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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Give me a break "Mark" you write to a Chinese website and use language like you think you are Shakesphere ? Sorry man but your article left my brain dead not much provocative thinking in what you think you said.
Yeah I have seen a lot of culture shocks as well. Like eating scorpions and grubs, sparrows and such on a stick. Then there is 60 cent videos on the street corners for sale and I know they have not even left the theaters yet in America. Also subways and buses that have 5 times the people crammed into them that should never be allowed. That is just the tip of the iceberg. But, then there is much I totally love about the culture shock that I cannot wait to share in the USA, no. 1 being grilled "quar" on a bamboo stick. My wife is a tremendous cook. She can take any food that we have in the USA and cook it her way and it far exceeds the quality and taste of some of the finer restaurants I have ever been to in America.
If I am not mistaken I think you would have been wiser and a whole lot more effective to have written an article in regards to the joys of things that can be found in China and those things to avoid in China.
Then again you probably would have not been as effective a "Shakespherian" if you had. Hey good luck with that
Sep 08, 2011 14:57 Report Abuse
Yeah, I haven't really experienced culture shock either. I think maybe if I wasn't familiar with China before coming here.
I sometimes feel more free here. No excessive politeness or smalltalk. I do like complaining a bit too much, but not because China is a different culture that I can't understand, but because a lot of Chinese people are UNcultured.
And the things I complain about, the educated Chinese people nod in agreement and say these things bug them too (Like ebikes ignoring any and all laws).
Sep 05, 2011 20:57 Report Abuse
I live in Tianjin and I would day that I have not experienced much culture shock. For me, its more culture fatigue. Sometimes, China is tiring. Getting in a taxi or bus instead of your own car, trying to figure out where to buy things and of course dealing with my limited language skills--it all wears me out. So while, yes, seeing public urination is different, it does really shock me. But culture fatigue was a huge reality my first year. Going into my second year, its a little bit easier.
Aug 27, 2011 04:49 Report Abuse
Thanks Mark. Some nice use of the language - always good to read.
Yeah, China is a culture shock only in that it is different, which is why we came here in the first place right? I hear people complain about the Chinese way of doing things be it in restaurants, shops, working in the street and let's not forget driving cars. But if we yearn for things to be the same as they are at home then you might as well go home. Pretty boring if you get off a plane after a few hours in the air and you end up with the country you landed in being the same as the one you just left!!
I write to my friends and family back in Australia about all these wondrous things I see like live fish in tanks in a shopping centre, oysters still in their shells alive in the water, vegetables still covered in the dirt and earth from which they were pulled, eggs for sale in a large basket and the eggs still covered in chook poo and the odd feather stuck to the shell, the incredible names on products on supermarket shelves because of a literal translation, the outlandish and sexy, bling clothing worn by the Chinese women, the freaky (and sometimes cute) dress code of many of the children, the confrontational staring.....and so on. All there for you every day to let you know that you are in another country. Thank god!
Aug 26, 2011 20:09 Report Abuse
I am European myself, and cannot say I have experienced any culture chock whatsoever here in Beijing. Now I am not here permanently, but one returning guest.
About stores, well I can add they sometimes are hard to find, the Carrefour I shopped in the most have just one small stair down into the section for foods. You could miss it over and over, looks like one entrance to any basement. When you're getting up you have two escalators going in the SAME direction - hehe.
But that's more of a funny detail, else from that the Beijing population is a bit more friendly than one could expect from such a large city.
So have I ever experienced culture chock?
Sure have, in one arabic country, and in the USA where I had one extended stay quite some years ago.
Aug 26, 2011 15:57 Report Abuse
"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."
".... felt, to cheekily steal the title of a Milan Kundera book: an unbearable lightness of being.
"After around one and half years in China my magical mystery tour lost some of its sparkle. "
"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. "
Mark Turner, wherever you are in this world, I love you. You just made my day. Thanks for the wonderful article. Just felt like adding the parts that really spoke to me.
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!
Dec 25, 2010 12:26 Report Abuse