Diversity and cross-cultural issues in China
In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America's richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race, and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In China, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics considered familiar and commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in China.
Outside of China’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is advertised as “typical” cultural behavior or norms may also be a narrow and selective interpretation, such as the perception in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of China are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in China, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
- 1 Overview of Diversity in China
- 2 What Might a Volunteer Face?
Overview of Diversity in China
The Peace Corps staff in China recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, and ages and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who will take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Some female Volunteers in China have experienced “body image” issues relative to the Chinese cultural definition of ideal feminine beauty. Few Western women are small or thin enough to achieve that narrow ideal, which may be frustrating for some Volunteers, as is the possibility that their attractiveness may also be defined by this standard.
Additionally, despite the outward appearance that women are equal to men in China, women still struggle to be considered and treated as true equals in the workplace.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
It is difficult to generalize about how Chinese may perceive Volunteers of color. Americans of Asian descent will have a very different experience than those of African descent, who will have a very different experience than those of Hispanic descent. Still, some Volunteers of color may be evaluated as less professionally competent than white Volunteers and may not be perceived as being North American. Asian Americans may be identified more by their cultural heritage than by their American citizenship. Current or historical Chinese relations with other Asian countries, such as Korea or Japan, may have an impact on how Asian-American Volunteers are perceived. Additionally, Asian Americans may have to deal with people's higher expectations of their language-learning ability or cross-cultural adaptability.
A Volunteer of color may be the only minority trainee or Volunteer in his or her group or may be working and living with individuals with no experience or understanding of their background.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
The Chinese people pay great respect to age. As a senior Volunteer, you may not experience some of the issues that younger Volunteers face because of the appreciation for seniors in Chinese culture. However, senior Volunteers may not receive adequate personal support from younger Volunteers and may feel inclined not to participate fully in order to “give the young folks their turn.” Additionally, senior Volunteers may be more reluctant to share personal, sexual, or health concerns with other Volunteers. Learning Chinese has historically proved to be extremely difficult for senior Volunteers and so are encouraged to develop an effective individual approach to language learning.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Generally speaking, the Chinese culture does not accept or understand homosexuality or bisexuality and can be extremely prejudicial. Gay Volunteers grapple with the question of whether they can confide host country friends, but usually do not. There may or may not be sufficient support for a homosexual or bisexual lifestyle within Peace Corps/China. Gay Volunteers might serve for two years without meeting another gay Volunteer or staff member. Lesbians will have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex (as do all women). Most Volunteers are posted in cities that are less open than the large cities along the coast of China. Relationships with homosexual host country nationals can happen, but as with all cross-cultural relationships, they are not likely to be easy. AIDS has only recently become an issue in the local news and is terribly misunderstood as a disease widely contagious among homosexual or bisexual people.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
Although all religions suffered enormous setbacks during the Cultural Revolution, the majority of religious Chinese are Buddhists. There is a Muslim minority, mostly in northwest China, and Sichuan does have a number of Islamic mosques. There are also practicing Christians, and although there are some churches in China most services are in Chinese.
Peace Corps Volunteers in China are free to practice their religion but not to proselytize to the Chinese, as it is against Chinese law and Peace Corps policy. Previous Volunteers have advised active believers to bring their own holy books and religious readings and to be prepared to worship alone. Most members of the Chinese younger generation (under 50) are non-believers, and you should not be surprised if the students tell you that all religions are superstition and they want no part of it. Conversely, do not be surprised if you are assumed to be a Christian, asked curious questions by students regarding the religious significance of major holidays or questions about the Bible.
Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities
As a disabled Volunteer in China, you may face a special set of challenges. In China, as in other parts of the world, some people hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with disabilities and may discriminate against them. Very little support exists within Chinese culture for anyone with disabilities, and Volunteers with nonvisible disabilities may encounter a lack of understanding, and therefore support, concerning their disability.
Nevertheless, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services, as part of the medical clearance process, determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in China without unreasonable risk to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/China staff work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.