Posted by: Brian | May 2, 2009

Breaking Point(s)

Whatever you do, dont hold your kids hand. Thats not allowed in China.

Whatever you do, don't hold your kid's hand. That's not allowed in China.

It’s always the little things – always.

Things like going without my passport for a week because the person that processes applications for residence permits took a week-long vacation and didn’t make any arrangements for a coworker to cover for him. Or being called a gold-haired barbarian. Or baking every afternoon because the Chinese government deemed air conditioning unnecessary in Kunming, and my room catches the afternoon sun full-on.

I reached a point this week where I almost yelled at a guy because he wouldn’t stop staring at me. Want to know what it feels like to be a minor celebrity? Live in China for a while. After a couple months of constant stares and peoples whispering waiguoren – foreigner – as you walk past, it gets old.

These kinds of cultural differences are absolutely fascinating, right up until the point where they’re not. In China, for example, it’s not too likely that someone will ever tell you they don’t the answer to your question. Believe it or not, they would sooner lie to you than admit they don’t know something. In America, that sort of response is socially unacceptable. Here? It should be almost expected because of a social concept known as face. It’s similar to phrases in English like “saving face” or “losing face,” but infinitely more important. If you, knowingly or otherwise, put somebody in a position in which they have to admit they can’t help you, or don’t know something, you’ve just forced them to lose face. Most Chinese would rather give you incorrect or incredibly vague information than do this.

One of the more absurd examples of this I’ve experienced occurred this past week. We’ve got midterms starting Monday, and none of my teachers had scheduled our exams yet – none of them. None of them wanted to make an incorrect decision, so the (obvious) solution was to not make any decision at all. It ended up falling on the shoulders of the students for us to verbally prod them and suggest which day would be best. I’m sure they weren’t trying to make us stressed or upset by not telling us a firm date, but that was the effect with entire classrooms of non-Chinese students.

Another major difference is in how the Chinese perceive tact. For example, in America I would never dream of telling one of my friends that they look fat. Here, that would typically be one of two good things, depending on the age of the person speaking. If they’re older, it’s probably meant as a compliment – to be fat is an outward sign of affluence; you can afford to eat a lot of food, so you’re probably doing better than most Chinese. If they’re younger, it’s likely they mean the observation as a show of concern for your well being. It’s essentially a personalized inquiry as to your health. Either way, it’s not a slight or an insult, which might be hard for some westerners to accept.

I know I really haven’t lived in China for that long – it’s been what, maybe a little more than two months now? Something like that. This is the first time I’ve spent an extended period of time out of the country, so it’s been quite the experience for me, and a bit of a culture shock at times. From traveling 9,000 miles away, to meeting tons of new people (many of them quite strange), to encountering social barriers I never expected, I’m constantly learning new things. Some of them are fascinating, others are infuriating; regardless, I’m better for each and every one of them.



  1. No culture shock here!

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