When the culture differences feel like getting ambushed by a firehose

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.]

22 thoughts on “When the culture differences feel like getting ambushed by a firehose”

  1. Hey Joel and Jessica,
    I was just thinking about how we live here with many different cultures coming to us, yet we try as much as possible learn about and to understand the visitor /immigrant’s culture and how not be offensive to them (while we, as you say expect them to learn Canadian ways). So is it not also appropriate for you or Jessica, living in an area where many of these people have not had much contact with foreigners, to “very politely educate” the offender so they learn how not to offend future new foreign friends, and thus “improve” their own keeping of face? It seems to me, although yes, you must adjust to their culture as the visitor, that since we live in such an increasingly global society, China included, that they could learn to see it as you doing these people a favour by politely educating them in their treatment of guests.
    “Yeah” for Jessica for having the strength to stay relatively calm and politely explain. But perhaps there should be a stage “2” where you, Joel, showing “the example” of loyalty and protectiveness to your wife, continue the discussion with this woman privately away from neighbours, and continue to educate this woman, explaining you want to help her save face with future foreigners for the olympics or something, and let her know very gently how truly offensive she was being. I think there should be some expectation now placed on this particular woman that she “do better next time”……(is my comment “flunking” me in cross-cultural studies class? :)
    So sorry Jessica…if your mom in law (me) was there she’d give that lady an old boot for you and then get on the next plane :)he he !!!! “That’s my daughter-in-law you’re talkin’ to!”

  2. Flunking cross-cultural studies? You guys have been conducting cross cultural studies every Sunday (at least) for years! :) Like you said, definitely both sides need to accommodate the other: the local side because that’s just what any decent human being/host should do, and the foreigners because they’re in someone else’s home country. No foreigner would ever be able to adjust if the locals didn’t go out of their way for them – esp. in Vancouver where most foreigners come from less privileged countries.

    I agree with you said about increasingly global societies. Vancouver is just light-years ahead of Tianjin in this regard. It helps to know that this woman is part of the Chinese generation who grew up in a closed country and probably lost several years of her education to the Cultural Revolution (roughly 1966-76). So there’s only so much cross-cultural savvy we can expect. Jessica, with her education and experience and relatively privileged background, gets stuck being the one trying to cover an extra amount cultural distance between them.

    Chinese are much bigger on hospitality than we are, and they often see foreigners as “guests,” esp. with the Olympics approaching. Our neighbours go out of their way for us all the time. With this lady, i think she was just clueless, not mean (though i have some suspicions about the way Chinese women over 40 treat one another. i’m not convinced it’s totally innocent; it’s just socially acceptable/tolerated).

    As for stage 2 – i can’t imagine being that direct with the woman; that might turn into a reverse of the above scenario, where the foreigner makes the local uncomfortable. If we wanted to emphasize the point, we’d mostly likely mention it in passing with other neighbours, and eventually word would get around. But between what Jessica said and our other neighbour chiming in, I’m pretty sure she got the message.

  3. A most interesting case study. Without knowing the specific topic that was discussed, there’s a limit to how much I can really be involved in the discussion. But let me ask this:

    1) was Jessica being treated the same way a Chinese person in her exact same situation would have been treated?

    The neighbor who chimed in seemed to think that this discussion was inappropriate only for “them” (foreigners). Does that mean that no Chinese person would have been hurt/offended by this lady’s comments/questions?

    Bravo to Jessica for the way she handled it. I agree with Canadian Mom that we foreigners have some responsibility to be honest and help educate the host culture as well (although, it can be tricky to know when that’s appropriate–after all, WE’RE the ones who chose to come to China).

  4. Hey Albert. Your first question – was she getting treated like a foreigner or like a Chinese – is always hard to answer. I supposed the answer is both. For example: our friends have a cute little blond kid and he often gets touched by strangers in public. Is it because he’s a foreigner or because Chinese people often touch stranger’s kids if they think the kids are especially cute? I’d say both. It’s normal to see people out in the park touch other people’s kids, but this blond kid gets it more because he’s small and blond. So, treated like a Chinese, but not exactly.

    About whether or not the average Chinese person would be offended – the way our teachers tell it, this is something that Chinese woman tolerate from one another because they feel they have no choice (it’s socially unacceptable to not tolerate it), but none of them really like being on the receiving end of it. They’ve just sort of gotten used to it and don’t bother thinking about it.

    Also, many of our neighbours seem to have heard from somewhere that foreigners don’t like certain kinds of talk (I’ve witnessed the “Yeah, you can’t say that to foreigners!” remark before with other people), but they seem to be somewhat vague regarding what kind of talk it is that foreigners supposedly don’t like, nevermind why.

