The more people get together, the further they seem to be driven apart. Thinking fast, not with cultural relativism…
Tag: cultural intelligence (Page 1 of 2)
Views of Confucius have always been in a state of flux.
Back when the “Asian Tigers” saw their tremendous economic rise, it was Confucian ideals of hard work and obedience that were claimed to be responsible. Nobody was to criticize their political system, for it was just the way things were handled in a Confucian/Asian nation state, and these different governance styles and systems worked. It was “Asian Values” all the way.
When things aren’t going so well or problems are met head-on, the same obedience is blamed as the root of nepotism and a lack of creativity, however.
In China, the statue of Confucius may have had to go from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square again, but China’s relationship with its ancient sage star philosopher certainly has continued apace.
Here, too, it has continued apace in the usual ‘confusion’ way of this country’s recent history: He was, not so long ago, one of the old things to get rid of. Even then, the struggle against parents and teachers was all the stronger an issue because of the lasting effect of his teachings that call for obedience to these authorities, and obedience was a source of the whole new revolution, just in deference to a new father figure.
Family ties have continued to be of the utmost importance. Ancestors have to be remembered, fed and clothed; laws enshrine the need for children to care for and pay respect to their parents; traditional views of gender roles and relations hold some sway; families help each other and “help” of this kind becomes rather indistinguishable from nepotism and corruption. And, such ideas find wide transference to the body politic, as they always have.
Appeals to Confucian teachings have risen again. They have done so, in particular, as they have been considered potentially helpful for the purposes of the political sphere, all the more so as society is decried as having lost its moral footing and behavior, focused on the material side of things as it has become.
Between Wangfujing, Beijing’s preeminent shopping street, and the Confucius Temple, the two concurrent developments recently came together only too well.
On Wangfujing, the “International Brand Festival” claimed that better brands make for a better life and city and presented goods to aspire to.
Meanwhile at the Confucius Temple, it was the end of summer courses for middle school students. Time to pay respect to the sage, honor the parents, vow to be a good student… and to fervently love the country.
Handling such contradictions, problematic as we seem to see it, is just the reality of cultures. Life always stands between tradition and change, individual desires and decisions and cultural normalities and social pressures…
“You just don’t do things right.”
If you’ve been reading these pages, you should be aware that I’d argue there’s much more “there” here, wherever you are, than commonly said. Too many, ubiquitous, arguments try to get people to travel and argue that it will somehow, magically, make you a better person with more experiences and education. Well, it doesn’t work that way.
Still, for everyone who doesn’t just want to be stuck in one place, never knowing how much more there is out there, cultural intelligence is fast becoming an essential skill.
Italy. Bella Italia! Part of the Grand Tour, promised land of the German mind, home of good food and people passionate – not just about la dolce vita but even about dolce far niente (the sweet life and sweet doing nothing). Furthermore, as a major source of European culture – and simply a neighboring country – it is only natural that Italy should be a travel destination for the “home-r.” (You ever noticed that there isn’t really a word for someone who is, let alone tries and becomes, at home somewhere – not counting terms such as native or indigenous which raise the wrong connotations?)
So, my wife and I set out for a few days in Rome and Florence…
Part 1: All Roads Lead to Rome?
…and the very beginning of the journey proved interesting:
Sleeper train from Vienna to Rome, compartment for six, leaving in the afternoon, arriving in the morning, two others already inside – a husband and wife from India, he only speaking their native tongue, she also English.
Decently clean washroom for one at a time, cramped and/but lockable (with water from a faucet as well as drinking water in individually wrapped cups) and toilet, which also remained surprisingly clean, except for the stink when some people abused it as a cigarette smoking chamber.
No smoking otherwise.
Small bottles of water already prepared for the passengers, light breakfast of some bread and a croissant, butter or marmalade, coffee or tea; conductor collected tickets he’d give back when telling people their stop was coming up soon and also asked about the drinks requested. Every food item individually wrapped, of course – hygienic, but wasteful.
