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.)