Philosophy Major Travels to China

Clayton Richey learned about life, philosophy, culture, and language during his trip to China.

by B.J. Koubaroulis


Clayton Richey, a philosophy student at George Mason University, traveled to China to satisfy a long-held curiosity about Asian culture. After living in South Korea for five years as a child, Richey immersed himself in the teachings of the Shaolin, philosophy and language. He was driven to travel to China because “mastering a language requires more than just classroom training,” he said. “You need first-hand experience with the culture.” Recently he spent a year studying at Shanghai International Studies University.

The following is a question and answer session with Richey. Here’s what he had to say:

Why did you travel to China?

Clayton Richey: I became interested in Asian culture at age seven, when my father was posted in South Korea by the State Department. We lived there for five years, during which I discovered martial arts, spicy food, and an ancient culture, which captivated my young mind. My interest became a passion after my first encounter with Chinese culture in 2000, when I began studying Shaolin Kung Fu. My instructor taught me about the Shaolin martial morality, an ethical code based in Buddhist philosophy, and required that I learn Chinese characters to pass my belt tests. When I found the Chinese program at Mason, it was a great fit for me. Learning Chinese allows me to pursue my interest in Chinese culture and philosophy while gaining a real-world skill. I was also introduced to classical Chinese works written by Mencius and Confucius, literature and poetry by writers such as Du Fu and Li Bai, and contemporary films directed by Zhang Yi-Mou and Wong Kar-Wai.

Mastering a language requires more than just classroom training, you need first-hand experience with the culture. With that in mind, in 2008, I applied for and won the Chinese government scholarship. The scholarship sponsored my coursework at Shanghai International Studies University for one year. If I hadn’t gotten the scholarship, I don’t think I would have been able to go to China.  

How did your studies of philosophy relate to this trip?

Clayton Richey: Through exposure to different peoples and places, I have developed a keen interest in the ideas that create a sense of cultural identity. My undergraduate studies gave me the opportunity to analyze Western views, but served only to whet my appetite for Eastern thought. In the same way that I studied Plato and Aristotle to understand the basis of Western philosophy, I realized I should study Confucius and Mencius to grasp the ideas that shaped Chinese philosophy. In the same way that I read Kant and Kierkegaard to explore modern Western ideas, I must engage Buddhist and Daoist texts to connect the different streams of Chinese thought.

What did you learn during your trip to China? 

When I traveled to China in 2008, it was the first time I had moved away from my home to live on my own. I had to learn to live with a roommate, take care of my own shopping, cook for myself, and handle any problems by myself. I learned that I could be independent, and that I could live almost anywhere in the world, if I wanted to.  

Chinese culture is very different from ours, but I learned a few lessons that translate well into American culture. A few that I can share:

Treat your family relationships seriously. Your relatives know you better than anyone else in the world, and have more in common with you than anyone else.

Never go empty-handed to someone else’s home. Always bring something with you, even if it is something small.

Your health is very important, so eat well and stay active. As one Chinese grandmother told me, “We don’t have a lot of money. We have to eat right and exercise because we can’t afford to get sick.”

Networking is a great way to get things done. When you meet someone who is in a position to help you, try to make a good impression. You never know when you might need their help. If they remember you well, you are in a better position to get their help.

How did you time in China affect your studies in philosophy? 

Clayton Richey: I didn’t get a chance to formally study philosophy in China. However, I did try to find evidence of Chinese philosophy in everyday life. I had already studied some Eastern ideas through the Mason Chinese department, and I wanted to see what I could learn about Chinese philosophy just by talking to people and being around them.

Confucian philosophy is all about maintaining a hierarchy of social relationships, and I found that system alive and well in today’s China. For example, in the classroom, the student does not question the teacher. They are to sit quietly and absorb everything the teacher says. The teacher stands in front of the students and professes to them the facts that they need to know. The teacher is never to say that they don’t know or they are not sure of something; it is their job to know everything, and to communicate it to the students. There are exceptions, but that is the rule.

Daoist philosophy is another stream of Chinese thought. Daoists search for inner happiness and harmony with one’s surroundings. This philosophy is at the root of the Chinese love of nature and the belief that being in it is a necessary part of human life. Evidence of Daoism’s influence is found every day in China’s beautifully arranged parks, which are always full of people. They treasure the sunlight, soft breezes through trees, and the sound of lake water lapping against the stones.

What would a prospective student need to know about doing something similar? 

Clayton Richey: Give yourself time to adjust to the new country. Culture shock is real. It took me about three months to get used to life in China. Everyone has different pet peeves, but the hardest part for me was getting used to the lack of personal space. At first, I would get mad when someone bumped into me on the street, or when a salesperson touched me to get my attention. It took about three months before I became accustomed to it. After that, I was pushing my way into a crowded subway car just like everyone else, leaning on my neighbors for support as the car swayed to and fro. Just try to be open to new things, and don’t dismiss different customs just because they’re not your own.

Try to keep your heart in the right place. If you go abroad for more than a few weeks, you will get lonely, and you will meet a lot of people in the same boat. They are all visitors, just like you, and whatever relationship you start will end when both of you go back home. That can put a lot of stress on a relationship, so be careful before you start one.