They say opposites attract. There are songs about it (Paula Abdul's comes to mind). Sometimes I look at my relationship with my sister, or at my parents' relationship--very different individuals who love each other and get along--in spite of driving each other up the wall from time to time.
Yet in my family, I also feel there is a deep connection between us--a love of nature and animals, a willingness to protect the environment, to learn about everything...a compassion and a curiosity about our fellow humans. And of course, there is our shared time in Qinghai--an intense, difficult time of survival-bonding.
Plunk an American like myself down in China and it's like oil and water--but which is which?
Watching my dad nearly pull his hair out in the 80s when having business dealings with his Chinese counterparts prepped me better than some ex-pats: I knew in advance how frustrating China could be. I knew Shanghai in 2015, with all its bells and whistles, was still China.
America and China are COMPLETE opposites in so many ways! Just a few examples:
business cards traded at the end of a meeting
911 is the emergency number
"you lucky dog"
business cards traded at the beginning of a meeting
119 is the fire department number
"you lucky cat"
The ideas we have about customer service are completely different as well. Unless you're at the DMV in NYC, speedy, short lines at any register at any store make us look efficient, organized--and well, like we know what's going on. In China, as it's been explained to me, a long, slow line makes the store look popular and desirable. A small store will have 50-60 customers on a Saturday afternoon, and there will be a dozen staff sweeping the floor, rearranging displays, and just standing around--while two cashiers methodically ring up customers. Whenever I've worked retail in the past, sweeping and display arranging were something you did when NO customers were around! And yet my students have told me repeatedly that the motto of most businesses is "The customer is the Emperor", "The customer is a god". The way the two cultures show it is completely different.
To get heavier now: in many Western cultures, there's also a sense of absolute right and wrong--morality is black and white. We've got that Judeo-Christian thing happening in a lot of our legal structures, regardless of the separation of church and state that some countries have in common. If someone breaks the law in Europe, the States, Australia, they're caught and punished. I'm not saying the system is perfect. In the U.S., rapists are let free after serving 5 years, and go on to rape again. There are cops shooting unarmed black teenagers. But the American justice system is far more predictable, and, well, just, than China's.
With a history over 4000 years, China has rarely had one central government. For thousands of years, the law depended upon the whims of corrupt landlords, crazy warlords, invaders, Triads and other gang members. There's a saying in Chinese that's one of my faves: Tian gao, huangdi yuan--Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away. It's China in a nutshell, even today, 100 years after the last emperor. The rules changed constantly. Bribing was the order of business, because it wasn't safe to gather, to demonstrate, to speak out against whoever was in charge because they would kill you and your family.
As if multiple political leaders weren't difficult enough to figure out in China's past, there were multiple religions and philosophies trying to guide the way: Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, ancestor worship, and local religions I don't even know the name of. It's amazing any Chinese person knows what to believe!
In most Western countries, the Word of God is IT. A Jewish person, a Muslim, and a Christian have this in common--there is one God and one law. Not everyone in the West belongs to one of these religions, but the idea that there is one way or the highway influences our culture and our beliefs about right and wrong and how society should deal with problems.
But in China, it's a buffet table. "Take what you want and leave the rest," as Egg Shen said in "Big Trouble in Little China". Morality is situational in China. Something might be illegal, but if a friend of yours is doing it, you look the other way. Students can bribe the right person in order to move up levels.
I'm not saying China's is the only culture that does this. To a certain extent, it's a human thing. But in China it happens so often, it seems!
"Why are dragons bad in Western cultures?" one of my students asked.
We'd been discussing movie genres and had gotten sidetracked by fantasy--particularly "The Hobbit" and a certain dragon named Smaug.
"In China, dragons don't have wings," another student chimed in. "They are like snake but can fly."
I was a bit flabbergasted. I hadn't been prepared for this question, in spite of teaching this lesson around 20 times before--it had never come up.
"Well...I guess it goes back to Beowulf," I said, pulling up the internet and showing them some pics from the Angelina Jolie movie. "It's the first story in English. The monster was terrorizing [grade your language!]...um, eating...all the people and causing problems."
Was Grindel a dragon? I wondered. I wracked my brain. The last time I'd read Beowulf had been 17 years ago.
King Arthur and other Brit Lit has knights slaying dragons all over the place. Hell, it was how boys became men. It's how they impressed women. What about China? There are dragons in Journey to the West, a famous Chinese tale, colloquially known as The Monkey King or simply Monkey. My memory of them in the 1986 CCTV version, and the two translations I've read, don't exactly portray dragons as angels. However, bargains could be made with dragons, or assistance acquired in exchange for treasure. I certainly don't recall any dragons running (well, flying) around terrorizing villages or sleeping under vast piles of gold.
What did these flying giants represent to our ancestors? The unknown? Death? The natural world? Whatever the symbolism, it seems to me that Eastern cultures were more willing (at least in literature) to make a deal with a clever beast (the local warlord?!), whereas in the West, these beasts are greedy and/or mad, and it was a hero's duty to destroy them (the American Revolution?! the French Revolution?!) Only deeper exploration on my part will help me understand what the difference is, exactly, and why.
Thinking about all of these differences between East and West made me search for an easy analogy to describe them. But if I say "evil twin", who is the evil one? If I saw "fun house mirror", which culture is the distorted image. Why is it always so easy for humans to point and say, "Well, they're messed up, but not me!"
But we're not completely different.
China and the U.S. seem to hold family in a position of high importance. While China's idea is still very nuclear (mom, dad, kid) and the U.S.'s is more fluid, I still feel we've both got a loyalty to whoever we call family--our loved ones.
There's also this strength China seems to have--adapt and survive. Survival was maybe more important than revolt. Bending your ideas or beliefs to agree with whoever was in charge (at least on the surface) was how the Chinese people have had such a long history. And while the Pilgrims may have clutched at their "One way to Heaven" ideal, the ability to keep going on that pioneer trail--losing belongings out of the covered wagons, burying loved ones along the way--exists in the U.S., too.
Amy Tan published The Joy Luck Club around the time my family returned from China--1989ish. In it, she writes about a song she learned to play on the piano as a child, later discovering a second part to the song as an adult.
I feel like Amy Tan's character right now--discovering things about China as an adult that I didn't know or care about as a 10-year-old. I feel closer to this culture now, in spite of the fact that there are days I want to pull my hair out. China will always be a part of my life, a big part, and I can't fight that. I love watching kung-fu movies. I like sayings in Chinese. I like Chinese traditional art and music. I like the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai. And while a lot of Chinese cuisine turns me off, there are some foods I really like. I like the civilized delicacy of eating with chopsticks, too.
Perhaps it's not so much that China and I are opposites--but that we are (as Tan wrote) "two halves of the same song".