Cross-Cultural Blog

He Said:  他说

Follow along as our two bloggers, Nick, an American living in China, and Tommy, a Chinese living in the U.S., discuss topics from their own unique perspectives.


Nick   Nick

Nick Compton is a native of Strawberry Point, Iowa, completing a Master's degree in journalism at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He's been back-and-forth between Iowa and China since 2007, when he spent a semester studying Chinese in Tianjin while he was a sophomore at the University of Iowa. Nick is fascinated by Chinese culture and language, and thinks Chinese food is the most delicious type of food on earth.


Tommy was born in Shanghai and spent time studying in Singapore when he was 15 years old.  He enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa and earned his bachelor degree in Public Relations in 2012.  He is currently working in Iowa coordinating a community project.


Social Expectations in China
Nick Tommy

I remember the scene vividly:

Late last year, I was eating lunch with a Chinese friend who was obviously upset. When I met her at the gate of the student canteen, she tried her best to make small talk, but something was clearly wrong. Her head hung low, her eyes were glued to the floor, and she spoke in one-breath answers, quiet and polite. 

Finally, when we’d grabbed out trays and dug into the cafeteria food, she told me what was on her mind.

“My parents don’t agree with my boyfriend,” she said, elaborating that the couple had been dating for four years, and she could sense he was on the verge of marriage proposal. She loved him, she said, and she was sure he loved her.

But her parents, working-class people from central China, were practical to the bone. They didn’t like the fact that he was a librarian in Beijing, or the fact that he was a few years shy of 30 and didn’t own a car or an apartment. They asked my friend how he could possible support her, and what use it would do to start a family with a man who could barely afford to feed himself, let alone a second (and potentially third) mouth.

My friend’s arguments did no help. Her parents disagreed. That was final.

A few weeks after our meeting, just before the Chinese New Year and a family reunion that would have been painful had she disobeyed her parents, she broke up with him. There was no other way, she told me.

Such is the dilemma in modern China, where young adults must balance cultural and family expectations with the overpowering desire to blaze their own path and do things their own way –touting individualism over collectivism.  

The expectations are fairly clear cut, and the roles are almost typecast from a Hollywood movie. Men are expected to secure a steady job and then lean on their families to buy a car, an apartment, and anything else that proves handy in landing a wife and starting a faily. Women, for their part, are expected to succumb to their gender roles: Marry before 30, have a child, and raise him/her (preferably a boy) to success. In many circumstances, desperation kicks in if a woman is approaching 30 and hasn’t married yet.

What I would argue is that this set of cultural expectations isn’t unique to China, but from what I’ve seen firsthand, it can be a sort of a poisonous culture that acts to tamp down dreams before they’ve had a chance to blossom.

For instance, I have so many smart, capable, Chinese graduate student friends who will forgo a career in whatever their skillset or interests are in favor of what their parents tell them to do, or what they foresee as the most stable option. 

Society as a whole suffers from this, when innovative, talented people are pigeon-holed into the feeling of living a life and a career that is not their own, but is merely what is expected of them.  




“我父母不同意我和我男朋友,” 她说,接着介绍道他们俩已经在一起四年了,她也觉得男方差不多准备提出求婚了,她爱他,并十分肯定他也爱着她。









Four years ago as I was preparing to come to the United States and to University of Northern Iowa, I had no idea what I am going to major in or what I am going to do after graduation. My mum then told me to choose accounting as she explained the stable future of accounting major and the ease of finding a job. "Besides, UNI has a great accounting program and high CPA pass-rate." She concluded.

So that's what I did. I joined the one of the majors that most other Chinese students chose as well. However, I realized that accounting was not for me within the first half of the semester. After a weeks of long and painful "discussions", I changed my major to Public Relations.

Since then, I talked with many students, both Chinese and American, to find out who chose their major and what they feel about their major. Not surprisingly most Chinese students followed their parents' advice while most American students chose the major on their own. Most American students said their parents didn't care what they choose.

However, what came as a surprise to me was the fact that not many Chinese students are as unhappy about the choice as I thought. Most of them said they didn't know what else to do so they followed their family's advice. Don't get me wrong, not all of them are doing great in these majors, but they just endure the suffering (in my opinion), and keep working hard on the subjects they have no interest in at all. "That's what everyone else does," one of them commented.

I am pampered in a way. My parents and I both did not like to work too hard on something if there is an easier way out. So I cannot understand why people would spend so much of their energy on majors they don't enjoy. If they end-up in the industry they might even need to endure it for a good amount of year before they can do something else. And as far as I know, the longer you spend in an industry the harder it is for you to switch.

