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What is the “real China”? An afternoon at Tsinghua University

Tsinghua University

I spent an engrossing afternoon at Tsinghua University, learning about a new medical information project and talking about our China projects. This was followed by a tour of the campus, which is delightful, especially on a clear breezy April day when the peach blossoms—brilliant pink flowers that extend in fat tufts along the dark branches—are in bloom. There are ponds, and landscaped grounds with benches and buildings and a small bell tower—very much like a large park, and seemingly used that way. There were many families as well as students.

Tsinghua is across the road from Peking University, which makes for an extraordinary concentration of intellectual talent. We talked quite a lot about talent and human capital, as something people outside China today don’t hear enough about, with all the media coverage of manufacturing and other economic activity that depends on large numbers of people, rather than on knowledge and innovation. But the subject that’s been on my mind since I got into the cab is our discussion about how to show the “real China.” Just what do we mean by that phrase, and how do I know that I am seeing what my Chinese friends see? (No doubt I am not!)

Lake at Tsinghua University

The point we agreed on is that neither overly critical reporting nor boosteristic business writing tells people in the West about the real China, with all its complexity, contradiction, and comedy. One thing I hear over and over again from Westerners who begin to travel here regularly or work here is how much they love China. That’s what keeps them coming back, not the idea of streets paved with gold (or whatever the metaphor might be—I haven’t heard an equivalent of that 19th century European notion about America).

A phrase I hear from Chinese friends, from expats, and even from Tom last week is, “This is China!” It’s used to explain, justify, cheer, and joke about all kind of things that happen, and after hearing again today I know why the phrase seemed so right for the title of a handbook Berkshire has underway. But now I’m obsessing about how to make sure it presents the “real China”—and captures the wit and humor that are so much part of Chinese culture and character.

I’m also recognizing that even with people I communicate well, there’s a gap in understanding based on two things: (1) a lack of knowledge about the ways in which our life experiences, past and present, are different, and (2) insufficient language skills. The former seems obvious, but where are the tools or media to help us gain better understanding of the other person’s experiences? Watching “Office Space” or “24” won’t help a Chinese person understand imagine their American colleague’s working life. And what means do we have of understanding our Chinese colleagues’ life experience?

Language skills are another major issue, because we need to be able to have serious, nuanced conversations about complicated topics. But that requires sophisticated language skills in a second language on the part of at least one person, not just basic or even business-proficient skills. I have had quite subtle conversations in Spanish, struggling the whole way, so I have a sense of how this is different from ordinary information exchanges. I feel badly because I know I will always have to depend on my friends’ and colleagues’ English here, but all the more certain that Chinese language teaching is immensely important, and that all joint ventures and collaborations between English and Chinese speakers should actively seek to improve language skills on both sides.

Wedding party at Tsinghua University

And I can’t resist including this photo of what seemed to be a wedding party walking across campus, the bride wearing sneakers and a Western wedding dress (Chinese wedding dresses are bright red). This, too, is China.

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