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Culture Shock – A Westerner Living in China
I first came to China in 2005. I flew in via Hong Kong to Shenzhen and was completely blown away by this city. I didn’t know quite what to expect but it certainly exceeded any expectations I might have had. Thirty years ago Shenzhen was just a small fishing village across the river from Hong Kong but with an idea of creating a model city to rival Hong Kong, the then leader Deng Xiaoping set out his vision for this super-city. In my opinion Shenzhen is an amazing modern city with futurist tall buildings, well designed family friendly apartment blocks, wide tree lined avenues, lush vegetation, relaxing parks and a vibrant economy to compete with any western city. Wow! I thought – this is communist China!
It wasn’t however until 2007 when I came to live in Zunyi, a ‘small’ city in Guizhou province did I come to discover the real China. The fact is you never really know a country until you live there and for me, it was a real culture shock! Make no mistake about it, life in the west is so very different from life in China.
Population: As we all know, China has a huge population – 1.3 billion people, a figure which is difficult to comprehend. Zunyi is considered to be a small city in China but has a population bigger than England’s second biggest city – Birmingham. And because everyone lives in apartment blocks, the inhabitants are more crammed in than English cities. Only the mountain right in the middle of the Zunyi creates a refuge from the noise and busyness of the city but most cities here don’t have mountains in the middle of them. The bigger cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing seem to places of endless habitation but fortunately the city planners have thought about this and there are always either beautiful parks or historic sites to escape too. Because of the size of the population it is difficult to get away from people in China; even the countryside where agriculture is labour intensive, it can be difficult to be totally alone. Having said that, I have been fortunate enough to be taken to some stunning countryside away from the city where all you can hear is the birdsong and only occasionally meet another person.
Cultural differences: It is quite difficult to define Chinese culture so simply because like western culture, it is changing. There is the old traditional culture which underpins society and there is the new modern culture imported from the West, Japan and Korea. Although China has one of the oldest civilisations, it is actually one of the newest countries. Sixty years ago was the Cultural Revolution lead by Mao Zedong which swept away thousands of years of dynastic rule by emperors and freed the great majority of people from impoverished living. China reinvented itself in 1949 and became a truly communist country but that was sixty years ago and there can be no comparison between now and then. Only long held traditions and values remain and some of these are under threat from modern day life. Today young people in the cities have high aspirations and want all the modern day fashion and technology they can get their hands on.
So, on the surface in the modern cities all can appear the same as in the West. The men and women wear the same stylish clothes, the girls wear skimpy clothes to reveal their figure and the boys wear fashion to imitate their pop idols; business people drive expensive saloons and 4 x 4s (often black) and high-heeled ladies shop in expensive boutiques. Look up at the skyline and you’ll see amazing high rise blocks of futuristic design which equal or even better western skylines. Under the modern exterior however, most people are very traditional and it is best to be aware of these traditional values if you want to live, work and do business here.
Family: In China, the family unit is a very strong one and there is generally great respect afforded by children to parents and to grandparents. That doesn’t mean that everything is perfect in family life but family is the refuge and the security here. When people need help they turn to family, if they need financial backing for a business venture they turn to family and if they need advice, they do the same. It is not only in life that respect is given but in death also. Every year in April there is ceremony called Tomb Sweeping Day and on this day families will visit the graves of their relatives to clean the graves, say prayers and burn paper money for the dead. This creates a strong connection between the living and their ancestors, and gives an underlying message to the living that they won’t be forgotten, even in death.
Today in China there is still the one child policy, although this does not apply in the countryside where there is a need for labour. This means that the family is small and often the children are cosseted. Most often both parents will go out to work and therefore the grandparents are frequently called upon to assist with the child’s care. Sometimes the child will live with the grandparents if the father and mother have to work away. Many people have to work in other cities and commuting is impossible and so can only visit their family once or twice a year. This makes festivals like Spring Festival so important to the family. At Spring Festival most workers get a week’s holiday and this is a big time for family reunions. This can be the only real holiday a lot of people get in the year.
Marriage: In China, marriage is still considered the only way for a couple to live together and there is strong pressure for young people to get married before they are 30, especially for the girls. The idea of a woman seeking a career above marriage is almost unheard of and equally of not wanting children. If a woman doesn’t want children, she will be considered to be not normal. A lot of young people have an idealised view of marriage despite the divorce rate being high here; they always believe they can make the successful marriage. What’s more there is still a notion for a lot of young women that they should be virgins when they get married, although this idea doesn’t really hold in the big cities. Also, a lot of men want to marry virgins, especially in the countryside where old attitudes prevail and it is sometimes expected for a girl to produce a certificate from a doctor to say she is a virgin.