No hot water for tea or instant cups of noodles – to finish the comparison with a Chinese sleeper train ;)
Oh Italy, oh Rome! The description for how to get to the (first) hostel was easy enough: Just take Metro Line A.
We go to the Metro, and are greeted with Italy’s national pastime, and a word every traveler there had better know: sciopero!
Metro Line A is closed for a strike until early afternoon…
All information desks are packed with people, and they are all for the national railway, not necessarily for local transport. I text the hostel owner, but he doesn’t answer that. Studying the “how to get to the hostel,” eventually, I’d figure out that the ticket vending machines for the railway can tell us how to go, and print out the tickets. Fun, though, when you have to change trains, using trains and stations never before taken, and you don’t get anything like a train schedule on your ticket or anywhere else, except on one screen on the ticket machine. Phone camera to the rescue – what use is a station to change at when the only way to tell how to get there is to know the time and the number of the train to use… a regional train that would go to Pisa, which is far enough away not to be “regional.”
We wait for the train. We find it on the announcement board. Doesn’t say a platform to go to. Still doesn’t say a platform a few minutes before it’s scheduled to depart, when the display changes to tell that this train was canceled. Uhm, okay?!?
Next check at the machine, next photo of the itinerary it displays, next train. This time, a platform number. Let’s go. And go, and go. Those platforms must have been added on to the train station at some later time, and they are nearly a kilometer away from the main part of the station. The train: certainly a regional train. A diverse mass of people, though all Italian judging by language. By their looks, this could just as well be Turkey. Or Xinjiang.
Out at Porta Ostiense, on to the next train. Vatican walls visible, out at Valle Aurelia. Which exit were we supposed to take? The description does not exactly make sense, the streets intersect rather more than expected, but with the description and a view onto Google Maps (good to have a phone contract that allows data usage – although, the phone had at first booked itself into the wrong carrier network, of course…), it seems all clear enough. And it was.
The hostel, Vatican City Inn: what looks to be a private apartment with rooms for guests, in an apartment building off into a cul-de-sac from a bigger road, the Vespas so typical of Italy out front.
Also like a private apartment: Gianluca, the owner, is still here to meet us, and in fact still cleaning up and preparing everything – although it all looks pretty clean already. We are greeted warmly, made to feel almost a part of the family, and after a shower and some fresh clothes, we’ll rest a bit longer in the noonday heat, then head out to adventures in Italy.
Part 2: The Vatican
Walking around the area, almost looking out from the apartment’s balcony, the Vatican City’s walls are often visible, making it pretty hard to miss. It’s also difficult to miss the throngs of people…
The first afternoon, we just went to St. Peter’s Square and from there to Castel St. Angelo, which we had a look into. Funny how I remember having been here and not been impressed, but it actually offers a lot to see. The mix of ancient Roman and comparatively more recent, the diversity of rooms… though in the library, I can’t think of much else but how cold that could get even in a Roman winter.
The Vatican, St. Peter’s and the Musei Vaticani, they are all interesting, but also all swarmed by people and all just too much, of course. St. Peter’s is impressive, especially given its age – but you really have to think of how that was built at a time when most houses were pretty small, certainly no skyscrapers, there was no motorized equipment to help with the construction. Still, the observations that really stand out to us are the numbers of Chinese visitors we’d see here, and the usefulness of Latin to try and decipher the many inscriptions. To a European Buddhist/atheist and a modern Chinese, the lure of religion is less strong than the fascination with all its absurdities.
Thus, also, in the Vatican Museums. Our favorite object was a Chinese Phoenix Crown hidden away in the ethnographic collection; it was great to see all that there is to see – but in the multitude of the human mass, the revelation about the Sistine Chapel, for example, is that its famous image of God giving Adam the spark of life is big and impressive on the posters and online – and used so much that the Chinese comment is “What is that? Boy-boy love?” – but it gets hidden in the whole range of picture panels that actually adorn the chapel’s ceiling and walls.
