Cross-cultural Incarnation — your identity across cultures

Some Christmastime thoughts on trying to live authentically and meaningfully in a culture not your own. Because the Incarnation (God being born human as baby Jesus), whether you think it’s true or not, is an interesting way to think about living cross-culturally.

(Chinese shepherds visit Chinese baby Jesus)

It’s one thing to study the transmission and transformation of ideas and behaviours across cultural contexts. Those are issues that anyone working cross-culturally has to deal with no matter what field they’re in, whether they realize it or not. But what about how crossing cultures affects your personal identity?

As the outsiders

Here’s a bit from God Spares Not the Branches, an insightful (understatement!) exploration of cross-cultural and development work issues via the story of an American post-grad who volunteers with a local anti-AIDS NGO in Ghana. Emphases mine:

“Bryce,” his father told him, “when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them. No matter how well you seem to become part of the people and their ways, you are not them. No matter how well they receive you and befriend you, your distinction is your reason for being there. When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface. That’s life. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”

As a lÇŽowài I automatically identify with Bryce; we’re the outsiders trying to fit in and the Chinese are “them”. Even when we’re feeling good about how well we’re fitting in, even if to the point that we could momentarily forget how different we are, they wouldn’t let us forget, because they remind us every single day. We’re routinely hit with a myriad of largely ignorant-but-understandable expectations of who we are and what we’re like. I wonder what receiving these “identity prescriptions” every day is like for expats who don’t have a strong understanding of who they are and what they’re about. I suspect I’ve maybe seen that show a couple times over our five years in Mainland China.

As the insiders

But the Christmas holidays have made me re-read the above excerpt in light of the Incarnation. In Chinese Bibles it says, “The Dao became flesh and lived among us.” The idea being that the Creator, the Ultimate Being, became a human being. That’s a major living-standard downgrade, in what we could call the ultimate cross-cultural move:

He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges… [From Philippians 2:5-8]

This reverses the roles: God is the outsider and we are the “them”.

I’m not assuming Dan was thinking Incarnation when he wrote that section, but it’s an interesting angle to consider: Jesus as the ultimate model of cross-cultural identification and authenticity: leaving his home and completely taking on the language, culture and ethnicity of his host nation, while refusing to compromise who he is and what he’s about, even though he knows it will eventually result in rejection.

“…when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them . . . When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface . . . You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”

Maybe Dan was thinking Incarnation; so much of that paragraph relates to not just the Incarnation but also to how we treated Jesus when he refused to conform to our expectations of what he should be. But I’ll save that for a “Resurrection Festival” post (复活节), because I like to keep the meanings of my historically re-appropriated holidays clearly sorted (no crosses at Christmas!). ;)

More about culture & personal identity:

More about Christmas:

P.S. — About God Spares Not the Branches

God Spares Not the Branches gives an intimate look at the complexities of post-colonial West Africa. The events, places and people are so realistically detailed you can’t help but believe this fictional story is actually a collection of real first-hand accounts — and that’s because it pretty much is. Author Dan McVey lived in Ghana for over 20 years, raised his family there, and still spends half of every year there, mostly on his farm. He applies an insight born of first-hand, long-term cultural intimacy to a deep exploration of several interrelated issues (many of which are relevant to China) by embodying them in his characters and their experiences. If you’re more than a little interested in any of the following, I think this book is worth your time:

  • The legacy of colonialism
  • African corruption
  • Problems with international aid and development (like priorities set not by need but by the politics of the donor nations, dependency, etc).
  • Drastic societal change affecting behaviour norms and values
  • The impact on sexuality of economic and gender inequality
  • The influence of the internet, media and Western culture — esp. entertainment and consumerism
  • The cultural hurdles in addressing HIV/AIDS
  • African identity and spirituality, Christianity, Evangelicalism, Islam
  • Muslim/Christian interaction

Two things in particular stand out to me:

  1. Intimate detail and nuance — Dan has lived into this culture and society and conveys a much richer and more empathetic picture of the people and challenges they face than what the best journalists can deliver.
  2. Challenging all around — This is not merely a liberal scolding of conservative Western worldviews, dragging a fictional character through a Western culture war conversion experience in a world of stereotyped stock characters (like in The Help). There’s plenty that will make Western political conservatives squirm, but Dan’s allegiances aren’t dictated by the Western culture wars. His compellingly detailed, uncompromising portrayal of African reality refuses to flinch in the face of events that Westerners, right or left, have difficulty processing. Like a shocking exorcism account, written in the same finely detailed, eye-witness-sounding delivery with which he describes farms. He doesn’t insist the reader accept the account at face value, but he also makes it difficult to casually brush off.

Cross-cultural food: the feeling’s mutual

We’re at a church lunch in Taipei. It’s Thanksgiving in America so Jessica’s baked an apple pie. They aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving but we figure an apple pie would be fun to share. Mrs. Xie’s around 50 years old and the first to take a bite. She chews twice, then suddenly yells, “Ròu guì!” as she reflexively spits out her mouthful of our quintessentially American potluck contribution into her hand.

I remember it clearly; she sort of jumps back a bit when she yells and catches the mouthful of pie. Heads turn. Everyone laughs, including us once we understand what’s just happened. Mrs. Xie was genuinely surprised and had reacted on reflex. We had no clue and never would have guessed that Chinese use cinnamon in traditional medicine but not sweets. And Mrs. Xie apparently never expected to find one of TCM‘s 50 fundamental herbs in a foreign dessert on the church potluck table. “We eat this in lots of stuff in North America, it’s really common…” You can imagine the impression this is making. So much for iconic American cuisine!

