About sharing the uglier sides of our China experience (a heads-up)

I don’t enjoy posting negative/embarrassing stuff about China or Chinese culture. Sure, when ‘China’ gets under my skin it can feel good to vent a little (this is true for anyone living in any foreign culture, not just China!), but we are guests in this country after all, and there are plenty of positive experiences to share (like in our Weekend of Chinese Hospitality post). Often I wish foreigners would just keep it to themselves; when foreigners in China whine about China, it isn’t pretty.

But we do live here, and we try to understand here, and you can’t do that by refusing to paint anything aside from the rosiest possible pictures. Husbands and wives don’t learn to love each other by avoiding problems or trying to imagine-away the things they can’t stand about their spouse. Some parts of our China experience — unavoidable, shocking, and recurring parts — aren’t that pretty, but we still have to deal with them.

There’s a couple posts I’ve had drafted for over a year called, “The Good Samaritan with Chinese Characteristics,” which I haven’t posted because they’re about a really ugly aspect of Chinese culture. I’ve been sitting on them, hoping they get nicer with age, or that I’ll learn more while I’m waiting and can then be more understanding and gracious about why, as one Chinese scholar says, there is no “Good Samaritan” equivalent in the Chinese cultural ethos. Around that same time I drafted another whole series called, “Living in the Eyes of the Beholders,” about the somewhat uniquely Chinese way foreigners are viewed and treated in public; sort of a “social exclusion with Chinese characteristics.”

When you’re with other foreigners it’s often easy to belittle China for certain things, and culture stress is always playing into that to some degree. So there’s a negotiation to make between trying to be gracious and appreciative of your host culture, but also wanting to accurately convey your honest experience of living elsewhere, and wanting to actually work through and understand your host culture better. It’s not easy to do all three at once, but we’re working on it.

I didn’t want to write and share this kind of stuff while feeling culture-stressed, and figured that a little time and distance would give some needed perspective. So now that we’ve been out of China for almost two months, I suppose it’s time for these things to get their final edits and finally see the light of day. I’ll start posting them soon, along with more stuff on Chinese medicine.

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9 thoughts on “About sharing the uglier sides of our China experience (a heads-up)”

  1. I live in China and have for 4 years now. Though I can still only speak the simplest survival Mandarin I still struggle to learn the language to adjust better. I understand what you are saying. I am married to a Chinese woman and I have no roots or ties back in the states and my life looks like it will run its course here in China.

    As I have been here years now my temperament and attitude has changed. In China we either bend, break or get out while we still can. I am learning to bend. I seem to notice in me now an aversion of sorts to the new lao wai here who rant on and on and Chinese people and society, which can be trying as you must know. I as well have a blog and vent and can be a little sarcastic there but I do notice a little balance in myself as I have come to accept some things more and more. Some things such as cutting in line, spitting on floors, picking noses in restaurants, loud music, unsolicited “friendships” and the like still test me but I guess I manage to deal with it, while I see something different in me from the fresh off the plane foreigners who can appear as uncultured suddenly as the Chinese peasants they are criticizing.

    It is certainly not easy here. I look forward to your posts and I now that while you will vent you will balance it all out.

    I have a China blog at

    and lately have decided to post some news stories about the ugly side of the U.S.as well and I hope my postings of negative things here contain a touch of parody or sarcasm as they are not meant to denigrate all of China or its people. Only the ones that make me sick. Haha. Nice blog. Very professional looking. Mine looks like some comic book compared to this.

    Bill in Kunming

  2. I think the other side, the not so pretty side, has to be discussed. Otherwise, the site becomes a candy-coated Disney version of what it really is like to be a Westerner in China. It’s more interesting and more true with the grit included. Though, as you mentioned there has got to be a balance. And as Bill mentions newly arriving foreigners appear equally uncultured (culture shock goes both ways). Reminds me of being on a wooden boat going up the Xi river with peasants going to a town inaccessible by road. With no place to sit I found a corner to sit on the wooden floor for the couple hour ride. Later on, I found out how everyone was saying in local dialect that I was a “dirty girl”. I learned soon that floors are big “no no’s” for sitting (that where the spit goes!). The main thing is to see the differences, keep an open mind, and realize there are just some things that you have to put up with. One of the things about Chinese culture I love is there is always another surprise. I have been involved with Chinese culture and the language for 20 years and I still get surprised and learn something new.

  3. Bill:
    This blog only looks this way because I don’t know how to make it look any other way. But thanks, all the same! :)

    The annoying things you listed (spitting, etc.) aren’t the kinds of things I was really thinking about when I wrote the post, though they certainly fit the discussion. To me, those things are more minor aspects that will change more easily. Other things are more appalling to me and seem symptomatic of much deeper cultural problems, like the way public displays of altruism are immediately suspect and the callousness toward the suffering of individuals. To me the apparent lack of even nominal, token concern for strangers isn’t in the same league as shoving in ‘line’ and dirty bathrooms. But being removed from the context (we’re in Canada for several months) means I can think and write about it without feeling much need to vent.

