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.
“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.
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)…
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.