When I first moved to Oklahoma from Beijing in 2012, I was not only shocked by the number of cows and hay bales in the empty fields, but by the difference between how Americans and the Chinese express their political opinions. My fellow Oklahomans often asked me about my opinions on China’s foreign policies and government structure. Their openness and directness caught me off guard, and I didn’t know how I should answer their questions about censorship and such. More importantly, I didn’t know how my answers might further deepen their misconceptions about China—so most of the time, I ended up not answering their questions at all.
Because of this “fear,” I would field questions about issues not as pertinent in America, such as self-censorship or even the current political climate in China. The question of self-censorship in China is often misunderstood by non-Chinese people as only a government-related issue. In many ways, Americans, especially the U.S. news and media, present China as an authoritarian—almost totalitarian—country. This inaccurate representation creates misconceptions and biases in people’s minds. It seems to me that when casually asked controversial questions by non-Chinese students, most Chinese students commonly answer: “I don’t know.” As a result, non-Chinese students get confused, seemingly under the impression that Chinese people are not thoughtful enough, or are just too “afraid” to express their opinions.
However, it may be that Chinese people just do not want to share their opinion on something private and personal with people they have not yet developed close relationships with, just as I was reluctant to share my thoughts with my fellow Oklahomans at first. Chinese culture has deeply influenced the way the younger generations in China think and act. It is important for a non-Chinese person to be open to the idea that self-censorship is not only based on governmental actions and that it may have a cultural cause. For us Chinese, political opinions fall into the category of the personal.
Before coming to Barnard, I was a first-year at the University of Oklahoma where I had the opportunity to take a seminar called Honors American Federal Government with then-university president, David Boren. With such a small class size, I quickly felt comfortable sharing my political views with my peers and soon became good friends with them, as well as with the president. Inspired by President Boren’s experiences in foreign affairs, I decided to write my research paper on the Sino-American relationship and talked about the Tiananmen Square Protests, which is still a controversial issue in China today. Even though he held a different opinion, we still exchanged our ideas and thoughts without any hesitation. Under a comfortable and relatively intimate academic setting like this one, I enjoyed sharing my political views—even as I was adjusting to the American culture of “free speech.” It became even more evident once I stepped into a politically active campus like Columbia. I was propelled into sharing my opinions with my peers as I watched them rally behind the graduate workers last year. This kind of close-knit environment at Columbia is something that I had never experienced before and certainly brought me closer to my peers.
When it comes to sharing what they consider personal, Americans are no different than the Chinese. Take the issue of mental health as an example. Many students who experience problems with their mental health rarely talk about their concerns casually with friends or even family— less so with acquaintances. In the same way that mental health is personal to Americans, so are political views to Chinese people. Even though it’s not exactly the same, the way we talk about these are both based on our culture and how we are raised.
As I spend more time in America, I find myself slowly adapting to this culture of free speech—which for me, means behaving as someone who shares political views publicly without any hesitation. Columbia is a diverse university, and as a result, I feel that most people here are respectful of different cultures and opinions. I also feel that people here are also more sensitive about asking controversial questions, such as those about Chinese politics. This contrast between my life in Oklahoma and my life here in New York is even more obvious when I engage in intellectual conversations with my peers on campus. For instance, I attended the Columbia College Republican general body meeting with my friends—a setting much less intimate than President Boren’s seminar—and I ended up speaking openly about my opinions on the recent US-China trade war.
Throughout my time in both Beijing and Oklahoma, I enjoyed expressing my political concerns with close family members and friends, but I got annoyed when people misunderstood my silence as fear. However, at Columbia, I certainly have transitioned into being more open about my political views and now will not hesitate to share my opinions when someone asks me. But I think it is essential for people to know that when Chinese people shy away from answering your “hard” questions, it is not necessarily due to self-censorship in China—I believe it is due to a cultural shift. As I spend more time here at Columbia, reflecting on my experiences in both Beijing and the University of Oklahoma, I have certainly grown more confident in sharing my political views, especially when people ask about issues such as self-censorship.
The author is a sophomore at Barnard College majoring in economics and minoring in political science. She is an international, transfer student from Beijing. Having lived in Oklahoma for five years, her favorite football team is undoubtedly the OU Sooners. She is actively involved in Smart Woman Securities and Barnard SGA. Feel free to send memes to email@example.com—she is always down to get food and make new friends.
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