china/divide is all about the different ways that Chinese and foreigners perceive each other and the events and issues that contribute to these differing viewpoints. That the gap exists is undeniable, unsurprising, and a never-ending source of both frustration and entertainment.
It all starts with perception, which results from a process that begins with sensory data filtered through past experiences and culture and ultimately focused in our pea brains as an interpretation.
And we sure do perceive things differently, don’t we? Google’s recent announcement that they would no longer filter search results on Google.cn resulted in a flood of wildly differing opinions. Looking at the same set of facts, some people saw Google’s move as a brave, bold statement in support of Internet freedom, while others saw a foreign visitor attempting to flaunt the laws of their country.
When Chinese oil company CNOOC tried to buy some offshore assets of U.S. firm UNOCAL a few years ago, some people saw it as a straightforward commodities transaction, while others were sure it was an attempt to infiltrate the American energy sector by a sinister Communist enterprise.
History, culture and experience are wonderful things, but they do have a tendency to complicate cross-border interaction. Students, teachers, government officials, businesspeople, even bloggers constantly run afoul of cultural misperception.
Asking the Experts Consultants
Bookstores are full of tomes that purport to contain the secrets that will unlock another nation’s culture (and make you wealthy).
China Expert: When in China, hand over your business card with two hands and you will be treated like a local.
Actually, no you won’t, but you should do it anyway. I tell my foreign clients to ignore the two-handed card gambit in favor of folding your card into an origami crane. Clients usually believe me since the practice seems vaguely Asian.
Western Expert: When traveling outside China, don’t let your female secretary open the door for you.
No one likes a sexist, and it’s certainly better advice than I give to my Chinese friends going overseas for the first time. I tell them that foreigners greet each other like canines by sniffing each other’s posterior. You should see the YouTube clips. It’s priceless.
So, aside from my own personal efforts to help, what is keeping us from bridging the China divide?
Stuff That Gets in the Way
Nationalism – One of my favorite topics of discussion. Most of us have an innate tendency to relate to our “group,” and when we are relating to foreigners, the nation state is the reference point.
We become rabid nationalists at the drop of a hat, or a beret or sombrero or yarmulke. Sporting events like the Olympics have us congregating in bars, shouting for some guy we’ve never heard of before to win a match in a sport we’ve never seen. I’m speaking of course of the Winter Olympics.
Nationalism rears its ugly head all the time, on trade disputes, immigration and nationality, foreign investment, product liability, the environment and the global economy. Many people are convinced that “My way is the right way,” so we get treated to endless discussions of “American Exceptionalism” and the “China Model.” Others, such as the Greek Model, have for unforeseen reasons dropped off the list of things to emulate.
History – When your modern historical period begins with the “100 Years of Humiliation,” it’s a good bet that foreign relations are going to be tough to wade through. Alternatively, if you’ve grown up learning that one is better off deceased than a proponent of Communism, then friendly relations with a country containing over a billion so-called Communists requires a change in attitude. The Cold War is over, but many Cold Warriors live on, as do their influence on public discourse and government policy.
Culture – When you visit my home in Beijing, you will be asked to take off your shoes, to refrain from stepping on the cats, and to partake in drinking a beverage made from hot water and leaves. Some of these things are culturally distinctive, others are a matter of personal taste.
Two thousand years ago, I would have invited guests to enjoy goat meat and loose women, the latter only if I had a sufficient number of daughters on hand. In other words, cultures differ and times change. Rigidity is the sure sign of a culture warrior and someone destined to be an international business failure.
That’s Fine, but Who Can I Blame?
When it comes to navigating cultural misunderstandings, there are two groups of knuckleheads that make the job difficult. First, there are the people who thrive on the misperceptions and benefit from friction. These include defense contractors, authors of books full of helpful business tips for overseas travelers, and government officials that have staked their reputations on being Cold Warriors, protectionists, or the tireless champions of certain disputed Chinese Western or coastal regions.
Second, there are those who fail to perceive the gap at all, gaily going about their business in a world they think is bound by universal norms. For these people, also called apologists, there are no real differences, just a failure to understand the other side.
Assholes and apologists, both groups make communication difficult. Perhaps the best way is not to bridge the China gap at all, but rather to acknowledge its presence, understand it as much as possible, and tread carefully on either side.
Thanks for visiting china/divide. Feel free to come back any time, partake of some goat meat and loose women, and tell us what you think about China and the outside world.