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American Influence in China

May 6, 2014

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China really began to open its doors to the outside world around 1980 under Deng Xiaoping. At that time, Shiqiang was studying in a Tianjin university. It wasn’t too long after that when everyone, it seemed, began to learn English, and textbooks like English Sentence 900 and New Concept English became very popular all over the country. Ironically, not long after Mao’s 10-year Cultural Revolution which fought violently against all things Western, China began to embrace all things Western. It started modestly – and ideologically – with Hollywood movies like Truck Driver (to show that the working man is key in America) and First Blood (to show how lawless and violent Americans are) and French novels like Stendhal’s Red and Black; and later to IBM computers and the Stock Exchange – a central institution of Capitalism – opening in “red” Shanghai, of all places!

Little by little, it has become fashionable, stylish for almost everyone to speak some US-made English words along with Chinese. Today, whether in Beijing or Shanghai or a small city in Inner Mongolia, you will hear everyone say “ok,” “alright,” “pizza” and “Coke” to you in English directly. Further, “iPhone,” “PM2.5,” “GDP,” “WiFi,” “NBA,” “MBA,” “VIP” and much more are seen daily in major Chinese newspapers and journals. If you don’t know these terms, your Chinese friends may say, “you are out” – a Chinese abbreviation of the U.S. slang, “out if it.” And the English word “out” is integrated right into the Chinese expression.

Also from Beijing to that small city in Inner Mongolia, all major road signs, airport signs, train station signs, etc. are in both English and Chinese Pinyin – no matter if the English translation is wrong and often even really funny (e.g. “No Smorking!”). And Chinese subways and airports announce information in fairly clear English.

Today, more and more Chinese middle school students are highly capable at taking TOELF and SAT exams in English and winning high scores. They like to drink Starbucks coffee and Coke; they like to wear Nike, Adidas and Levi’s; they like to eat pizza at Pizza Hut, hamburgers at McDonalds and chicken at KFC; they enjoy watching the NBA and Hollywood’s latest releases; they love the “face” gained by driving a made-in-Shanghai Buick; and they dream of coming to the U.S. to study at an Ivy League university.

Well, the point is that English and American values have had a huge influence – much bigger than most people imagine. The world is changing in a very interesting way. “PM 2.5,” which means very hazardous particulate sizes and levels in the air, has become a buzzword among Chinese who worry about air quality. But now some people want to replace this term with a lengthy, confusing Chinese equivalent to protect the purity of the Chinese language. An expert in Confucianism at Beijing’s Capital Normal University says that mixing English words with the Chinese language in fact reflects a lack of cultural confidence. But many others say the use of foreign words has helped to improve communication. I asked Shiqiang why he didn’t change his name from Shiqiang Gu to, well, say, James Gu? He said he thought it was “pretty good” as–is in both English and Chinese.

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