Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Hi there, Masthead. Greetings from a very jet-lagged Caroline! I just got back from China, where I’ve been researching an article for the last ten days (more on that reporting soon). I’ve spent a lot of time in China—I went to primary school in Hong Kong, led several summer programs in southern China throughout college, and taught English at a university in Jiangxi province for a year in 2015. Every time I go, I’m struck by what is okay to say, and what’s not. Today, I’ll highlight a few of those taboos, and what we can learn from them.

CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS?

Last week, one of my former Chinese students, Ning BiZhou, texted me from China’s largest English debate competition. He’d just debated the motion, “This House regrets the liberal media’s demonization of white supremacists.” “I think white supremacy is wrong,” he wrote. “But should we demonize it?” That made me think. The cultural landscape here in the U.S. makes such a question unspeakable. We’re talking about a movement that has violently torn our country apart for generations: Should we give that movement a voice? As an American, it’s clear to me why that door is not opened lightly. But to Ning, it isn’t.

On my first trip to China I was told to never, ever mention the “Three T’s:” Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. But in a country where so much is officially unspeakable, it was a surprise to be reminded of the topics that typically go unspoken in the U.S. A few examples:

  1. Racism and Xenophobia. After I gave a lecture on humor in a public speaking course, one of my students started his speech with an anecdote about a man stealing his money on the street, ending with the punchline, “He was a Xinjiang guy—of course!” The whole class laughed. My student had been referencing the stereotype that people from Xinjiang, China’s western-most province where Muslims are a large minority, are thieves. He was surprised when I objected. “But everyone thought it was so funny!” The flip side of China’s openness to ideas about race and identity is that stereotypes can easily take hold.
  2. Money. When I lived with a family in Shanghai, I knew all about their finances. After I complimented their apartment or their car, they told me how much each cost. I don’t think they did this to brag. They were just sharing information, like Americans would tell you the cost of a sandwich at a restaurant. The woman I lived with also told me how much she was paid. This, in particular, made me wish the U.S. was more like China—research shows that salary transparency can effectively combat the gender wage gap.
  3. Weight. Flipping through photos on my phone, my female students in China will often say things like, “You look much fatter here,” or, “It’s good you’re not so fat anymore.” When I came to China to teach with ten other American students, one of whom was also named Caroline, our students took to calling me “Caroline” and the other one “Fat Caroline.” This sounds bad, I know. But they weren’t trying to be mean. They talk about weight like we talk about height or hair color.

Taboos are everywhere—and they vary wildly. The three I’ve described all fall somewhere on the spectrum between impolite and offensive. In China, many taboos are intensified by an additional factor: the government. There are things Chinese people are not supposed to know or say. The “Great Firewall,” which restricts access to Western websites like Facebook, Twitter, and The New York Times, prevents people in China from reading about certain issues and events—typically anything the government perceives as a threat.

My last day of class with my students at Jiangxi Normal University in the summer of 2014.

One of the biggest taboo subjects in China is media coverage—which makes Ning BiZhou’s debate topic particularly interesting. If the motion had asked students to analyze Chinese, instead of American, media, it almost certainly would have been vetoed. On my first trip to China as an adult, teaching at a small university in Hunan province, I designed a lesson around the differences between Chinese and Western media coverage of the Sichuan earthquake. I printed out two articles—one from TIME, another from Xinhua Daily, China’s leading newspaper—and asked students to compare and contrast. Big mistake. While students had been talking to me about the Three T’s all summer, even they knew this was taboo. No talking about media censorship in the classroom (now I look back and think, duh). After class, one student identified herself as “class monitor”—the student assigned to report back to the local government about her foreign teacher. “But don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t tell.”

In just the six years that I’ve been traveling to China regularly, I’ve seen taboos change. My Chinese friends now talk more about sex, and more about censorship. Back in 2011, none of my students had VPNs to get around the firewall. In the class I taught in 2015, half of them did. As Chinese young people gain more access to Western news and social platforms, I’ll be curious to see whether Chinese taboos start to look more American—or vice versa.

TODAY’S WRAP UP

Caroline Kitchener

ASSOCIATE EDITOR,
MASTHEAD

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.