Kyle Munson: Varying Chinese Cultures

Since I arrived in the People’s Republic of China about one month ago, one of the most interesting things that is prevalent in China is the high level of homogeneity. In China, 91% of the population is made up of a single ethnic group: the Han Chinese. While there is certainly nothing wrong with such a level of homogeneity, it has certainly been one condition that I have had to adjust to. Even though I was born and raised in a small town in north-central Illinois and have spent the last three year attending university in a Nebraskan town of comparable size, it was not terribly rare to encounter those of varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds in those areas.

Do not believe this high level of homogeneity to indicate that there is only one culture present in China. The population of the People’s Republic of China is approximately 1,300,000,000. Even with the Han making up 91% of that figure, it indicates that the remaining groups collectively represent approximately 117,000,000 people; that is a larger population than the combined populations of the American states lying to the west of the Mississippi River. Although not every group is proportionally represented in every city in China, there is a sizable portion of Chinese minorities here in Chengdu. One of the more obviously represented in Chengdu is the Tibetan culture. This is highly understandable, considering that Sichuan province borders the Tibetan autonomous region. A short walk away from the Chengdu American Center for Study Abroad is the Tibetan Quarter. If is fairly easy to notice how some aspects of the visible culture change when entering this district: the Hanzi characters begin to serve in support of Tibetan script on business signs and there are subtle changes in the dominant architectural style.

Even with many cultures being represented, people of European and African backgrounds are still a somewhat rare sight in Chengdu. Although a very large city with a population of approximately 14,000,000 (exceeding the population of New York City, the largest city in the United States, by over 5,000,000 people), Chengdu does not receive as many foreign visitors as the larger cities in eastern China, primarily Shanghai and Beijing. With me being of visibly northern European descent and standing at just under two meters in height, I am rather conspicuous in China. I am often asked by local people at English Corner meetings if I am from Scandinavia or Germany. Many others of the locals have asked me if I was from the United Kingdom, explaining that the way in which I speak is reminiscent of British English. Others yet have inquired as to whether I was from Russia. In some cases it has been difficult to convince conversational partners that I am, indeed, from the United States.

So far my time in China has been a positive and interesting experience, to say the least, and I look forward to learning more about the all of the Chinese cultures through my semester of study at the Chengdu American Center for Study Abroad.

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