The Mid-Autumn Festival is upon us, not to mention the entire Fall/Winter holiday season, which will seemingly last from now until February. In the spirit of the holidays, therefore, I thought I’d take a few minutes to rant about how holidays are meaningless and why expat culture fetishists are annoying. Not the most intellectually stimulating thesis, perhaps, but I control the page. This post will no doubt piss off many of my fellow expats, but I for one am tired of my fellow foreigners who constantly pat themselves on the back for their cultural awareness.
Right, let’s get down to it, so I can finish this post, and you readers can send me hate mail. Why wait?
I’ll start with a cranky rant about holidays before I move on to the expat experience. Most cultural/religious based holidays are a joke with respect to modern day observance. I probably don’t need to elaborate on why I have a problem with religious holidays in general, but I don’t even have to go in for my usual critique of religion. Just look at your average religious holiday, such as Christmas or Hanukkah. The vast majority of folks who celebrate these holidays have no connection with the underlying mythology (many are not even aware of it), rendering them merely an excuse for family gatherings, gift-giving, and perhaps time off work (all laudable past times, but not really dependent upon the specific holiday).
Religious holidays are arbitrary with respect to timing. Those that commemorate a birth, death, anniversary of a battle or miracle in ancient times may have had some connection with historical events (I’d leave the miracles out of that category, though), but the dates were long lost to history. Those that are not arbitrary as far as the calendar is concerned were often chosen according to events like the Winter solstice as opposed to miraculous happenings. Very pragmatic, but not so awe inspiring.
Public holidays that commemorate actual events from recent history, or those that are designed to make us appreciate the contributions of a particular group of people are much more useful. Think of Martin Luther King Day in the United States, Labor Day, or the recent Teachers Day. If observance of these holidays actually meant anything to people, they would be laudable. Too bad they are usually just excuses for a day off from work/school or, in the case of Teachers Day, one of those rather sad “Hey, wasn’t today a holiday?” events. Perhaps China’s National Day or the American July 4th holiday are exceptions to the usual apathy — that’s debatable.
So, yeah, I’m not so big on holidays in general. If you enjoy some time off on a particular holiday, or otherwise derive some sort of meaning out of the commemoration of a social, political or religious idea or historical event, good for you. But let me now turn to the whole expat experience and local holidays.
An opinion column in today’s Global Times, written by an expat, leads off with this:
Many foreigners don’t feel connected to the Chinese holidays and the Mid-Autumn Festival is no exception. How many foreigners actually give each other moon cakes, anyway? I think many foreigners look at some Chinese holidays like this with a mixture of curiosity, fascination, and humor, if they pay attention to it at all. It would be good if laowai could better understand these holidays and feel more integrated into the society at large. I for one, would like to feel that way.
This is a fairly innocuous column about the holiday, a variation of which is sort of obligatory for each festival or celebration. That being said, I do have a problem with the numbskull who decided on the headline: “Moon festival leaves most expats baffled or amused.” This of course makes foreigners out to be either hopelessly clueless about a relatively simple matter (i.e. stupid) or culturally insensitive/condescending. Nice going, editor.
But the article, and others of its kind, is really about cultural integration. This discussion has become polarized in the U.S. and EU in recent years, with one camp bemoaning the flood of strange folks who can’t speak their language, don’t celebrate their holidays, don’t practice their religion and are different in 100 other ways they think are important. The other side says that people should be allowed to maintain their culture when they emigrate without being treated like second-class citizens.
So what’s so great about cultural integration? Well, some things are obvious. If you live in another country, you should at least learn a bit of the language so you can get things done. You might wish to learn something about local customs so you don’t inadvertently offend someone. If you’re a businessperson, you may wish to learn a lot more about local culture, tastes, and history so you can be successful professionally.
I’ll draw the line on holidays, though. As someone who doesn’t even celebrate American or Jewish holidays, I take exception with the notion that expats do not really understand the “real China” unless they thoroughly grasp the historical basis of the Mid-Autumn Festival. One should definitely consider exchanging mooncakes with friends and colleagues — it’s expected, amongst some people — but unless you are into history or are just plain curious, there is little value in additional exploration.
Long-term expats or China groupies will no doubt find my position pathetic or outrageous, but this does not surprise me. People like to fit in, and to the extent that observance of local customs allow people to feel “connected,” this can be very important psychologically, particularly if one is living alone in a foreign country (this was the point of the Global Times piece, which is fine). Unfortunately some people take it one step further, placing so much value in cultural integration and awareness that they look down on others who choose to opt out or prefer to spend their time learning about Roman aqueduct engineering or Martian geography.
Someone attempted to engage me one time in a discussion about the Lantern Festival. It was a thinly-veiled attempt to regurgitate the holiday origin story he had learned from his Chinese tutor. Knowing this made him feel more connected to local culture, to be sure, but the number of times he repeated it to other foreigners that evening told me that he was even more interested in looking like a knowledgeable China expert in front of his peers. To what end, I’m still not sure.
We’ve all known that expat who is learning Chinese and takes every opportunity to use it in casual conversation, particularly when he/she is speaking to other foreigners who have little or no knowledge of the language. Sometimes it is a natural desire to use a new skill, but other times is it an excuse to feed their ego and draw attention to their “mastery” of local culture. We are now supposed to respect that person more and defer to their judgment on everything China, from politics to fashion. (For some reason, by the way, most long-term expats I know who are fluent in Chinese do not flaunt it.)
This is ridiculous. I once had a friend here in Beijing who didn’t like Chinese food. We all thought he was a bit strange, and he was asked many times what he was doing here in China with that sort of attitude. But in the end, although his eating habits were odd given his choice of places to live, there was no basis for a legitimate normative judgment. Not eating Chinese food while in China is a big missed opportunity perhaps, but no one can say that it is somehow “wrong.”
Holidays are a bit silly. Most observers of Christmas think more about Santa Claus than Christ, and I have my doubts that many Chinese are thinking about the Yuan Dynasty when they eat their mooncakes. There’s not much of value in any of this. However, for expats who have fun with the holidays, I say more power to you. Enjoy. For those that use mooncakes and zongzi not to feed their stomachs, but rather their fragile egos in an attempt to appear “local,” I have nothing to say but “Bah humbug, and piss off.”