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.
It’s never nice to hear about plane crashes, but particularly so when one him-/herself is about to embark on air travel. (Of course, the rational mind knows that the drive to the airport is actually the greater danger, but instinct demands its due.)
The crash of Asiana Flight 214 has been striking particularly close to home, however. After a fashion, anyways, not the least in the way that intercultural relations (and often, mere racism and ignorance) are brought to the fore by it, and culture is often pointed to as probable causal factor.
Recently, Chinese has been in the news quite a bit as a newly popular language among foreign language learners. At least, in a way. Numbers of actual learners may have risen tremendously percentage-wise, but they are still small. No wonder, with Chinese being considered one of the hardest languages to learn.
Of course, that also makes it a language that the highly-gifted, greatly motivated, etc. want to know; preferably getting fluent in three months…
And so, as always, there will be the question of what you actually learn, what you put the emphasis in your learning on.
After all, early China scholars were able to read prolifically and discuss the finer points of grammar and philosophy, but often had had no direct exposure to the spoken language, and couldn’t really speak it.
Many modern language learners study Chinese to get by in China and brag about their skills, and consequently focus on the spoken language, but remain quite illiterate.
Even for one who can understand and speak, read and write, grasp of the language remains questionable.
There are finer points that will remain difficult to get – and how do you consider knowledge as sufficient when native Chinese language users will regularly have to look up how to write a character they don’t usually use?
Don’t fear heaven, don’t fear earth, only fear the foreigner speaking Chinese…
There’s that whole other layer to the language, though: In stark contrast to a language like German, let alone Spanish or, “worst” of all, English, Chinese is strongly connected with its ethnic roots and civilization.
The overlap is so strong that it often appears as if the expectation were that Chinese ability is somehow genetically predetermined: if you look Chinese enough, you are expected to be able to speak the language; and you are not fully Chinese if you are ethnically so, but don’t speak the language.
On the other hand, if you are a foreigner, your very ability to ever acquire the language is seen as limited (and obviously non-Chinese who know the Chinese language with native-like abilities are seen as rather wondrous phenomena.)
Together with the general ethnocentrism that one can often find in China, this makes for an often hard time – and a strange advantage: There is general amazement one should even try to learn the language, be able to pronounce some of it somewhat alright, that is motivating… as well as very embarrassing, especially once one gets to the point of realizing that something is still being mispronounced and consequently not really understandable, but probably gets commented on with high praises, anyways – and with the expectation of the praise being steadfastly refused, in just the Chinese fashion.
At the same time, the foreigner’s obvious outsider status runs alongside the perspective in which anyone who learns the language and attempts to fit into the culture is getting into the assimilative, civilizing, gravitational pull of the kingdom at the center, which makes for an easier time learning and remaining motivated.
So, it’s easy enough to not speak correctly and be difficult, if not impossible, to understand – but it also is not really expected of an obvious foreigner to speak perfectly. Thus, the pressure to achieve total native-like ability gets somewhat diffused by this expectation of imperfection. You’ll always, obviously, be a stranger anyways – yet, you can fit in quite a bit as long as you seek to speak the language and understand (and to quite an extent, submit to) the culture.
Contrast that to the attitude with “easier” languages and more closely related ethnicities, such as the American trying to speak Spanish or French, or the Southern or Eastern European immigrant to German-speaking countries. There, the attitude that arises immediately is that you, the other, aren’t all that different – so, why can’t you speak perfectly and properly? Immediately, just because there seem to be fewer obvious barriers, all differences gain even greater importance – even as they shouldn’t.
Perhaps, the comfortable feeling of belonging we all seek is making us truly stupid when it comes to intercultural (and multilingual) interaction. Sure, it would be comfortable to be seen as “one of them” in an ethnic and/or linguistic group that is an “other” to us – but the place apart, as dangerous as we know and instinctively feel it can be, is a position of power, of translation and bridge-building, as well.
So, learn languages, listen to foreigners with “strange accents,” be that stranger who is struggling to speak understandably, and learn to be happy with all the little progress towards a world that is less small-minded.
You can perhaps never be simply one of them in another culture – but really, you are not even yourself most of the time. Situations change, roles change, salient identities shift. Add languages and intercultural situations, and – with a bit of training – your self will expand to encompass yet more.
Ever since the Western gnashing of teeth over Japan’s rise, I had been wondering about international/-cultural relations.
