Opinion: Coronavirus crisis exposes cultural differences between U.S. and China

Many unanswered questions remain for Chinese international students like Jiang.

By Peixi Jiang

Because of cultural differences between China and the U.S., Chinese students studying here in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic face different challenges than their American peers. I have never truly felt discomfort over our differences, but this global crisis hits me with significant culture shock.

In mid-January, I was entering the last semester of my senior year of high school when the virus was running rampant in China. I logged onto WeChat, a popular social media platform in China, and saw notifications about COVID-19. I worried about my family, but simultaneously I felt relieved to be in America, unaffected by the regulations my Chinese friends and family were experiencing. Here in Colorado Springs, few of my classmates had even heard about COVID-19.

By the end of January, COVID-19 began to occupy mainstream U.S. news. Most of my American teachers and peers were slowly learning about COVID-19 and its impact. They politely asked about my family, but COVID-19 seemed too far away, and they talked about it just as they talked about any other news.

On Feb. 6, the United States stopped all flights from China. My mother was planning to visit me over spring break; however, she realized she might not be able to come because of increasing travel restrictions. Still, we felt optimistic that COVID-19 would run its course; surely by March she would be able to travel. Yet, in the back of my mind, I wondered if the worst-case scenario would occur: Attempts to contain COVID-19 could become futile.

On March 2, my school launched Experience-Centered Seminars (ECSs) where students travel locally, domestically or internationally to learn about different topics. The school decided to allow the trips to happen, even though COVID-19 began to spread globally. This worried me, as international cases of COVID-19 were beginning to ramp up, and many of my friends were spending their ECSs in Spain, Bonaire and Seattle.

I had been assigned to participate in a local ECS, meaning I didn’t travel outside the state. The second day after we got back from a remote cabin, the first confirmed case in Colorado was reported. Then, the number of confirmed cases began to increase on a daily basis in Colorado, and my nerves became tighter and tighter. In contrast, based on my observations, I felt as if most average Americans did not think this was a big issue. According to a poll from YouGov released on March 2, compared to 42 percent of Chinese who said they were “somewhat scared” of catching the novel coronavirus, only 25 percent of Americans said the same.

From my cultural perspective, both my school and host family were not doing enough to confront COVID-19. At school, besides telling the students to wash their hands more frequently, the leaders did not take any effective action. At home, my host parents still went out to the movies or dined out with their friends. Meanwhile, my family in China worried that I was not following the normal Chinese practice of wearing a mask and limiting my interaction with more than just a few people at a time.

[pullquote-1] Due to differences in cultural norms and personal values, average Americans seem to have varying opinions about COVID-19 and have different ways of coping with this pandemic. For example, it is a regular Chinese practice to wear masks, even outside of pandemics. As Hillary Leung wrote in The New York Times on March 12: “In the U.S., wearing a face mask when healthy has become discouraged to the point of becoming socially unacceptable.” However, in China, people believe it is their civic duty to wear a mask. According to a person from Hong Kong, “If one has a mask on and if that person is infected with any contagion, he could cut the chain off where he is. That could save many people from suffering from diseases of all kinds.”

Another difference: The Chinese follow governmental orders better in terms of staying at home and having less interaction with others. Because of American ideals of freedom and individual liberty, U.S. citizens are more likely to act in a way to preserve their individualism rather than protect the collective or common good in the face of a crisis like this one. Here, acting for the collective good is considered an imposition on individual liberties, but it is sometimes necessary. Because collectivism, influenced by Confucianism, is inherent in Chinese society, it is more common for Chinese citizens to obey the government’s orders and consider collective welfare before individual freedom. Moreover, we have experienced a greater number of internal viral threats such as the 2003 SARS outbreak, which makes Chinese people more cautious in the face of epidemics. I tried to explain my worry to some Americans I knew; however, my attempts often failed. They could not understand my concerns.

It is true that I am not at higher risk than other people here of contracting the disease, but as a Chinese international student, I have intense mixed feelings of confusion and fear. Above all, I have felt confused as to what I should do — follow my own culture’s recommendations or those modeled by the culture I am living in. I believe my culture’s recommendations are right, but I also feel afraid to follow them in the U.S. for fear of being discriminated against.

Chinese international students have been hearing about the patterns of development of COVID-19 for months because of our personal connections to China; I know how bad it could get. Thus, there is a conflict in my mind: Should I fly back to China or stay here? If I go back to China, how will I complete my courses? Conversely, if I stay here, will I be treated differently because of the explicit racism coming to light through this? And on another serious note, how easy is it for international students to get access to health care? I have felt scared and unsure.

This global crisis is like a scalpel dissecting and exposing issues such as these cultural conflicts. Prior to the emergence of this crisis, the conflicts seemed more subtle; now they clearly stand out. Americans and Chinese do not have to deal with this crisis in the exact same way, since we have totally different cultures. However, we have the same goals and ultimately the same needs: personal, familial and societal health. By respecting and understanding each other’s cultural needs, we could foster communication, cooperation, and even change for the better when a global crisis like this one occurs.

Peixi Jiang is an international student from China who has been in the U.S. for four years. She is a senior at The Colorado Springs School and an aspiring writer.