  5. 我不觉得这完全是文化差异问题,如果真如你所说, 我 觉得这是那个人的素质问题。

  6. Oh we’re all just DYING to know what the comment was, aren’t we everyone? (But we’ll never know!)

    Good example with the blond haired kid. There really IS no way to answer that because the very situation arises BECAUSE he’s a foreigner. Perhaps that’s the same thing Jessica faced, but it doesn’t sound like it since you said it’s common (although unpleasant) among Chinese women.

    My question was trying to get at the issue of weather this woman would have said the same sort of thing to a Chinese neighbor that had all Jessica’s characteristics (except for the obvious physical ones), and the same degree of familiarity, in the same situation (with the same number of people within earshot, etc.).

    The reason I find that a relevant question is: often we’re in cultural no-man’s land. For example: asking me what my salary is. Yes, the Chinese people will ask each other that question. But will they ask a complete stranger on a bus? Not likely. Yet I’ve been asked that several times by complete strangers.

    My point, long-winded as it may be, is that it may not be fair to ask ourselves to give the host culture leeway while saying, “Oh that’s just a culural difference” when THEY’VE actually stepped out of what’s culturally acceptable in their own culture, just because they’re face to face with a foreigner.

    All I’m saying is China’s an interesting place.

  7. Yabaliu 你好!我也觉得怡安(Jessica)的经历跟那个人的素质有 关系。当然所有的中国人不是这样,只有一些说这样 。在我们的经验中,比较老的人,特别女人,有的时 候说这样。 我们也有几次跟年轻人说这样了,所以我觉得 这个问题跟文化差异和人的素质都有关系。可是因为 我没写这个经历的内容,所以有一点儿不公平。

    平时没问题,就是“#5”或者“#2”,克是这次比较厉害,特别厉害,比这个例子厉害。(对不起,我写不 好的中文,特别不好意思。我希望你还可以明白我的 意思!)

    For the rest of you:
    Yabaliu doesn’t feel it’s completely a cultural difference issue, that it really has to do with that particular woman’s character. I (attempted) to reply that: I agree the woman’s character was a factor, and of course only some Chinese people talk like this, not everyone. In our experience it’s usually been older people, esp. older women, but that we’ve also had a few times with young people, so I think it has to do with both cultural differences and individual personal character. It’s really not fair, since I haven’t given the details. Usually it’s not a problem (a #5 or a #2), but this time is was especially obnoxious.* (and sorry for my bad Chinese, I hope you can still understand my meaning.)

    PS – you can’t click on the characters anymore. the thing that made that happen was slowing down the blog too much so i turned it off.

    *I would love to know how to say “obnoxious” in Chinese!

  8. It does sound as though Jessica got it laid on pretty thickly that day! Beyond it having been a sort of “ugh, China” day, the neighbours’ character (ç´ è´¨) and upbringing does get called into question. Those wounds could cut deep, though.

    Albert, your comment about earnings. I get asked about my rent, how much I paid for the toilet paper under my arm. It is not unusual for friends to ask about how much things cost. The inquisitions do become more intrusive: My classmate’s neighbour poked around in her shopping bag one day! When I’ve asked teachers, and compiled the answers, they say that it is a strange person who has so little self-respect (dignity? 自尊) that they will approach a complete stranger with such intrusive questions.

    I have Asian heritage (华裔) and came to China with very limited proficiency in Mandarin. The privileges of “foreign guest” are not extended to me; I am treated as a very very odd Chinese person. oh boy, some days…

    Certainly, the 太太s we pass seem to flaunt their caustic remarks with apparent impunity. I will profer this: it’s related to 婆媳关系, and rooted in some vindictiveness that’s motivated by years of bitterness.

  9. Albert – you mean Yabaliu’s comment? It just takes me forever to write in Chinese, otherwise I would have my reply to that up sooner. ;) Or if you’re referring to what was said to Jessica, the problem wasn’t so much what was said (her and our friends get that often and usually laugh it off), it was that it was said so much, all at once, and also violated personal physical space.

    The situation you brought up – where locals inappropriately violate their own cultural norms because the foreigner’s a foreigner – happened to Jessica in rural Uganda. We only really knew because language teachers and people who lived there long term intervened and then explained the situation to her afterward (it wasn’t dangerous, and she had enough cultural understanding at the time to sense that something was up).

    Acting different to foreigners of course doesn’t mean the local has been inappropriate, but in our experience that can happen. So yeah, sometimes people are inappropriate to both cultures and think they can get away with it because the person they’re doing it to is a foreigner. Trick is, it takes a culturally savvy foreigner to know what’s going on. And then again, maybe they’re violating their own cultural norms in an effort to relate to the foreigner in a way they think the foreigner will be more comfortable. That said, the salary question still annoys me, too. ;)

    I know it’s not fair with me not giving the details. Plenty of examples of basically the same thing happening, only at a nice #5 level, are already on the blog. It’s most definitely a common-enough thing, not a special-instance thing.

