Sunday, April 15, 2012

Understanding Chinese culture (or not)

Something a lot of foreigners complain about in China is the crappy customer service.  It's true.  In general, China has crappy customer service.  The reasons are probably myriad, but it is a fact.

The interesting thing is that I don't see a lot of people saying the flip side: in China, I see a lot of customers treat service people like crap.  They easily and quickly lose their patience, scream, threaten, etc.  Usually, I've seen it in restaurants, but I've seen it in other places of business as well.

I just saw this happen today.  One of my sandals was broken, so I took it to this guy who sits behind a fence and repairs people's shoes.  When I arrived, there were three people already there waiting for their shoes to be repaired.  Expecting to wait, I sat down and took out Ender in Exile (which, by the way, is an excellent book; it almost brought me to tears twice within the first few chapters, which is not something you expect from a science fiction novel).  While I was reading my book, a woman came and asked for her shoes to be done.  No lining up?  No worries, I'm OK with that these days.  Heck, sometimes even I can budge in line now (though not very skillfully yet).  Then another woman.  Then a guy.  Soon, a whole crowd.  No worries, it's why I brought the book.  I can wait all day.  Ender in Exile is keeping me totally captivated.

Finally, this woman shows up with her daughter.  She asks where her shoes are.  The guy says he hasn't done them.  She starts complaining and yelling, asking why not?  She left them there for him earlier a long time ago.  I LOVE this guy.  He went yelling right back at her.  "I'm too busy here!  Too many people want their shoes done!  There's no time to do yours!  You didn't even let me say yes or no, you just dumped your shoes there!  If I didn't even accept the job from you, why should I do it?  I have too many shoes to repair already!"  Bam, bam, bam.  He hit all points.  I didn't like him because he was yelling, I would never advise yelling if you're looking for a solution to a problem (yes, Mom, I'm working on that for myself too).  I liked him because he was willing to stand up for himself and not take the crap that a lot of service people take from customers in China.  Heck, it was already approaching 6pm.

Finally, after a lot of the people got their shoes repaired and there seemed to be very few people left, I asked the guy if he could repair my sandal.  He said yeah, just wait, so I put the sandal in between the bars in the fence and went back to my book.  Later, he tossed my sandal back out to me.  Perfectly mended.  Just like new.  :)  And way cheaper than buying a new pair of sandals, which can be 100 to 300 RMB for a high quality pair.  I asked him how much it cost, and he said 2 RMB.  I gave him 5 RMB, told him to keep the change as a tip.  He refused and told a sitting customer to give me change.  I insisted, so he said thank you.  Seriously.  2 RMB to make my sandals just like new again?  It's amazing.

Back on topic.  Customer service in China.  Well, not customer service in particular.  Chinese culture in general.  It's traditional wisdom that asian cultures tend to be collectivist, while western cultures tend to be individualist.  But that is not what I've been observing in China.  There appears to be a distinct lack of collectivist thinking in China.  When people come together, it's due to a mob mentality to power the human flesh search engine and cry out online against some Chinese matter usually involving corruption.  When I see day-to-day interactions, it's actually very much a free-for-all, it's very individualist; sometimes even within groups where everyone is together, it's still individualist.  I'm not sure why this is.  Perhaps the one-child policy has created an entire generation of people that find it difficult to work together.  Who knows?

Just this week, I was supposed to attend a work event to hang out and get to know others, but the event was cancelled when only 6 people planned to show up out of the original 12 or so committed attendees.  6 wasn't enough to go see Titanic together?  Others couldn't sacrifice whatever they had for the sake of the greater good, especially after they had already committed?  The only time when collectivism seems to have a chance is when the parties have a very good guanxi connection, but you could say that's probably true in the west also.

