is China or America better?

Zhecheng county, Henan province, April 2013

In China, delicious street food is ubiquitous. Just look for vendors pushing or cycling around slapdash food carts, makeshift roadside grills or dingy storefronts with battered wooden tables and chairs scattered on the sidewalk

I like to talk with vendors while checking out their food. They’re usually super friendly and up for a chat. These guys in the photo – a family serving the regional speciality of sheep noodle stew- were no exception, especially since I was with several foreigners in a town that rarely ever sees one. As I was the only Chinese face and hailed them with a hearty ni hao, they directed my way all the usual questions that locals ask foreigners:

Where are you guys from?
Are you guys here to film a movie*?
Are you the group’s translator or guide?
How could you be American??? (aka you have Chinese face, not white face)

And then, the main question I was waiting for, the comparison question.

The father (second from the left): Is China or America better? (literally translated, is China good or America good?)

Me: Wellll I like both. Both are good and also not good, but really, it’s kind of all the same. I looked him in the eyes when I said this and gave a little shrug and wry smile. Eh, people are people, you know?

He looked back at me, nodded, and gave me a little smile of his own: Yeah, that makes sense.

I get this question all the time. What is better? What is good-er? Whether it’s Hong Kong vs. China (I’m also from Hong Kong) or China vs. America, this good vs. bad way of looking at the world is something people who’ve been in China for a while will have definitely encountered.

An example from one of award-winning China writer Peter Hessler’s books: Over a banquet dinner, he tells a local he just met that he’s writing a book about his time in China. The listener nods thoughtfully, then politely inquires, is it a good or bad book? That is, will Hessler talk about China in a good or bad way?

Telling of the Chinese psyche, no?

*The movie question only really gets asked in very out-of-the-way areas, since there are no obvious reasons such as business or tourism for foreigners to go there.


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