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).
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)…