It’s Mutual

That wasn’t the first or the last time we’ve accidentally grossed-out Chinese acquaintances with our Western food. There’re more stories below, but first here’s an idea. Between any two cultures is a shared category called FOOD where individuals’ feelings range range from Yum! to Ok to No thanks to Yuck!. The preferences within one culture tend toward relative similarity. But the more different two cultures are, the greater the chance that each culture will also have stuff in their FOOD category that the other culture doesn’t — people from the other side categorize it as NOT FOOD and so have never considered eating it. Sometimes presenting NOT FOOD as FOOD triggers such visceral disgust that the very thought of eating it makes them physically uncomfortable. It’s not just NOT FOOD, it’s literally sickening.

This especially applies to China and Euro-America because of the extremes. It’d be a mistake to assume an even divide, though; I suspect that in China “culturally edible” (things considered edible by a culture) encompasses much more than it does in North America. But even still, not only is there plenty of common food in each culture that people from the other culture typically find unappetizing, there’s quite a bit that’s entirely outside the other’s FOOD category. I think that’s funny. And interesting. It illustrates how strong and arbitrary our culturally-conditioned, visceral reactions and preferences can be.

It’s Arbitrary

Think about it: Barbaric accurately expresses what the average Anglo-American feels inside when they think about Chinese eating dogs, even if they won’t say it out loud. But why should dog meat be any more disgusting than pig meat? Can you think of any even partially-objective reason? Are shrimp any cleaner than water roaches? Think about eating a crab: actually cracking open a shell, pulling legs off… Why are we unwilling to eat insects but pay big bucks to eat crustaceans — the relatively huge, exoskeletonned garbage-suckers of the ocean? We call one disgusting and the other delicacy.

But it doesn’t have to be “gross” to simply not be considered food. What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you see this:

Most North Americans, I’d wager, at first glance would think “souvenirs” (or “beach”, “tide pool”, etc.). We’ve seen starfish just like those in buckets just like that at seaside souvenir shops in Canada and the U.S. But (and you knew this was coming) it’s actually a seafood restaurant in Qingdao, waiting for you to order so they can do this:

Turns out that Chinese and Anglo-Americans tend to populate their respective FOOD / NOT FOOD categories with slightly (ha!) different things. And that’s where the fun comes in.

Fringe vs. Mainstream Food

One last thing before the examples: It’s easy to go to another country, search out the most exotic food you can find, something that most locals won’t even touch, and then go, “Holy cow! Look what they eat!” But it’s just not that interesting; it doesn’t well represent that culture or human diversity because it’s comparing one culture’s novelty food with another culture’s mainstream. For example, we could use prairie oysters and say,

Canadians eat bull testicles!

Technically that’s true, I guess, though it’s a safe bet that 99% of the Canadians I know think that’s sick and wrong. For China I’d call 3-squeak mice, urine eggs, and Taipei’s “snake alleynovelty food, along with exotic traditional Chinese medicine ingredients like tiger penis. So for our purposes here that stuff doesn’t count.

The novelty and shock value of fringe food wears off quickly. What’s more interesting, I think, is stuff that’s normal to most locals but not even within the category of “food” to most outsiders. So here’s some examples (finally!) from our own experiences that go both ways between China and North America.


1. Pig feet 猪蹄 vs. perogies & sour cream 酸奶油

We lived with a Taiwanese family for two weeks while volunteering at a Hurricane Katrina shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Their favourite dish was pig feet 猪蹄, so that’s what we had our first night. And for lunch the next day. And several more times while we were there. Microwaved pig feet at work. I remember sucking the gelatinous flesh off bones and spitting out what I guess were the knuckles. It wasn’t anywhere near appetizing for us, though that wasn’t a problem because our education had drilled into us that when you’re someone’s guest, you eat it — period (our rural East Africa internships offered much greater mealtime challenges than some sticky pig feet). Plus, we got revenge.

One night while we were with them we planned to share our own cultural food. My heritage is Ukrainian; every Christmas mom makes perogies and cabbage rolls. Since perogies (we figured) were more or less Western 饺子 they ought to go down well with our Taiwanese hosts. Now I don’t know about in Ukraine, but Canadians cover their perogies in tons of sour cream (or maybe that’s just my family). Anyway, I remember the mom as we opened the sour cream container in the middle of the table and plopped a huge shiny white blob on top of our perogies — her face said something like: “Wow. They can’t be serious…” It’s the exact same face I made countless times during our first two years in Taipei and Tianjin. They took a couple token licks before eating their perogies plain. I was like, hey, more sour cream for me!

2. Pig blood cake 猪血糕

Probably the best example from our own lives of how taste in food is in your head more than your tongue comes from our first week in Taipei. We’d arrived right in time for the start of Chinese New Year. That meant almost everything was closed. Every night for dinner we would just wander outside and eat whatever we could find, which usually came from random lonely street vendors. Some nights we had to search for several blocks.

On one such night we found a push cart vendor selling these rectangular things on sticks, which he coated in… crushed peanuts? With some cilantro? We had no clue what it was and not enough language to ask, but it was our only option so we ate some for dinner. And honestly, it tasted alright. A day or two later we found out what it was when we asked our English-speaking employers during a work dinner: “pig blood cake猪血糕. Then I felt sick to my stomach. Holy cow. Part of me didn’t believe them; I’d never imagined pig blood cake was in the realm of possible dinner options.

Turns out that blood, in various forms, is not uncommon in Chinese food.

