Chinese Life with Western Characteristics
The question that I imagine is most commonly asked of western expats living in China is “is it difficult living in such a different culture?”.
Before arriving in Beijing, I confess that I held notions of a much more extreme environment than the one I now find myself in - though many would rightly argue that my Schwarzman College home is somewhat of a western bubble.
The truth is that while there is a big culture shock to face upon moving to China, the majority of westerners living in cities such as Beijing probably find China to be an exciting, vibrant and energetic country that in many ways is more liveable than some cities of the West.
Ok, I’m clearly projecting, but I do honestly believe it. Consider that China does not operate in English for the general public; are there many countries in the world in which you could seamlessly exist without the power of language?
This ‘seamless’ existence is certainly one borne from a position of privilege, and highly connected to something that China has a much greater affinity for than countries like the UK or US: technology.
Life is much easier here as a visitor thanks to China’s dependence on smartphones. Using services provided by giant companies such as WeChat and Alipay, your phone serves as your payment method in the supermarket, restaurant, and even a local selling vegetables on the side of the street. It is your bus or train ticket, it is your way to send money to your friend, and it is your translation device (and it all operates in your native tongue).
While this makes it easier for non-Chinese speakers to function on a day-to-day basis, there is still a more nuanced balancing act to negotiate.
Cultural norms and values are quite different in the West and China, and as a visitor (to any country that is not your own), one must consider what aspects of their own culture are suitable to share and which values of their host country they should adapt to.
For example, hierarchy is of more importance in China than in some western countries, with respect towards your seniors expected and even engrained in language. Relationships between a boss and employee or teacher and student is likely different to what is experienced in the US, with criticism towards a senior being interpreted very differently.
History also plays a deeper role in everyday life than in countries such as the UK. National pride is a serious affair and a desire for peace and respect is a cornerstone of Chinese culture – this often manifests practically in a desire for ‘the common good’, with individuals assuming a responsibility to contribute to their community and nation.
These factors begin to shine a light on why living in a Chinese culture is not as easy as it might first seem. Taking some time to understand how communities and societies work is the obvious solution to this problem – alas, it is also time-consuming.
So, what to bring from the West? An experience of western culture is still somewhat in demand here, and many will seek it out whether it is in the form of entertainment, food, or sharing of perspectives. In my opinion, the balance to consider is when your western view is both valued and welcome, and to always remember that you are a visitor and observer while in China.