I’ve tried several times to write about evaluating your host culture (or “passing judgment” on aspects of someone else’s culture). But it’s hard to do that and feel fair about it. But evaluating or judging the culture around you is also impossible to avoid. Everyone makes judgment calls about their own culture and other cultures whether they realize it or not, especially if they’re living in another culture. Because China and the West are so very different in many important ways, it’s easy for people from either place to find fault with the other. Westerners in China, if/when they are so inclined, can easily make a long list of cultural aspects that they consider at least inferior and at most downright wrong.
This is taken from a recent e-mail to Kelsey at Where Am I Wearing? He just returned from the China leg of an Asian garment factory tour, and we were talking about how sometimes it’s hard for Westerners to not pass negative judgments against aspects of Chinese culture:
I totally understand your feelings about Chinese culture/people. I try to be sensitive to the fact that I’m unavoidably going through the cycles of culture stress, and that I’m a baby when it comes to our understanding of what’s going over here. But, yeah, there is a lot of stuff here than my “don’t make ethnocentric judgments” education can’t stop me from condemning, at least personally. One of our latest posts gives an example. I could’ve got into a fight.
As is typical of cultural adjustment cycles, at first I had truck loads of sympathy/pity for the Chinese people, particularly after studying their modern history. But now some days it’s like, “So what if foreign nations abused you 200 years ago? You’ve been doing it to yourselves for thousands of years and you’re still doing it today!” Foreigners didn’t create China’s problems, they just participated in them and added to them for a relatively brief stint in China’s long history. I had a similar reaction in East Africa, though it was less harsh there; more like a redistribution of blame among the nationals and the European colonizers. I suppose it’s just useless to try and lump an entire nation into one group for things like this.
It’s hard for Westerners to judge/evaluate China fairly. I have no doubt that there are unbelievable amounts of abuse facilitated and perhaps even celebrated by Chinese culture (and that goes for every culture, including our own). However, many of China’s cultural values are directly opposite of ours (generalized examples: ‘harmony’ and order are preferred over ‘freedom’ and chaos; laws (rule of law) are too impersonal and can’t adequately show compassion appropriate to individual situations). It’s very easy for Westerners to negatively judge Chinese culture, but often what we’re doing is simply condemning them for not being Americans… or even for not being ideal Americans, when they aren’t necessarily even trying to be Americans! If I condemn an aspect of their culture, I want it to be because the actual real nature of the thing I’m condemning is bad, not because it’s not Western enough.
Achieving an understanding that is informed enough and objective enough (of course not totally objective) to deliver evaluations that I’m willing to own in public will take a long time. In the meantime, we sort through our reactions and feelings, our premature judgments and the judgments we hold on to anyway, and try to live here with both grace and authenticity.