Experiencing China

'Experiencing China' is about ordinary life in China and the wealing and dealing of a Dutchman in the Middle Kingdom. Marc works for DuoArts Consultancy and the Empowerment Foundation, travelling between the Netherlands and China.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

China 1999 - Part Seven

My First Stay Coming to an End

The most important events about my first stay in China now have come to an end. Yes, I did do many more things, like visiting Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius; Shanghai, where I saw the Bund and Pudong area symbolizing the old and new China; Jinan, the capital city of the Shandong province in full flowering in April; and Beijing in early May, when I was about to return to the Netherlands. You really should visit China, when the opportunity presents itself. It is really worth while (although I know I am biassed). Spring and autumn (fall) are the best periods to visit the country. It then has nice temperatures between the 20 and 30 degrees Centigrade (69-85 Fahrenheit).

Worth while telling you is the one day I went with Tom to visit his parents in Wubu. Tom's parents live in a typical small village in the country side. On one beautiful day in April we left Dongping by bus to get out in another county-town. I thought we had arrived in Wubu, but it turned out we had to go by lended bike for another few kilometers. Maybe you know, but both the Netherlands and China are the two countries with the highest density of bikes. Biking in the Netherlands is common and widely used (this is why Mark, the Portugese-American that lives in Amsterdam, that I mentioned before, calls himself bicycle Mark). In cities such as Amsterdam it can be the fastest means of conveance because you avoid traffic jams. However, they don't know that in China. If they see a foreigner riding a bike, they will laugh and shout 'hello!'. Every foreigner speaks English according to them, but the pronunciation is more Dutch (which is 'hallo') then English. Sometimes I stopped and told them in the few Mandarin words which I knew: 'you speak Dutch very well!'. It always provoked laughter and surprise. This, by the way, didn't just happen on the beautiful April day but many times before.

Tom and his parents in Wubu 

The road to Wubu wasn't paved but a sandy one. The village of Wubu I entered probably didn't change much over the centuries and it was a unique opportunity to visit such an ancient village. Alongside the roads piles of corn and other crops dried in the sun. Goats, chickens and cows were there to be found as well, but virtually no people. Tom told me they were working on the land. As Tom and I entered the courtyard of the farmhouse of his family more animals were inside, varying from chickens to rabbits. The house was not only the living place of his parents but also of a pair of swallows taking care of their offspring. As I love nature, I was in exhaltation. This is nowhere to be found in the Netherlands. The silence and peace was the absense of any machine, whether it be a car or plane. No globalization, no computers, no Internet. It seemed very romantic to me, but it was the tourist's image of a reality that is a harsh life. The signs of a harsh life were written in the faces of Tom's parents. They looked much older then my parents, though they are roughly the same age. Fortunately, it were friendly and peacefull faces. The parents turned out to be one of the most hospitable and friendly people I have ever met. First I met Tom's mother, who, after welcoming me into their house, changed clothes and began to cook lunch. Tom's father came in later, returning from his land. It is difficult to describe how it was like, but that I liked it is for sure. It's the different side of China, one that most tourists never will see. Directly after lunch we left. This happens a lot in China, visits usually are short, which surprised me. But... when in Wubu, act like the Wubu-Chinese...

During my subsequent visits, Tom and I many times discussed the difference between a romantic perspective on the countryside, which is widely held in the West, and the harsh reality that lies beneath that romantic surface. Tom, of course, stressing the hardships. However, he never quite pursuaded me. Why? Not that I deny that the farmers in China have a hard time, especially now, but because of the many things they have to miss, they have retained some important characteristics, which are humaneness, hospitality and friendlyness. These aspects so often are lacking in Western societies and only to be found in intimate circles, such as close friends and family. Of course, I belonged to that inner circle because it was after all their only son that introduced me, but in China it is of a more general nature. I already told you I visited Shanghai. A marvellous city, radiant and self-aware. The new China, indeed. However, the people were much more distant than in the country side. Modernity changes societies, it changes people. It's is a reality that can be lived well. I, as well as many of you, do quite well and wouldn't like to miss tv, newspapers, the Internet etcetera and to a high extent depend on it. And intimacy I get from my family and friends. Outside that group, which I would like to call organic, however, is a mechanic or systemized reality. Durkheim, Weber and other classic modernity scholars already wrote about this phenomenon. Therefore, visiting China is like a warm bath. And then I am not talking about political systems, human rights, freedom or the lack of it. I am talking about ordinary human beings living their lives regardless of political system or ideology.