3. Our Qingdao

Literally down the street and around the corner from our place in Qingdao there’s a guy with buckets of live scorpions 蝎子, sorted by size, and a little pot to fry them in. He sits directly across from the “pig head meat猪头肉 seller (which means pig parts, not just head pieces). Within a 20 minute walk from our place I can get: dog meat 狗肉 (at over a dozen places), duck blood soup 鸭血汤, hair eggs 毛蛋, silk worm chrysalis 蚕蛹, starfish 海星, more scorpions, sheep heads 羊头, 3penis liquor 三鞭酒, sea cucumber 海参, bullfrogs 牛蛙… Click the words for a picture! :)

This isn’t a list of all the most-gross-to-the-average-Anglo-American Chinese food that I’ve ever seen in China. It’s a representative sampling of a long list of edibles outside the typical Anglo-American’s “food” category that I routinely stumble upon within a half-hour walking radius of our apartment in Qingdao. None of it is considered terribly exotic and it’s not connected to tourism. It’s at regular, daily markets and average restaurants. Sure, it’d be easy to find some Chinese who don’t like to eat this stuff, but most of the locals around here don’t think anything of it.

And if we remove the “routinely” clause: donkey heads 驴头, donkey penis é©´éž­, cow penis soup 牛鞭汤, dog penis ç‹—éž­ (hot pot) — yes, I’m going with a theme here — and snake penis 蛇鞭 (liquor tonic 补酒 ingredient) represent a long list of things I come across around here but don’t see every week.

4. Cheese 奶酪

Chinese people not liking cheese 奶酪 is a cliché food anecdote, especially (but not only) for Chinese 50 years and older, but we still see it. It makes sense: think of all the Chinese food you like to eat, and then imagine melting cheese on it. Ew. When our daughter’s all-Chinese preschool has “pizza” for “Western food day”, it’s cheese-less. I forget which memoir it was, but one Chinese author I’ve read wrote of moving to New Zealand and her mom coming to visit. They had dinner at some local Kiwi’s where a fancy cheese plate was served. Her very polite mom dutifully at some… and barfed afterward.

5. Mexican food 墨西哥餐

Mexican food 墨西哥餐 is, according to our fully-bilingual, internationally-traveling former boss in Taipei, the strangest-tasting-to-him of all the foreign food he’s tried, on account of the spices. And as every American expat in Mainland China knows, the lack of Mexican food is at emergency levels. We’ve never lived in Beijing but we know the one place to get decent Tex-Mex — it’s practically a religious pilgrimage every time we have to visit the Capitol.

6. Stinky Tofu 臭豆腐

People can have pretty strong feelings about their favourite food, of course, especially if it’s connected to their heritage. Our Taipei friends love stinky tofu 臭豆腐 and they joked about it being their national food. One of them told us how angry it made her when she saw a foreigner on a TV show say, “It tastes like sh–!” Their feelings are understandable but so are that foreigner’s, even if he was rude about it. The first time we encountered stinky tofu, we were far enough down the street from the vendor that we didn’t even know he was there. My throat was suddenly seized by this pungent cloud; I literally thought something must be dead nearby, some juicy and exceptionally spicy roadkill in the hot, humid Taiwan sun. A resident foreigner had told us about stinky tofu, but what I smelled was so strong I’d assumed it was something else. I couldn’t believe it when we eventually walked past the push cart. (Not all varieties of stinky tofu are this powerful.)

6. Silkworm chrysalis蚕蛹

I used to think silk worm chrysalis 蚕蛹 were just for tourists and adventure eaters until I started seeing them in local restaurants and markets. Our friend Rob in Tianjin had dinner with a classmates’ family, and they served a big plate of them. He said their young daughter chowed down on them like nobody’s business. We’ve had them at local sidewalk BBQs (though I opted out of the sheep penis). The picture above is from a market I pass through twice a week.

7. Duck tongues 鸭舌

During our first month in Taipei our new friends took us to the Shilin nightmarket. We made a deal: we’d eat everything they picked out so long as they didn’t tell us what it was first. Yay duck tongues 鸭舌! Maybe that counts as adventure eating, but they ate them just like any occasional snack.

8. Breakfast 早餐

Whether you’re Chinese or Anglo-American, breakfast is one of the hardest adjustments to make when crossing these two cultures. Maybe because people are cranky in the morning, I don’t know. In our home in China we eat with chopsticks at least one meal a day and often two (not intentionally, that’s just how it happens). But breakfast is always Western; no trace of China on table. We even have a cinnamon shaker for oatmeal and coffee. And we have Chinese friends who feel the same in reverse.

One Chinese friend from Tianjin married a Michigan girl and they recently moved to the States. In the past when he was just visiting, he made his own breakfasts (instant noodles) every morning. This time, realizing it was a move and not just a visit, he was psychologically preparing himself before they left, trying to work up the right attitude toward adjusting to, rather than avoiding, American-style breakfast. He knew what he was getting into and needed to psych himself up.

With Chinese breakfast there’s no mercifully gentle easing into the warm embrace of a consoling cup of coffee that says, “There there, I know getting out of bed is hard…” Our first Chinese breakfast surprise was when staying a weekend with friends in Beijing. We had hot, spicy noodles and pickled shredded vegetables. I promise it sounds a lot worse when you’ve just woken up. But a bowl of cereal is at least as unappetizing to the average Mainlander. If you’ve ever stayed at a Chinese hotel, you’ve maybe been surprised at how there can be so little you want to eat in such a big breakfast spread.