Lots of impressions to draw on, but it all takes time and learning to truly appreciate, rather than the mad dash to see a fair bit before the exhaustion from the heat and the – did I already mention them? – masses of people becomes rather too much. Much nices to “paint” oneself…
My highlight, really, was the run I took one morning, all around the Vatican – and a bit longer, actually. Few people, not even all that much traffic, sights to run past, the up and down of Rome’s topography felt beneath the feet and in the legs – and a chance for saying that I ran around an entire country. :-p
Walking around the city to see a bit more of Rome proper, appreciation and enjoyment for the both of us followed: We stumbled upon Gelateria del Teatro, which had me wondering at first because of all the tourist praise they mention on the door, but won us over so that we’d end up going there every. single. day. (and we still wish we could return already).
Chocolate ice cream flavors – not our thing, but still – from simple dark ones to white with basil, the rather usual nut flavors – but here, it’s not just hazelnuts, it’s hazelnuts from the Piemonte, almonds from Noto, pistachios from Bronte – not only stracciatella, but also a stracciatella alla menta (with mint) – and you can tell that they are using a natural spearmint, not a peppermint or other – several fruit flavors (and of course, the lemon is made of lemons from Amalfi), and our favorites, the mixed fruit and herb flavors that are to be found nowhere else: raspberry and sage; rosemary, honey and lemon; lavender flower and white peach… Out of this world. Or rather, directly out of the riches that this world offers, and then becoming something that takes you right out of the everyday humdrum.
Part 3: Rome Proper
As it happened, I had decided that we should rather stay in Rome a bit longer than try to travel around more, and thus had to get another hostel for the other days in Rome. Again, an old apartment building, but this time a situation more like in a hotel. Right on Via Cavour, the walk from the subway station to the hostel already offers a tantalizing glimpse of the Coliseum.
A suspicion arose as we went down the road, got closer to the house number, and encountered a Chinese restaurant right before. It would turn out true: one of the hostel owners, the only one we’d get to see, is a Chinese. An even warmer welcome ensued, languages get even more mixed – “Hey, I saw your name, I thought maybe there was some relation to China… I can see what the relation is now.” Advice on what to see in Rome, given in Chinese… in the most enjoyable local’s fashion: Coliseum and Roman Forum, a must-see; Piazza Navona, go and have a look, but don’t be a stupid tourist – eat somewhere else; the Spanish Steps, Piazza di Spagna, home to all the luxury brand stores – go, take the requisite pictures, but forget about shopping there…
We’d actually been there the day before, but anyways: it’s good advice and nice to experience Chinese hospitality again.
A very different view from that room, though, but small and stuffy as it can be, it was also nice enough and with adjacent bath – and do you remember what I said about that glimpse? Just left at the entrance, right down the next road, and there’s the Coliseum. Forum Romanum and Palatinate Hill lie right next to it. Impressive, if mighty ruinous. The power center of the ancient Roman empire – and I’m reminded of Peter Hall’s comment:
“Great engineering solutions are all very well…; but a society that builds splendid aqueducts and sewers, and then leaves its less fortunate citizens to a diet of bread and circuses, is a society doomed to eventual bloody destruction.”
Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization, 1999 (1998): Phoenix (Orion Books), p. 620
Rome, and especially there, around the remains of the empire, is and always has been the most interesting to me because it keeps coming up in discussions of European identity. Either because of the Vatican and “the Christian roots of Europe” or going back a little further to the prior unification of much of Europe under Roman rule, people like to see, and seek, common ground right here. One of the fascinations of Riga is that there, you have a European city that never saw any Romans, has no Latin inscriptions, was founded only around the time Christianity was also introduced there, for a major part through a right and proper crusade against the heathens still extant there… but back to Rome.
Christianity and Rome may somehow serve as foundational to Europe.
The religion really came out of the Middle East, famously splintered into Orthodox and ‘newer’ faiths, and again into Catholic and Protestant – and hardly a modern European, as traditionalist or Christian as they may be, would want to be defined through their allegiance to the Vatican. So, maybe not the best of foundations.
