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A Global Society in Perspective

Written by Karen Haworth
March 28, 2006

Karen Haworth - China

A huge statue of Chairman Mao, a tourist attraction in the center of Chengdu, overlooks one of two new Starbucks cafes. These cafes join other American chains within walking distance like McDonalds and Pizza Hut. This represents global change in China, but many people-Americans and Chinese-are not "global" in their thinking. Financial, geographic, and social circumstances can affect the ways in which people interact internationally.

A cup of coffee at the new Starbucks in Chengdu costs about 25 to 30 Yuan ($3-$4), similar to prices in America. However, average salaries in China are about eight times less than in America. How many Americans would go to Starbucks if they had to pay $25 for a cup of coffee? While the middle class in China is growing, coffee would still be considered a luxury item. My students would not go there, especially when their parents are sacrificing to pay for their education. Part-time jobs available to students at places like McDonalds pay workers about 4 Yuan an hour, eight times less than in America. Where are the profits of companies like Starbucks going?

Who are the customers at this new Starbucks? When I went there, it was packed. This amazed me, given that Chengdu already has a tradition of socializing in parks and sidewalk shops over cups of green tea. While Starbucks is found almost everywhere in America, in China, it is considered “exotic.” Many want to try new things and are curious about American culture. Customers with money may go there once for the experience, but will not become frequent customers. Starbucks reinforces a perception that Americans are wealthy and that other cultures should buy into that form of wealth.

This fall, a new group of teachers from the Ganzi, Aba, and Liangshan regions of Sichuan arrived at the Radio and TV University (Dianda) to learn English. The teachers from Ganzi travel two or three days by bus over narrow winding highways and high-mountain passes to reach Chengdu. Some have left spouses, children, and parents back home. These students may only go home twice a year, once in the summer and again in January for the Chinese New Year. In contrast, it is a fourteen-hour flight from San Francisco to Chengdu with one stopover. When I get on a plane in America, I can arrive in China in less than a day.

The Radio and TV University educates people in rural and remote areas of Sichuan province through distance learning technology. They send video lessons by satellite and internet to branch campuses all over the province. With help from Global Ministries, they also provide new computers to primary and middle schools in Ganzi. However, most of my students do not have their own computers. They have to go to internet cafés to send e-mail. On the internet, they can connect with people on the other side of the world. Last April, a group of women from the Pacific Northwest Conference (UCC) visited Chengdu. I paired them with Dianda students, so they could exchange e-mail messages before the trip. The students and American visitors were able to meet and spend time together. This exchange put a “face” on the other culture. Now when the Americans hear news about China, they will think about their internet pals in Chengdu, and when the students hear about America, they will remember their internet pals in Washington State.

Instant communication sometimes makes me forget that a whole ocean lies between Chengdu and my home. With a high-speed internet connection I often talk with my family using audio chat. Once in Lhasa, I called my family on my Chinese cell phone just to ask, “Can you guess where I am?” Although some students’ hometowns are geographically closer to Chengdu, it can be difficult for them to communicate with their families. One Ganzi student’s parents live within six hours of Chengdu, but she does not communicate frequently with them. She does send e-mail because they do not own a computer and her mother cannot read or write. She does not want to call often because it makes her mother cry. I even found I could not communicate with the students from Ganzi when I went back to America for Christmas. Without e-mail we would have to exchange letters, but we would be back in Chengdu by the time our letters arrived.

My Chinese language teacher once asked me what I thought of Guangdong province, where I lived for two years before going to Chengdu. She then went on to tell me what she thought life was like in Guangdong, although she had never been there before. When I suggested that she could go to Guangdong sometime and find out what it is like herself, she said she did not want to go there. “It’s too far away. It’s too expensive,” she said. But how can we know what other places are really like if we do not go there?

Everyone is limited by their circumstances—Americans and Chinese. However, sometimes we are limited only by our imaginations. Becoming part of a global church requires us to be creative, stretch our thinking, and reach out across distances and cultural differences. Risking to try something new, to help people we do not know, or to go to new places can open our eyes to different realities. China and America are not so distant and different when we recognize our connections.

Karen Haworth
Karen Haworth works at the Sichuan TV and Radio University in Chengdu, China. She serves as an English teacher.

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