Adventure eating is for amateurs

I’ve done my share of made-for-clueless-tourists adventure eating — there’s a certain time in every almost-man’s life when you want to challenge yourself just for fun, to see what you can handle. But more interesting to me is the food that locals think is normal, or a special treat, that I wouldn’t even think of as food if they hadn’t identified it as such.

If there’s a point to this, I guess it’s that we can and should be honest about cultural differences, not just because it builds healthy communication and mutual understanding, but it’s also interesting and funny in its own right. Of course we should be sensitive about how we communicate — different levels of bluntness are appropriate to different contexts. At dinner in someone’s home we smile and nod and eat whatever we’re served (octopus heads, recently). But with friends out in the street, or on the blog? That’s different. Gagging on one another’s food can be fun and enlightening among cross-cultural friends.

P.S. — I’m sure there’s a better list to be made of common Western food that weirds out the average Mainlander. If you’ve got stories please share!

P.P.S. — Every image here is ours except for the American pie, the perogies and the prairie oysters (click for sources).

P.P.P.S — About cross-cultural negativity:

P.P.P.P.S – Was just walking to the school and found this huge caterpillar(?) on the way, so I brought it and asked the gate guard what it was and if it would bite my kids (they like to play with bugs). One of the teachers, my coworker, was leaving out the gate, glanced at it as she passed and said, “Oh, you can eat those!”

Every culture in the world in one graph: the Lewis Model

Ladies and gentlemen, the Lewis Model:

(Click here for larger image.)

Every culture is plotted on a continuum between three points:

  • Multi-active (Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa, Hispanic America): warm, emotional, loquacious, impulsive
  • Reactive (Vietnam, China, Japan): courteous, amiable, accommodating, compromiser, good listener
  • Linear-active (Germany, U.S., U.K.): cool, factual, decisive planners

Is there much to it, beyond the near-miracle of turning the humanities into something marketable? I don’t know, but at the very least it’s interesting conversation fodder. I found it here.

It’s especially interesting to me how he plots Canada and the U.S. quite far apart in relation to each other and to China. I could use that to explain all kinds of things!

More culture stuff:

Cross-Cultural Perspective 101: the feeling is mutual

It’s a matter of perspective, you see:

“Don’t make me play with that disgusting foreign kid, Grandma! Those barbarians poo in their pants!”

“Wait, you mean you Chinese kids poo on the ground?”

Next time you’re appalled by Chinese people (or any other culture’s people) because they’re doing something that any halfway intelligent and nominally decent person would know not to do, just remember chances are high they feel they same way about you, and not always without reason.

More about where to poo:

P.S. — And just for kicks, here’s the poop in the potty song (also here – open then scroll down to For The Kids III).
P.P.S. — For the record: I don’t think everything boils down to perspective; it’s not all relative. But a large amount of what we assume about the world — like much of what’s barbaric and what’s civilized, sit-downs or squatties — certainly is.

The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.1): examples

Is there a “Good Samaritan” equivalent within the Chinese cultural ethos? Some would say no. For me and a lot of other foreigners in China, the apparent unapologetic absence of a Good Samaritan impulse — an alarming, flagrant disregard for other people — is one of the most shocking and appalling aspects of Chinese culture and society.

I wrote on it during our first year in China because it “thundered” me (我被它雷了), but never published it on the blog because I was trying to be careful about how we shared the negative side of our China experience. Showing up in someone’s country and immediately writing about their embarrassing social and cultural problems is bad form. Plus, I wanted to have better understanding of what was going on, read more, maybe discover the other side of the coin, and get some distance and perspective from the experience and the culture stress (by getting out of China) before sharing it with family and friends (and the internet) back home.

So I’m sharing it now, in three parts: Recognizing examples of the behaviour we’re talking about (Part 1), Understanding some of the underlying cultural “whys” (Part 2), and Deciding how to intentionally respond to this aspect of Chinese culture (Part 3).

Judging Other Cultures

We do judge other cultures whether we realize and admit it or not; it’s unavoidable for anyone with their brains at least half switched on, and it’s not a bad thing in and of itself. How, when, and why we judge are the areas where we often get into trouble. This isn’t about trying to make one culture look better than another or put down Chinese culture. Any of the aforementioned people-with-their-brains-at-least-half-switched-on ought to realize that Western societies have no shortage of glaring, embarrassing cultural issues. In fact, an intelligent Chinese critique of appalling aspects of Western cultures that they encountered while living in Canada would be fascinating to me, and valuable to my cross-cultural understanding.

When you enter a new cultural context, like if you’re a Canadian who moves to China or a Mainlander who’s moved to Canada, lots of stuff seems more or less annoying or offensive. That’s part of the cross-cultural experience. But understanding some of the reasons why people behave a certain way takes the edge off those feelings of superiority and condemnation, and we can maybe start sympathizing or empathizing or even start behaving that way ourselves. Occasionally you may still decide to personally reject or even morally condemn an aspect of a foreign culture after gaining some understanding of it, but at this point you’re not blindly judgmental.

For little things, like strangers getting a little ‘too personal’, it’s easier to reserve judgment at first and then learn not to be offended later on. But other things are so blazingly offensive that you’d rather curse the people out than attempt to understand and empathize. The behaviour we’re talking about in this series of posts is of the latter kind.

So with that overly-long intro out of the way, here are some real life examples of what the “absence of a Good Samaritan impulse” looks like in today’s China.

Is there a Good Samaritan in the house?

Example 1: Traffic fatality outside our language school
Why is it that, in China, when a guy is laying in the road bleeding from the head, the only people in the crowd who rush to help him are the foreigners?

