why I liked it here, was “freedom.”

Being simple and naïve, the then-20-year-old girl thought her host country — known for being a civil and democratic society — would offer all the freedom she had always yearned for. But after my “honeymoon phase” with America cooled off, I started to realize that it was the social pressures in China that mostly contributed to my feeling restricted back home rather than the lack of civil and political rights. I mean, politics had been too far away from my everyday life. As simple as it was, my definition of freedom meant feeling comfortable not fitting into social norms and having more choices.

If you open up the China page on the Freedom House website, you will see an evil China: This is not a Western-style democracy; it does not have a comprehensive legal system. Chinese people do not have the freedom to vote, the freedom of press, the freedom of speech; they do not enjoy lots of civil liberties that Americans think everybody should be born with … But guess what? The lack of political freedom and civil liberties is not the sole cause of people feeling restricted in China. Moreover, there are people who say they enjoy the freedom they have in China.

• • •

Runxin Sun, 19, a sophomore majoring in philosophy and finance, said the Chinese are tied by too many tangible and intangible conventions, and that is exactly why he feels freer in America than in China.

“I can be unique and different here, expressing my opinions freely without worrying how people will judge me,” the 19-year-old said.

He pointed out that culturally, Chinese exclude outcasts, while America embraces many of those who are different.

“No matter how ridiculous my thoughts are, Americans will ask why and discuss with me calmly,” he said. “But if it were in China, people would bash me without discussion.”

Social norms, the tradition that makes some people outcasts, and the social ethics — all form a pressure that limits Chinese in every aspect, Sun contended.

Being exposed to an open information environment in the States, Sun said, he has experienced clashes of ideas that have changed him tremendously.

“I became a bystander from an angry youth, a tolerant person from a cynic,” Sun wrote in his diary. “I suddenly woke up and realized the bondages in my mind that I had never noticed; thus, I was closer to a person who can think normally.”

Zhuoyun Feng, a 21-year-old woman, said she was given the freedom of learning something she loves without family and social pressure in the United States.

Feng came to the UI as a sociology major in the spring of 2011; she later switched her major to graphic design and minored in sociology. Her parents were not happy with that at first but could only let it happen, because they did not have the control over her — they are half a world away.

She studied painting in high school, she said, and her father had thought of sending her to study with a well-established Chinese artist but later dropped the idea.

“You know that there’s a perception that leaning fine arts is inferior to leaning some serious subjects,” Feng said.

The Chinese place a high value on education, a heritage of Confucius. Yet those learning fine arts are often considered to be ignoramuses compared with those educated in other fields, for example, science. There is a perception that most art students do not study hard and have poor academic performances.

Statistics junior Yize Huang agreed with friend Sun.

Huang transferred to the UI two years ago from China Agricultural University, where, he said, he had experienced a rat race. Huang acknowledged that he has gained a freedom that he did not have in China: peace of mind. More specifically, he said, with more opportunities in sight and less pressure from the outside world, he felt that he could chase his dream in America without anything holding him back.

“I felt like I was restricted to too many things — competitions, comparisons, peer pressure, intermediate relationships with classmates and instructors … while I was in China,” Huang said.

He possesses the typical American dream — get married, have a solid career, have two children, a dog, a nice house, and two cars.

“But here at Iowa, everyone is caught up in her or his own business, so no one interferes with my stuff,” he said. “I feel that I can focus on my studies and have the opportunity to be what I want to be.”

Huang — who would like to stay in America after graduation — said that he thinks Chinese people are not free for historical reasons.

“Historically and culturally, Chinese people are not free — we live for too many people, such as parents and families; it is difficult to change,” he said.

He acknowledged that filial piety has been rooted in his mind, and he said it is understandable this tradition is still prevalent among Chinese — China’s social-security system is not so good as it is in the United States.

I asked him what he would do, given the choice to remain in the States after graduation.

“I’ll bring my parents to the U.S. and take care of them,” Huang said.

University of Iowa political-science Professor Wenfang Tang pointed out that besides the straitjackets from social and cultural pressure and the traditional conventions, the freedom that Chinese lack is more the result of an economically underdeveloped country than of an undemocratic one.

“It’s not a problem that can simply be solved by overthrowing the Communist Party,” Tang said.

Unlike America, he said, China’s social-security and medical systems are not so well developed, thus, “Yang er fang lao” — “raising children for old age” — has been a deeply rooted idea among the Chinese, which has nothing to do with whether China is a democracy or not.

“People are still worrying about their later lives,” Tang said. “Things such as democratic election are hardly on their radar.”

However, not all Chinese think they breathe the air with more freedom in America; some people say, “I enjoy enough freedom in China.”

Shuqi Li, a fourth-year psychology student, is one of them.

“Everything has a limit,” Li said. “As long as you don’t break the law or leak top-secret government information, you get enough freedom in China.

“You get into trouble when you leak top-secret documents — it’s the same in America.”

American-based social-media platforms Facebook and Twitter remain blocked in China — except for the recently opened Shanghai Free-trade Zone, in which banned foreign websites will be accessible. Li said she does not share the sentiment of people in China about not being able to access those websites.

“The government does that for a reason, and why do you have to be able to see stuff on those two sites?” the 21-year-old asked. “If the access to Facebook and Twitter were to open now, I don’t think Chinese would be likely to move from Renren [the Chinese version of Facebook] and Weibo [the Chinese version of Twitter] to those two sites.”

