Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Culture Shock in China

Surprisingly, the largest culture shock causing issue in China was not the bathroom at the school:
It was not the food, which was so good despite the grimacing faces on the safety rating posters of the many C-grade restaurants we ate at. It was not the diaper-less babies with split pants and bare bottoms doing potty training in the middle of the sidewalk. It was not the clear "if you walk off this ledge it's your own darn fault" mentality that results in a dearth of safety rails in public spaces. It was not the fat men shamelessly strutting around with their shirts pulled up to rest on their exposed bellies as a way to beat the heat. No.

It was the group of ninety or so Americans we were trained with in Beijing.

I am a Canadian whose cumulative time spent in the USA amounts to about 3 weeks of my entire life. Those three weeks were split between places like Yellowstone Park and Disney World, which are surely representative of American culture at large, right? However, despite my lack of actual experience in the great land beneath the 49th parallel, I've seen a lot of it on TV. Therefore, I considered myself knowledgeable about American culture.

A couple years ago, when we gained a new American professor at my school, he came in armed to the teeth, metaphorically, with cultural sensitivity. He expected culture shock. As far as I can tell, he functions just fine in Canada, but in class he would commonly tell us of his experiences adjusting to life in a new culture. Even after nearly two years, he was still finding things that surprised him. Admittedly, I eventually rolled my eyes a bit because everyone knows the two cultures aren't that different and I wondered if he might be a little overly sensitive culturally.

Nope. I have since repented of this heresy. I suppose that to a Chinese person, our cultures will appear virtually the same, but to someone who grew up in just one or the other.... wow. Not so much.

Let's not think that I'm trying to propound stereotypes. I have known Canadians that behave like I'll describe the Americans, while the Americans who were on team with us in Ningxia province better fit the Canadian stereotype. However, culture pertains to groups of people, en masse, not to any particular individuals, and individuals aside, this group of ninety Americans did not behave like a group of ninety Canadians.

There were several cultural differences that immediately rocked me off kilter, but here's just one of them: Americans (in my very limited experience), are aggressive. Not in a bad way, necessarily. They weren't aggressive in such a way that I'd make a break for the hall at the end of each training session in order to avoid getting mauled. They were aggressively friendly, and aggressively helpful.

There is something incredibly confusing about feeling angry with people for being too friendly and helpful. It's downright disorienting.

You may think that "aggressively friendly" should be an oxymoron, but it's not quite. It's the kind of thing where I, being the apologetic Canadian, would apologize to someone for forgetting her name, and she would, with a hard to describe snap to her voice, tell me that I don't dare be sorry because I've never learned her name to begin with so I absolutely should not feel bad at all and don't worry. I'd say one thing, and get an excited earful in reply. Not a nasty earful; they were all friendly earfuls, but I know I wasn't the only Canadian who was blown over by the energy, noise, and assertiveness. Several of us just wanted to crawl into our hotel rooms where we could disengage for a while.

Part of being "aggressively helpful" means that they made sure we knew everything we could possibly want to know about every possible situation we might encounter during our training in Beijing, whether we had expressed a desire for this information or not. It was simply assumed that we wanted to know. At one point, one of our leaders remarked that, "North Americans love information," and proceeded to spend an entire morning of our limited training time explaining, with many personal anecdotes, everything from the multiple ways to do laundry at the hotel (and the individual steps involved), to what the hospital would be like if we broke our legs.

While it was kind of the speaker to remember the eight or nine Canadians in their midst, and alter her language to say, "North Americans love information," instead of "Americans love information," it seems that it's not quite true. The Americans appeared to appreciate, or at least tolerate, the information sessions, but I think all the Canadians were just trying not to shriek and pull out their hair. We did not want any more information; I literally became twitchy, feeling my precious hours in China slip away.

I asked my roommate, a feisty five-foot Texan with strawberry blonde hair, if this felt like standard behaviour to her. She said yes, and Americans love to talk, they can't get enough information. I said that in Canada, we probably would have drawn everyone's attention to their informational handouts, pointed out a few of the particularly important points, given five to ten minutes of helpful tips, and told people who to ask if they had questions. She said, no, this seems pretty normal to her and once at a political meeting she attended, they spent an hour just explaining how the meeting was going to work.

The aggressively friendly and aggressively helpful things were beautifully combined by a nice couple that I had breakfast with the morning after arriving in Beijing. I was dopey and blah and jet-lagged and didn't feel particularly conversational. I think I said my name was Carla and asked them where they were from. They answered, made jokes about each other to me, explained to me a good deal about themselves, and advised me on how to conduct myself in China.

With China, I expected unexpected things to happen, so when they did, they didn't knock me off balance. With the Americans, I hadn't expected anything particularly unexpected, so it knocked my upside the head. And now, I just find it ironic that the most uncomfortable place for me in China so far has been in a roomful of Americans.

“The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day he was born.” G. K. Chesterton  

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