Saturday, February 14, 2009

List of the Month - Things we most like about Chinese culture

I confess to being in a testy mood of late. I haven't been out of the country in nearly 18 months, and I'm probably getting a little stir crazy. I am in that vulnerable state where the oddities of life in China can rather too easily get on one's nerves. I am therefore trying to instil some positivity in myself, by reflecting on some of the things that I really like about this country.

However, by way of preamble, I will begin by observing that one of the things that pisses me off most about this country is the tendency many people have (not just the local people, but resident foreigners who are trying too hard to assuage their colonial guilt by being exaggeratedly 'culturally sensitive' all the time) to defend things that are - well, let's not say fucked up here; let's be 'culturally sensitive' and say non-ideal, counter-rational, inefficient, harmful - yes, people will defend so many things that are thus severely non-ideal as 'part of the culture', as if this somehow renders them sacrosanct, above criticism or even analysis and comment (at least from us uncomprehending waiguoren). Not everything that a people does or believes or creates is 'culture'. Not all 'culture' is good. 'Culture' is not exempt from examination and criticism, not incapable of change. If you tell me, for example, that 'your culture' approves the beating of children, then I will tell you that your culture is wrong. Although I'll also be inclined to argue that moral norms like this are not strictly within the scope of 'culture' as I perceive it.

That, of course, could be a whole other post, or a series of 'em. One day, perhaps, one day. But not now.

First, though, one further gripe - this time about the typical attitude of foreigners to the more challenging aspects of Chinese 'culture' that we encounter in our daily lives here. In general, there are two reactions (not always mutually exclusive). People sometimes get stuck in deplore mode, and whinge on about things incessantly: "Oh my god, I will never get used to people spitting in public/shouting in restaurants/cycling on the wrong side of the road/whatever." And sometimes people will lurch to the other extreme and try to find something eccentrically charming even about behaviours they basically find rather gross: "It's really amazing, isn't it, how much people smoke out here; I mean, even in the middle of dinner? And isn't it quaint how they let their toddlers crap in the street?"

I do my best to avoid either of these attitudes; but I don't always succeed. None of us do. But I like to think that I try harder than most.

Anyway..... having got some of that out of my system, here is a little list of things I really enjoy about Chinese life.

Things I Most Like About Chinese Culture

Tai chi
Perhaps the best exercise system in the world: very elegant, very restul, very meditative. I love watching people do this. One day - maybe soon - I'll start studying it properly, rather than just trying to copy the old ladies in the park.

Gong fu cha
A method of serving Tie Guanyin, a superior variety of Oolong tea named in honour of the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin. I think it's more of a southern thing; I've never encountered it here in Beijing. The tea is brewed in small individual cups; it's very strong, with the leaves stacked almost to the brim; and you're supposed to drink three (or is it four?) successive infusions of the same leaves, each with a strikingly different character. I am not in general very attracted to 'tea culture' here (any more than I am to 'coffee culture' in the West; if I'm going to sit around shooting the shit with my buddies for a few hours, I need beer to accompany that; tea and coffee, it seems to me, have more of the uncomfortable diuretic effect, but none of the disinhibiting or imagination-stimulating benefits of alcohol). Teahouses can be monstrously expensive, and are often just a tourist rip-off. However, I was thoroughly won over by the calming atmosphere of the gong fu cha ritual (and by the taste of the tea) on my first visit to China many years ago, and I wish I could enjoy it a little more often.

Tapping on the table to thank someone for pouring you a drink
This is one of the few local customs that I have found utterly charming, and adopted so wholeheartedly that it has become almost an unconscious habit in me now. I don't like the fact that it is supposed to represent the elaborate self-abasement that we know as the kow-tow (according to tradition, the practice originated amongst some servants of an Emperor [I don't think anybody's ever told me which one] who was travelling about the country incognito to try to find out what his subjects thought of him; one day, the servants felt shamed when the disguised Emperor poured tea for them, but, in order not to blow their cover, they improvised this rapping-with-the-knuckles gesture to take the place of the full kow-tow they would have offered him in the palace), but that's no longer relevant. It's a simple gesture of acknowledgement, a small, everyday courtesy (the type of thing, alas, that often seems in rather short supply in China: the 'culture' here doesn't have a lot of 'please' and 'thank you', and very, very little friendliness or respect towards people in menial jobs).

As with the tai chi, I'm not sure that I'd really want to do this myself. Not for quite a few more years yet, anyway. But I like to watch. The kites in Beijing can be quite spectacular, and can climb to enormous heights.