Rising Sun (book) and DVD
I was a high school student then, had just gone to the USA for a year at school there, and went from Latin being one of the usual languages to study to having an opportunity to learn Japanese. National Geographic was full of articles on what Japan does well, TIME Magazine maybe even more so, and the book market had lots of volumes on Japanese management techniques and business etiquette.
You couldn’t beat them, so you had to join them – but would they even let you?
It was the time of Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, and the movie based on it. It was not only playing on all the fears of America being taken over by Japan and losing ground, but also reflected the notion that dealing with Japan meant dealing with an ancient and somehow mysterious culture that, even as it opened other markets for itself and took over influences and (product) ideas from around the world, remained closed and inscrutable to the outsider…
One thing was particularly noticeable: For all intents and purposes, it seemed rather obvious that it was Westerners learning how to do things the way Japanese would expect, whereas Japanese – aside from English study – had rather little interest in most of Western behavior.
Turned out that same time was also when Japan’s lost decade started.
Now, some 20 years later, Japan is still considered weak, and it is still the third-largest economy; and it is China that everyone is concerned about and wants to make money with/from, and Chinese language and culture with which Westerners try to come to grips.
Late Imperial and Modern Superpower Architecture
In the case of China, the situation is easily even more complicated, though.
On the one hand, there is an openness to outsiders , and certainly a curiosity about other cultures, that is quite unlike the reservedness found in Japan. In this same vein, one can even find what Chinese themselves call “Western worship,” the idea that civilization and modernity is things and behavior that are Western. No spitting, no slurping, no going outside in one’s pyjamas… the themes of many a campaign for making China more “harmonious”, well-behaved, and appealing to Western eyes.
At the same time, the undercurrent of Chinese exceptionalism and “Middle Kingdom-think” – not just assuming but knowing that China is really the center of the world and the civilization the magnificence and cultivatedness of which all others aspire to – is not just strong, it is a gulf stream.
Or maybe, given the switching between the two streams, the better metaphor would be the Southern Oscillation (El Niño/La Niña)…
I’d love to suggest a simple way that this tension will resolve itself, or at least a way of always dealing with it appropriately – but the only way to deal with it is to deal with it.
In some cases, it goes the way of Chinese adapting to their foreign guests / vaunted business partners. No alcohol and pork if you want to entertain and make deals with Middle Eastern or other Muslim partners.
In other cases, as with most Europeans and Americans, lavish banquets of the more usual Chinese variety, meaning with lots of dishes with pork (if that isn’t too humdrum for the occasion) and freely flowing, copious amounts of alcohol, are the sine qua non of happy business relations.
What is particularly interesting from a cultural anthropological perspective, though, is less that this can make life in China – or even just thinking about China – rather “interesting” (especially in times like these right now, with anti-foreigner rhetoric running high), but that there are power plays at work.
Another case for another time: Chinese ethnic groups
China’s oft-heard talk of a “weak culture” speaks to an awareness of that, even as its constantly mangled “soft power”-campaigns belie any notion of China understanding (how to deal /talk with) “the West.”
When you study English, learn Western etiquette, dress in Western business attire, lust after European luxury brands and aim to be a world player, there is some implicit notion of the “other/Western” being of a higher quality (which, in China, can not only be applied to products, but is also and very much an idea applied to people, particularly so on the marriage market).
It not only gets criticized as “Western worship,” though. Much of it is simply part and parcel of the (supposedly, and in part really, prototypical) East Asian adaptation of behavior to fit circumstances. Bow down and speak deferentially to your superiors, kick at and command your underlings… which is what even foreign politics sometimes looks like.
China still is the middle kingdom which, if not now, then in the future, will again be (recognized as) the pinnacle of civilization – and that does not even have to be aspired to. If you want to join, learn and make yourself a part, you are quite welcome to do so (rather more so than in many other cultures/civilizations). It’s also enough to remain a barbarian but acknowledge the glory of China, though – and at heart, those who are not really, ethnically, Chinese will never quite be a part of this world.
This mixture of weakness and strength, chauvinism and self-consciousness, essentialism as regards identity, possibilism when it comes to learning and becoming civilized, and contextualism informing behavior, is ultimately what one deals with when interacting with Chinese. We all do that to some extent, in integration debates, thinking about ourselves and others, and interacting with different people in different situations. These patterns do seem to take on a whole new level of meaning in the context of China, though.
It often seems like the irresistible force meeting the immoveable rock… and it is an issue that cannot be solved. In fact, it is not a problem to solve, but it can be understood and dealt with successfully.
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…