The semester before we arrived, an American friend was with other Mandarin students and teachers leaving the school grounds on their way to a school group lunch when she heard tires squeal and a sickening *crunch*. They turned in time to see a man and his bicycle fly through the air and hit the pavement with a second gut-wrenching crunch. A crowd of passersby formed around the man, who was bleeding from the head.

And everyone just gathered around, watching.

Our friend hesitated. The teachers said not to get involved. All the foreigners in our NGO are warned during orientation that getting involved in accidents is dangerous. A person’s voluntary involvement is often interpreted as guilt, and our foreign presence can escalate potentially volatile situations. Some people started to try and move the man — he was blocking traffic.

Another classmate friend, a nurse from the UK, was also at the accident scene and she tended the man before the ambulance arrived, which took over 45 minutes. The man was in shock, and our friends heard later that he died at the hospital. They still wince at the memory of the sound of the impacts.

Example 2: “Did anybody die?” (from Peter Hessler’s River Town)
rivertowncover.jpgWe read Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (2001) to one another as a bedtime story, and he witnessed this phenomenon in different forms during his years in Sichuan province. After praising the way families in Fuling cared for their members — how the elderly are given a sense of purpose and involvement, how family members demonstrate a high degree of selflessness and self-sacrifice relative to typical American families — he makes an observation echoed often in our culture readings: step outside the in-group (family, important connections, guests), and these same heroically self-sacrificing people can appear unbelievably calloused and indifferent to the needs and suffering of others.

Hessler illustrates this with several everyday examples: ticket booth “piles, great pushing mobs in which every person fought forward with no concern for anybody else”, people watching pickpockets rob strangers yet saying nothing, and traffic accidents:

Crowds often formed in Fuling, but I rarely saw them act as a group out of any moral sense. I had witnessed that far more in individualistic America… Certainly there is rubbernecking in America as well, but it was nothing compared to what I saw in Fuling, where the average citizen seemed to react to a person in trouble by thinking: This is not my brother, or my friend, or anybody I know, and it is interesting to watch him suffer. When there were serious car accidents, people would rush over, shouting eagerly as they ran, “Sǐ le méi yÇ’u? Sǐ le méi yÇ’u?” — Is anybody dead? Is anybody dead?

…usually I watched the faces of the crowd rather than the actors themselves, and in their expressions it was hard to recognize anything other than that single eager observation: something was happening [pp.112-113].

Examples 3 & 4: Helping is hazardous… and foreign
We were all warned during orientation that if we voluntarily helped out at an accident scene in China, it could be interpreted as guilt. They weren’t kidding.

An American friend of ours saw an old man fall off his three-wheel cart. Two other bike riders had come against the flow of traffic in the bike lane and the old man fell while trying to avoid them. The two riders took off but our friend stayed to make sure the old man was alright. But the old man blamed our friend and called the police! Only after repeatedly telling his side of the story for a few hours at the police station did the police finally decide that our friend was just a dumb foreigner who didn’t know any better and let him go. The idea that someone would stop to help out a stranger and not have some ulterior motive is apparently a foreign concept.

Another time, a man on a bike was waiting at a red light, and I watched him watch an old man tumble off his bike into the road right in front of him. If I’d opened the door of my taxi I could have hit him where he sat on his bike acting like there wasn’t a senior citizen lying in the road at his feet. Maybe I should have. I tried to get his attention, but he avoided eye contact. The old man picked himself up with a few grimaces and went on his way.

Example 5: How to get help
This comic is an example of something obvious that’s easy to forget: Chinese people are well aware of their own social problems. Here, an old man has fallen getting off a bus, a crowd has formed to watch, but the bystanders hold voice recorders and won’t help until the man clearly says that he fell by himself (and therefore no one is at fault). They’re afraid that if they help, they’ll end up like our friend in Example 3. One man is asking the old man to please say it again for his voice recorder because he didn’t hear clearly the first time.

More Examples
When unfamiliar or unknown foreign cultural factors are involved, it’s sometimes hard to know what to do in sudden situations that cry out for a Good Samaritan. Michael at expatriate games shares his sad experience of trying (and failing) to stop a guy from jumping off a bridge, and trying (and failing) to get the people watching to do something, like phone China’s 911. We’ve experienced similar incidents of indecision: Once I ran down to intervene when a woman’s boyfriend was physically and verbally abusive to her in public but was too late. Other times we’ve seen children being beaten in public by out of control mothers and no one intervened, etc. Occasionally stories like these end up in the news (translated): “Elderly falls in the middle of the road, no one helps because fear of being framed” and “83-year-old man fell over, passers-by watch him die.” Here’s a excerpt from The China Daily about an infamous incident:

On Nov 20, 2006, an old woman fell to the ground and broke her leg after jostling at a bus stop in Nanjing. A young man, Peng Yu, helped her up and escorted her to hospital. Later the woman and her family dragged the man to court, which ruled that the young man should pay 40 percent of the medical costs. The court said the decision was reached by reasoning. The verdict said that “according to common sense”, it was highly possible that the defendant had bumped into the old woman, given that he was the first person to get off the bus when the old woman was pushed down in front of the bus door and, “according to what one would normally do in this case”, Peng would have left soon after sending the woman to the hospital instead of staying there for the surgical check. “His behavior obviously went against common sense.” [See “Need to protect our Good Samaritans“]

From “In China, Don’t Dare Help the Elderly”:

On the morning of Sept. 4, in the riverside boomtown of Wuhan, Mr. Li, an 88-year-old man, fell in the street and injured his nose. People passed him by, but no one raised a hand to help as he lay on the ground, suffocating on his own blood.