Youth culture: Young people now wear the latest fashion from Japan, Korea and the West but this can give the wrong impression as to their attitudes about love and sex which are still old fashioned. They may look like any young person from a permissive western society but they don’t sleep around, they don’t expect to have sex by the time they are eighteen and they wouldn’t dare to bring a baby into the world without being married; what’s more they’re not into drugs either. High school students are discouraged by their parents from forming relationships until after they have graduated at the age of eighteen. Young girls may look stunning in the tight clothes and ultra short skirts but unlike many of their western counterparts, they are not party animals and don’t go out on the town to get drunk; in fact a lot of them don’t even drink alcohol at all and they certainly don’t expect to be chatted up by strangers. Yes, attitudes are more westernised in the big cities but there is still a strong recognition of what it is to be Chinese and young people are very proud of this. The Chinese people are conservative by nature and this should be understood by western visitors, so as not to offend.
Work: There is a very strong work ethic in China and people are not afraid of work here. The fact is that if people don’t work, they get no support from the state, not that they would expect it. Most people will do any work to earn a little money and don’t feel a sense of shame if they have menial jobs. It is quite quite humbling to see the types of work that people will do to earn a small amount of money. People here take a great sense of pride in having a secure job and will do nothing to threaten that security. This can mean that some employees are exploited by their bosses who know their staff will not cause trouble if there are difficulties at work. Another fact is that there are too many workers for the jobs available and so people are always grateful to have work. Chinese people will work long hours doing the most tedious jobs without complaint but of course many do aspire to better themselves but competition for jobs is great and the greatest fear for a student at school or college is not to have a job after graduation. This is why students are prepared to begin their school day at 7 a.m. and finish their last class at 9.30 p.m. and will go to school on Saturday and then attend private classes on Sunday with little complaint. They get tired and worried about the never ending round of exams but they do it because they want to work and not just want work but want to have a good job. Many students today aspire to being rich and why shouldn’t they, when their country is heading towards becoming the strongest economy in the world.
National pride: Chinese people are immensely proud of their country and their country’s achievements and this was strongly reinforced during the 2008 Olympic Games and the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan when the entire country rallied to help the stricken area and its people. China is made up of many ethnic groups, each with their own traditions and dialect but is united under one flag and one leadership. There has been descent in some parts but on the whole, the country is as one. The Chinese people also have very strong feelings about Tibet and also Taiwan and I suggest that until you research the history about these areas, you don’t get into a debate with Chinese people about them. There has been a lot of misinformation spread around about these, especially about Tibet by people who don’t fully understand the history of China. It is a good idea to read some good books about China’s history before coming to live in China; it will help you understand its people.
Manners: This may be one of the most difficult things to come to terms with in China because the Chinese people don’t adopt the same manners as we are used to in the UK or US. It has sometimes been my opinion that Chinese people don’t have manners at all but this is an over generalisation. Chinese people don’t like to queue or wait to be served; if you are in shop being served, expect someone to barge in front of you but of course you don’t have to put up with it. You have to learn to be quick and in some cases assert your ground. Also if you are in conversation with another, don’t expect people to wait until you have finished your conversation before another will charge right on in to say their point. This will be much more so in the smaller cities where people have not become so educated and not so ‘westernised.’
The thing to remember is that this is their way and there is little point in trying to change it because you won’t. I believe however that you should maintain your own manners and civility but not try to thrust your beliefs onto others. When I first came to China, I found that no one ever smiled at me and no shop keeper ever thanked me for my custom. I thought the Chinese to be a very cold race but once I got to know people, I found them to be very warm, friendly and generous, even if they have little to give. My suggestion is that you smile first and let people know that you are friendly toward them, and that way they will soon begin to respond to you. The Chinese people in general are shy people and this explains a lot of their reticence to smile.
Big city, small city: If you live in one of the major cities like Shanghai or Beijing you will pretty much be invisible as you go about your daily business but if you choose to live in a smaller city or even a town, you will be source of much interest. In Zunyi I am one of a dozen or so foreigners and so I am often starred at and always in demand by students to talk English with me. I get lots of invites out to have a meal or go on trips; it certainly compensates for the isolation I have often felt. And while on the subject of being invited out for a meal. It is customary for the person doing the inviting to do the paying, so don’t be concerned about others paying for you but out of politeness, you should return the invite and pay for them.
There times when you can feel completely frustrated by living in China, with the constant noise and smells, the apparent rudeness and disregard for others; it can really get to you but you have to accept it and try not to get angry. Chinese are far more tolerant in this respect; they have to be more tolerant of each other because there are so many people living in such close proximity to each other here. They are not fazed by air-horns, motorcycles on the footpath and people pushing in or cars cutting them up. It is important to remember that you are the foreigner here and this is not your country.
If you want to come and work here, I suggest you embrace the differences and don’t try to resist them. I have gained so many friends here in China and it will be a very sad day when I finally return to the U.K. At times China has driven me mad with frustration but on the other hand, China has given me so much.
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