Within a few weeks I will be heading towards China again. Probably my next posting will be in China, telling you about current events. I will be studying Mandarin at the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) for 4.5 months. At the same time I will do some professional projects for my company DuoArts Consultancy, which I will tell you more about later.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

China 1999 - Part Six

Being an Anthropologist: A Story Dedicated to Tom

Tom and me in March 1999 on the top of Tai mountain 

I already told you something about Tom. He was the guy that came into my room and told me 'let's go meal'. Tom worked for the Hemp Mill, was about my age and was the only one who could properly speak English. He was assigned by the general manager to assist me in conducting my study so I did my best to establish a working relationship with him. Tom, on the other hand also was eager to get to know me a little bit better. In doing so, for the first time I discovered how biased an anthropologist can be. Current anthropologists, although having black pages in history, are characterized by having virtually no stereotypes and negative perceptions about 'the Other' or even being 'pro-Other'. If there is one thing the average anthropologist is interested in, it is people with different conceptions, norms and values. Although... that was what I more or less assumed.

In China establishing a friendship is somewhat different than I am used to in the Netherlands. The Dutch are regarded as to the point and they don't like hierarchy. This is why we have so many flat organizations, where there seems to be no real distinction between employer and employee. Result of this relative equality is that everything has to be discussed and the Dutch preference for compromises instead of conflict. These cultural aspects partly are derived from history: the Netherlands being a small country meant we had to cooperate with other (bigger) countries. At the same time in our quest against the water (Holland lies for the bigger part below sea level), we had to cooperate with each other. Powerdifferences only could slow down discision making and a long time to make discisions meant an increased danger of floodings. Our directness comes from our allergy for hierarchy and powerdifferences, our compromising from the need to cooperate. At the same time the Dutch are sober and have a 'no-nonsense' mentality. This, together with the need to compromise, is also the less attractive part of our culture. First, because this no-nonsense mentality is so strong, to be excellent is easily regarded as arrogance. "Act normal, then you already act like a madman (freely translated)" is a common proverb in the Netherlands or "Don't stick your head out of the mowing field" which means that if you behave differently than others your head will be 'cut off'. Secondly, the need to compromise often leads to indecisiveness, especially in a democratic system. Our government (which already is a compromise between several parties for no one gets the absolute majority) which is in office for four years sometimes is unable to descide on the bigger issues because so many other parties are involved in the descision making process. In establishing a friendship the Dutch like people that are to the point (which makes them reliable and honest) and open.

In China it is a whole different ballgame. The only thing the Dutch and Chinese seem to share is the importance of compromises. The need to compromise in China, however, is derived from Confucianism which stresses the importance of harmony (as opposed to chaos). In order to preserve harmony, people are less direct to each other to safe each other's face. To give somebody face (credit) is also widely used by the Chinese. By engaging in flattery, or better, giving compliments they try to smoothen social interactions. Another thing, if excellent, one never boast about his or hers (individual) achievements, but rather contributes it to the group. This even happens when the group didn't have a significant role in the achievement. At the same time, China is much more hierarchic. According to early Confucianism every man is born equal. However, some have more capabilities than others and therefore segmentation leads to powerdifferences. The leaders (those who possess more capabilities) have the moral obligation to lead others and there wise descisions are (ideally) not questioned. This is another explanation why Chinese are less open than, for example, the Dutch. Finally, Chinese language is much more indirect than Western European languages (including Dutch). The fact that the Chinese understand each other is due to the fact that Chinese language refers to the context in which things are being said. So, they don't actually have to be as explicit to be understood. That these high-context languages, such as Chinese, but also Arab and many other Asian languages, are vague is a Western misconception. For us Westerners it might be vague because we don't know how to 'read' the context in which things are being said. This is one of the most difficult aspects of anthropological research done by Westerners (having low-context languages).

Thus, in theory discussed in the above two paragraphs, all seems logical and clear, especially to the anthropologist, who is expected to be aware of these cultural differences. But in practice it's somewhat more complicated. So what happened between Tom and me?

In short, we tried to establish a working relationship by using both our cultural luggage. Tom engaged in flattery and because no one receives that many compliments in the Netherlands ('act normal, than you already act strange enough') at first I mistrusted him. Moreover, Tom was never direct and this was reinforcing my initial mistrust. At the same time, Tom must have thought how inaccessable (because of mistrust) and blunt (direct) I was. Fortunately, neither of us gave up. In a way I needed him for the research and I was also puzzled by his behavior and this is when researchers become really interested. Tom didn't give up either and after a while we began to understand our initial problems. This was probably the best thing that could happen to me in China, because Tom now is one of my best friends. I visited him many times after my first visit in 1999, enjoying his friendship and loyalty, honesty and help. Therefore, I dedicated this story to him.

