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Cultural Norms in China

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One of the first things you learn about ‘living in China’, is that the way you, a foreigner, views things in general, is generally considered pretty strange and mysterious. What we foreigners take for granted can be completely unknown to the average Chinese person (and totally untrusted), whilst everything we mistrust or fail to understand, is commonplace, rating no particular consideration for the Chinese person. In short, we live and think and approach life from completely different perspectives; perspectives that we have ‘learned’ within our social environments.

The first priority in this article, is to bring to your attention, ways of thinking, acting and living that you might not find appropriate.

In the western countries where young people are encouraged to think for themselves and make their own decisions, but in China, boys and girls will study only what their parents want them to study and if there are two children in the family and not enough money for both to go to school or university, it will be the boy who studies, not his sister. They are also not permitted (by law) to marry until they are 22 and 20 years old respectively.

So what am I on about here? Just this! It is one thing to talk about multiculturalism and how we should ‘respect’ everyone’s culture, and it is another thing, to have to ‘put up with’ that culture in our daily lives, or expose aspects of those cultures to our children whom we have raised to hold contrary values.

Beyond this, there is another more important matter, which is, that many of our cultural values, are truly only relevant to our own culture and society. Idealists like to talk about making our culture multicultural, but we tend to forget or fail to know that some of those customs are things we find offensive in our personal lives. Circumcision (male and female), tattoo’s, alcohol, smoking, modesty or lack thereof, women’s rights, gay rights, general manners and curtesy, religion or lack thereof are just some examples of things in other cultures that we might find offensive.

You have no right to have more than one child in China, no matter what you ‘think’ are your (dare I say it) ‘God given rights’. You have no right to criticize the government, and protesting that the government has no right to silence you might result in being silenced by a bullet.

In China, no one ever tells people exactly what they think. On this score they are very western (politically correct). Much of your ‘common/ordinary’ western conversation will be considered improper if spoken in front of women, children or old people. Say thank you except on formal occasions, and people will look at you strangely.

Family members do not lend money to each other, it is just given. If someone gives you a gift you must return the honour with a gift of your own, even if you have to steal to afford it. There is no need to say thank you to your parents for anything, for everything they do for you is their duty. Washing, cooking and cleaning is woman’s work. When people pay unannounced visits to your house at meal times, you MUST feed them all and smile while they spit out unwanted food onto the table or floor, or blow their noses directly onto the wall or floor.

If you refuse to drink alcohol, even if you are a non drinker, you dishonour the people who force you to drink, and force you they will. They are after all, ‘honouring you’ and displaying their love and appreciation for you. Heaven forbid that you not be a smoker, or worse, that you are, because they will make you chain smoke more than at any other time in your life. Smoking at the dinner table during dinner is usual, and if in a restaurant, the moment the last person takes their last mouthful of food, everyone jumps up and leaves. There is no hanging around for coffee and a chat.

I’ve heard it said that the Chinese are racists. In some ways I think this might be true, but generally they do not hate people based on race. They do not look down on people because of the colour of their skin, or their religion. They merely insist that their Chinese culture is superior to foreign cultures, that Chinese culture ought to be maintained, and that foreigners should not force their foreign ways on the Chinese.

Cultural change can only ever be successful when that culture changes from within by the will of the people. Not by legislation. We cannot force countries to change their social culture, just because we find it unacceptable, and we should not force our own people to accept foreign culture, simply because we undervalue our own national culture.

Final Note:

Should you decide to pay a visit to China, you should not encounter too much of a culture shock. If on the other hand you decide to live here, you had better be prepared to suffer quite a lot. It is amazing at times how (ultimately) easy it is for me to go with the flow; to cook a meal for 6 people without prior notice; to give friends money because they ask; to take in people because they expect it; to not notice a million things that would have upset me two years ago. It is also amazing how assertive I have become in refusing to succumb to manipulation.

In the final analysis, personally I am extremely comfortable in China,and I look forward to explore more new things in the near future during my stay in china.

HIMANSHU SETHIA

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