Iron and Silk Essay
American culture and Chinese culture have several significant differences. It can be difficult to understand the Chinese people’s beliefs and actions from an American perspective. Iron and Silk provides an interesting insight into the differences between traditional Chinese culture and American culture. This is accomplished through Mark Salzman’s experiences and interactions with Chinese natives during his two year stay in China.
Salzman spent his two years in Changsha, a city in Hunan, China. He left the United States for China in the year 1982. Prior to his journey, Salzman studied at the prestigious Yale University. He serves as an English teacher teaching Chinese teachers at a medical university. Salzman teaches them English vocabulary and grammar. Additionally, he gives his students a glimpse into life in the United States. During Salzman’s free time, he enjoys watching kung-fu movies, practicing martial arts, and playing the cello.
Salzman has two teachers during his stay in China. The first is Hei Laoshi. She teaches him Chinese courtesies. An example of this is when she explains to Salzman how hosts are expected to offer drinks and food to guests whenever they visit. Hei Laoshi also teaches Salzman how to properly draw Chinese characters. Prior to learning from Hei Laoshi, Salzman already knows how to write, but Hei Laoshi corrects his method. In addition to Chinese manners and writing, she also teaches Salzman tai chi. The second teacher is Pan Laoshi. He primarily teaches Salzman kung-fu.
Iron and Silk portrays Chinese teachers as more formal, blunt, and straightforward than English teachers. Hei Laoshi is not afraid of hurting Salzman’s feelings. When he does something that is incorrect or not culturally correct, she directly tells him and expects him to correct it. In the United States, teachers typically give students a lot more leeway and encourage speaking up and expressing one’s thoughts. Obedience and agreement is presumed by Chinese teachers, but American teachers promote individuality and creative thinking.
Salzman’s students are middle aged Chinese citizens. There is a mix of male and female students. They dress in a humble and simple manner. They are used to a very formal classroom setting. On the first day of classes, they initially refuse to call Salzman by his first name Mark. They insist on formalities and finally settle on calling him “Teacher Mark” after much persuasion. When Salzman asks them about their happiest moment, he realizes that they have not lived very joyful lives. The “happiest memories” that they report to Salzman are all just ordinary everyday occurrences. His students have a difficult time recalling happy memories. His students’ lives are heavily controlled by the government, but they do not really understand their living situations. They are content with their current lifestyles and see them as superior to that of Americans. In comparison to American students, Chinese students are much more formal and respect their teachers more. Salzman’s students are inviting and generous to him in settings other than the classroom. American students typically do not interact much with their professors outside an educational setting. Salzman’s students are extremely modest and always agree with what other students think. They reserve their actual thoughts and tells Salzman only when the others are not present. This varies significantly from American students. American students are encouraged to express their thoughts from a young age, even if they do not align with the teacher and other students opinions.
Pan Laoshi initially refuses to accept Salzman as a student due to his American ethnicity. Pan Laoshi believes that Americans are undisciplined, unable to endure pain, and unable to “swallow bitter”. Later, Pan Laoshi finally decides to accept Salzman as a student after seeing Mark’s great motivation to learn martial arts when he sees Salzman imitating his young students outside the dojo.
Salzman’s girlfriend’s name is Ming. She is a doctor. Salzman meets her in a library. Ming enjoys reading English novels and studying American literature in her spare time. Although Ming does not have much exposure to English curriculum, she is motivated to expand her knowledge over American literature and the English language. Her favorite author is John Steinbeck and Salzman states that she has read more books and poems than him. She continues to continue her study of American literature although it hurts her career as a doctor and is discouraged by Chinese society.
Although Salzman is opposed to China’s communist government and dislikes the racism that many Chinese people display against him, Salzman loves China. When leaving Changsha on the train, he is unable to concentrate on the book that he is reading. Salzman misses his friends, teachers, and girlfriend that he had met. Salzman states that America feels like an exotic dream and China feels real to him.
Personally, I enjoyed watching Iron and Silk. The film was especially relevant to me because my parents are Taiwanese and I have been surrounded by several Chinese adults in my life. Watching Iron and Silk allowed me to better understand their thought processes that I had never really understood. Overall, the acting was subpar and the character development was not very good, but the film did a good job in displaying Chinese culture to American audiences.