Bah Humbug: the Expat Cultural Integration Fetish

Sacred cultural tradition

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?

Typical Chinese holiday celebration

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.

Groundhog Day: which is more famous, the movie or the holiday?

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.

A serious commitment to cultural integration

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.”


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  1. daschles

    I’m generally in favor of all holidays that involve feasts and opposed to those that involve fasts. I like mooncakes and full moons so why not indulge a little

  2. Jones

    I believe that the ability and reasonable attempts to “blend in” vary from country to country. Blending in in the US is considerably more easy than blending in in a place like China or Japan. This largely has to do with appearances, as even here seeing an Asian man driving an over-sized Ford truck and wearing Wrangler jeans actually isn’t all that uncommon. Then there was the friend of mine who use to go out of his way to try to appear as Chinese as possible by actively attempting to take up the bad habits he saw. He even grew the long fingernail and took up smoking. No joke. He always got frustrated, complaining that no matter what he is always treated like a foreigner. He couldn’t quite understand how they were able to get through his facade and see the dark chocolatey black guy underneath.

    I like holidays. Everything evolves. The period of time in which Christmas is celebrated has been a point of celebration long before Christianity was ever made up. Holidays evolve and that time of the year can mean anything to anyone. It’s not the celebration that matters, it’s the time of the year because that time of year has come to mean something special in some way. Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

    • that asian guy you are describing is me. when i was in oklahoma/texas area for schooling and fun, i drove ford truck 4 wheel drive and wore boots and wrangler jeans, i still have my belt buckles. toby keith all the way playa!

    • LoL, Jones. Thanks for commenting.

      Bonus: Now I know Jay K. is technically Asian, which makes his historic preoccupation with me all the more amusing. Whoa, narcissism escaped for a moment there.

  3. “I have my doubts that many Chi­nese are think­ing about the Yuan Dynasty when they eat their moon­cakes.”

    Heaven forbid. That would mean acknowledging that Chinese have Mongolian blood coarsing through their veins. Touchy subject, I find.

    Having made the mistake of eating a mooncake once I fully understand why giving them away has become such a cultural de rigueur. I swear I got the same box handed to me five times in one year.

    • Jones

      My first mooncake experience was awkward. I was drug off an elevator at my apartment building by two middle aged women once they could find out I could have a fledgling conversation in Chinese. They sat me down on the couch and proceeded to bombard me with questions which quickly resulted in breaking out a Chinese/English dictionary and them pointing at seemingly randomly chosen words. I was given a mooncake. I took a bite and wanted to just go ahead and swallow it but my the “hurry and swallow” signals my brain kept frantically sending weren’t making it to the muscles in my throat and the piece sat there in my mouth, oozing horrid flavor that ate away at my soul. I was finally able to somehow get it to go down after what seemed to be an eternity. That was the day that I really started to enjoy the flavor of green tea. The awkward part wasn’t me trying to hide the rest of the mooncake in my hand. It was when the lady pointed at the words “divorced” and “lonely”. I pretended to not understand and then made a quick excuse about needing to return to my apartment. I took the stairs and the mooncake with flying out of the sixth floor window.

      • Yeah, mooncakes are nasty little things, aren’t they? I honestly can’t think of anyone who genuinely likes them. I mean, people will eat them, and some are certainly edible, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone want “more”.

    • keisaat

      The Mongol occupation happened 600-700 years ago. It says a lot about a person who goes about asking the Chinese people to acknowledge that their ancestors were raped by the Mongols seven centuries ago, a period slightly longer than the entire history of modern English.

      And that’s not even true. The Mongol population was far smaller than that of the Han, and even though the Mongols were in control, their influences were particularly weak in the more traditional South, so it’s safe to say that 1) the vast majority of the Han were not subject to Mongol rape, and 2) rape usually doesn’t necessarily result in birth.

      Anyway, there definitely is something wrong with you if you are intersted in something that might not have happened SEVEN HUNDRED years ago. Are you also fond of going to Germany and asking German folks to acknowledge explicitly to you that their older generations were subject to rape by Soviet soldiers?

      Repulsive, just repulsive.