The Roman Empire seems at least as fundamental to the idea of Europe. Certainly, the later emperors in Central Europe – not least, right here in Austria where we live – would bring the two streams together in their role as “Holy” “Roman” emperors. Looking at the actual extension the Roman Empire had, though… Well, that ancient history is a good basis on which to claim that there has always been something of a Mediterranean alliance, sometimes expanded to even include most of the British isles and Central Europe, but giving more support for an inclusion of Turkey (and even Iran, definitely Egypt, and most of the Middle East and North Africa) rather than Eastern Europe.
Then again, it’s all come crumbling down; the ruins were used as stone quarries before they were re-discovered, and we stumbled among them, first in heat, then in rather rainy weather, enjoying the time and suffering from the effect of running around for miles upon miles. That’s tourism for ya.
Nice pictures, a morning run past the ruins, along a stretch of the Tiber river, and on the former racetrack of the Circus Maximus. This, at least, was impressive in just the way I remember it from my previous visit to Rome: Where the Palatinate and the Forum (not to mention the Coliseum) are all pretty, well, ruined but at least include some remains that make one wonder how people could have gotten such structures built some 2000 years ago, the Circus Maximus looks like it should long since have been plowed under. Chariot races are not so different from modern entertainment as to make it hard to imagine the excitement that must have taken place here – maybe not with hot dog vendors, but certainly with street food. And yet, if you don’t know about the role this place played, it’s just like some fallow field, and with too many stones and too little fertile soil at that.
Speaking of soil… We also paid a visit to Rome’s Eataly store. Joy and lessons got mixed there, but I’ll talk more about the food and the cultural lessons on my blogs for those issues, ChiliCult and The Ecology of Happiness.
Part 4: Florence
If there is a place where modern Europe got its start, to the point of enthroning Rome as the center and beginning, it’s Florence. It is here, after all, that textile production resulted in trade, which made sufficient profit to invest in power and glory, strengthening the trade and banking practices that had begun in the Middle Ages and now came to flourish, letting a bourgeoisie rise to aristocratic (and papal) power and support the artists and their new ways that “re-discovered” ancient Rome’s power and glory…
We’d be walking around the city a lot, I’d go on another early morning run, we paid the obligatory visit to the Uffizi gallery. The major enjoyment, though, was simple.
We staid at the Plus Camping Michelangelo campground (where I had been years and years ago with my parents), in one of the house tents they offered. Not the safest, perhaps, but campers are typically a lot that looks out for each other. It is on the hill of San Miniato al Monte, close by Piazzale Michelangiolo, though, meaning that one has quite something of a view of the Florentine skyline even through the campground’s olive trees when getting out of the bathing/washing area, and the greatest of views from the Piazzale proper.
Running down to the city and back up ‘home’ is less nice, but the sights (and shopping) of Florence is all easily seen and done on foot.
Funnily, we fortified ourselves – after having gotten sick of the pizza at Eataly – by becoming regular customers at a rather newly opened, pretty modern, Dim Sum restaurant. The traditional Tuscan panforte and panpepato proved most excellent – so much so that I’ll have to write a proper blog post just on those over @ChiliCult -, Florence proved a capital of gelato (ice cream), indeed… but for satisfying nourishment, there’s nothing better than real Chinese dishes.
The ice cream, though.
On the very first evening, upon arrival from Rome on a FrecciaRossa, one of Italy’s high-speed trains (comfortable, but is it really high speed?), after getting ourselves and our stuff to the campground, my legs led me straight back to Vestri.
A few years ago, when my passions for chile peppers and chocolate had already collided, I went to Perugia for the chocolate fair there, passed through Florence, and sampled the chocolate-chile pepper ice cream at a chocolate maker’s there, the name of which had completely escaped me. It was that Vestri which, whether through dumb luck or muscle memory, we found ourselves in front of. And there, it still was on the menu: Gelato gusto cioccolato al peperoncino.
