Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cultural Immersion

I love Chinese culture.

Until this past weekend, I really wasn’t sure. I knew I didn’t dislike it – I seldom feel frustrated (though granted, it’s only been a couple of months) – but I also hadn’t felt the connection I felt with India. But recently there were a series of events that made me learn a lot at once. And I really enjoyed it.

I like the way meals work. Round table, many dishes, chopsticks and a little bowl. I like the food, and enjoy learning about different dishes. I’m discovering I’m very squeamish about animals. Part of it is the Indian influence, but also from a spiritual Jewish position.

I went on a retreat with all the museum tour guides and staff this weekend. Lunch included eel (apparently good for women’s skin), frog and wild chicken (which I mention only because I thought it was funny that it’s considered different from regular chicken). I ate vegetarian, and everything was really good. When people say “I don’t like Chinese food”, I’m not really sure what that means. There are so many options, flavors and textures, it’s really hard to dislike every single thing at any given meal. I always have at least four or five dishes that I absolutely love.

I also like the way Chinese people have fun. I was introduces to karaoke last week. I went with a group of mixed Shanghainese and Westerners, and loved it. There really is something to it: a closed room, just your friends, everyone hanging out singing together, with food and drinks. It’s just pure fun.

At the retreat, in the freezing hotel lobby (you could see your breath), there was a constant group at the karaoke station, but people also played cards and mahjong. Some people just hung out and talked. What was unique about it was that all ages were present and having fun together. Not only that, we had people from all sectors and levels of society – the cleaning ladies and guards were also invited and present at the retreat, and they were there with the other volunteers, most of whom are English-speaking university students. 

I am forcefully reminded of my “Intro to Political Science” course, in which we learned that in Communism, freedom is limited but equality is magnified (as opposed to Fascism, which limits both, and Democracy, which attempts to magnify both). Until I came to China, and had not yet lived in a non-democratic country, I had never truly understood how positive the amplification of equality can be. There is obviously inequality in Chinese society, like in every other country. But I’m referring to cultural perceptions of equality. People’s place in a society. The possibility to interact with higher or lower positions. And so on. Perhaps that’s what communism has become: a culture, a way of thinking about society, and not an actual organization of reality, politics, or people.

Drinking culture is also really interesting. First of all, there seems to be no taboo about it. It’s out in the open, though not everyone does it. At the retreat, the drinking started at dinner. The hosts of the event go around every table first, thanking people, toasting with each individual person, and so on. Then other groups go around, thanking the hosts and toasting again. Usually not everyone drinks, especially the girls. You can do the toast with tea, juice or even water. Whatever – the point is to toast each other. The older people had bajio, Chinese liquor. It smells terrible. The younger generation was drinking red wine, and the few people I saw drink bajio had a visible bad reaction to it. It’s funny how much one can understand without language. It’s almost more deep and pure, though naturally slower and limited. But I’m certainly sharpening my non-verbal cue awareness.

There also seem to be no taboo on talking about one’s personal life. We literally went around the circle of girls one by one (in a crowded dinner hall) and expressed our romantic situation in detail. It ranged from single to monogamous relationship to polygamous lifestyle. Money is also discussed quite openly, as is certain personal desires and habits. I know there are taboos, but haven’t actually discovered them yet. That’s one of the difficulties of no language – it’s much easier to find out what people are talking about, than the subtleties of what they don’t discuss openly.

This was the first time I interacted closely with a big group of Chinese people (as the only foreigner, too). I gave a lecture on the diversity of the Jewish people, and on how to give better tours to Westerners. I found their questions genuine, and profound. I am beginning to understand why it’s so difficult for them to really grasp the depth and breadth of the Jewish world. Concepts like community, religious life-cycle events, faith, and helping non-family fellow Jews really elude them. And it makes sense, given their lack of religion-based organization and lack of spirituality. They also live in a very tightly organized society, (Poli Sci 101 again, learning about high-degree of government involvement), so informal things are really an unknown phenomenon. Everything has a place, and not in a wishy-washy, karmic sense like in India. Every aspect of life is regimented, it’s merely a piece in the larger puzzle that is society. Even the retreat – it was organized by the government! But they are really interested in learning about other ways of existing (community is a tough one, though, especially because to a large extent, it’s voluntary).

Which leaves me wondering. There is a huge discrepancy between my own largely positive experiences with Chinese people, and what other expats have expressed to me. Many expats don’t like Chinese people, or Chinese culture. It’s quite astounding how many people live in Shanghai and really have no desire to get to know or immerse themselves in the culture. And even more astounding is the fact that those that have to interact, don’t like the culture. It almost feels like they feel constantly personally affronted by it.

