Defining a Single Story:
I recently sat down to watch a very inspiring Ted Talk titled “The danger of a single story” by Chimamanda Adichie. Adichie captured my attention immediately, and so I invested my time in this 18 minute video. She spoke about her time in Africa as well as coming to America. She talked about her childhood, reporting that she read only American and British children’s books. Consequently, everything in her imagination centered around white children and snow, which were things she had never really seen. This was one of her first “Single stories”- and she went on to describe many other “single stories” she encountered through her life.
At one point she states, “… to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” As I watched, my mouth dropped at how many single stories I have, and which ones I have overcome. Many people would agree that the media has spewed single stories to us, but we forget, at least I do at times, how many single stories we have bought into. Adichie’s video is well worth the watch — It had me looking at my own experiences and single stories.
I was offered a chance to join a group of other business students from Lee University to go to China as part of a study-abroad type program. It was a pretty exciting time — We flew into Shanghai, were based out of Zhengzhou, and traveled to cities such as Xi’an. We rounded our trip out in Beijing, and flew back to the states at the end of five weeks. Our travels had been by plane, train, bus, and taxi. We all knew what we heard about China — How they were stealing jobs, how there were so many people, how short the Chinese people are, how dirty it can be, how the Olympic Stadiums were being built, and more!
The China Experience
I love my stories about China! While I love adventure, I classify China as “more than an adventure.” It was an eye opening experience. I left with a single story and returned without one. While I could tell you unique and interesting stories from each day I spent there, I won’t…at least not in this blog. What I want to share are some things I wasn’t expecting. Things that seemed “ridiculous,” eventually grew to make sense to me.
I saw chicken’s heads get cut off in the streets of Shanghai.
I slept overnight on a train; I am 6’ 3” and was limited to a 6’ long bunk.
Toilets were built into the ground, requiring the one in need to squat into the hole to gain relief! This “squatting” thing became a necessity for me on a moving train! Imagine POOPING, not holding onto anything while you’re squatting as the train rocks back and forth!
We went through back alleyways and hidden doors that opened, inviting us in for shopping, as we eagerly searched for the best fakes of Rolex, Polo, Coach and other top name brands.
We played basketball against the Sias University Basketball Team, and got our butts handed to us. Each player was at least 6’ tall if not up to 6’ 8”. I discovered that many Chinese people are not short, but actually average height! There are many tall people, too. They play great ball. Yao Ming is NOT the only good basketball player from China.
I had a tailored suit made specifically for me for $26.00.
I had one of the best massages of my life, followed by an offer for a “happy ending”. For the record, I politely declined the happy ending!
We toured a refrigerator factory, as well as a yarn factory. They were very well-kept facilities and much nicer than many of the American factories I’ve been in.
Walking on the Great Wall of China IS as exciting as it looks!
Finding a Starbucks or a McDonalds was rare but when we did, time stood still.
My Single Story
When I left the United States, I thought I was going to a dirty country that had stolen most of American’s jobs. I assumed people would care about themselves first, treating our group like tourists in a huge country. For whatever reason, everything was the opposite. I made two really good Chinese friends, with whom I maintain some connection today. They use “American” names to make them easier to pronounce. One is named Ray, and the other is Silas. Ray’s family sent him to college with everything they had; they made the sacrifice of their own finances for the enrichment of their son (something my parents did for me). When Ray told parents about having a handful of American friends, they sent him additional money so he could be a “true host of China”, by buying our meals. Ray took several of us to a very expensive, reservation only type restaurant, where we ordered chicken. When the meal was brought to our table, it came with the chicken head in the middle of the large family-style plate! Ray also ordered all of us beers, which is a huge honor in their country.
Ray’s kindness on that day was not a one time thing. It was consistent and frequent. He treated it as an honor to have guests — from anywhere– and he cared for us like royalty. He taught us Mandarine, and we taught him more English. He sent his parents pictures of him with our group. Ray wasn’t good at basketball, but loved to play. It was in this context that we met Silas. Silas and Ray were friends. Silas, like Ray, was not good at basketball, but loved the sport. When we’d talk about the NBA, we’d hear about Tracy Mcgrady and Dewayne Wade. Silas also treated us like royalty.
To continue my “single story,” our group of about 20 American students had planned a visit to a farmers home. When we pulled up in our mega-bus, the farmer’s family was elated to see us. They welcomed us like it was Christmas morning; it seemed as though they had been storing all their excitement for months! Their home was tiny; it had one bedroom, a small kitchen, and a small general room. The bathroom was a hole outside of the home. We all crammed into their home, many complaining about the lack of space. I remember being embarrassed by some of the comments, but relieved when I remembered that they didn’t speak English. However, Ray and Silas understood very well what was being said, yet treated us with kindness. That is something I’ll never forget.
The farmer and his family brought out a feast fit for a king. We ate, and we ate, and we ate. They had spent days on end preparing food! The noodles were hand-made over a three day period. Dumplings, fish, chicken and vegetables—-all right before us! Their home had been immaculately cleaned top to bottom, in preparation for our visit. This selfLESS family was so proud to have a group of selfish Americans in their home! I’ll always remember how much they gave to us that day, not only in terms of food and drink, but of relationships…of themselves!
As our group realized what was before us in this amazing, giving family, my single story began to change. We took a picture outside their home as we were leaving, with the expectation we’d begin loading the bus. Through translation, the farmer asked for a little bit of time as he went into his home. When he returned a few minutes later, he brought with him moonshine…. to celebrate. It was all he had, but he wanted us to have it! We passed the moonshine around briefly, as some took a swig and others pretended to. We celebrated with the farmer and again; he was so proud! The smile on that man’s face as he shared something of such significance to him, will never leave my mind. They literally gave us a part of themselves.
My single story changed over that five week chunk of time. The most dramatic shift occurred as a result of the experience with the farmer and his family, when the meal became a celebration. As our trip went on, I began to view the people I met differently than what is portrayed by the American media. I was touched by daily kindnesses from friends like Ray, and even strangers who were just interested in helping. I realized that the workers I met in the refrigerator factory weren’t much different than those I met while interning at a stove factory in America. All of them, whether American or Chinese, were working to provide for their families. I continue to understand the frustration of American factories going oversees, as I want American jobs to stay in America. However, I also know, as a culture, we get so bitter at something we can’t see. I didn’t realize it, but that bitterness had developed inside of me before I went to China. I had friends and family who lost their jobs when factories got shut down and moved. I had heard so many negative things about China that I allowed myself to be upset with the Chinese people as a whole. My experiences abroad helped me realize that I cannot be angry with the 1.351 billion people that populate China. Bitterness and negativity do nothing to correct the problem. If we want the problem to be resolved, we need to stop fixating on what happened in the past, and begin creating solutions.
I don’t expect our media to change their course and supply multiple perspectives. It is my belief that we will continue to get single stories that “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again.” If we want to have a multi-story viewpoint, we will have to fight for it. Go live the experience. Talk to people you previously wouldn’t have interacted with. Ask for help, and turn off the TV!
Most importantly, ask someone completely different than you to get you coffee. Discuss, learn, challenge. We have to learn together. You may be surprised; perhaps you will find a new friend. My experience in China changed how I integrate the Chinese story. It helped me realize that many of my stories are single stories. Take some time to watch the Ted Talk video, and discuss it with me. Let’s work to eliminate single stories from both our lives and, and the lives of our children.