When I walked out the door of the school building after my morning class I was greeted by a long line of somber-looking students and teachers, ranged beneath a red banner stamped with stark white characters. The banner hung over a large wooden box on a narrow table. I slowed, watching someone drop money in the box and pause as a cameraman took his picture. I asked a man at the end of the line: “Is this for the Sichuan people?” The man nodded quietly. Earthquake survivors sort through rubble.I moved to the box, took my wallet from my pocket, and stuffed its meager contents – twenty-eight kuai, or about four dollars – into the slot at the top. I turned away quickly, conscious of the cameraman and not wanting to make a scene. But it was too late; the assembled crowd broke into spontaneous applause.

A couple days earlier, when I’d contributed thirty kuai to the relief fund my own students had started in class, I’d met with the same reaction. Now, after this repeat performance, I began to understand that the reaction had nothing to do with money: it was a genuine show of gratitude. None of our students were from Sichuan, but their concern over the earthquake had quickly outgrown mere sympathy. Rescue workers help earthquake victim.As the news broke and then worsened, a dark mood descended over most of our classes, with students looking increasingly shell-shocked or even breaking down and crying. The earthquake and its victims were tangible, present: in the newspapers that hung rigid before every face until class began, in the gloomy head-shakes I got when I started class with the routine “how’s it going?” For Chinese everywhere, many of whom were not from Sichuan and had no connections there, it was not going well. The tragedy of the earthquake was personal.

Woman mourns an earthquake victim.Given the widespread and courageous reporting from the quake, the stories and pictures that flowed out of Sichuan, it’s not surprising that the disaster generated so much compassion. How could anyone witness the outward scale and humanity of this tragedy without also feeling it within? Reports of Chinese from every corner of the country leaving work and school to travel to Sichuan were so widespread that the government had to actively discourage people from going there. In a culture where information is carefully controlled and action and reaction usually require an enormous amount of care and forethought, being able to see footage of the earthquake victims and weep for them provided rare catharsis.

Still, such a profound and personal reaction begs more of an explanation, and looking for one took my thoughts to some unexpected places. For instance, upon entering the wide glass doors of the university building that houses our school, you are confronted with two notable sights: an enormous mirror, dominating the opposite wall and making your own reflection almost unavoidable, and just beside it, a large placard (written in both Chinese and English) detailing the “Socialist Concept of Honor and Disgrace.” The first item on this placard urges: “Love, do not harm, the motherland.” But in some ways the mirror beside it is more interesting. Every morning, and often in the afternoon, young women stand at the mirror, dabbing at hair or makeup, applying eyeliner or lipstick, adjusting a collar or a skirt. Remember, this mirror is enormous; everyone who enters the building witnesses any acts of personal hygiene that take place in front of it. In the United States a certain amount of shame might be associated with primping in such an exposed place – after all, what if your teacher, or the guy you have a crush on, suddenly appears? – but here young women (and sometimes men) regularly use the billboard-sized looking-glass to adjust their appearances.

So how could this mirror possibly have anything to do with sympathy for the earthquake victims? Because the nonexistence of shame in performing one’s morning toilet is one that we associate primarily with family. Only in your own house would you preen with such impunity, heedless even of your elders or members of the opposite sex. Your family can witness you like this, but others should believe that this is your natural, organic state: that you always look this way. In China, though, while enormous value is placed on appearances, everyone seems to accept the effort that it takes to achieve them – an acceptance so genuine it is almost familial.

Take, for another example, the overnight travels Lacey and I have taken by bus and train. The standard “hard sleeper” train class, easily the most popular method of travel within China, means squeezing onto one of six bunks in a narrow compartment with no door. The bunks are perfectly comfortable, but curled on my bottom bunk I found the total lack of privacy disconcerting. People eating bowls of noodles in the hall or wandering past in the middle of the night have nothing to stop them from looking in at you as you lie in bed, and they often do. Lacey clowning on the sleeper train.Partial undressing, eating on the bed, chatting with friends and smoking in the halls are also common behavior. On one train, when a fifty-something fellow compartment-member started smoking in bed (smoking in train compartments was just banned in China last year), we pointed him out to the attendant and watched her give him a good scolding, as if he was an older brother we had just told on.

Certainly immense value is placed on the family in China – we hear about it all the time, and it’s unmistakable here – but I’m not talking about relationships within actual families. And I’m not talking about the other propaganda items on the “Socialist Concept” sign, either, such as: “Be united and help each other; don’t gain benefits at the expense of others.” In China’s current economic environment, such tenets have clearly been left behind. No, what I’m talking about is the possibility that this entire country, from Sichuan to Qingdao, from Beijing to Yunnan, tends to behave like one enormous, loving, confused, happy, angry, harmonious, and utterly messy family.

