Through work I meet quite a lot of ‘laowai’, and their odd and puzzling questions often leave me slack jawed in amazement. However, under closer inspection these seeming idiotic questions not only reflect difference in thinking between the East and the West, but can also act as a mirror for us to examine our own short comings in.

My favorite that I like sharing with my friends is a question that Chinese would never ask: “Why do Chinese trees grow by the roadside?” This question was put to me by a French diplomat and to this day I still don’t have a good answer. Clearly the trees are planted by people, and as China lacks natural space and forests and deforestation in recent years has meant many people hardly get to see any trees. Natural trees for people who live on the Steppe plains are a luxury. So, since the 1980s the government pushed forward a policy of tree planting all over China and Chinese people are now used to seeing trees planted row upon row from village to village. This is hard for the foreigner to understand. Traveling around Europe you won’t find everything planned the same way and the scenery changes massively.

Last year I went back to my home town in Shandong and found out more about this ‘stupid question’. The village had been called upon to construct a village that would struggle for Socialist New Village. Along the roadsides within an area of 50 meters it was full of trees. The answer to the question, then, is: the trees are planted by man and they have to be planted like that. What’s even more amazing is that all the houses along the side of the road have to be painted the same color, so that the village becomes a ‘New Village’.

The second question was about the One Child Policy. When I was traveling abroad before I was often asked this question by curious foreigners: “Can you only have one baby?” Or some would even come out with: “Do you have your second child killed?” It was then that I could merely be a translator of our national sentiment and tell the foreigners that the One Child Policy was helping China with its population pressures and that this brings benefits to the world as a whole. After I had explained it seemed that the many different European people understood, but the Americans still didn’t get it. American’s get worked up over the abortion question at every of their Presidential elections. The question of whether or not the president agrees with abortion, ridiculous as it seems to Chinese people, is something that Americans make an issue out of.

The German Deutsche Welle surveyed the population of Berlin on the question of the One Child Policy. The results show that in the long run the policy has taken much criticism in the West. However, according to official statistics, since its implementation in the late 1970s, the policy has seen 300 to 400 million fewer births. Isn’t this a great result for a world that has an ever growing population and fewer resources? The Prof who carried out the survey said that the reason the policy is attacked so much is the brutal way in which it is enforced, taking away any rights to choose, something that westerners find it hard to imagine. But, if the population of China had continued to grow at the rates it was, it would have led to a famine and a struggle for resources. If China had not taken that route, despite international criticism, then the growth in the Chinese economy we see today would not have happened.

The third interesting question was posed by a Swedish business man. I took this 40 year old to the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and we even had Beijing duck together. Then on the last day, on a windy stretch of the 4th Ring Road after seeing the Bird’s Nest, he suddenly asked: “How comes you don’t see children playing in playgrounds in Beijing?” Including Sweden, most European countries don’t have cities that are so built up as Beijing, and they maintain something of their cultural past, style, open spaces etc. In Berlin next to the new German Chancellor’s Building there is a huge open lawn and you can see it full of children playing football at the weekends.

However, whatever the arguments for or against, I was once told by a Colorado secondary school teacher that the Chinese education system is much better. She said America should follow China’s example, as American school kids are so poorly behaved. In her eyes, China is a paradise of education.