Friday, December 30, 2011

Culture Corner: The People

It’s a pity that the sheer number of Chinese people is the prime reason for their pollution problem.  The factories necessary to support such a mass and the trash they subsequently generate would be much less polluting were their population quartered. I say a “pity” because, Chinese people are the best thing about China. They are friendly, wily, honest, misleading, funny, racist, lazy, ambitious, trustworthy, liable to cheat you out of money, arrogant, humble, proud, modest, kind, hospitable, curious, and blessed with a lack of body odor.  Except for the last, they are just like people everywhere else in the world.  But, if I may indulge in a few generalities (aka stereotypes), I can create a few distinctions that sets them apart from other groups and makes them wonderful.

Chinese people are like a school of fish in the ocean that moves en masse.  It seems what one knows, they all know, and what one does, they all do. They become completely baffled when I tell them a rogue idea passed on by a fellow Chinese person, for example “Chinese people secretly admire the Japanese for their ingenuity.”  “It can’t be!” they reply, “No Chinese person would say that. Are you sure you understood them?”  “Good question.”, I reply.  Constantly receiving mixed messages in their attempts at being polite rather than direct, I’m often unsure what exactly Chinese people are insinuating when in public situations.  Therefore, I can only create a vague cultural rule: homogeneity is good.  

There are times when this inter-dependency confuses me.  Many Chinese people have told me they feel uncomfortable when alone on empty roads - day or night - as though the close press of the teeming mass is somehow necessary or comforting. Those who have been in a Western country find its streets to be scary, the relative emptiness throwing them for a cultural loop.
But as they are so afraid to offer an opinion that might differ from the herd’s, the mindset of being part of the crowd rather than a face in the crowd, also makes for difficult teaching. When I ask them why they are so silent after getting no response to what I think is a simple question, they reply: “We are being polite by giving someone else the chance to speak.”  (Translated: “I don’t want to say anything lest others think I’m strange.”) To which I counter: “Well, if everybody is waiting for somebody else to speak, nobody speaks.” (Translated: “Somebody say something, anything.  Help me make this hour pass!)  To which they smile and say: “Yes, yes!” (Translated: “Just write something on the board so we can copy it.”)  I want to scream: “Grow a spine. Your classmates will not stone you!  Loose your individuality! Give me a thought that is not someone else’s or that I haven’t heard from fifty other people!”  But I digress, because: 

Chinese inter-dependency is also something very beautiful.  It means their society functions at a level more socially normal. Their family lives are far more cohesive than the abusive, old age home, juvenile detention center, divorce court of America.  Each person has a role, and they depend on each other to perform it, youngest to oldest. They care for all of their family members in their homes until death. This means they do not dump them at a nursing home when they are no longer functionally valuable (i.e. earning money), but continue to appreciate what immaterial things they have to offer even after their economically productive life is finished. As every role is vital, it also means that Chinese people are far less likely to leave home to live in a place so far distant as we are. And if they do, their role becomes a financial one where they constantly send money home.  It goes without saying almost all young people’s holidays are spent with their families rather than cruising the Caribbean, satisfying personal interests. 

In general, Chinese family lives are healthy and harmonious.  Having only their own bowl of rice at the dinner table, those gathered share all the other plates and dishes on the table.  For me, this is highly symbolic of the strength in the bonds connecting the families, and something we are losing more of everyday in the west.

When first meeting a Chinese person, inevitably they will be very shy - like a child - especially the women, who are often rendered literally speechless. I’d like to think this is my “Blad Pitta” good looks, but we know this is not the case. It’s just part of their culture.  The retention of childhood innocence such a prized virtue, many Chinese people are adult bodies containing the minds of children.   This is not to say they cannot be ambitious in the business world or lack responsibility, rather that the humor they appreciate and situations they enjoy (think karaoke!) are what westerners would consider simple, or immature.  