The reason for such a different mindset of parents is easy to figure out if you consider the difference in society norms. In China, most children nowadays are the only child of the family due to the one-child policy. When there is no one else to take away the attention from the parents, all the expectations fall upon one child. This then naturally caused the parents to map out everything and want their child to make as few mistakes in life as possible, whereas most American parents would spend their attention on multiple children and those families with single child would still be influenced by the society's norm and not interfere their children's life as much.

What the Chinese parents fail to realize is that avoiding mistakes will not only leave the possibility of making greater mistake in the future, but also leave the child to wonder for the rest of his/her life: what if I did/did not….? With this thought, they cannot focus on their current job because they keep thinking they might be doing something wrong. Thus making it hard to give 100% of what they have at work.

There is no easy way to change a society's norm, but I am really glad that I came to University of Northern Iowa for my undergrad degree because it is really easy to switch majors in the United States.











Making Sense of the Geographical Divisions in China | 进一步的去了解中国的地域划分
Nick Tommy

Before coming to China I, like most of my friends and relatives back in the U.S., assumed that China was one, huge, homogenous chunk of land – where everyone spoke “Chinese,” looked “Chinese,” and shared a common culture and history.

After living on-and-off in China since 2007 and traveling throughout much of the country, I can resolutely say that notion is false. Just like in the United States, each geographic region of China (province in China’s case) is distinct with its own cuisine, culture, and in many cases, dialect. Although an overwhelming majority of the people, close to 92 percent according to government statistics, are Han Chinese, there are 55 other ethnic minorities in China. Some, like the Uighurs in China’s extreme northwest, look nothing like the image of the “typical” Chinese person that was burned into my mind before coming.

Now, having just traveled to Shenzhen in China’s southern Guangdong Province, I’ve become aware of another division that shares a parallel with the U.S. – the distinction between northern China and southern China.

In my experience, if you ask a Chinese northerner (north of the Yangtze river) the difference between northern China and southern China, they’ll tell you that southerners are more interested in earning money and less interested in politics.  They eat rice instead of noodles and steamed buns, don’t dine on jiaozi (dumplings) during the spring festival, and are generally darker-skinned.

Of course, if you ask a Southerner about a Northerner, they’re likely to say that they’re taller, stronger, and eat heartier food, but are a tad less “cultured.”

In Guangdong province, the heart of China’s Cantonese culture, I experienced southern culture at its apex. In Beijing and Manchuria (dong bei), I experienced northern culture at its apex.

Just like in the U.S., each region has a rich heritage and culture. In southern states in the U.S., you’re likely to hear voices flavored by a Dixie accent, and will probably see a confederate flag or two, a remnant of an era that came and went.

In China, I’ve found that the stereotypes of north and south are, by-and-large, spot on. Like the culture as a whole, southern cuisine is carefully prepared, subtly spiced, and neatly served. In the north, food is blasted with flavor and sauce, and served on huge, heaping platters.

It’s tough to say which culture I like better, but because I’ve spent most of my time in China in Beijing, I’ve become more familiar and comfortable around the northern culture. Still, the allure of the warm, subtle south is alluring.

What’s most important is for an outsider to understand that China, like the U.S., is far from a homogenous country. The geographic divisions, north-south especially, play an important role.









就像美国一样,每一个局域都含有自己独特的文化与习俗。在南美洲,你会听到迪克西口音, 而且你还会看到人们挂着盟旗,用来纪念一段历史。




Some of us were talking about the problem of littering in office today. For me, who grew up in Shanghai, studied in Singapore and finished college in Cedar Falls, Shanghai has the most serious littering problem. However, as I have always seen America as a homogenous entity, I failed to realize the difference people came from different places would have. From what was described to me, cities like New York has a much worst littering problem than Shanghai.

This did make me start to think about the difference people show in my four years in the States. Americans do not have dialects like we do in China, but some of them do have a very distinguishable accent. Another thing I noticed was Americans usually have a very strong stereotype for each state whereas in China, most of the people are grouped into North and South.

The reason for the difference in my opinion is that more people want to travel and move into bigger cities in China which created a bigger flow of population. I think there are enough opportunities here in the States so people can do well without depending too much on their location. But it is very different in China, most people believe in going to a bigger city would bring them more income and ultimately lead to a good life. While this idea is true in many cases, I feel there are many opportunities missed in smaller communities.

Most of my American friends could not understand the difference between a dialect and a language and are usually surprised to learn that people from the north can sometimes do not understand a single word someone from the south is speaking even though they can both write in the same language. I personally believe this is a very important aspect of Chinese culture and should definitely be preserved and this can be a good indicator of geological identity.