It makes sense if you think about the groups most foreigners interact with: service people, on one hand, and businessmen (or employees) on the other. Nobody, in any culture, is at their human best when acting within these positions. It is precisely those people who are not in business, who are free to interact with Chinese people in a different context, that are really integrated and happy here (they also all speak Chinese, incidentally).

However, I also think that Chinese culture (not unlike Indian cultures) requires a higher suspension of one’s own ways of being and thinking than many other cultures. I don’t mean not being who you are; it just requires opening your mind more to other ways of being and thinking without judging them. That is the key, perhaps. Many foreigners judge the Chinese for being narrow-minded, uncreative and dirty (to list three examples). Those three things are certainly true if seen from a Western perspective. But analyzing behavior from a neutral standing point (in which there are fewer rights and wrongs, and almost no comparison beyond moral issues), or from the point of view of the culture itself (what do Chinese people think about a specific behavior that Chinese people have?), the results are different.

 Chinese people know that some habits of some Chinese people are dirty, and they don’t condone them. Another example is how much the Museum tour guides attempted to open their mind to understand what I was saying. Because I am fully aware that the success of my presentation depended on my abilities and research as well as on their openness not only to listen, but to understand my way of thinking, which is quite different from their own. The fact that they did this is indicative that they can do it, and led to the success of our interactions.

Much to think about.

Volunteerism 1

Recently I’ve been feeling as if I live many days per day, because I'm leading so many simultaneous lives. The Museum activities are going incredibly well; it's interesting and challenging and motivating. It gives me a lot to think about. A few days ago (I'm trying to remember how many exactly, I think three…but it seems much longer) was the Hongkou government district volunteer celebration ceremony. There were about forty volunteers, all ages, covered in blue ponchos. That's another thing that happened this week – it became winter overnight. The weather dropped ten degrees (Celsius) and turned from mildly sunny to freezing rain at some point between Tuesday and Wednesday. 

So there we all stood in our blue ponchos. Hongkou district parks, libraries, elderly homes and museum volunteers, waiting in rows to go onstage and recite the Volunteers' Oath, listening to speeches by Party leaders and distinguished guests. I was getting simultaneous translation, thinking for the umpteenth time that even though I probably can't even begin to understand how much I'm not understanding because  I don’t speak Chinese, you can learn a lot through translation too (my consolation price really). Suddenly, my translator, another volunteer, says "you know, you're the star at this event". I looked around at all the Chinese faces around me – regular people, just like me – and I was filled once again with an awesome sense of being grateful that I've been put in such a unique position – to work for the Chinese government, to represent a great organization and even, to an extent, the Jewish people. It's really incredible.

After he said that, I got a little nervous about what I might have to do. It's funny how things can have such a different meaning. I think what he meant was that it's an honor for them to allow me to be a volunteer at the Museum (the Museum being the only institution with a foreign volunteer). It turned out I only had to follow the ranks – get on the stage with my row, and recite the pledge along with everyone else (it had been provided for me in English ahead of time…in fact, I helped translate it).

The Museum was chosen to host the event in part because of the amazing courtyard that it has (the synagogue was used as the prep room), but also because it runs an excellent volunteer program. Most of its volunteers are students, but there are also older volunteers who sell tickets or hold down the fort during lunch.  I’m not entirely sure what the volunteer culture is like here. It’s something I’m very curious about.

The volunteers at the museum certainly have a lot to gain from volunteering here. They practice English and meet foreign people. I think for some it’s also leisure time: they get to interact with peers who are in different fields than theirs. But the commitment would make the glamour wear off after a while. They have to give one full work day a week. That’s a lot for a student.
I’m starting to suspect that volunteering has a lot to do with other ideas I’ve heard of helping improve Chinese society, as well as one’s district, city and country. I think Chinese people are very family-oriented, and they help their own first, but there is also a sense that you have a duty to improve the society you and your family are from. I still don’t know what the motivation behind this sense of duty is, or if volunteerism is a part of this at all.

The reason why this is important is because it feeds into the way Chinese people can and will understand the Jewish world, which has community at its core, especially the part of the Jewish world relevant to the history here. Community is a circle in which individuals benefit from the collectivity and vice versa. I remember the Rosh Hashanah speech the Rabbi gave; it was all strengthening the community through individual abilities. If Chinese people understand and live according to similar principles (with the desire to give, or volunteer, simply because one wants to), then perhaps the gap of understanding can be bridged more easily.