at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Category: Cultural Intelligence

"Room Service" of a Different Sort

Being Bodies in China

We tend to forget it, and only get reminded when we feel sore or when something’s wrong, but of course we are bodily beings. Even with all the complications that have come to surround gender, let alone sexual orientation, it would appear to be a basic fact of life that we are also (predominantly) either male or female.

As far as facts of life go, that should be obvious. What we make of such biological facts, however, can be very different, and have great influence in intercultural interaction.

Just take the usual encounter between Chinese and others.

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Beautiful Women and Gifted Men – Gender in China

“What are *they* like?” oftentimes turns into a question of men and women. Thus, one of those things one often rubs up against, whether observing China or being involved in an intercultural relationship, whether being in-country or hearing about it from afar, are issues of gender.

How you are, as a man or woman, seems to have become largely a matter of choice in “Western” countries. Nobody in their right mind would suggest that women are naturally less capable of something – take mathematics, for example, at this time when girls typically outperform boys in education. …

Chinese shake their heads, say that bodies are different, and therefore people are, too.

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Posts for Multilingual Mania

Just a little pointer to work I’ve been contributing to Multilingual Mania, writing about language learning (of course):

Not a Child Anymore” on whether children really have it easier in learning languages, to the point that it’s too good an excuse, or whether there’s something else to learn from it.

What Languages Do You Speak?” on the problem such a simple question can pose, and the deeper question of foreign language competence it raises.

What Multilingualism?,” considering how a polyglot is made, whether by accident of birth or by choosing – and by what sort of choosing.

Chinese Lessons on Language Learning” describing some of the observations about the local learning culture I’ve made during my time here in China.

Roadside Meat

Beyond Culture Shock, Where Do *You* Stop Learning?

The way the encounter with an “Other” is usually described, it follows a set pattern

First, you are fascinated by a different culture – until you actually go there. Then, you are first fascinated by all the differences, but soon frustrated because people in another place are still only people; but in a foreign place, you encounter all those little things which are different from what you are used to and, therefore, troublesome – “culture shock” ensues.

After some time, if you are one of those able to adapt well, you learn to take it all as just another kind of normal, and cruise along – until you encounter another twist.

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Learning a Culture and Being the Expert

Aside from ecological lifestyles (and chile peppers), East Asia has been an interest of mine for just about as long as I remember. In lighter moods, I blame it on “Kung Fu” and “Karate Kid 2” – we have moved beyond Freud, after all, so it’s time not to blame the parents, but rather TV.

Of course, once you move from childhood dreams to adult life, the question becomes how you can get good enough – or maybe even, acclaimed as the best – in where your interest lies so that you could make a living from it. Unless, of course, you go a different route, work for a living, and follow your passions outside of your work.

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To [Insert Verb Here] a Home

I write a lot about my life-work on understanding the “Other” – presently, China – and learning to deal successfully with one’s place in the middle, between own and other. The ends of that, learning to be at home in this world, sometimes get hidden behind the fascination of how strange it can all be – both “Own” and “Other.”

“Learning to be at home” begs a question, however:
What does it take for a person to feel at home, and how do you get there?

To be even more exact, do you…

  • find a home?, or
  • make a home?

Clearly, ever more people are going in search of a better place to live, whether it be the lifestyle design crowd for their “mini-retirements,” “location independent professionals” looking for their dream location, or expats joining the masses of migrants who go to another place for the better life – or at least better chances – these places are assumed to bring to them.

One of the major aspects of globalization is the easier possibility of moving to another place – as well as the likelihood that you will find “other” people and things in your own locality, where you migh enjoy it or hate it.

Often enough, people enjoy taking on exotic things on their own terms, but could do without the people associated with them. After all, you can take a thing – Turkish döner kebap, American movies, Chinese characters, Japanese Buddhist meditation – and make it a part of your life that fits easily, even as you go about decrying the loss of (Other’s) distinct cultural identity.
Other people, however, actually behave in different ways, probably think a bit differently, making it difficult to be quite so comfortable with them – or not, especially if you don’t appreciate the position the “positive” reactions to foreigners come from and feel easily welcomed.

A major problem of the move to exotic locations is the orientalist, if not nearly colonialist, attitude it can exhibit, which becomes particularly striking when you contrast it with the opposite movement:

Americans or Western Europeans tend to move to an exotic location for the easier life, the relaxed atmosphere, the lower cost of living. One hears not so few complaints about one’s not being accepted, being near-impoverished by the lack of certain amenities – which can start with the lack of cheese and butter in China, to use an example I’ve heard – but tend not to know more than the most basic of words, and not even want to accept their surrounding culture as one to integrate into.

Contrast that with the “real” migrants who move from such poorer countries to the “First World,” only to find that the roads are stil not paved with gold, you are unlikely to go from rags to riches, the higher wages you may make get eaten by the higher cost of living – and you are quite possibly not accepted in your new society, but told to integrate yourself anyways.

In either situation, though, looking for the place that will be perfect is probably an exercise in futility. Nowhere is everything perfect. “There’s no place like home” itself may simply hide the problems behind a veneer of normalcy, a comfortable numbness. And yet, it is true too: if you find a new place that fits, or you realize that your origins are comfortable enough, after all, you can make yourself at home. And yes, I see it like that: it’s not either finding or making a home, it’s a combination of both.

As for me, give me my notebook, let me make a living, and I’ll be all right. By now, of course, there’s the woman at my side, and I’ll be happy as long as she is, wherever that is. For two, things do get more difficult again, though. Still, it only gets more important that you don’t just move past, go out searching, but also do your part – and if it’s only accepting that you will have good days and bad, feel perfect and awful at different times, no matter where you are.


Hacking it abroad…

… and no, even if China and hacking is a hottish topic, I’m not talking about that. Geeks, go away, check out #geekhumor. Rather, recent events have made me wonder just what it means to be successful – or maybe rather, successfully be – in a foreign country. Since my writing is evolving in the direction of what it means to be “at home,” in places near and far, in this world, it seems pretty relevant…

We are looking for some kind of success, to make it, in our lives and especially when we take the plunge and go abroad, aren’t we?

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Talk to Me, Not my Culture

It’s all just words. What is being said. And so much more behind it: the thought of what to say, and the decision not to say certain things. Gestures, looks, expressions. Communication.

With people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, it’s only too clear that there will be differences. First of all, in the languages we grew up with and learned to speak; what subjects are considered topics for everyday speech, and which are rather sensitive; to what extent the communication is meant to support a social relationship or to be just the facts.

Intercultural communication has come to be of ever greater importance. Some people marry between cultures; some do international business; most come into some contact with people from other backgrounds. Maybe it has been given too much importance.

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