This week, China’s netizens have expressed an outpouring of sympathy — for the bystanders.

From “The Crisis in the Chinese Soul”:

There is no such thing as selfless or altruistic love in the Chinese society, even children are thought as investments.
In the village next to mine, a local boy was killed while delivering pizza to foreigners from a popular international chain. The authorities could not find out who was responsible for the hit and run, and so the parents were denied the revenge that is normally expected in such a situation. Even more importantly, the old woman cried in public, was that she was denied the money due to her in reparation for the death of her son. Taking pity on her, the foreign boss that had hired her son paid her 300,000RMB, out of the goodness of his heart. The couple was angered by the small amount that the boss gave them, and blocked the entrance to his restaurant, effectively halting business and trying to blackmail the boss for more money. I remember sitting in this pizza parlor while the boy’s parents, two fifty year old country people, wept and wailed, begging for money from each customer, and protested against the “unjust businessman” who had given the family more money than any Chinese boss would have paid had he been fined for directly causing the death. When I asked local Chinese if they thought that this couple’s actions were fair, they all pointed out in light of the situation, “Their son cannot provide for them anymore, so of course they need to get money from someone.” They also were clear to point out, “The foreign boss brought this down on his own head. He didn’t cause the accident, so if he wanted to stay clear of the problem, he shouldn’t have given them any money.”

When a student stabbed his mother multiple times in the Shanghai Pudong Airport, the only person who interfered was a foreigner. The story and video circulated around the Chinese internet, and you can see it, along with translated online comments, here. In an even more sickening story that provoked outrage in mainstream Chinese and international news, a toddler is run over twice, people just ignore her, and it was all caught on camera.

Up Next…

Obviously this isn’t an attractive part of Chinese culture. However, poor understanding will just make it look even worse. Also, well-intentioned foreigners could get into a lot of trouble if they intervene without understanding enough what’s going on. The next post, The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.2), samples what some Chinese culture scholars (both Chinese and foreign) have to say about the cultural factors underneath the kinds of behaviour described above and why people in China tend to act this way.

Related Articles:

Woman, man, or East Asian pop star?

I was babysitting ESL study block at my old high school yesterday morning when I saw the desktop background on a Chinese student’s Acer Netbook.

“Is that a girl?” I asked.

The student, a teenager from Guangdong, looked slightly shocked and annoyed. “No! Of course not!”

“Are you sure?” I smiled and she and her friends knew I was just joking. But honestly, I was only half-joking. Here’s the photo:

It’s Korean pop star 金范, but I don’t know his Korean name.

Sometimes my northern Chinese friends mention how they think southern Chinese males, especially Taiwanese, are too feminine. They laugh at the way they talk and they way they look. Sometimes they say that Western (white) women are too masculine. I had an American co-worker in Tianjin who smoked, and she was constantly told that this made her too masculine.

Now, I’m not saying men can’t 打扮打扮 if they want. But I’d be lying if I pretended that young urban Chinese masculinity ideals — or at least Chinese pop media masculinity ideals — don’t sometimes appear a little feminine to my Western sensibilities. And the women, at least the young and trendy relatively privileged urban ones and their pop culture role models, seem like they’re trying to embody an extreme femininity: anemic, weak, passive, desperately in need of a male’s strength and assertiveness (there’s even a term related to this: “little birdie leaning on a man”/小鸟依人). It’s like gender identity in general plays out a little more toward the feminine side of the scale in China.

Westerners have been getting this impression for generations, as have the Chinese themselves (“feminine” is one of many adjectives Lin Yutang uses to describe Chinese masculinity). There are lots of reasons why Chinese and Westerners perceive each other as too masculine or too feminine — some of it’s biological, but a lot of it’s cultural. And this post is really only talking about the thin slice of Chinese society that foreigners interact with the most: the urban, educated, relatively privileged with enough disposable income to enjoy a consumerist lifestyle. (If foreigners in China spent most of their day-to-day lives with peasants, I wonder how our gender impressions might be different.)

Ever since my first major cross-cultural experiences in rural Uganda and Tanzania, where my language teacher and new friends explained in all sincerity that fat women are more attractive than skinny women, and then laughed so hard (once they got over their disbelief) when we told them that in America it’s the opposite, I’ve been aware that a lot of the specifics of what we “naturally” find attractive (fat/thin, dark/pale, tall/short, muscular/weak, smooth/scruffy, manicured/”man-hands,” etc.) have a lot to do with the families and cultures we grow up in.

Other posts about Chinese/Western beauty ideals:

Two Worlds; One Apartment

How a Tianjiner and an American thrive as roommates despite unavoidable cultural lifestyle differences.

It didn’t take Greg long to discover the uncomfortable truth at the heart of cultural adjustment in China: “If you’re not willing to change then it’s not gonna work. I mean, I’m not a poster child for someone who’s willing to change, but I’m working on it. [Chinese culture] is kind of cool and interesting and a novelty at first, but pretty soon it intrudes on what’s comfortable, so you have a choice to make: I’m going to resist it and try to hide from it, or I’m going to change and try to learn to live in the culture, more like a local person. Not that you have to change everything or abandoned your own identity, but you have to be willing to change some things.”

Greg and Pèiyuǎn (Jordan) have been roommates for a mere four months, but their progress in mutual understanding would put some married couples to shame. Their time together has already taught them a lot about what it takes for Chinese and Americans to share close quarters, and for Greg in particular, what it means to intentionally and consistently aim for increased cultural adaptation. They laughed often over dinner as they reminisced for me about the cultural misunderstandings and disagreements they’ve been through together.