    Rachel:
    If my Chinese friends in Vancouver were studying Canadian culture, I’d want them to see and discuss the ugly side of the city and less-noble common attitudes and lifestyles; I don’t need them to give me and my culture ‘face’ (I realize many Mainlanders don’t feel this way, would find me writing about China in this way totally unacceptable and wouldn’t understand).

    I agree the site would suffer if I only gave Disney versions of everything, though I’m not really writing in order to make a good blog. After so many years in school, writing has become they way I work out my own thoughts and the blog just gives me a place to write. This blog is a means to a couple different ends, actually; I wouldn’t want it just for its own sake.

  4. Hmmm, I know what you mean about consideration of the “face” thing. It would be taken in a very different way. A New Yorker, for example, might find it almost humorous to hear an outsiders observations of a rude encounter. They wouldn’t, at least, take it as a personal attack. That one person does not represent every New Yorker. Someone from China or Taiwan, on the other hand, might feel personally embarrassed or even insulted to read negative observations. However, I do think there is a way to do it that minimizes that reaction, and that is report what you see but keep the subjective thoughts to yourself. An expat I knew in Taiwan was telling me how she saw a woman fall off her motor scooter and not only did no one stop to help her, they practically ran her over in disregard. Then she turned the conversation to how the Chinese are “wrong”, and other comments along this vein. That’s when I think she had crossed the line. You can’t think in terms of “right” and “wrong” when encountering another culture. You simply have to think of differences. Here the crux of the difference is the general disregard for strangers. However, once you are friends or even acquaintances with someone Chinese have you ever found anywhere else people more generous and loyal and devoted? I know Chinese people complain about how Westerners are flaky as friends. They say they are going to do dinner or “let’s meet up soon” and don’t follow through. So perhaps you can approach a topic such as this in a dispassionate way (and like you said best when not in a venting mood) and to be fair why not include the other side of the story. For example, here is what I have observed in China… Then offer the flip side from one of your Chinese friend’s perspective, someone who has had much contact with westerners. Either way, I think it is good to just report what you see and not offer what you think about it. I think you will find plenty of open minded Chinese willing to listen and engage in conversation. Some of your Chinese friends may also not be happy with you, but would you want a friend like that in the west? When I was living in Egypt my American friends had a group of Egyptian friends some of whom became very angry with a girl in our group. She was interested in photography and particularly of taking photos of the street scenes and poverty in Alexandria. They could not understand why she would shame them and their city by taking these photos and saving them to bring back to the U.S. Some others in their group did understand or at least accept that she had some kind of bizarre interest in such things and took it with a grain of salt. That’s just the way it goes with this kind of thing and the people that might make best friends with someone like you might be the kind who can let a little face slide.

  5. Joel – I understand what you say about “the way public displays of altruism are immediately suspect and the callousness toward the suffering of individuals”, and 99% Chinese would agree with you. Lu Xun (鲁迅)’s literature and Lin Yutang’s My Country and My People analyze/criticize these characteristics profoundly. I agree that Chinese have a “face” concern about criticism of Chinese culture and Chinese ppl, but I also agree with Rachel’s point: as long as you also try to see the other side and try to understand the deeper reason why ppl behave in the way, and do not criticize/make “right or wrong” judgement to imply any level of moral/cultural superiority, Chinese don’t mind criticism.

    After all, I see very few posts in your blogs offensive to Chinese. Keep it up! Look forward to your posts…

  6. I really appreciate your discussions. Haven’t read them all, and since you’ve spent so much time writing them, I should give them time for in-depth reading. I doubt I will agree with you 100%, but thank you for discussing these things in a highly analytical, intelligent and non-offensive way. There is a lot of ugly in Chinese culture, just as in all cultures, and they need to be talked about openly. And that reminds me, because of my earlier comment about the June 4th movement, is that a lot of these cultural behaviors are unconscious, or unrecognized. And I would say that the “democrats” who want to bring down communism and many extreme protesters and nay-sayers are victim to the same imperial fallacies, and authoritarian mind-set as those they complain about. I don’t know how many times I have seen others or myself being dismissed as “paid communists” or “brainwashed” simply because we aren’t as extremely anti…as if protesters and activists are allowed the freedom of thought and expression, but we moderates/complacents are not, that they are allowed to protest authority, but we are not allowed to protest their mass-consensus. This is not really related to your good-samaritarian discussion, but it’s related to the whole communal mindset and Confucian legacy…what I call the “laozi says” mindset. And in fact, one of the many problems that I see with CCP is that it promised to do away with that confucian hierarchy, but it didn’t. I fear future revolutions for the same reason, that just as communists slaughtered and oppressed landlords and other perceived-evil-doers, that the anti-communists will do the same, only landlords will be the 30% or so CCP-members in China. Certainly, the sentiments of the comments that I have read of neither movement-leaders nor of grass-root lamenters have convinced me that these groups will bring about an improved China.

  7. I also agree with Li Zijie that people need a renewed reading of LuXun, and not in that required school reading with Maoist interpretation kind of way. There is too much Ah Q spirit, and especially in government and bureaucracy, that it’s really disheartening.

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