Stereotypes and misunderstandings are common in our world. Wars are thought based on certain misconceptions about the other, slavery exists because of powerdifferences and stereotypes and democratic countries step by step seem to give up individual freedom for the sake of safety. But what is safety? And why do people don't feel safe anymore. Is it because of our minority citizens or because Islam poses a threat? And if so, why does Islam pose a threat? Does it has to do something with our ethnocentric perspectives? Does it has to do something with power and the inability of some to give it up? Of course this is a very tricky question to answer, that does not have a simple answer, but it all is related with culture. Knowledge about other cultures might bring more understanding and might help in tackling discrimination, the gap between the poor and the rich and in preventing wars. This is a very idealist way of thinking, and being Dutch, I need to use our sobersness to make my statement here. In our current globalizing world, is it really so hard to learn about each other? So many tourists travelling all over the world, so many multicultural societies and so many diplomats operating in international institutions and managers being sent to the outlets of their multinational organizations. We already know a great deal about our world, so why not use this knowledge?

Thursday, January 06, 2005

China 1999 - Part Five

Meeting the artists...

During my lunch with the teacher's commission of Dongping, I met many people including a man sitting on the other table (thus less important according to Chinese culture) that shook my hands over and over again. 'Strange..' I thought. He seemed to be delighted to meet a stranger. But I didn't pay much attention to it and forgot about it a few days later.

The son of family Wang, my substitute family in Dongping, attended a school that was situated just in front of the hotel I stayed in during the first week. Because I didn't formally start my research I had plenty of time to watch what the students were doing. It turned out to be a School of Arts. I had already seen some beautiful Chinese ink paintings and calligaphies and was curious if and how the students would master this. One day at Wang's little restaurant, I asked the son if I could have a look. As we arrived at the schoolyard, the same thing happened as everywhere, people gathering me and my companion, trying to practice their English skills. We were invited by the head of the school and do you know who he was? It was the same guy that shook my hand so enthusiastically a couple of weeks ago. Not important? Well, after all he was the head of this school! China always puzzles me in this way. You take something for granted and then something happens that forces you to ajust your ideas. This also has to do something with me being an anthropologist for whom culture is overall important and thereby disregarding simple explanations. Probably the two tables were just the result of pragmatic logistics rather than culture alone.

With the drinking of tea and eating sunflower seeds, Chen Jing (the name of the head of the school) and I had a long conversation about Chinese and European arts, their differences and similarities. We both became very enthusiastic and being enthusiastic, Chen invited me to have my picture draw. I agreed and with an audience of over sixty students, especially laughing about my big nose (don't worry, it isn't too big according to Western standards, the Chinese just happen to have short noses), singing Dutch and Chinese songs (they asked me... I don't like singing for an audience much), Chen drew my picture. The result was astonishing! (see photo). There I saw my torso on a piece of paper. Not that very special of course, however, I had been drawn in a Chinese socialist fashion. I could have been a Chinese laborer looking with convidence into the bright communist future...


If you don't believe me, try to get a Chinese Yuan bill and watch the way those faces are drawn on the bill.

The next day Chen Jing, Tom, who could translate for me, and I visited another artist, a calligrapher named Li Shou Bai or his translated artist name: 'the owner of the house without material and political pursuit'. This somewhat older man, Chen Jing and Tom are my age, hospitally invited us into his house and we watched how he conducted the ancient art of calligraphy. Below you see some photos.

Chen Jing and his students 

Li Shou Bai, calligrapher 

Visiting these two artists in March 1999 led to the establishment of DuoArts an, at that time, company of Tom and me to purchase and sell Chinese ink paintings in the Netherlands. 'Duo' has both a Western and Chinese meaning. First, 'Duo' means two, second, and in the Chinese language 'Duo' means 'all with profound meaning'. Tom, becoming a good friend of mine and I formed this duo. The arts were considered to have profound meaning, because Chinese painting is not just about arts but reverts to a deeper symbolic meaning as well as the direct act of performing an artistic activity such as painting or calligraphing. The name DuoArts lives on in my current consultancy company, not because I conduct this business with Tom but because it has profound meaning for to bridge two culturally and historically distinct worlds, that is China and Europe. The two classic characters in Duo ('Du' and 'O') can be found in my company's logo (Duo = 都奥)