The Job Hunt in China | 在中国寻找工作
Nick Tommy

When I graduate with a Master’s Degree from Tsinghua University in four months, I will enter perhaps the world’s toughest job market – China.  While the official government unemployment rate has hovered around 4 percent since before the Olympic Flame was extinguished at the Bird’s Nest Stadium, recent college grads (my Chinese friends among them) tell a completely different story.  Unless you have remarkable skills in a red-hot area like computer programming, it’s nearly impossible to snag a promising job that you’re interested in, and can pay the bills, fresh out of college.

As far as I can tell, the reason rests in simple statistics.  

In 2012, China pumped out nearly seven million college grads, according to its ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. That’s seven million educated grads with sky-high expectations entering a job market that is still heavily tilted towards low-paying manufacturing jobs.  And those jobs are, indeed, there for the taking.

A serious shortage of willing labor has caused many factories in southern China’s industrial belt to engage in all-out recruiting campaigns, sometimes, my friends say, even, venturing into China’s most prestigious universities like Tsinghua and Peking University to fling out job offers.

More often than not, these recruiters are scoffed at. Factory work is looked down upon, considered far below the abilities of well-read, worldly college grads. Perhaps they shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the idea, though. Reports came out last year that detailed how these factory jobs paid more, on average, than the starting salary of a college grad in China.

The problem is that so many in China, like the U.S., hold themselves out for the perfect job – one that pays well, challenges them, and fits their area of expertise - when the jobs available don’t at all fit this criteria. That leaves Chinese college grads, just like their American counterparts, settling, in desperation, for low-paying service jobs, working in fields that have nothing to do with the fields they studied. 

My Chinese friends at Tsinghua who will soon graduate are, like me, scrambling to send out resumes, network with potential employers, and score reference letters from their professors and internship coordinators.  I can’t help but feel, though, that I, as a foreigner and native-English speaker, have a leg up in the rat race.

All seven million Chinese are competing against each other for that perfect job. Most drag through the official hiring process at big multinationals and huge Chinese firms – applying online, taking tests, going through group interviews….Outshining their fellow applicants is near-impossible when some positions attract thousands of very bright, ambitious go-getters with internships under the wings and connections to pull on. 

I, on the other hand, can often just email a company executive to inquire about an opening. Being a foreigner is sometimes that much of a novelty.

Whatever the case, I wish my friends, both foreign, and Chinese, the best of luck while job hunting before this graduation season, and I urge them all to look beyond their ideal jobs and settle for something a little more feasible.













I have always thought before I graduated that working in the United States would be difficult. This idea was largely affected by articles and other media pieces either about either illegal immigration or barriers for foreign national individuals to find job in the United States. Many of my friends and I heard a lot of stories about the hardship people went through when they were looking for a job. All these added up and made me believe firmly that it would not be a fun experience to look for a job here. I learned later that finding a job here is not difficult as long as you know how to look for one. In my opinion, the barrier is usually there to prevent foreign nationals from taking jobs with lower pay or unfair advantage over United States citizens. As long as you can prove your value in the work you have done or demonstrate the importance of your work, there should be no problem for you to be able to work in the United States. 

Luckily for me, I managed to get hired as a full time staff member to work on the Blue Zones Project for Cedar Falls. This is a community wellbeing improvement initiative. I grew more and more passionate about my job everyday because I realized that this is such a great opportunity for me to experience working and learn more about engaging different people. However, I couldn't help but to compare the working environment and employees' attitude towards working here with Chinese culture. 

It seems that Americans are more likely to quit a job without knowing what their next step would be. Most Chinese workers would not leave their current job until they know they have another job waiting for them. Americans seem to care more about finding passion in the job and will not continue once they do not feel good about what they are doing. 

Some may say this kind of action is reckless and irresponsible, but I think it is really important to be doing whatever you feel is right for you. I believe firmly that doing something with passion will make you one of the top employees in the industry. It would motivate you to keep on learning and improving. However, I also think that before leaving a job a person should at least have a general idea of what should come next instead of just leave and  start searching later. 

All in all, I have had an awesome working experience here in the States and this definitely would help me in my future career development.








Running a Marathon in China | 在中国跑马拉松
Nick Tommy

I consider myself a runner.  I’ve completed dozens of 5k and 10k events, stretching back to a time when I still hadn’t shed all of my baby teeth. The last few years, as my life became busier and my stresses multiplied, I used running as my crutch – embarking on long, slow tears to clear my head and enter a sort of meditation.