Normally, I don’t like chocolate ice cream – but that is excellent. Rich in flavor, and with just the right spicy touch of chile pepper heat.
There were gelaterie on every other road, though – or so it seemed. None had flavors quite as exciting as those of Gelateria del Teatro in Rome, but a few explained their products really well and also told where what they used came from.
Renaissance paintings and buildings all well and beautiful…
… but it’s in the combination of traditional and modern I find greater inspiration. We visited the Museo Gucci, the Gucci museum – totally atypical for my interests, it may seem, but it was interesting to see how they present the brand and its wares, position themselves as decidedly upper-crust, high taste and high quality, and draw on the allure of the old and good as well as the uber-modern.
(I keep coming back to thinking that luxury products have become about nothing much more than extending a perceived brand value ever further and making more profit by providing easy ways for people to feel and show high status – I buy, therefore I am… Not a great development, at the same time at which quality and durability, to the point of the custom-made, could well provide the work and reduced consumption with better goods we could use for living multiply better…)
5: The Return
The train trip back – another glimpse of Europe’s present and future: This time, we shared the compartment with a couple and their young daughter. The mother from Poland and speaking Polish with the child, who was born in Austria and answers in German. The father from Croatia. The couple usually speak English with each other. And they all now live in Austria and speak, or at least understand, German.
Here, in quality and qualities, in drawing upon what is “ours” – as many of the products at Eataly and various of the ice cream flavors at the gelaterie did – and presenting it to the world, in continuing with traditions and making them better for the future, in keeping languages and regional traditions while mingling freely, I see the real inspiration this trip provided. Not to forget that it was fun. Exhausting, but fun.
Since moving back from China to Austria, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the ways (inter)cultural intelligence and area expertise are built.
After all, even as a cultural anthropologist, given how academic disciplines are organized here, I’m not quite supposed to work on the question of (Han) Chinese identity (as I am doing right now), for that’s the purview of Chinese studies.
There’s also the tension of in-country/out-of-country observation:
You can study a country all you want from afar, but it does not tell you anything much about the ways the people who actually make up that culture and society are going to react, let alone how you will interact with them. All theory is grey…
At the same time, being in-country can be too close for comfort; the very hustle and bustle that is real life on the ground does not necessarily make for a great situation in which to observe and critically interpret. Or even to study: Literature on China is so much easier to find at the university library here…
So, you want to be able to work effectively in different cultural contexts, not just your own… Good choice.
Even living in one place, we live in a world that is diverse and (seemingly) getting ever more so. Being at home, whether here or there, does work much better with some cultural intelligence.
All the intercultural competence training, in all its desire to be practical and politically correct, tends to forget about the power plays in the background of intercultural interactions, though.
If you’ve ever been abroad, even just for a vacation, you probably know that feeling.
You are somewhere else, and it’s all quite fascinating: new sights and sounds, people who are different – and yet it’s all the same, too. The sun still rises in the East, everybody still seeks to make a living, find some happiness… but something is bothering you, anyways.
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.
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.
As some people like David Livermore argue, Cultural Intelligence is (one of) the next big thing(s) among management skills necessary for the contemporary world. Knowledge and understanding that enables us to successfully navigate between different cultural contexts is becoming ever more important even in our private lives, as we increasingly live between different cultures, not just in one context.
When a country and/or culture is so different and difficult, someone who wants to enter that country doesn’t quite know what to expect, then there’s lots to say about it – as you can see on these pages and many others. Trying to truly live in that country is like navigating a maze, and yet it makes you more alive than being at home, where everything is just the way you’ve come to know it.
When those who may want to enter that strange country are companies, and you have someone local who thinks they can help, it can be quite a boon to creativity, and result in funny ways of presenting just how different said country is.
I just stumbled across one such example, presenting the problem of cultural understanding. It’s on Russia rather than China, but many of the ideas actually feel a lot like all the things which are being said about China. Just substitute chicken feet for the борщ (Borscht), and 白酒 (baijiu) for the водка (vodka)…