But what about the abovementioned economic environment? The bargaining, the cheating, the endless push to get ahead? In many parts of China, lines to buy tickets or enter trains are still just formless blobs; the sharpest elbows get to the front first. In the rush of New Year’s travel, it only took being shoved by old women a few times until Lacey and I started shoving, too. If a merchant can get someone to pay a higher price than his goods are actually worth, he will: in some places bargaining can get you as low as ten percent of the asking price. So is this really how a family behaves? Anyone who has had an older brother or sister should now be nodding vehemently: yes, yes, yes. In fact, anyone who remembers their childhood should be able to attest to the utter unfairness that can, and often does, prevail in family relationships.

In this view, the “motherland” is just that, and the Chinese are her giant packed family, jostling for space, attention, nourishment and guidance. The students primping in front of the mirror wake up in dormitory rooms little bigger than hard sleeper train compartments, rooms that also house six people; little wonder, then, that the giant mirror in the entryway might seem as good a place to primp as any. Extremely public wedding photography along Qingdao's coast.Wedding pictures are another shared activity here; walking by the ocean in Qingdao one day, we saw at least a hundred brides being photographed along a stretch of coastline less than a kilometer long. Qingdao’s seaside is a hugely popular destination for wedding pictures; after paying steep premiums photography companies, brides pull on various dresses over their jeans and wade to the edge of the water or recline on stretches of rock in full view of strolling tourists and recreational beachgoers. More wedding photography.The grooms seem only slightly less comfortable about posing on one knee or maintaining a frozen look of reverence for the camera; this is, after all, a family affair.

Even as I sit writing this, I’m looking out my window at row upon row of apartment buildings with laundry hanging out the windows, casually shirtless men or nightgowned women reaching out to pin up or take down fresh items. In the entryway of our school, opposite the mirror and the “Socialist Concept” sign, is a tiny, glass-fronted office. In it, the woman who cleans the entire school building lives with her own family, at night pulling a curtain shut across their single, shared bed. On our one train ride in the cheapest “hard seat” class, which lasted from about four in the afternoon until eleven at night, Lacey and I sat across from an older couple who, like many on that car, would spend over two days in the same seats. People ate, drank, played cards, gossiped, and dozed in their non-reclinable chairs, the unlucky latecomers forced to stand in the aisles. But the atmosphere was all family: people joking with or posing abrupt questions to apparent strangers, waving their chopsticks and slurping their soup, helping each other shove bags overhead or changing seats to accomodate small children, and gossiping happily about the blue-eyed foreigners in their midst.

Holding the hand of an earthquake victim waiting for rescue.Remembering that late-night hard seat train ride, the reasons for the overwhelming response to the earthquake become overwhelmingly obvious: in this family, however potentially dysfunctional it may be, seeing so many family members in such serious physical trouble stirs a deeply conditioned response. The Chinese people are just as complex and different as people anywhere, just as difficult for us to fathom as members of anyone else’s family. But like families everywhere, seeing their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters in physical and emotional pain brought deep personal anguish. So in China, the rest of the family rallied round. The immensity of the financial response to the quake in particular is a testament to that. And the applause I heard when I donated to earthquake victims was more than simple appreciation for the money; it was the appreciation of a family ready to welcome another member into its midst.

4 thoughts on “The Biggest Family in the World

  • June 30, 2008 at 7:35 pm

    This a wonderfully thoughtful post. Your picture of the nation is very moving. Do you think people in the US reacted the same way to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita? Perhaps as a culture we are more oriented to individuals than to community.


  • July 13, 2008 at 10:07 am

    Thanks, Rob! I think people in the US also responded to the hurricanes with a lot of compassion, but there’s something that really struck me about how the response here reflected the way people are often thrown together, for better or worse, in Chinese society. I don’t know that we’re any less compassionate in the US, but we certainly value our individual privacy and don’t have quite the same contact with our “neighbors,” a way of life that probably makes for a different kind of response when disaster strikes.

  • July 23, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Another nice set of reflections and stories Eth. When I think back to what you would eat (and NOT eat) as a kid, I’m dumbfounded. What if I’d bet with you then that, before you hit 31, you’d be eating cicadas and praying mantises! As I recall, we did have a bet as to whether or not you would eat and like fish by the time you were 18….

    At any rate, I really enjoy everything you write here.

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