In this way, inadvertently, my conditioning improved, and I began not just finishing in the races I entered, but competing. I won some, placed in others, and slowly but steadily improved my times. After finishing a half marathon in New Orleans, and thinking “that wasn’t so bad,” there was only one frontier left: a full marathon.

The difficulty ahead of me was forbidding, however: I was moving to Beijing.

That meant a near deathblow for my training. If I wanted variety and hoped to escape Tsinghua’s campus, I would have to putter along car-choked highways, dodge throngs of people, and endure throat singing smog. Running inside on a treadmill was OK for the first hour or so, before it became intolerably boring.

Still, I pushed ahead, and formed the habit of waking up with the sun to beat the morning crowds and run a few laps around my corner of Beijing. I joined the marathon group on campus, all Chinese graduate students who capitalized on a sliver of free time to embark on long, slow runs every Sunday around Tsinghua’s campus.

In early October, I was ready and excited to run the Beijing Marathon. Because of the 18th Party Congress, however, the event was delayed, and my registration was voided. I watched with disappointment as the event came and went, without even the chance to tie my running shoes.

So, my friends and colleagues in China recommended I register for the Xiamen Marathon, a well-respected run in China’s beautiful southern port city. The climate is perfect, they assured me, and the race well organized. So, without giving it much thought, I registered online, and booked a plane ticket from Beijing to Xiamen.

When my plane lifted off from Beijing, I looked down on a landscape frozen in ice and dusted with snow. Dropping down in Xiamen, the ocean sparkled brilliantly, and the hills surrounding the city were lush green. The temperature difference, I noticed as I grabbed my luggage and stood in queue for a taxi, was dramatic – I took off my jacket and wished I was wearing shorts instead of jeans.

My hostel was owned and operated by a family who spoke next-to-no English, rarely entertained foreign guests, and was fascinated by all things Western. Using my hesitant, choppy Chinese, I explained to the owner, his wife, his brother, and his college-aged niece, that I was in Xiamen to run a marathon in a few days, and just wanted to rest before the race. Over tea and sunflower seeds in their garden patio, they questioned me about my hometown, my siblings, my studies at Tsinghua.

“You know,” the owner said, pointing to his young niece, “She still doesn’t have a boyfriend. Maybe you could help.”

I politely ducked away from that suggestion, reminding them that I had a girlfriend, and few of my friends were single.

On the day of the marathon, I popped out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and gathered my things in order to catch a cab in time for the race’s early morning start.  As I stepped out of the door and entered the lobby, I was floored by the owners’ thoughtfulness. On the front desk was a large, folded cardboard sign that said ‘Nick, You Are the Best.’ It was obviously written in the niece’s careful hand, and immediately motivated me – knowing that I had support in such an unfamiliar place was hugely important.

The marathon was as promised. It was well organized, the route was gorgeous, with the pale blue ocean in sight most of the time, and the weather was ideal. What struck me most, though, was the support I received from thousands of locals who stood near the path and shouted words of encouragement, “jia you, jia you, kuai pao!” Some brought bananas or water to pass out to the runners. Others dressed up in costumes to cheer even louder.

As I passed the 35 kilometer mark, my legs already rubber and my will power beginning to fade, I saw a familiar sign – ‘Nick, You Are the Best.’ The owner and his niece were standing along the path, yelling my name, yelling for me to suck it up and run faster. Seeing them, knowing that they went out of their way to come root for me, sent a surge of new energy coursing through my body, and I pushed through the last 7 kilometers, finishing in just more than three hours.

Meeting with the owner after the race, I thanked him and told him how much his support meant to me. He laughed and once again pointed to his niece.

“She still doesn’t have a boyfriend,” he said, hoping, one last time, that I might reconsider.


































The first time I know I was going to do a long run instead of a short lap run I was in middle school in China. The guys were required to run 1000 meters and girls 800. Some of my friend had leg cramp after the run. Most of them did not finish it. I was never a fast runner, but I managed to finish the run without stopping.

However, Singapore requires their students to run 2400 meter a few times each semester, and a 5k cross-country each year. I felt I almost died the first time I ran, but I slowly adapted to it. That was when I started to like doing long runs.

I had a minor knee injury when I was younger, so few years ago doctor told me running was really bad for my knee as it puts a lot of pressure on it. I slowly stopped running after that and have not been running since I got to the United States.

Many of my American friends run on a regular basis whereas I do not see or hear any of my friends back in China who runs. I think the running culture is very different and it's a more common practice in America than in China. The environment can be an important factor but also most sidewalks are not runner-friendly. Not many trails were in place for people to use and not many people use them anyways. To me this has  become a vicious cycle because nobody would care to push the city planning department to build more trails for people to run or walk.

