Some days — not most days, but some days — cultural differences can blindside you right out of nowhere. You’re suddenly, unexpectedly standing there helpless, and no amount of language skill or cultural understanding can stop you from being reduced to tears or anger — usually both. Your only options are to just take it, and try to keep it together long enough until you can get out of public and cry, or make a public scene in which you knowingly or unknowingly do or say something hurtful and/or culturally inappropriate, damaging your relationships with the people involved.
Jessica got blasted with one of these “cultural firehoses” yesterday, and I’m really proud of how gracefully and culturally appropriately she handled the situation and the people involved. But she still felt like crying when she got back to the apartment. I won’t give all the details, but there’s more of the story below.
A Culture Stress Scale: grading the impact of cultural differences
The links go to examples from our personal experiences.
- Cute, interesting, endearing, etc.
Little kids wearing split-pants, old people doing tài jí quán (太极拳) or singing Beijing Opera in the park, for example.
- Mildy irritating…
…but easy to forget or ignore. Getting Halloo?!’d several times in one day, and odd smells in the vegetable market easily become instantly forgotten or unnoticed.
- Irritating, gross, stressful, and/or offensive…
…but you eventually get used to it with minimal effort and stop really noticing. The traffic, the pushy crowds that won’t line up, the second-hand smoke, and people horking everywhere could all go in this category.
- Offensive, shocking, and/or appalling…
…with no redeeming qualities, but you have no choice but to get used to it. Tianjin’s public bathrooms instantly come to mind.
- So offensive that it’s actually funny.
These things are ultimately harmless, and often prompt genuine, good-natured laughter from foreigners, though there’s still an underlying element of uncomfortableness and stress involved. People giving unsolicited advice about your personal business, asking direct questions or making public comments about things Westerners consider private like weight and body shape, income, complexion, diet, financial expenses often fall into this category.
- So way over-the-top offensive…
…that it skips category #5 a threatens to make you lose self-control. This is what happened to Jessica yesterday, and was basically a #5 on steroids that involved repeated, public, verbal and physical invasion of personal space. It’s not funny, even long afterwards.
It’s very important to realize that, for the most part, the culture isn’t the problem; the foreigner’s lack of understanding and personal adjustment is the problem. Any particular cultural difference can move up or down the scale, depending on the foreigner’s current state of mind and how well they understand the culture.
Something that’s interesting one day can be really annoying a month later, and vice versa, depending on your mood. And being culturally naive can make negative things seem rosy, or make innocent things seem sinister. Any of the examples above could change categories. For example, split-pants are cute until a mom holds her kid over a garbage can in a restaurant lobby so he can take a pee (I didn’t make that up). Or someone telling you you’re fat right to your face seems shockingly offensive, until you learn to hear it as it’s intended and realize that there’s no offense meant. Then it becomes great fodder for laughing about with friends afterward.
Yesterday, Jessica had a fantastic afternoon with two of her friends/teachers. One of them just got engaged, and so they had fun going out for coffee and being “so girlie” about it all. But then on her way back to our apartment when she was parking her bike… an older middle-aged woman walked up and turned on the cultural firehose.
One of our neighbours – unknowingly – was way way out of line (by North American cultural standards) with Jessica, and kept going on and on about it, totally unaware that in North America she was so over the line that she would literally have been risking physical retaliation; only the cruelest junior high girls would ever treat someone like this, and even then probably not for so long!
Our neighbourhood is a really outdoor community, meaning that there are always lots of people around outside, and everyone recognizes us. Jessica knew that she couldn’t say what she felt like saying, that she had to preserve this woman’s ‘face’ since there were other neighbours there watching, and that if she went off on this woman like she wanted to, the woman never would have seen it coming and would have no idea why Jessica was so upset. If Jessica retaliated, the woman would lose face in front of her neighbours for ignorantly making the foreign guests upset, but our strangeness, different-ness, and not-one-of-them-ness would be reinforced in everyone’s eyes. They probably wouldn’t understand why Jessica was so upset.
What makes these situations doubly frustrating is that the burden of appropriately resolving the situation falls on you, the one who’s feeling insulted/offended/violated and trying hard to control all the related emotions, for two reasons: (1) You’re a foreigner in someone else’s culture, therefore it’s your duty to adjust to their way of doing things; and (2) As the foreigner you have insight into your culture’s differences that the local is most likely totally ignorant of and can’t be expected to know about. Therefore, it’s the foreigner’s responsibility to adjust themselves to their new environment and respond to “offensive” locals appropriately, and that means relating to them on their culture’s terms. Obviously, this isn’t always easy.
Jessica did great. She made some small talk in response to the lady’s comments, even though she was loathe to discuss it, and mentioned that most foreigners don’t actually like it when people say things like this. Another neighbour joined in, telling the lady, “Yeah, they don’t like it when you say things like that!” The lady’s expression instantly changed, afraid she’d offended the foreign guest. At this point in the conversation there was tantalizing potential for revenge on Jessica’s part. But Jessica quickly tried to put her at ease, telling her not to worry, she’s already been here a long time and she’s used to it, but all the tourists coming for the Olympics probably won’t understand. It wasn’t necessarily a lie — the “her being used to it” part — depending on how you define “used to it.” Plus, in Chinese culture these little “white lies” aren’t actually lies; it’s very possible that the lady totally understood this to mean that Jessica was politely letting her know she’d made her uncomfortable. But Jessica was pretty upset when she finally got up to the apartment.
There’s an ironic truth to cultural stress: the only solution to culture stress is the culture itself. You make culture stress better by learning about and engaging the very culture that’s stressing you out. The more familiar you become, the more comfortable you become, and the less stressful the culture becomes. Living in a different culture will drive you insane, and temporarily retreating for a short time into your own culture’s bubble — like by watching American entertainment while eating American food with American friends, or going home and commiserating with your English-speaking husband — is a legitimate and sometimes needed momentary response. But living in a “cultural bubble” won’t make the culture stress get better; that’s just avoidance, it’s just running away from whatever makes you feel uncomfortable, and it won’t get you anywhere in your new country.
[UPDATE JULY 20: Fool’s Mountain published a scaled-down version of the Jessica culture stress post in which I invited their Chinese readers to tell us what things about Western culture they find particularly annoying. The 50+ comments (all in English) are pretty funny, and somewhat enlightening.]