In class, we discussed some of what Route 66 and the road mean to American culture: freedom, social mobility, masculinity. The article linked above follows Chinese citizens that win a contest sponsored by Shanghai General Motors (SGM), which is jointly owned by GM and the Chinese government. Winners are chosen based on their score on a test that includes details about Route 66 and General Motors. The winners are then flown to the U.S. and drive part of Route 66 in Cadillacs. Based on quotes from those involved in the contest and the trip to Route 66, one can deduce that Chinese view the iconic road very differently than Americans.
The first quote is from an SGM marketing manager:
“We are an American brand, and we want people in China to know about American culture,” said Su. “Route 66 is the best road to experience that culture because it helped to develop America. There are so many stories on this road, and when our group sees that, they realize how different it is here from China. We tell them about freedom and the importance of respecting it, and that people can say what they want in America and aren’t told what to speak. It really impresses them.”
The SGM representative sees Route 66 as not only inextricably tied to U.S. development, but also as a symbol for American constitutional freedoms. Although some Americans do view Route 66 as giving them the “freedom to,” I don’t think that they tie it back directly to the country’s founding documents. Personal freedoms are already so deeply ingrained in American culture that the thought of not having them isn’t even entertained. In China, this is not the case.
One contest winner gave his opinion of Route 66:
“We need to understand Route 66 and the culture behind it to be able to bring information back to China that will help develop it. Everything is getting better there, but it developed too fast and we created new problems because the people weren’t ready for it. What we learn here is valuable to us.”
In this context, Route 66 is viewed as a successful component of America’s economic development to be emulated. The contestant views Route 66 as an example of progress without sacrificing substance; economic growth while still maintaining cultural integrity. This demonstrates not only the idolization of America by many Chinese, but also the skepticism among Chinese regarding the rapid economic growth of the past 30 years.
The final quote comes from an American who travels with the group:
“We take it for granted that we can travel here without having papers on us or paying fees. They can’t just jump in the car and go without having government approval. And they are fascinated by the fact that we can do that in America. They are here to find out how to make that happen in China.”
In this case, Route 66 represents an alternative to a restrictive, bureaucratized government. Like Americans who use Route 66 to nourish a craving for spontaneity, so do Chinese want the ability to travel anywhere in the country at a moment’s notice, without first having to receive government approval. Yet, the restrictions that Americans feel in everyday life are not often from the government, but instead from social or work obligations.
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