I wish cities in China can become more suitable for citizens to exercise, have fun and live.












Chinese New Year | 我的第一个春节
Nick Tommy

After two full weeks of firecrackers, feasting, and a whole lot of red, the Chinese New Year, the biggest annual holiday in the Middle Kingdom, officially wrapped up a week ago. I’ve been back-and-forth between China and the U.S. since 2007, but this was the first time I spent the holiday season in Beijing, and I can’t help but feel a little overwhelmed by all I experienced.

As all of you studying overseas know, the phenomenon of culture shock is not a myth.  At first, everything – from the food, the buildings, the customs, the language – all seems backwards and upside down. But, as with all else in life, after you get past the growing pains and come to a deeper understanding of something, it seems less strange, less foreign, and more easy to come to grips with.

So it was for me and the Chinese New Year (春节)

Leading up to the holiday season, I was schooled in the traditions of the holiday by my Chinese friends, and repeatedly told, “This is as important to Chinese people as Christmas is to Americans.”  It’s as much about family as anything else, they said. My American friends who had ridden the holiday out in China before gave me a different tone of advice: “It’s boring, man.  The whole city shuts down, and there’s nothing to do.” They said I best buy a cart-full of DVD’s or a stack of good books and hunker down until the city sparked back to life. 

I quickly learned that my American friends were not joking. When my University broke for the holiday, there was a mass exodus to a scale I’ve never seen. The campus transformed from a bustling, mid-size city unto itself into an eerily quiet ghost town. Likewise the migrant-built city of Beijing, which probably lost half its population when workers journeyed back to their hometowns to visit family. The subway lines emptied out, stores shut down, and fireworks began.

 The Spring Festival is the only time it’s legal to light fireworks in China, and the locals savored what time they had. Late into the night I’d hear the deep bark of firecrackers and the fizzle of colorful bursts lighting up the sky.  The best display came on New Year’s eve, the pinnacle of the festival, which also happened to be my birthday.

On that night, I joined my academic advisor, her family, and a banquet room full of other professors, officials and businessmen to celebrate with a traditional feast. We tore into big, steaming plates of dumplings, stuffed buns, boiled fish, braised lamb, and roasted duck, as the elderly professor sitting next to me talked about his childhood in central China, surviving for weeks on nothing but sweet potatoes, soy, and cabbage.

Etiquette was of the utmost importance. All the younger guests, including me, were expected to circle the table and toast, one-by-one each of our elders. We cheered with cups of fiery rice liquor and glasses of expensive French wine.  No harsh words or negativity was allowed, as it would set the year off on the wrong foot.

By the end of the night, after many toasts and much rice liquor, I was feeling warm and happy. Then the group, realizing it was my birthday, ordered a traditional birthday dish for me – a bowl of extra long noodles signifying a long life. I slurped the noodles and thanked the group, before heading out to catch up with a group of friends to watch fireworks over Beijing’s Hou Hai lake.

This experience, an intimate feast with a group of people I’ve known for only a year, makes me appreciate the genuine kindness and welcoming spirit that I have found repeatedly in China. When I think back on this Chinese New Year, it is this meal, the toasts, the traditions, the noodles, that will forever stand out.












It has been 10 years since I last celebrated Chinese New Year with my grandparents in China. I always had to go to school during that time of the year. However, at least I get to celebrate it with my parents most of the time. This year they visited me for two week for Chinese New Year since I had to work. I consider myself very lucky for being able to do this with my parents almost every year because traditionally this is the most important festival and family members are supposed to get together. 

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association usually celebrations the two major Chinese Festivals, one being the Chinese New Year and the other being the Mid-Autumn Festival. This is for most of the Chinese Students here who would not get to celebrate them with their family since both of these festivals are traditionally times for family members to get together. These celebrations are usually open to all UNI students for free and there would be Chinese food, performances and games with prizes. 

However I feel that fewer and fewer students are showing up every year. Back when I first came, most of the students see this as a good opportunities to gather and make some new friends. Now more students have cars and are better connected so they do not see this gathering as important as we used to see it. Some of them also chose to go to other celebrations instead of the student-organized one. 

With a not-so-big Chinese students population on UNI campus, it takes a strong leadership and a lot of effort for a foreign student group to build a culture here. My experience with the American students here on campus is that a lot of them are very interested in the Chinese culture but there is no way for them to learn more about the culture from real-life Chinese students. I hope that someday this will change and the Chinese students can get more involved on various campus activities and not only hang out with each other. When that day comes, I believe this would be an awesome experience for them as well as the American and other students on campus!