Meet Jordan and Greg
Jordan (“Dr. Li” to his patients) is a young orthopedic surgeon completing his residency in Tianjin city. He grew up in Jìnghǎi (静海) in southern Tianjin province and worked as a translator for a local N.G.O. while in med school. When he meets me and Greg in a restaurant for our interview, he’s just completed a six-hour surgery on a broken leg.

Greg taught high school for four years in the U.S. before coming to Tianjin as a fulltime Mandarin student. After studying here for two years he’ll move in Xiàmén. With Jordan hoping one day to work overseas and Greg planning to work in China indefinitely, living together made a lot of sense to both of them.

Same-culture roommates can sometimes be difficult enough, but potential for misunderstanding and conflict increases exponentially in a cross-cultural situation.

Cultural Differences = Opportunity & Potential
As Jordan and Greg have discovered, it’s not about avoiding conflict; facing their differences together is what makes their friendship grow. The stark and numerous cultural differences are actually opportunities to strengthen the relationship and learn about one another’s culture. Mutual trust and respect, a shared commitment to honest and clear communication, and desire to understand the other’s culture are among the potent friendship-building factors that are making their living arrangement work. This doesn’t mean they’re exempt from having to deal with one another’s mutually-annoying cultural characteristics, but the misunderstandings help them discover, understand, and appreciate some of the deeper characteristics that define their respective cultures and shape who each one of them is as an individual.

For cross-cultural roommates, cultural differences and the conflicts they instigate aren’t just abstract theory; they’re lived out in everyday experiences.

Conflicting Expectations: Autonomy vs. Obligation
Greg’s default relational assumptions and expectations are strongly shaped by American individualism. He avoids imposing on his friends’ time and space out of habit and as a common courtesy, and he’s used to receiving the same kind of treatment. As he describes it: “[In American culture,] you do your best not to impose on other people’s worlds. And if you do you’re very apologetic. If you’re going to mess up my life you have to do it really carefully, and you have to ask me, ‘This is happening, it would really help out if you could maybe do this. Could you think about it and get back to me?’ Something like that.”

Jordan, of course, didn’t grow up in a society that believes individual self-determination and self-actualization are the most important causes in the cosmos. His default assumptions and expectations, which emphasize the obligations that family and good friends have toward one another, reveal a conspicuous lack of emphasis on the value of personal space and individual autonomy – at least, that’s how it looks and feels from an American perspective. Jordan describes how it is: “For me I think, if I want help, I will just ask my friend, ‘Hey could you help me to do that?’ It’s really normal for us to do that. I feel that I give them trouble, but in some way I also think that you are my really good friend, for a normal friend I won’t do that, but for me I think you need to do that for me.

“Like my friend, if he want, because I’m a doctor, sometimes –- I think maybe you can’t write this -– sometimes they need to, you know, they don’t want to work, they want me give them a, you know [doctor’s note]. They just call me: ‘Hey can you do that?’ I can’t say I can’t! I will help them. If I can’t help they will say, ‘Huh, you just do me a small favour! Why you can’t? Blah blah blah blah!’ They say a lot of things and then, aiya, I will do that, I will do that. You know, your friends or your family maybe ask you to do something, sometimes I don’t even know who he is, but he just give me a call and tell me that he is my relative and ask me to help him do something. But I will do that, I need to do that. He told me he knows who, and I know that guy, and I need to help him because I don’t want him tell other person that I’m a selfish man or don’t want to help other person. Yeah, 关系网 [relationship network], very important. In my mind, I really feel that if a good friend call you and ask you to help, there’s no reason for me to refuse. That’s really important if he’s my good friend, there’s not reason to refuse him.”

It didn’t take Greg long to discover that Jordan and his Chinese friends won’t think anything about invading his formerly well-respected personal time and space without warning and assuming that Greg will be happy to drop everything and accommodate them.

Greg: “We had people over for jiǎozi. They came at like 2 in the afternoon. Later we watched a movie, about 9:30 or so they left. He went with them to escort them out. I stayed and was gonna start cleaning up and doing dishes and stuff. So five minutes after they left, another one of our Chinese friends showed up at 9:30, quarter to 10, unannounced, with four other people who happen to be his classmates who are in town and wanted to see the place. And they had food with them, so I was like, ‘Oh no, they’re gonna be here a while.’ I was just like, I can’t believe this is happening. I was going to do some dishes and go to bed ‘cause I had to get up pretty early the next morning. But I had a little pep talk with myself in the kitchen. I escorted them in and told them to sit down. I had had a plate of snacks out for the movie, so I just refilled that plate and took it out to them. For me that was a victory to not be uncomfortable with them, and to just welcome them and to give them food. I felt like I was being really Chinese, even though inside I felt not Chinese. Inside I’m like, ‘What?! What are they doing here? I want to go to bed!’ But, I did it. And afterwards I was like, ‘Hey I brought some food and didn’t act weird and stuff,’ and Jordan says, ‘Oh, good job!’ I feel like I’m trying to grow, and I fail all the time but there’s times where I feel ‘Oh, I got that one right!’ I’m encouraged sometimes when I feel like I don’t get everything wrong, I see little steps of progress.”

Jordan, for his part, was shocked the first few times he encountered hesitance and resistance from Greg, who isn’t naturally so keen to let others just phone or show up without warning, expecting they could effectively rearrange his day-planner for him.

