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 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?

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