‘Spirit of place’ is very present for me here as the adventure continues in Shanghai. Beyond logistical differences, like language or currency or transport, I can sense profound underlying differences in worldview here in China that make for some very fascinating experiences with my environment. In this article, I wanted to share some updates and thoughts on these interactions and how they relate to the ideas of interdependence and perhaps provide an explanation for what life is like in the most populous nation on earth.
China is growing on me. Now almost a month in, so many idiosyncrasies which seemed frustrating or even frightening now seem like familiar signs… I know to look for the crazy motorcycle drivers who almost run you over on the sidewalk. I am used to going in and out of the metro stops and avoiding rush hour times. I have gotten better at hailing taxis, crossing roads (even when cars don’t stop), asking for help in Chinese, and I know what to find and where to find it in my local markets and convenience stores. The little things fall into place more and more day by day.
I am also beginning to grow and enjoy new friendships and also have had some wonderful visitors to Shanghai (friends I made on Facebook including flight attendants and pilots and other travelers who were passing through Pudong)—which have led me to see new areas around the city. Being more settled in and less on constant alert, I have become attuned to some of the nuances of the spirit of place.
While I feel like less of a constant tourist/outsider, as was very prominent energetically for me the first couple weeks, the stark contrast between me as an American national and local Shanghai people as Chinese nationals gives rise to some interesting introspection and makes me think a lot about Eastern and Western worldviews.
It is certainly not news that different cultures think different ways, or that America and China have many vastly different ways of viewing work, school, family life, and politics. Many have spoken theoretically on these topics or made sweeping generalizations about this dichotomy. But what does this really mean for life in China? What do these differences in worldview look like? What is China’s spirit of place?
My aim is always to take a step back and empathetically attempt to enter the world of the Chinese mind—both in a way that is objectively observant, but also frames my questions with an awareness of any bias from a belief system which is, whether conscious or not, very much shaped in terms of a Western worldview.
Here are some of the underlying workings I have noticed that can help put this worldview to words to provide a better framework for looking at ‘China’s spirit’:
#1: Interdependence vs. independence. This is really the big question. What is the functional unit of society: the group or the individual? Is a person part of a larger external system (or system of systems), or are they generally a single entity that operates independently? The observation here is that China would be of the interdependent type and the US of the independent type.
In many ways, a Western mindset internalizes many of the roles of different members of a group into a single mind. An educated or ‘well-adjusted’ (whatever that means) person in a society like the US might be someone who is engaged in reflection or maybe 1-on-1 conversations about the choices that shape their individual life, what their current values and goals are, what they personally like or want out of life, and so on. While I am definitely not asserting that non-Western people don’t or can’t do these things too, I have noticed in my sense of China that these processes happen inside a far more interdependent paradigm.
On the topic of CROWDEDNESS specifically, one that is unable to be ignored here in China, and accompanying it, what can be perceived as ‘pushiness’ or rudeness or crude behavior can, to me, be explained (not always justified of course) as being a product of the environment because when there are SO many people, and EVERYONE is in the same boat and subject to pretty much the same circumstances—for example, a need to buy something, a need to get home on the train—everything becomes framed in terms of the greater group that is, like a flowing current, all trying to achieve some kind of end.
My Western mind does not find this palatable sometimes, and I’m very aware of that. Independence is sacred to me. Freedom is a holy concept to me. I take pride in my ability to go against the grain and go out and live my life as I, not others, see fit.
China’s system can have advantages or at the very least, useful applications in this kind of environment, so I’m seeing. These advantages include specialization of roles, greater respect for other people and their contributions, patience and compassion for other’s needs or suffering, and many others. It can, in my view, also create drawbacks and detract from the strength of the ‘spirit of place’… but I’m doing my best to focus on what I can learn.
#2: Homogeneity vs. diversity. On a very objective basis, China is a very homogenous society. Over 90% of the population is of the Han ethnicity and most Chinese people are monolingual and have only ever lived in China. The worldview is very China-centric (understandably), evidenced even by the word for “China” in Chinese which translates to Middle Kingdom. China is the center. While Shanghai is quite modern, and I don’t stick out as much as a foreigner in main city areas as elsewhere, it is still a fairly enclosed place and there is very limited diversity visible in the people in terms of background. This is both a cause and an effect of maintaining this sort of interdependent, nationalistic worldview.
#3: Collective effort vs. individual achievement. It is not so much a topic here to be oriented towards something one does oneself. Fully receiving compliments or seeking one single source of leadership or credit is less on the radar. Again, most of these points are subsets of the homogeneity and interdependence—but another facet of this to consider.
#4: Family life vs. internal life. Perhaps this is just me, but in my life, most of my affairs and choices and reflections are always made in terms of me as an independent entity—what I care about, what I am after, who I am choosing to spend time with, etc. I notice that family operations are still king here. I sense that this is the case in many other societies as well, especially in developing countries, but China takes this on in a new way.
Many examples become manifest: I see far more elderly people with their children and grandchildren out and about. I hear fellow students talk more about what their parents say/think/tell them. I see a greater focus on marriage and children. Travel, shopping, entertainment—all of it happens in terms of a group. This, I think, has both merits and caveats—but regardless, is very different and remarkable for me in my attempt to grasp China’s spirit.
#5: What this means for desire/luxury: One of the things I love to look at is the style of advertising used in different countries. A keen observer can learn so much about beauty standards and the general ethos of a society from the idealized images of men and women, romance, travel, food, and other consumer goals. All of the topics above are well captured in China’s advertisement culture.
Whereas a Westerner like myself might see luxury as having lots of space and time to myself, going somewhere quiet, having very sparse but fine food, enjoying subtle styles and tastes, etc., I notice that the Chinese advertising archetype is very much one of overt selling, excess, and talked-up features… something almost reminiscent of the advertising found perhaps in the 1950s or also early Internet marketing in the 1990s-2000s.
For me, and for many Americans I know, an advertisement which lists something as “the best X!” or “we’ll throw in X!” or makes sweeping promises about something’s quality, authenticity, health benefits, fashion sense, etc. seems almost like a joke—something to be skeptical of and turn away from in favor of classics. China, instead, perhaps due to a different sense of what is valuable, like a big name brand that might set oneself a part from the masses, or a vacation spot for a big family with lots of action and sights to see and pictures to take, working more effectively in summoning and channeling the momentum of that worldview into purchasing a product than the kind of advertising which might appeal to me.
So there we have it… some thoughts on China’s overall worldview and spirit.
Right now I am writing this from Harbin, which is a city in the north, right near Russia, Mongolia, and North Korea. I am very excited to be here for the weekend and see a place which is far more traditional and perhaps departs from some of the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of NYU Shanghai and those circles. I am here for the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival and am already enjoying my complete Chinese immersion staying at the Sun Island Garden Hotel where not a lick of English is spoken. 🙂
To many more observations! See you next week for more focus on that topic.