  10. wow, Lee. that’s really interesting. I bet you have a whole different foreigner-in-China experience being of Asian heritage.

    I’ve had teachers reply on both sides: sometimes blaming the people who are intrusive (by Western standards) and sometimes explaining it away with things like innocent curiosity, 关心-talk, or something else.

  11. Hello everybody…:D Nice to have inspired all this discussion. Just thought I’d pop in to clear up one little thing. While the subject matter that was being discussed is one that is quite commonly brought up among Chinese ladies between themselves, I feel that the way it all occurred and the lengths to which this lady went arose primarily BECAUSE I’m a foreigner. I suspect if she were to treat another Chinese person in the same way, it would be quite offensive. But sometimes because foreigners are seen to be so far out of the realm of normal, we aren’t always extended the “normal” treatment either.

    I think my previous posts have mostly been about me (and some friends) receiving what actually may be pretty normal treatment (or at least when I talked to my teachers about it, they said the middle-aged salesladies say/do the exact same kind of stuff to them). I’d say that in this instance, though the subject was at least pretty common, the treatment was out of the norm. I think she stepped out of what’s culturally acceptable here…and primarily because I’m a foreigner. Her doing so, would as yabaliu said…have quite a bit to do with her character.

    Even still, I tried my best to respond in a way that might be somewhat educational…while still being culturally appropriate (especially when I sensed the potential for causing her to lose face). Even if a person has stepped out of what’s culturally acceptable in their own culture, it still feels like the burden is on us (as the ones who have chosen to live here) to respond in ways appropriate to the culture we’re in. Not always easy though, when one’s own cultural sensitivities have been thoroughly stampeded over!

    Thankfully, as Joel said…#6’s are pretty rare. I can think of only two in my experience, and one of those wasn’t even personal.

    Thanks for the discussion…keep it coming!

  12. Lee,

    Your experience can be most helpful and insightful for the rest of us since you’ve kind of infiltrated.

    Just to clarify, are you saying that you get asked about your salary by strangers just as we bairen do?

    A very interesting theory about 婆媳关系. I’d never heard that term before. Is that a common way to describe the relationship between a husband’s mother and the husband’s wife?

  13. Hi Joel and Jessica,
    I’ll be in Beijing tomorrow and at some point in Tianjin to work on my 婆媳关系, which is (apparently) so different from the Chinese norm that my husband wrote an experimental 小品 about it. I’d now translate the title as “Other”. The play actually worked through these problems in Chinese, for a Chinese audience and won 6 caoyu medals. Anyway, if you have time, I’d like to meet up. You can contact me through my firewalled blog (sorry…)

  14. 我理解你的意思,你也多劝劝怡安不要和这种人一般 见识。

  15. Albert, Joel, yes. I kind of blend in, Asian face and dark hair. However, it doesn’t take long for nationals to figure out that I’m from somewhere else. 我偶尔会回答说 “嗯,我是外地人” 或 “老家在广东”

    oh yes, when they’re nosey and have figured out that I’m a foreigner (外国人is not the same as 外地人), then the money questions come out. My most recent teacher’s answer is: “差不多” “够我用” she’ll even pretend not to have heard, and change the subject! 你也可以试试看吧!

    Albert, you guessed it.” 婆媳关系” is about the delicate and often-tumultuous relations between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

  16. Mary Ann,
    and thanks for the link to that play. It will end up linked in our sidebar soon. hope we can meet up thursday (we’re also in Hexi).

    我们不想看不起她,可是需要了解这种话的意思, 再说需要多了解中国人和中国文化。

    (yabaliu said (i think): “I understand your meaning, you also urge Jessica not to sink to that kind of person’s level.” I replied (in Chinglish) that: “We don’t want to look down on her, but we need to understand what that kind of talk means, and we need to understand Chinese people and culture more.”)

    Lee and Albert,
    the husband’s mother/step-daughter relationship would be so interesting to study. i’ve read some classic descriptions of it, but i wonder how the Cultural Revolution and One-Child policy has impacted that relationship (and impacts relationships in general, for that matter). No doubt Mary Ann has her own stories to tell.

    sometimes feigning ignorance when asked annoying questions (which isn’t hard when i’m mostly ignorant already) is really convenient. I gotta try “够我用”!

    hooray for foreigners using Chinese with one another! (just promise me you won’t leave me way behind on my own blog!) :D

  17. Awesome to hear that you guys are improving and adjusting. I can’t imagine what it must feel like. I don’t think I would have handled it so well. Jessica was seriously thinking through the implications of her actions. I hope she got some good recovery.

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