Communal singing
Not the scourge of karaoke, which has within the last 20 years become an almost ubiquitous national addiction (and the bane of many foreigners living in China: we will inevitably be required at some point in our time here to endure a session of several hours' duration - hours that can seem more like days - in order to keep up good relations with our Chinese friends or colleagues), but the singing that goes on in parks, usually amongst the more senior citizens. These are mostly old revolutionary songs, so I sometimes feel a certain discomfort at the reminder of the crazy - murderous - days under Mao; the sentimental nostalgia these old folks seem to have for those bad old days is, one can't help but feel, somewhat misplaced. But still, the songs are unquestionably rousing, and the process of singing together obviously brings a lot of joy to the singers - and to those of us listening.

Nope, not a very long list, was it? Calligraphy didn't quite make it in (I have too much hostility towards the impracticality of the writing system; and I don't find the characters themselves intrinsically all that attractive, although I concede that certain calligraphic styles can look rather good). Nor did wushu (the ancient fighting arts - impressive, but becoming sadly trivialised and commercialised these days). Nor TCM (I try to keep an open mind about its possible benefits, but I'm convinced that a good 95% of it is dangerous quackery that relies solely on placebo effect). Nor the cooking. Nor......

And, oh dear me, I think I might have a (rather longer) post brewing in me about all the aspects of Chinese 'culture' I don't like at all.....


Anonymous said...

This is a lovely piece, one of your best.

FionaJane said...

I guess the test is whether you could come up with a list that long of things you actually like about the UK (once you've turned the nostalgia filter off...). I think I would probably struggle.

Froog said...

No indeed, FJ.

I was thinking about balancing the upcoming 'things I can't stand about China' post with an (even longer) 'things I can't stand about the UK' one.

Tony, thank you, and I'm so glad you're still with us. I was a little worried that - having downgraded me from 'boulevardier' to 'bloke' - you were a little miffed with me.

And I trust that you both had very happy days, since you are fortunate enough to be well married. Me - I was tortured with doubts and regrets and heartaches about a couple of exes who maybe shouldn't be exes. (Yes, two. That makes it even more difficult.)

Anonymous said...

No, I was wrong, perhaps not bloke, more lad: "A young man characterized by his enjoyment of social drinking, sport, and other activities considered to be male-oriented..." So is boulevardier only older and richer.

Valentine schmalentine, I say: it's not for marrieds, it soon shades into Darby-and-Joan-manmanship, though not quite yet in my case, as she is twenty years younger than me.

Anonymous said...

Nice...glad to see you haven't lost your youthful idealism.

Froog said...

Ah yes - the idealism is about all that I have left of my youthfulness.

That might be one of next month's bons mots.

Anonymous said...

I don't think those annoyances ever completely leave you, though with time your tolerance increases.

In my case, they followed me back to Canada. We have many Chinese that come here for long visits to their sons/daughters and bring their customs to Toronto. Public spitting/clearing nostrils, check. Walking in the middle of the road, check. Very loud talking in public places (even when it is quiet, check. Letting baby crap on the side of public roads, in front of a public school, check. I had to tell this lady it was illegal and to not do this again, or neighbours would call the police. She had no clue and said she'd not do it again. At least not in front of me.

I think you deserve to take a small leave from your self imposed stay and take a holiday, or you might go stark raving mad. Everyone has their limits. Mine was 12 months.

Froog said...

Ah, but first I have to earn the money to buy my freedom....

Really, Don, it's not the odd "uncivilized" behaviours like the spitting, the pushing, and the disinclination to use public toilets (even though, in Beijing, you find one about every 200 metres along the street) that bother me. I was never much put out by them, and scarcely notice them at all.

As we shall perhaps see in that threatened future post, it is more deep-seated matters of attitude and belief which disturb me here: a lack of compassion, a lack of conscience, a lack of a sense of privacy, or personal space, or respect for the individual. It's not that these things are totally absent, but they are much rarer, much more marginalised values than we are used to in the West - and I do think that's a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

For the time being, and no doubt to the delight of the fenqing, the thing I like most about Chinese culture is the perspective I get from our Brisbane apartment.

Anonymous said...

I just came to this blog, but that cooking link is pretty impressive. A denizen of the UK criticizing Chinese food for being "boring," and "all the same." It was like the bizarro internet.

Froog said...

Looks like you didn't really read the cooking post, Anon.

It was hedged around with all kinds of qualifications (some Chinese cooking I like: especially Chinese cooking outside of China, where quality of ingredients and standards of food preparation are higher). And it was NOT framed in the context of or comparison with British cooking (which - though I think it is unfairly maligned - is not indeed one of the richer or more various of the world's cuisines; but the more appropriate comparison with China - since it is a continent-sized 'country' - would be European cuisine; and on that basis, the amount of variety in Chinese cooking is pretty disappointing). And I don't think I ever called it "boring" - apart from the rice. "Shite" or "crap" were the terms I mostly favoured. The majority of comments I received in relation to that post (some in private conversation or e-mail correspondence only) were strongly in agreement - I've even had a few Chinese friends (who've spent time overseas) concur with my general points.