Only in China!

It’s interesting the difference in how different cultures perceive the notion of “face”. People often say a key part of Chinese culture is this very idea, but I would argue that it’s a universal thing, even if it takes different forms in other cultures, or is not quite as pervasive.

07 China TV Watchers 1b

This photo which I took back in 2007 is a good illustration of what I’m talking about. An electrical appliance store in Guangzhou had a demonstration model of a TV outside its store playing one of the latest release DVDs. As commonly happens, a crowd quickly grew in front of the screen, and they settled in to watch the free movie in its entirety. This would never happen in Australia, and I assume, in most western countries.

Why? I think one reason is face! The way other people perceive us is extremely important to us, and the need to fit in with the group is also universal (even in individualistic nations like Australia or America). If nobody else is doing it, then you really don’t wanna be the odd one out. People might think you’re strange. Maybe they’ll think you’re too cheap to pay for a cinema ticket or to buy the DVD yourself. And sitting on the ground – that’s so unclassy! All of this is fueled by our need to look normal, or better than normal, not worse than others, and ultimately, this is “face”.

So what in the west would lead us to lose face is perfectly OK in China. On the other hand, I’ve seen countless people doing things like picking their nose in public, or holding their child above a garbage bin or stormwater drain to pee or worse in China, but this is perfectly fine in their minds. Who would dare do that in the West?

I’m not here to point out flaws or to say one culture is better than another. It’s just worth thinking that a lot of things seem strange or even straight out wrong if we judge them based on the values we’ve been brought up with for our entire life, and it’s hard to shake free of those things that tell us how things should be. To truly appreciate a culture and not go absolutely crazy while you’re visiting or living surrounded by it, one really has to accept that “it’s just different here” and let go of notions of what should and shouldn’t be done based on one’s homeland. To judge what is right or wrong simply because it’s not how it’s done back home is arrogant (although I do draw the line at things that affect others in a negative way – thus my exit from China – if you can’t love it, leave it), as you’re ultimately saying “our way is right, and anything different from that is wrong”. This is a challenge I have struggled with for many years, because truly embracing that which conflicts with your world view is extremely difficult to do!

I left China not because it is an evil, despicable place. I left China because I could not adjust myself enough to not see it that way any longer. The problem wasn’t China, the problem was me. Once I saw that I couldn’t change my view, I knew it wasn’t the right place for me, and it was time to leave. Of course, there were other factors as well (mainly health concerns due to air pollution and food safety issues).

Anyway, I’ve wandered from my original message about attitudes to “face”. Interesting how one can go off on a tangent! Thanks for reading to the end of this little leakage of my brain into written form anyway! I’ll try not to let that happen again!