The whole individualist thing was perhaps taken to the extreme by the example of Yue Yue, the 2-year-old girl who was run over twice last year and subsequently died of her injuries.  It raised a huge furor in China, with one side crying out about the moral decay in Chinese society, and another side saying not to blame people, but to blame a court verdict that would have made helping Yue Yue risky (emphasis mine):
On Nov 20, 2006, an old woman fell to the ground and broke her leg after jostling at a bus stop in Nanjing, an eastern China city. A young man, Peng Yu, helped her up and escorted her to hospital. Later the woman and her family dragged the man to court, which ruled that the young man should pay 40 percent of the medical costs. The court said the decision was reached by reasoning. The verdict said that "according to common sense", it was highly possible that the defendant had bumped into the old woman, given that he was the first person to get off the bus when the old woman was pushed down in front of the bus door and, "according to what one would normally do in this case", Peng would have left soon after sending the woman to the hospital instead of staying there for the surgical check. "His behavior obviously went against common sense."
What the heck??  Wanting to be charitable, helpful, altruistic, and caring obviously went against common sense?  And while it took the death of little Yue Yue to get China to do some serious soul-searching and do a collective nation-wide scream that this type of ruling is not right, the fact is that I see this type of attitude in people every day.  People don't hold doors open for you.  They act like you don't exist if you're waiting your turn and budge in front of you.  They don't listen to the bus driver's request to move to the back of the bus in order to allow new passengers to board.  They think it's their right to treat people like trash if the food is a little bit late.

I honestly have come to believe they don't do any of this maliciously.  I've come to think that it just doesn't enter their minds because they tune other people out and are focused on only themselves.  I see it in some kids from a very young age.  You can go right up to a kid and say hi, and depending on their personality, they might act like you don't exist.  But do something they don't like, and they'll scream bloody murder.  Then throw some money into the equation, and you easily have a segment of self-absorbed rich folks after they grow up, depending on parenting skills; these people don't think of others as human.  Lower life forms are really just rocks.  Rocks don't fight back.  Rocks get bulldozed if they're in the way.  And sometimes, they don't even realize that the rocks are there.

The weird thing is that today's Chinese culture totally clashes with the Chinese culture I grew up seeing.  Many of my friends were from Hong Kong or Taiwan, not mainland China.  I thought they were all Chinese, but ask many Taiwanese people, and the political argument for independence can often be seen simmering below the surface.  And as much as these people were originally from China, China has changed.  Small anecdotes are all over the place.  When I first said I was moving to Shenzhen, the parents of my friends thought they heard Suzhou.  This is apparently how the conversation went (I wasn't there):
Parents:  Suzhou?  Wow, that's great!  Suzhou is where all the Chinese supermodels come from, very pretty girls there!
Friend:  Actually, I think he said Shenzhen.
Parents:  Shenzhen?  Oh... Oh... that's a really bad place.
Two things here.  Number one, Chinese people don't consider Suzhou girls to be the prettiest girls anymore.  The prettiest girls are all found in Sichuan.  I asked my co-worker about this, and he said, "Ah, Suzhou was a long time ago.  Now all the pretty girls are in Sichuan."  Number two, Shenzhen is not the worst city compared to other cities where I've been.  Other cities have the exact same problems, and some are much worse.  In fact, China's first Good Samaritan law, which would allow for passers-by to assist injured people, was drafted in Shenzhen.  Shenzhen recently hosted the 2011 Universiade Games for the world's university athletes.  A lot of stuff was cracked down in the lead-up to the games, and many things still are.  The knowledge of my friend's parents was based on very outdated knowledge of China.

Leslie T. Chang, author of the amazing book Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China, had similar experiences.  She is an American journalist of Taiwanese descent.  She writes:
My parents' China was fifty years out of date; the Chinese have always respected scholars and disparaged merchants, they had taught me as a child, but the people I was meeting now contradicted all of that.  I didn't try to find relatives who were still living here.  I wanted to learn about this country on my own terms.  And family history seemed like a trap - a ready-made way to see China in tragic terms, a view that had little to do with how things were now.
Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China, chapter 6, page 121
What I now realize is that whether the parents of my Taiwanese and Hong Kong parents realize it or not, Chinese culture has forked.  Forking is a software engineering term referring to the act of taking a software's source code and modifying it to become an independent system.  When you do this, in order to continue development on both systems, you cannot update just one system and expect the updates to appear in the other system.  You must continue to develop the two systems independently, until there comes a time when you try to re-integrate the two for whatever reason (if it ever happens).  For example, the Android smartphone operating system is a fork of Linux, and the two of them are now essentially completely different products.