This can be both annoying and awesome.  A forty-five year old women pouting and sulking like a child: annoying.  Thirty year old men giggling and tee-heeing at the mention of kissing and hugging: awesome.  Having the ability to laugh sincerely at the simple things in life and to have fun like a child - without an air of maturity: awesome. The lack of poop, pee, and sex being the continual punch line to jokes: awesome. I guess it comes down to which version of immaturity you prefer: the innocent, childish variety in China or the toilet variety in America.

However, a Chinese person’s shyness is quickly forgotten as their duty to be a good host comes to mind, and sets them to action, especially the men, doing things for you whether you ask or not. They believe the good name of China is on the line with a foreigner and are out to prove it’s a good place. Usually this involves repeatedly filling your plate with food and giving you gifts. As a result, I have learned to be very careful what I say, as even the slightest word in passing may cause one of them to go and buy you a new wallet (even though you were only being sarcastic about the age of the one you had). Most of them will drop whatever they are doing (e.g. pregnant wife) to usher you by the arm to the place miles away you simply wanted directions to. They are incredibly hospitable.

In everything except for the price of goods, I’ve found the Chinese people are extremely honest and worthy of trust - another thing they believe in en masse. I could ask a complete stranger on the street to hold a Y100 note for me and an hour later return to find him waiting for me. How many of you would do this in a city of 5 million in America? When telling stories, no matter how detrimental to their own character, the Chinese believe in telling things as they happened and are not prone to exaggeration to make their story sound better. Nor do they protect their innocence when describing an incident gone wrong, that is, lying instead to escape a situation. They will tell it like it is, no matter the consequences. As I am so distrustful of Americans in general (e.g. “Thanks for letting me borrow this. I’ll get it right back to you right away.”), I feel comfortable loaning out books, CDs, etc. here.  I’ve always gotten it back.

In America we’ve all heard the sob stories from the ghettos and backwoods towns: “There are no jobs so I had to turn to a life of crime to support myself.  That’s why I stole the old lady’s oxyxontin.” Well, here in China, the poverty level is much higher than the American ghetto.  Some people live in conditions even the ghetto folk would find appalling. With their shoebox shape and bare concrete walls, sometimes I think the poor’s housing is like prison. But despite the living conditions and poverty, crime is virtually non-existent. The police do not even carry guns, allowing the 1.3 billion to move about as they please. Children run free on the streets and can play wherever and however they want. Instead of having a nation of fences and strangers (aka potential criminals instead of potential friends), they trust each other, after all everyone else is Chinese and can be trusted to be thinking just like them. Instead of turning to crime, the poor simply buckle down, work harder, and set their standards lower.  There seems no excuse for those in the ghettos of America…

Now I will take a break to tell a story:

When looking for another job this semester, I went to several English schools to inquire. At all of the schools, I was ushered in, treated well, and pummeled with questions; they couldn’t believe a foreigner would seek them out for a job as they have so much trouble wooing native English speakers to their school in the first place. I thought this boded well, and after the interview, left with an even better feeling as everything went according to plan: they needed a foreign teacher, they liked me, and they said to go home and wait for their eminent call.  So, I went home and waited. But of all the schools, none – I repeat, none - of them called me back. I talked to my students about this and they laughed.  “We’ll call you later.” is apparently the Chinese way of saying: “We won’t call you later.” They were being indirect, and I had to know something about this previously in order to decipher their code. The reasoning is: saying ‘no’ directly might hurt the person’s feelings.  I wonder what psychologists think…

Due to the en masse thinking, patriotism may not exist anywhere else in the world as strongly as it does in China. But don’t worry, my students assure me China has no interest in starting a war with America, in fact, they are slightly worried about the US attacking them. Their thinking is supported by the following: foreign wars started by China in the last 2,000 years: 0.  Foreign wars started or joined needlessly by America in the past 50 years: unknown, but at least five the author can think of: Korea, Vietnam, Israel, Kuwait, and Iraq. It goes without saying the Chinese are not fighters and prefer a  tacit, non-violent approach to resolving situations in their personal lives, rather than fighting it out. I have yet to see one fight here, let alone the beginning of any offensives directed at the US.

I could write boatloads more about the people here, but hopefully the little nutshells I gave you will provide at least a peek (at my opinion) of their character.

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