Other Cultures, Understanding, and Interesting Lives

As I am still living in China, but just waiting for some formalities to get finished before this summer’s switch (back) to Austria, an issue is on my mind a lot. It feels almost impossible, at the moment, to do proper China-watching from the outside… or not.

Culture is a very peculiar thing to try and understand. Like a fish in the water – or us, surrounded by air – we naturally live in our own culture(s), and simply know what is proper and important. We aren’t usually aware of there even being a distinct culture, except when there is contact with an ‘other’. Only then is what seemed just natural shown to be convention, and thus thrown into starker relief.

"Ethnic" Dancing in Beijing's Minority Cultures Park
“Ethnic” Dancing in Beijing’s Minority Cultures Park

The fundamental issue in trying to understand a cultural other is founded in this same problem of closeness and difference. Such conventions, also of another culture, have to be experienced, observed and lived-in in order to be learned – but at the same time, closeness can make for a simple acceptance. Distance,  meanwhile, makes it easier to focus on the abstract, general concepts that inform the everyday, and are hidden behind its turmoil.

After all, back in Europe, there will be easier (to put it mildly) access to literature and online sources – let alone social networks to connect with others about, well, everything. And given that I do not only have an academic or similar vocational interest in China, but that my significant other is Chinese, I can’t lose deep connections to the country and culture, anyways.

On the other hand, the engagement with China will be less intimate; I will not be surrounded by the daily life of China and its people, of course. The daily observation of the doings in this country, and this particular place within it, thus is lost; most of China is reduced to an idea more than a reality of people.

As I’m starting to try and get back into studies (including of literature) I did not have the time for during my stay here, I think it’s really the usual problem that all of us who want an interesting life have: Excitement seems to come from the outside, from being in the midst of other landscapes, surrounded by people who are different, facing challenging situations, and trying to make some sense of it all. Or at least, to come back with some interesting observations.

That’s only a part of it, though, and oftentimes only an imagined one. Being there, you suffer from a bout of food poisoning, long for some familiar things, find the traffic only too disconcerting, and the people to be just people.

The excitement – and more importantly, the understanding of another culture (and one’s own) – really hinges on attitude.

If you just go to another country, visit three of the big cities and two famous landscapes in a few days, the deep  observation necessary to contribute to understanding isn’t there; if you only look at the books, angling for the deep roots of other cultures, you forget about the actual people and their lives.

The thing that always makes the difference is your attitude towards it. When you seek adventure – and equally, understanding – with an open and inquiring mind, you can find it in books and research as well as in stays within a place.

Just looking for excitement outside, you just wait for your life – and it may not deliver at all, or not in a way you imagined. Circumstances matter, of course, but it’s you yourself who will need to go and decide what excitement you seek, how much understanding you want to gain, and how to find it.

Feel free to contribute