China

The Chinese Mask

adidas-mask Those Asians. Just a smile, a front put up, a mask. The true feelings are hidden, real opinions seldom expressed. Or so, the common idea about the Far East seems to go.

If it ever was right, it hides the complexity of the present. Or actually, it not only hides, it positively misleads: In daily life, (especially young) people show emotions just as much as anywhere else. Chinese also – although valuing calmness, too – are often highly expressive. Not only that, but there are some things which Chinese will very openly comment on (and which Western people would avoid mentioning so directly).

Racism in East Asia is an issue hotly discussed – if not necessarily in East Asia. What makes it so particularly striking, however, is not its prevalence, but that open expression of observations and opinions it is a sign of. It starts with the simple appellation "外国人" the foreigner encounters so much (and oftentimes, in ways which get tiring).

Where the approach to others is particularly striking in China, however, is when it comes to "own others," groupings within China. This, in fact, is the point that makes me think that the discussion about widespread racism in China is somewhat misguided: it is not racism as much as a "group-think" that draws borders very quickly and talks of differences without regard for political correctness. Thus, if it is racism, then it is equal-opportunity racism:

  • After all, people in the conservative heartland will point out that traditional Chinese thinking (e.g. about relationships) is a treasure they adhere to, whereas those others in places like Shanghai are just so different.
  • Shanghainese, on the other hand, will see themselves as modern, and "外地人," people from other soils, as different, backwards, less modern.
  • Talking of somebody as 土, "earthy, peasant-like," is quickly becoming one of the biggest insults, even as the farmers continue to be hailed as the exemplary Chinese.

All those labels are not applied to minorities alone, labels like that can be and are conferred on everybody. For better or worse, it might even be assumed that minorities cannot but be so backward, at least unless they study and develop themselves, whereas ethnically Han Chinese (or other "own" people) should have had better opportunities from the start.

People’s looks, in general, will be commented on rather freely. Not just the clothes, but also the shape: In notable difference to the West, if you are fat and in China, you can expect to be called fat. For the women especially, fat begins at a body shape where a Westerner may still be concerned about anorexia. At least among the younger generation (as I encounter them), it is also not seen as a problem for a woman to tell a guy that he is good-looking. – It’s just a statement, observable by anyone, after all…

Tradition is strong, nonetheless: Some things are not talked about quite so freely, especially following a separation between private and public spheres. Public displays of affection, for example, are becoming more and more common. Sometimes it looks positively as if city – and even more so campus – parks are made for lover’s meetings. There is also a reason why hotels typically offer hourly rates. On the other hand, however, the night is a Chinese lover’s friend, for what people may think of you is still a major issue to think about, and one not necessarily to break free from. Thus, showing or talking about too much that is private is not exactly well-received – to the point that even Chinese husbands may not openly say "I love you" to their wife. Holding hands in public (between a boy and a girl – interaction within genders is much freer) is enough to tell that those two must be a couple; even that can be a bit much in some highly traditional settings.

Where the appearance of an outright masking may be the strongest is when it comes to how information is handled. Where Europeans or Americans may want everybody to be on the same page about plans, and thus provide relevant information (and maybe additional details which may make things more complicated but could have relevance) on a pro-active basis, the Chinese approach tends to be "need to know." Planning also tends to be very short-term, ad-hoc. – Not to hide information and plans from the strangers, however, but just because things are done in a different way.

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