The Importance (and Sneakiness) of Culture

This is the start of a new series: “In Chinese Shoes,” where I will explain bizarre and baffling occurrences in Chinese culture to help Westerners understand and sympathize.

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The more I reflect on my past 15 years in China, the more I see the importance of invisible yet powerful cultural forces on my success and failures (but especially the failures). I also believe there are few good explanations for Westerners (particularly North Americans, like me) to help us understand the Chinese perspective. That’s why I’m going to try writing some, with a special focus on very specific applications.

3 Analogies about Culture in General

Beach Currents

Have you ever been swimming at a beach with strong currents? You think you’ve just been staying in the same place until you try to find your towel. It’s only then that you realize you’ve been pulled along the shore, ever so slowly and imperceptibly, away from where you started.

The current sneakily pulls you.

Cultural forces are invisible and powerful like that. They’re always working, pulling you one way or another, but it’s difficult to perceive unless you have a point of reference. If you don’t know about currents when you go to the beach, it can be shocking, frustrating, baffling, and even scary. These are the same feelings I’ve felt dealing with Chinese culture.

But I mustn’t forget that my own culture is like the invisible current as well. I’m not entirely sure what I myself think or feel until I’ve run into something that strikes me as odd or unsettling. The more I understand about the currents in my own culture, the better equipped I am to understand the Chinese culture.

The Soccer Goal Keeper Rule

When I was seven (or maybe less) I joined a soccer team. I remember being really baffled that the number one rule is “You can’t touch the ball with your hands,” and yet there is a player who’s whole job seems to be “Touch the ball with your hands.” What kind of a game IS this?!

Hey! Why does she get to use her hands?

Culture is similar: there are “rules” for how the game of living in a society is played, including: the best/worst thing to do in situations, or who has authority to do various things. But there are also surface-level contradictions that can leave us feeling cheated, dismayed, and at best like we’re taking crazy pills. The greatest trap for me is to feel superior because I’m the only one smart enough to see how foolish this all is. Alas! If only the 1.5 billion people around me would arrive at the enlightenment I’ve reached!

I would call the goalie rule in soccer a “paradox,” because there actually IS a reasonable explanation for it, but it’s not obvious at a glance. In other words, to the players who really know the game of soccer and play it all the time, the fact that one player can always use his hands, makes total sense.

The REAL rule is: “You can’t touch the ball with your hands, unless it’s an accident and your arms are at your side or you’re clearly in the process of running, OR unless you’re the goalie, who has a different position than the other players.” But if you don’t have the attention-span or the guidance to get to the complicated version, you’ll probably just think “The no-hands rule is stupid and inconsistently enforced!” (as I did when I was young).

Twist Endings

Have you ever seen a movie with a great surprise ending? I won’t spoil it for you, but one of my favorites is The Sixth Sense. You actually have to watch an interview with the director M. Night Shyamalan to know the full sneakiness of the trick he played on you (including the little clues like what the color red represents).

The Sixth Sense has a great twist ending.

When you finally get the secret, there’s a great feeling of relief, achievement, and delight. “Oh! Wow! That explains so much!” Where there once was confusion, tension, and fear, we know feel the universe is back in order and we can move forward.

That’s how I feel when I finally get a really good explanation of the cultural forces at work in a given situation. And I’ve been on the other end again and again as I pass on explanations to other Westerners who are baffled by the Chinese way of doing things. It’s re-frames past and future experiences to be more meaningful and comprehensible.

In Chinese Shoes

As you probably didn’t notice, I changed the tagline of this website today.

Old: Tips and Strategies for Speaking and Understanding Mandarin

New: Tips and Strategies about the Chinese Language and Culture

The goal of my new series “In Chinese Shoes” is to create empathy for the Chinese way of doing things.

  1. By labeling these cultural forces (like the beach current), I hope to provide relief that “You’re not crazy.”
  2. By recognizing paradoxes (like the goalie rule in soccer), I hope to give you confidence that you can master these cultural “rules,” as long as you have a sufficiently nuanced explanation. The rules make sense to Chinese people, even if they don’t make sense to us at first.
  3. And by using analogies, as I have done all through this article, I hope to bring delight (like a twist ending) as you say “Oh, THAT’S why they do that!”

It’s Never Too Late

One final word of encouragement. I learned many of these things very late in my time in China (and I’m still learning!), so don’t worry if you’ve been missing some important clues when dealing with Chinese people. Everything’s obvious once you know it.

The Chinese version of “the have 20/20 hindsight” is to be a shì hòu Zhū Gěliàng 事后诸葛亮. In other words, everyone can be a genius on the level of Zhu Geliang once the event has already happened!

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