In China, New Challenges Amid Traditions

When Wang Qian told us he loves to read the works of Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, we were surprised. English literature is not widely available in China, where the government still censors what people read.

We were even more surprised when, during our interview, Wang quoted the fall of Babel, a Bible story. One of his former teachers at Dalian University of Foreign Languages had loaned him the Bible, which is commonly suppressed in officially atheist China.

During the two days we spent with Wang, we learned that despite all the government controls, China's young people are thinking for themselves and examining their society more objectively than ever before.

Take, for example, Wang's philosophy about religion in China.


"Thanks to Confucius, we Chinese don't have a religion," he says. "That is an advantage, but also a disadvantage. … The Christians, they fear that one day God will judge us, but we don't fear anything."

Our interview with Wang was peppered with many of his deep thoughts, but he is a down-to-earth guy from humble beginnings.

The son of farmers from Anhui, one of China's poorest provinces, Wang said his parents struggled to afford enough food for the family when he was young, which may have stunted Wang's growth. Wang is 5 feet, 3 inches tall.

After they had Wang's sister, a violation of China's one-child policy for which they had to pay a $150 fee, they started a small business to supplement their farming income.

Now in their 40s, they rise at dawn every morning to sell duck meat at the market. Almost their entire annual income of about $2,500 goes toward Wang's and his sister's education. Wang was the only one from their 2,000-person village this year to go to college.

"No matter how hard our life is," said Wang's mother, "I still feel happy letting them study." She never got beyond elementary school.

The sacrifices of his parents are not lost on Wang for a moment. Like all Chinese children, he is expected to support his parents when they grow old.

"I think it is a regret of my father to not have a chance to study, so he pushed so much hope into me," Wang said. "The first time I get money from employers, I will send that to my father."

When Wang first arrived in Dalian, he experienced culture shock, as many millions of rural migrants do in the cities. He couldn't understand the local accent, and he suffered from homesickness and insomnia.

Dalian is 1,200 miles away from his hometown, but light years away in development. Often referred to as China's most livable city, Dalian, with its light-rail system and high-tech investment, is also one of the country's "model" cities.

Like many college-educated Chinese, Wang hopes to find a job in Dalian or another big city upon graduation. But unrealistically high expectations for pay and an influx of new graduates leaves one in three college grads unemployed in China.

It is a major concern for all young Chinese. "Too many people, too few jobs," Wang said.

Christopher Davies, an English writing teacher at Dalian University, says Chinese students are generally more focused on their studies than students in the West.

"There is a distinct lack of creativity from these students, but in terms of work ethic, it's incomparable," said Davies, a Canadian. "These kids work hard and it's refreshing."

But the focus on studying leaves little time for other life experiences, according to Davies.

"The students can't go to a bar," he said. "The social aspect is really lacking here at this campus as well as most colleges in China, and the students recognize that."

Keg parties, fraternities, even coed dorms are unheard of here. On the rare opportunity that Wang, his girlfriend and friends leave campus, they hang out at the mall and play video games or shop.

As in the United States, college is the first taste of freedom for young Chinese adults, but they are quick to point out that their lives are nothing like how they imagine campus life in America.

Wang and his friends had just seen the movie "American Pie" -- on illegal DVD, of course -- when we met them.

"[Americans] are more open-minded about relationships between male and female students and their life seems more comfortable," said Ma Tian Yu, one of Wang's friends.

"Every American is very optimistic," said Mei Ling Zhang, Wang's girlfriend. "No worries, [they] just live a happy life."

"I think America has a culture of acceptance," Wang said.

Wang and his friends say they think of power, freedom and openness when they think of the United States, and some of them dream of going there.

But not Wang. He says, at 21, he's too impressionable to be exposed to so many different ideas and cultures.

And even if he does work overseas one day, he said, "my heart will always live in this country because I am Chinese."