A survey report released by China Internet Network Information Center shows that China has more than 331 million microbloggers as of June. Weibo has grown into an outlet for public opinion on issues from politics to celebrities, on which netizens are able to share uncensored information with a level of freedom not available elsewhere in the country.

Li sees Chinese jumping the firewall to access American social networking sites as a psychological reaction. “It’s just the same as the underage drinking problem in America,” she said.

“Maximizing the utility of the things you have got to improve yourself is more important than coveting things that other people or other countries have,” Li said.

Interestingly, UI senior Jingtong Du pointed out that there is a kind of intangible freedom in China thanks to an incomplete legal system and a rule-of-man society.

“For example, you would not worry about being chased by the police if you over-speed in China,” Du said. “Further, even if you are troubled by the police, you lock the car doors [from the police] and call someone for help, and then you are out of trouble.”

Rong Chen, 28, spoke to me in the summer while she was here with her husband, Chao Zheng, who got his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the UI. The couple have since returned to China. But at the time, Chen said she thought it is arrogant to perceive the United States as a free country while China is not.

“The U.S. only looks at the limitations of other countries and the freedom its people have, so it considers itself a free land,” Chen said, who majored in journalism in college. “The American impression of China may not have changed since decades ago, because American society hasn’t changed too much over the last several decades, while China has changed with each passing day.”

Zheng said that while America has a legal system that offers liberties to its citizenry, he has sensed that there is an invisible constraint and that Americans are accustomed to it.

“In a developed country like America, its system and society has been stabilized,” he said. “I feel some of the laws and regulations tend to serve the current set-up, the monopoly, and the business monopolies have hung over people’s lives.”

Taking the example of pharmacy, Zheng said, it would be easier to open up a pharmacy in China, because in America, a small pharmacy is unlikely to survive because of the existence of CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart.

“Respectively speaking, things are more flexible in China, although there are lots of irregular phenomena there,” Zheng said. “Our market is not as mature as it is in America after all.”

• • •

During his first year at the UI, Runxin Sun, the 19-year-old sophomore, partied every weekend, skipped school as much as he possibly could, and dropped classes whenever he felt he was not able to complete them. He ended up being placed on academic probation during his second semester at the UI.

Being forced to study in high school, Sun said, he had followed the notion that study had been imposed on him by parents, school, and the society, but he did not see it as his own responsibility.

He acknowledged that he believed this when he came to the United States. In a place in which no one forced him to do anything, he was too free.

“Here in America, nobody required me to be obedient, nobody gave me guidance, nobody disciplined me,” he said. “I was surrounded by a sense of crisis while on the academic probation; I didn’t want to be dismissed.”

So here comes the trade-off between personal freedom and academic performance.

Sun is not alone. Lacking guidance, many Chinese students I have talked to said they had the similar experience of living a “cage-free” life during their initial semesters at Iowa. It was not until they saw their first semester GPA they realized that they had had “abused” the freedom.

• • •

Enjoying the loneliness comes along with freedom.

Rao Fu transferred from Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University United International College to the UI in 2011. After coming to the United States, she told me, she was glad to be gone from the concept of collectivity in Chinese culture.

While in China, Fu said, she had adapted herself to the communal life. She never felt lonely because her self-awareness was weakened by a dominant ideology, which made her swim with the tide without feeling being controlled.

“In America, I don’t like being in any circle, no matter if it’s American or Chinese, and so I feel like I’m living on the margin,” Fu said.

Because of the marginalization, she said, she has gained much more space and time to think, to make choices, and to deal with herself.

“I feel like I’m a grain of sand in America, meaning that I have become an entire individual,” the 23-year-old said.

Enjoying the spiritual state of being free and independent, she acknowledged that she has experienced the loneliness that accompanies that.

“But I’ve become more and more accustomed to the loneliness,” Fu said. “I think it’s a growth process, and I’ve found the balance point within the loneliness I have.”

For Fu, her precious personal freedom is almost like a privilege gained at a high cost; it is not an inherited natural right, such as the freedom of speech.

• • •

Here in the United States, I do have a lot of freedom that I once longed for in China, and choices are everywhere, including the whole table of “uglies” (at one of the tomato tables) for me to choose from at the Farmers’ Market. I have also realized that freedom is not everything.

Had I not spent my summer back in China, where I hung around in restaurants, coffee shops, and pubs with two of my professor friends, talking, joking, and trading gossip, I would have forgotten how much I had desired such deep, meaningful conversations with no worries about being politically incorrect or about crossing any boundaries.

One night, when we were about to say goodbye at a coffee shop in my home city of Hangzhou, my friend Yinjie noticed I was wearing a pair of red-brown vintage jelly sandals. She said, “They are just like the ones Mi Lan wears.” (Mi Lan is one of the main characters in a 1994 Chinese movie In the Heat of the Sun, set during the Cultural Revolution in Beijing, who symbolized a mentality of breaking free from social straitjackets at the time.) Then my friend laughed, seeming to realize something. “Americans wouldn’t talk about Mi Lan with you, huh?”

I was so struck by the sense of belonging in the moment she said that. I thought what an important moment it was. And I came to the conclusion that ultimately I’d rather have that sense of belonging – of familiarity and comfort – than having all the freedom that comes with living in the United States – as well as all the loneliness.  My friend was right.

Americans would never talk about Mi Lan with me.

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