(Ab)Normalities Between Cultures

What if it’s them who just do things wrong?

As discussed before, adapting to a different culture and another social context can make it necessary to forget yourself. Not in the metaphorical sense of forgetting your good manners (I’m assuming you have some), but by loosening what you consider normal, and even what you consider you, in order to act appropriately.

The other side of this issue, however, is what you do when it’s not about the way you act in communication, for example, but about something that you feel goes more deeply, could potentially affect your very life. The things that just are or aren’t done, and not simply because it’s normal for you, but also because it makes sense, (not) to do them.

The standard example from China could easily be the issue of safety belts.

I’m seeing more drivers now use them, but it’s probably still a small minority of car passengers who buckle up. In fact, so many people don’t like the seat belts, there are (or used to be, anyways) extra buckles (without the belt) being sold to plug in and make cars, which would otherwise issue a (constant) warning chime because driver and/or passenger have obviously forgotten to buckle up, stop their bleating.

In the rear seats, it’s often still simply not possible to find the seat belts; at least parts of them tend to be hidden under some seat cushions, or even moved behind the very seats.

Seatbelt Buckle? What Seatbelt Buckle?
Seatbelt buckle? What seatbelt buckle?

“They are uncomfortable, and who (in back) needs them, anyways?” seems to be the usual thought. If it’s not all even worse (yes, I’m being judgmental here – but that’s the whole point) and it’s believed that preparing for an accident by buckling up is inviting an accident. If you want to ward it off, hang some talisman on your rearview mirror. A traditional red knot, perhaps? Or is a Mao picture more to your liking? 一路平安

car talisman

Besides, as another explanation went, don’t you trust the driver? What are you saying about him or her when you get into a car and immediately get ready for being in an accident?

It’s one of those things where worlds truly collide. What’s normal for one side is the opposite of normal for the other. Of course, there are also those who peacefully concur in irresponsibility – but it’s not just normal out of habit to buckle up, it’s also normal as the action to take because it makes sense. If you are anything like me, you’ve seen enough videos of what happens (whether you are in the front seat or in the back) if you haven’t taken your seat belt and get into an accident…

Still, though you surely can reason, you are not likely to convince your opposite of the abnormality of their convictions. Or at least, their habits. The main way out is just simply to do things as you want. You either risk a little affront and explain that it’s simply what you’re used to and want to have (for yourself, and perhaps for those who are yours), or you give in and “do as the Romans do.” Have you seen how the Romans, let alone the Chinese, drive, though?


This issue is nice because it’s an obvious problem (if you see it as such) in China and because it has rather obvious solutions. Or perhaps, “solutions.”

It gets more difficult with things like the Chinese penchant for spontaneity and disdain for planning. Strange thing to say, actually, given the government’s 5-year, and longer, planning and the definition of Chinese culture as steeped in the long view. “The French Revolution’s impact? Too soon to tell,” remember?

Admittedly, it may also be something of a family matter; and with different people getting responsible for different parts of our trip this summer, it had been a matter of diffuse responsibility, which isn’t good for planning, no matter the sociocultural context.

I’ve heard from only too many foreign lecturers in China (and been in similar situations, myself), though, who were told that they’d be doing something – like holding a lecture which will be videotaped or presenting their teaching to a group of professors – only as an aside, a day or two in advance.

What do you do then? Do you just plan everything yourself and ride roughshot over other’s flashes of inspiration? Or do you just let it all come as it may, even as it may leave you drifting and hardly even knowing how you’ll get back home?

There’s no answer to that, of course. Sometimes you do the one, sometimes the other, and it will all just work out. Or not. Or maybe with a few surprises, good or bad. Either way,  life goes on, and is all the more interesting for it…

Feel free to contribute