Skip to main content

Confrontation, Pressure, Expectation - Interpersonal Relationships in Chinese Culture (Part I)


Thanks to the economic growth of East Asia and China's opening up in the Deng Xiaoping era, from the 1980's onward the relationship between the Western world and East Asia has fundamentally changed. As a consequence, the contact between Western and Asian people has been steadily intensifying. Business people, students, professionals, tourists are among the protagonists of this new era of exchange, which is more and more 'democratic', in the sense that while in the past the movement was mostly from East to West, now the opposite case is not a rarity any more. The 2008 financial crisis even prompted a new wave of expatriation of Westerners towards Asia, in search for jobs that the troubled Western economies seem unable to offer to their young population. 

Traditionally, economic power has attracted the interest of Westerners more than culture. When Japan was growing at a pace the West had never dreamt of, media were obsessed with Japan. When the Japanese economy collapsed,  however, the interest in Japan in many respects collapsed, too. Nowadays there are by no means as many best-selling books or documentaries about this country as one could find back in the years of the Japanese economic miracle. In the last decade, China has taken its place. 

This phenomenon shows that the focus of the knowledge Westerners are desirous to acquire about East Asia is mainly of economic and political nature.  

But what about culture? What do we really know about these countries except for how much they grow per year or whether they are Western-style democracies? It is not surprising that, for example, most Westerners know very little about Japanese mentality and society, despite more than a hundred years of intense contact and a lot of books and articles written about it. Main-stream media are more likely to focus on economy, politics, some surface characteristics like food or things that appear different and strange to the average Westerner, thus creating a misleading image of those countries. 

One reason why this happens is that talking about culture is way more strenuous than talking about economics or politics. In fact, culture is one of the most difficult things to describe. In view of the fact that every country has millions of people with different experiences, opinions and personality, it is hard not to generalize and oversimplify. 

When I talk with people who want to know more about my home country, Italy, for example, they seem to assume that I have the authority to say something in the name of all Italians. But if they talk with other Italians, they will soon find out that people from the same country often contradict each other. Not even nationals of the same country can have a 100% agreement on their own culture and identity. 

Nevertheless, even though it's impossible to analyze the culture of a country in a 'scientific' way, that is, in a way that leaves no space for disagreement and criticism, there are indeed interpretations that can help us deal with a foreign culture. 

An example of successful attempt at cultural analysis is The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict, one of my favourite books and in my opinion one of the most enlightening works on Japanese culture ever written. Reading this book is like being guided by someone to put together the pieces of a puzzle. 

I certainly don't have either the knowledge, the talent or the time to write an analysis as deep as Ruth Benedict's. Yet after one year in Asia I think I can at least attempt to explain some of the conclusions I have drawn from my observations so far, in the hope they might be interesting or useful to you. Starting with the next post, I will examine the phenomena of social pressure and expectation in Chinese culture.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Living in Taiwan: Seven Reasons Why It's Good to Be Here

Chinese New Year can be a pretty boring time for a foreigner. All of my friends were celebrating with their families, and since I have no family here, nor have I a girlfriend whose family I could join, I had nothing special to do. Shops and cafes were closed - apart from big chains like McDonald's or Starbucks, which were overcrowded anyway. So I had a lot of time to think.
On Saturday evening I went out to buy my dinner. While I was walking around, I heard the voices of the people inside their homes, the sounds of their New Year celebrations. Then I suddenly asked myself: "What on earth are you doing here? Why are you still in Taiwan?" 
Before I came to Taiwan, some Taiwanese friends of mine had recommended me their country, highly prasing it and going so far as to say that Taiwan is a "paradise for foreigners" (bear in mind that when I say foreigners I mean 'Westerners'). 
"It's easy for foreigners to find a job," they argued. "Taiwane…

7 Reasons Why Hong Kong Is A Great Place To Live

In 2013 I wrote a post about 7 reasons why it's good to live in Taiwan based on my one-year experience in the country. Now I would like to talk about another place which I love, and which I have perhaps loved more than any other: Hong Kong.
When I was growing up in a small town in Southern Italy, I knew very little about Hong Kong. As a child I remember watching the handover ceremony in 1997, yet at that time I did not really understand much about what was going on. That is my first, vague memory of Hong Kong.
Years later, when I was in my early twenties, I watched a short documentary about Hong Kong on Italian television. I was captivated by the energy and modernity of that exotic metropolis. I thought that some day I would like to visit it. However, it was not on my list of priorities. I wanted to go to Japan, mainland China, South Korea, far more than I wished to go to Hong Kong.
In late 2011 I decided to go to Taiwan because of a girl I had met in Germany. While I was there, …

Back To Blogging, Finally

A few months ago I deactivated this blog because I wasn't happy about it. Over the years I had been writing too many posts about news and politics, and I felt that this was no longer the kind of personal blog I wanted to create at the beginning: a place for me to share my thoughts and experiences about my life in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other parts of East Asia.