  4. tags

    Every foreigner settles on a degree of Chineseness that works for them, just like in other countries, where a portion of immigrants stay within their communities, whilst another portion denim up and roll out.

    I think this degree of intergration is largely influenced by the degree to which the target culture suits your own personality. For instance, Da Shan probably found that his own sense of humour was best expressed through cross-talk, so he threw himself into it. I like to think of pre-China Da Shan wandering around Canada making rapid-fire culturally allusive puns, longing for the day when someone would laugh.

    Expat gamblers might play ma-jiang, expat singers might love KTV, and expats who don’t like food very much eat mooncakes.

  5. I think Stan here has probably posted the best image on china/divide ever. Love the pagoda between the legs too. Very Freudian cliche but appreciably so.

  6. Bin Wang

    It’s funny that my wife loves mooncakes, esp. the yolk-centered ones, and I don’t care for them at all. Come to think of it, she likes a lot of Chinese food that I don’t like. I think she could live off red bean paste.

  7. pug_ster

    Personally I think it is kind of ridiculous of the things that I have to do for the Mid autumn festival. In the past years, I have to buy only these certain brands of overpriced moon cakes because if I buy cheap brands, my parents would scold at me. These cheaper brands of mooncakes taste the same as the cheap brands (at least to me.) but cost 2 or 3 times as much.

    One good thing this year is that some Chinese companies are starting to sell their mooncakes without those tin cans or fancy wooden boxes. What a waste of packaging.

  8. S.K. Cheung

    What an enjoyable post to read! I absolutely agree that most holidays (at least in North America) seem to have lost their original intent, and now comes down to a day off, a day to pig out, or a day preceded by at least 5 weeks of unabashed commercialism. And some holidays might involve/encourage/require a combination thereof. I agree that the “national” days still seem to engender some special feelings/response. I think November 11, though called different things in different countries, still has some meaning (likely buttressed in the past decade by a few of the wars that have been going around). I also think the “grave-sweeping” day still has some noble connotations for Chinese people. But besides that, it’s “whatdidyagetme”, “pass the gravy”, and “which channel is the game on”. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But if someone wants to go “old school” with a particular holiday, power to them. I think it only becomes abrasive and annoying when there’s self righteousness involved, be it an expat trying to show that they’re down with the locals, or a local trying to ostracize a foreigner. Basically, it boils down to showing respect for other people. If someone wants to celebrate a holiday the way it was historically intended, great. If someone wants to celebrate it in some other way, grand. Different strokes for different folks.

    But I gotta say, i love my mooncake…though I have no use whatsoever for the yolks.

  9. King Tubby

    This shock and awe campaign against mooncakes (a subset of Stan’s larger program to inculcate godless, non-superstitious practices across the land) is on a roll.

  10. It has been my experience that angry rants usually have a “cause for” event behind it. Somebody ticked because of the rather muddled schedule for this year?

  11. Roberta Nora

    interesting to read about family’s doings and behaviors in other countries in print; how they really haven’t changed since they were here

  12. yangrouchuan

    Someone sounds a bit like and atheist. Which has grown in size and conviction of belief in non-believing to be considered a religion in its own right.

    As for adapting to local culture, most do it to a certain extent, even if subconciously, but to “go native” in Asia makes a westerner look like a weirdo loser who either can’t go home or is desperate to look like a China expert.

    • Jones

      Atheists don’t “believe in non-believing”. They just don’t believe.

      • yangrouchuan

        Refusing to believe in a supreme being(s) is a belief in itself, even more so when atheists organize into groups of non-believers, becoming a religion that denounces all other religions.

        Will there be a non-holy book of Null?

  13. I can appreciate Stan’s view, but another factor occurred to me that wasn’t mentioned: the role of romance. More specifically, if you’re a foreigner with a serious Chinese girlfriend/wife, as at least some here are, then in order to feel more “connected” with your new family, you may have a legitimate desire to connect more with your partner’s culture.


    Whats wrong with an excuse for a party. I say lets all of us celebrate all of the worlds holidays as public holidays and intergrate fully. I will e mail my employer straight away …..xD.