Jordan: “Our home is really new; it’s a new building. I told him that there gonna have a guy come here to fix it, to add the gas for us, but I told him I can’t come back because my work. I really speak that really straight because you rent my room, you still have the responsibility to take care of something. So I told him, hey there’s gonna be a guy come here and repair that and I can’t come back, so please stay at home wait for him. Actually, at that time I feel that I really nice: ‘你最好……可以吗?’ [“It’s best if you… could you?”]. But he said, ‘I’ll think about it.’ What?! Really?! Why?! So I feel angry actually, at that time.”

Greg: “Well the thing is I didn’t even say ‘no,’ I just said ‘I’ll think about it,’ and that’s where often there’s these situations where you’re given – in theory – two options, but actually there’s only one option, and if you choose the other option it’s rude. …He sees it as more of a responsibility of mine to help with those things, and I see it more as a favour because I have to change my schedule to come home at that time.”

Jordan: “I told him that, ‘You are in China, so maybe you need to live as us.’ I think that, ‘I already tell him the situation, and then tell him that I really can’t do that, but it’s really necessary for us to do that, why you can’t change your schedule?’ …And also I think with Chinese friends, we like to ask a friend to help us. So if they need help and they don’t say it, I still like to help him.”

Appreciating the Emphasis on Relationship
Most foreigners and Mainlanders who spend time with one another will encounter these kinds of cross-cultural annoyances. But not everyone understands those differences to the point that they can actually appreciate why people from the other culture act they way they do. Learning to appreciate and empathize with each other and each other’s cultural background is exactly what Greg and Jordan are intentionally trying to do.

Greg: “I think there’s a lot of selflessness in China. I think the people are much quicker to give of their time and possessions. We [Americans] use ‘friendship’ pretty loosely, but I think if you’re a ‘friend’ here it means a lot, there’s a lot of sacrifices that you’re willing to do if you’re a friend. I think the hospitality is something I really appreciate. You just welcome people even when you’re not expecting them.

“I’ve done some reading before, not a lot, but I know that Chinese culture tends to be more relationship oriented than task oriented, and that’s a hard thing for me in some ways, but it’s a good thing, and in some ways I feel like that’s how it should be. Not that you don’t do tasks, but that relationships should be more important than tasks. And I see that here, and actually that’s uncomfortable because I’m a ‘task person,’ but in my mind I want to be more of a ‘relationship person,’ and so, yeah, it’s been good.”

Cross-Cultural Living: Highly Recommended! (but read the fine print)
I asked them both what they’d say to foreigners and Mainlanders who are considering living with someone from the other culture.

Jordan: “First, don’t think he’s a Chinese! Because the perspectives are really different. If something happens, maybe you a little bit angry, or you feel that, ‘Why he didn’t do that?’ or, ‘Why he do that?’ First thing you need to calm down. Don’t fight with each other. Just think about it. You need to think he is a good person, and then find a good time to talk about the question. Let him explain that, and you explain your opinion about that, and then understand each other. I feel that a lot of things we see from the different perspective. We think about it in a different way, but it doesn’t mean you are wrong or I am wrong, it’s just the perspective is different.”

Greg: “We hit a lot of bumps early on and then kinda figured some of these things out. I mean I’m sure there will be more, but we agreed before to be honest, to communicate, not to let yourself get angry about something… We’ve had some difficult conversations, but I think both of us are willing to say ‘I was wrong,’ or ‘I’ll try to change’ or ‘I’m sorry’… it’s kind of like a marriage I guess. In a way we’re like an old married couple here!

“A couple things that were helpful for us was pretty early when we had these disagreements or misunderstandings or whatever, was that we kind of said, ‘I believe you’re a good person with a good heart, and so when we have these misunderstandings, I’m going to remember that. And I’m gonna try to work through it so that I actually understand your meaning, and I don’t take it to be the bad thing that it feels like it is.’ So even if we misunderstand and it feels like he’s being really pushy or something, I can say, ‘No he’s not a pushy person, there’s just something else going on that I need to understand.’ He tries to remember that ‘Greg isn’t actually a selfish person who’s unwilling to help; there’s something cultural going on that I need to work through, because I think if he understands then he will help out.’

“So don’t move in with a foreigner lightly, and make sure that you are convinced that they have good character, because if you aren’t, then when those cultural differences come up you’re maybe going to think the worst instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt. Make sure you feel like you can trust them. Also I think at least having an understanding about how you’re going to work through cultural differences is important, like agreeing, ‘Ok, when we hit one of these issues, this is how are we going to deal with it.’

“I think the last thing I would say is don’t do it unless you’re willing to change.”

Jordan: “Also, protect his time. Because some foreigners come here just for study Chinese, or they just come here for other reasons, but they have their schedule. Normally they will do that on their own time on their own schedule, so don’t arrange something and disrupt his plans. Respect him and respect his time.”

Greg: “He does a really good job of asking me and giving me a little time to think about things instead of springing them on me, and that’s an adjustment he’s made. He’s made a lot of adjustments, probably some I don’t even know.”

Jordan: “If you want to go abroad, or for you guys who come to China, it’s good for you if you really want to change. It’s really interesting; it’s worth it to try it. But if you are not ready, don’t do it. If you really want to go abroad or really want to join or taste a different culture, then just do it if you are ready. …Being a friend is really easy, but being a good friend and a roommate? That’s another thing.”

Greg: “But there’re great rewards, so it’s worth it.”

Jordan: “Basically, it’s interesting and we enjoy it. Really!”

(Greg just spent Chinese New Years in Jordan’s parents’ home village. You can read about his experiences here.)