Culture is a very fuzzy concept and often hard to define. The most basic sign of culture is the passing down, through generations, the use of tools. This can even be seen in our primate cousins, chimpanzees, who cleverly use sticks when eating ants, using them to gain access to tasty morsels when they are only to be found in places hard for our furry friends’ stubby fingers to reach. I learnt this gem of information from my university mentor, a primate behavioral psychologist, who, with a huge shock of auburn hair and a face full of character, bore more than a passing resemblance to an orangutan. Past (and even within) that chimp/stick/ anthill interface, context culture is an extremely fluid and often confounding concept. As a Brit, If I was to be asked to describe my culture I might mumble something about fish and chips, football, talking about the weather, drinking tea and being excessively polite; then I would probably start mumbling something politely about the weather and perhaps offer you a cup of tea.
On the other hand, the concept of culture shock is something much more concrete and easily brought to mind, especially if you are a China expat. Indeed the products of culture shock are much more concrete and easy to pin down, this is particularly evident when being lucky enough to capture a glimpse of the expat in his new found habitat going ‘ape’ over a perceived slight from a taxi driver, or a mis-ordered or stray dish in a fancy restaurant.
My first experience of China culture shock was in fact a few thousand meters above ground, flying into Beijing airport. What immediately struck me about the city was its magnitude and layout – in hindsight these were not so subtle precursors, or warning signs, of experiences to come. From an aerial view on a sunny day, Beijing looks very much like the floor of a preschool play area littered with building blocks. As an urbanite, I am well familiar with high rise residential areas, but the sheer magnitude of Beijing’s residential complexes is quite breathtaking from the sky; what’s more striking is the manner in which these building blocks are laid out on the play mat. It appears that a young autistic savant has been left to his own devices and constructed an impossibly Byzantine pattern, solely for the purpose of his personal gratification – clearly there is a rhyme and reason to his creation but this meaning is only accessible to him. Order within disorder, and magnitude reflected in China’s mind-boggling population are probably to some degree the roots or cause of most of my Chinese culture shock experiences since that very first anticipation filled descent into Beijing. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
My first six months in Beijing were marked by the strongest sense of what I would describe as culture shock. This was characterized by an almost psychedelic experience, which I can only clumsily liken to being a scrap of cloth pinned to a gate post, flapping in the wind. Being uprooted from home and living in the ‘Middle Kingdom’ I felt, to cheekily steal the title of a Milan Kundera book: an unbearable lightness of being. Wandering around my new home, I felt the same kind of wonder that a small child might have towards what grown folks would regard as the most banal of experiences. I remember one of my first excursions to a supermarket in which I was wide eyed and almost overpowered by the sensory bombardment that ensued. I recall one particular instance, the laughing faces of the men clad in waist high rubber waders, splashing around in the stinking water behind the open fish counter next to the tanks of fresh live turtles. My feelings of wonder and mild revulsion at the bounty before me were clearly a huge source of amusement to them.
After a few years in China my culture shock has tailed off: the mini mart on the ground floor of my apartment building is no longer an Aladdin’s cave of eastern delights, but completely anonymous and interchangeable with Mr. Singh’s dreary corner shop back home in England. It is the same place that I shuffled around with a peeved expression on my face, scanning the shelves, listlessly trying to work out exactly what monounsaturated fat laden junk it was I was planning to snack on yet another evening. Regardless of culture, everyone has to eat, sleep, defecate and wash: these are the inescapable facts of life. Although washing I’ve grown to doubt – having spent considerable amount of time on Beijing’s marvelously practical and reliable subway system, the results of not washing have become an inescapable fact of life. After around one and half years in China my magical mystery tour lost some of its sparkle. Now, I could be anywhere in the world.
This brings me to the amusing topic of culture wars. Too often I have heard people running down a different culture. As creatures we literally spring from the ground that bares us, as do our language and culture. I could go into a long winded and ultimately mind numbing foray into linguistics but I think the old saying “Eskimos have 20 words for snow” will equally suffice. Culture is just a symptom of the tools which we use to negotiate the environment, nothing more nothing less. The French thinker Foucault wrote that anthropology is, in a way, a form of psychoanalysis of another culture – any attempts to reveal another culture or deride it is merely a reshuffling of cultural identity, value judgments and, ultimately, hang ups. I feel a pointy eared Leonard Nimoy moment coming on, please excuse me.
Ultimately, culture and their differences are what make the world go round. Enjoy the magic of the differences when you have the opportunity and take the rough with the smooth graciously when you can’t. Beam me up!
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