Psychological problems and modernization seem to go hand in hand, and China seems to be no exception.
Yet, as much of a blunt, whitewashing force that modernization is, each culture brings its own quirks into the modernization process. Again, with the psychological problems breeding in modern China, it seems that China is no exception.
Having the privileged position of teaching children growing up in a modern Chinese city, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many students who have come to me to discuss their troubles.
Ironically, as an outsider, I’m actually considered a better person to open up to. As someone not connected to their whole network of friends, family, and teachers, I’m seen as one of the only people who can be trusted.
I recently had a student send me an uncommonly self-aware email in rather eloquent English describing her troubles. Although she refused to tell me her name, she revealed unprompted some of the deepest corners of her mind.
“It’s sad but I don’t think I have a true friend here and I never thought I ever did. Well,whether one considers he has a true friend or not depends on what he thinks a true friend is. In my opinion,a true friend is a friend … with whom you can share your secrets and pains and never have to be afraid that he’ll laugh at you or give them out… . The students are so polite that they just smile at each other! That’s horrible! I don’t know who to trust. I feel lonely. But it’s said that every individual is lonely deep inside. I don’t know. You understand that better than I do because you study psychology. I long for the kind of friendship in Friends but it seems impossible, at least in China.”
The problems she details, I think, are representative of a lot of what I see in China. The same issues came up at a recent English corner, where my students said that they didn’t feel they ever had anyone to talk to.
One student chimed in, saying, “If I tell my parents about my problems, they’ll just blame me for them and criticize me. I can’t tell my friends because they don’t want to listen or they won’t understand. Even they will criticize me too.”
It’s not just students at elite high schools either. In my own experience, after a friend of mine died last year, I went to visit a friend of mine from China. I showed up in tears explaining that a friend had just died, at which point my friend tried to change the topic. “Think about something happy! Think about something happy!”
The motivation to make my mood improve was kind-hearted, but the result was that I couldn’t talk about what had happened. My mood was a downer to my friend, and talking about it was discouraged.
I wish I could say that the example of the student’s email were an isolated case, but I think her problems are representative of what’s troubling a lot of Chinese minds.
In America, people are often physically isolated from other people, driving cars by themselves to lonely suburban homes. Yet, in China people are in nearly constant physical proximity to others, while more and more people are feeling psychologically isolated.
And it’s a problem that seems like it’s only going to become more common. Modernization and economic reform is almost as popular as rice in China, but it’s bringing along unintended costs.
This student, sadly, is a sign of problems to come.