When the revolution led by Mao happened, Chinese culture forked.  Many of those with means fled to Hong Kong (under British control at the time), Taiwan, southeast Asia, and more.  The ones who stayed behind were peasants (it was a peasant revolution after all), and so many of the scholars and history-makers were lost, making way for a new generation of history-makers.  So even mainland China forked its own culture.  And to ensure that it was permanent, they sent everyone who disagreed to re-education camps.  And then a bunch of crazy stuff happened during the Cultural Revolution to consolidate power and further emphasize what was OK and what was not.  Then you had the one-child policy implemented that turned Chinese family structure inside-out and upside-down, further forking the culture.

Then we had yet more forks when all these Chinese people from all over Asia started going out west for education, work, etc.  The stories of Chinese people flooding North America to build the railways, open up Chinese restaurants everywhere, attend university, etc, are many.  Future generations born in those nations would fork Chinese culture yet again (same for any other Asian ethnicity that went through similar transitions), such that Asian American (or other country) culture failed to reflect mainland Chinese culture at all.

I first realized this on a volunteer trip to rural China in 2005.  Our team leader was Caucasian, but had grown up in Taiwan and only recently moved to the US, so you could say that she knew Taiwanese and Chinese culture better than many.  She said it was really shocking to see our teammates, who were of Chinese descent, but for all intents and purposes, "did not act Asian at all."  It was the first time that she had seen people like this.  She was used to Chinese people who acted like Chinese people.

A big-media example showed itself recently via the Linsanity sensation that was caused by the savvy basketball play of Jeremy Lin in the NBA.  A Ben & Jerry's branch decided to make a Jeremy Lin-inspired flavour using fortune cookies.  The act was immediately decried as racist by many Asian American groups.  I totally didn't realize this at all, but nobody knows what a fortune cookie is in China.  No restaurants hand these things out after meals.  It only hit me after reading the post linked above.  The only people who could get offended were Asian Americans (or Asians in western nations), because fortune cookies are not Chinese; they only exist in specific forks of Chinese culture, primarily the Chinese American fork (although it boggles my mind why they would be considered racist anyway, even in those forks).

I think I'm just trying to say this.  Chinese culture is complicated and has been shaped by a roller coaster 60 years.  It is not what many of my friends think it is, and it is definitely not what many of my friends' parents think it is.  If you haven't been to the real China and actually lived here for a while, you get a very filtered view of what China is.  And me, having lived here for a year and a half now, I'm still trying to figure it out.  While I work on my skills to budge in line, of course.


  1. Hey pakG1 snipers. I enjoyed your article and agree with your analogy about branching chinese as I myself have seen that branching in myself and in others. Your perspective is that you feel that culture is something that has distinction and preservation. Isn't culture a living and changing organism on its own? Like Russell Peters' once joked about. If you grew up ethnically one nationality and culturally another (cbc, cbk, abc, etc), you really aren't the nationality that you were born ethnically, but rather what you were grew up culturally. Naturally you become a part of the culture, and eventually, you influence and become associated with that culture. Like how many can't identify a Canadian culture, because it is a newly mixed multicultural culture. It's like a house-blended coffee grind with its own characteristics. Most people don't like the negative connotation that goes with being culturally Chinese, so they label themselves a different culture, one they can associate with (ie. Taiwanese, Hong Konger, etc.) To me, that's probably more accurate, but why do people even try to even categorize and crystalize cultures? A sense of belonging? Grouping by Association? Helping outsiders understand? Like you mentioned, most people won't understand until they've lived there anyway. Does this even help anyone?

    1. I agree that's probably all true, but on the other side, we have a lot of people crying when the things they saw as important in their culture start disappearing. Language is probably the most common complaint. Then traditions, customs, etc. Eventually, we end up with only historical knowledge of what the culture used to be, and I don't know if this is a good or bad thing. If the culture actually had some evil things in it (cannibalistic rituals or something), then it's probably good. But what if not?

  2. if the shoe repair guy had a blog (or even knew what a blog was), i'd bet he would have blogged about you and how ridiculously well-mannered you were and how he passed the test of refusing your 3 RMB "tip."
    i kid.