I left China more than three months ago. Since then, I’ve left my job and announced plans that I’ll be leaving for Taiwan this fall to study Chinese. I gave myself a couple months for time off to enjoy friends, family, and home. It has also left me with way too much time to think about the mysteries of the universe. Regrettably, I’ve spent the most time thinking about the American Dream and the Chinese Dream. Fun stuff right?
As an American, I’ve grown up with the American Dream being engrained in our culture. We use it to discuss the positive aspects of our country and why over a million immigrants a year legally flock to the United States, with many more on waiting lists, and some regrettably coming illegally. Historically, the American Dream has stood for the freedom of upward mobility and opportunity for prosperity through ones own merit and hard work. Essentially, if you have a dream, a vision, and/or a passion, you have the opportunity for success in America’s open society.
Most Americans don’t give this ideal much thought. I can’t help but notice how the American Dream has changed over time. It used to be about the means. Leaving my stable job has shown me it is more and more about the ends.
I grew up with the mantra, “you can do anything.” This is a pretty standard way of thought for Americans. Anybody can be CEO. Anybody can be President. Anybody can a professional athlete. All it takes is hard work. For us lay people, that means you can succeed in any endeavor you pursue. For some that’s being an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, or even a public servant. For others, that’s being a writer, an artist, or even an entrepreneur starting a small business out of their garage selling stuff on Etsy. People have done all of those things to lead successful lives in America that ALSO allow them to support a family. It happens every day.
While this is all good in theory, the support and encouragement to pursue those dreams is often met by skepticism and cries of irresponsibility. We tell our young people to follow their dreams. When they actual do, and its not on a well tread path of stability and financial prosperity, we call them naive, irresponsible, and even selfish. An undergraduate student aimed towards a STEM, business, or medical career is met with praise. A student majoring in liberal arts or the humanities is met with skepticism unless they’re going on to become a teacher or further education. Think I’m crazy? How many times have you heard the words, “What are you going to do with that?” (GREAT ARTICLE..READ IT)
Many people have also shared they think what I’m doing is awesome, what a great opportunity, and they regret not making similar decision when they were young. I’ve received skeptical questions dozens of times from friends, family, and acquaintances since leaving my job. Why in the world would I quit a stable job? Can’t you just learn Chinese and work at the same time? So you want to live in China forever? People my age are usually just curious what I envision for myself going forward. However, I cringe whenever I hear the question, “What are you going to do with that?” from older generations because I saw it asked of so many liberal arts majors in college when I was doing the smart thing by becoming an engineer. It is laced with implication that what I’m doing is irresponsible because they don’t see the tangible benefit…pure self-indulgence until I snap back to reality. “You’re made to feel like you’re crazy: crazy to forsake the sure thing, crazy to think it could work, crazy to imagine that you even have a right to try.”
I’m pursuing my own truth and my own path to success in this world. That is the American Dream right, the freedom to embark on that journey? Yet when I look around, I see how the American Dream has been hijacked by materialism. If you ask many Americans and people around the world, the American Dream is having the house, two cars, kids running around with the dog in the backyard, vacations to the beach etc, etc, etc. It has caused many Americans to rationalize working a soul crushing to job to live for the weekends and to buy stuff. Yes, stuff. Our national ethos is more and more about the cowardly values of comfort, convenience, security, predictability, control (from article above) all so we can obtain the image of a “successful” life over what is little more than simple materialism. Yet we praise our nation’s history of risk takers. It just doesn’t make sense.
If we continue the path of defining material goods as success and the American Dream, we will lose ourselves in the process. The free means to pursue your vision of success is what has made America a success story and why so many people flock to this country.
What does this have to do with China and why is it on this blog?
The main difference between the Chinese dream and the American Dream though is the Chinese focus on the “national rejuvenation.” The Chinese Dream is more about the Chinese nation reclaiming its rightful status. Only when the country is strong can people lead successful lives. This is the exact opposite of the American Dream. The American Dream essentially states that the country is strong because individuals have the opportunity for success. Whereas the Chinese Dream states that individuals’ strength and success is provided by the strong state, aka the CCP.
However, I’m not here to talk about national propaganda campaigns. Most Chinese are so numb to them anyway that its not worth discussing in great length in this post. I would say the Chinese Dream for the individual is improving their livelihood and reaching a level of prosperity not imagined a generation ago. Unfortunately, this manifests as materialism, corruption because the general Chinese population all started at ground zero 30 years ago with an understanding of limited resources, better than most Americans by comparison. This reminds me of American baby boomers who were raised by frugal parents that experienced the Great Depression and later wanted to give their children everything they never had.
While the Chinese national dialogue stresses collective effort, the practical application is only within one’s family or guanxi network. This may even sound noble in theory, doing everything in this world for your family, but it worries me in practice. You can justify a lot of wrong in this world in the name of your family. Bribes are so pervasive in Chinese culture, even bribing doctors and teachers. “Why wouldn’t I do everything I can to help my family?” is an argument I’ve heard repeatedly.
On the micro scale, similar to petty theft, it may not seem like a big deal. On the macro scale, it can even cause society to break down because of a never ending ripple effect that leads to moral decay because of absence of simply empathy and lack of trust. I bet the recent chemical warehouse explosion in Tianjin was caused by somebody cutting corners, likely rationalizing that they’re not hurting anybody and earning more money for them and their family. Look what happened. Every day you can find news reports of building collapses, sink holes, or food scandals. It hurts a lot of people.
Drawing the comparison back to American Baby Boomers, who many predict are the first American generation to leave the country worse off than they found it, Americans are only now learning their lesson. Corporate responsibility is more and more important, especially to millennials who are demanding more and more from their employers and corporations in general. A national dream focused on the ends instead of the means lead to cutting corners on financial ratings leading to the sub-prime mortgage crisis…7 years later and we still haven’t fully recovered. China prides itself on learning from the West’s mistakes. However, it’s incessant pursuit of results, with means always justifying the means, has caused their financial system to slowly unravel, and a ripple affect recently beginning to affect markets globally. Do we even need to talk about the environment? Their economic stimulus caused comodity markets to balloon but the recent economic slowdown is affecting every economy tied to it. yada yada yada.
What I’m trying to say is, our macro world is a summation of all of our individual lives. While one person’s greed may not affect many people, a society chasing materialism will lead to larger economic problem that affects many many more. We learned this the hard way in the U.S. in 2007-2008. China needs to learn from those mistakes. If their economy falters, it will affect us globally as western countries currently have very little maneuverability for austerity measures as we continue to recover from the last decade.
So as many individuals continue to preach the mantra of individualism in less obvious ways of “I don’t care what people do with their lives as long as it doesn’t affect me,” we need to realize their decisions do affect you, even if it is indirectly. Only comparing the changes in the American Dream over the past century, with my experience and understanding of the Chinese dream, and what is happening to the global economy, have I seen the importance of the moral conviction in our everyday decisions and how we lead our lives.
While we might think we’re not hurting anybody individually, national trends do affect everybody, both good and bad. So if we fail to recognize this, we may ultimately be hurting ourselves because national trends that negatively affect our well being, such as a faulty economy or a stock market crash, may ultimately prevent us from achieving those dreams we’re trying to pursue, both in the United States and China.
However, it’s important to note that I am full of hope. Corporate responsibility and NGOs are more and more important in the United States. The Chinese are also becoming more and more socially aware as they gain disposable income.
(This post did not turn out how I expected. Who knows if it even makes sense. The connections make sense in my head.)