CLI Perspectives #21

This week we wrap up The University of North Florida's contributions to CLI Perspectives. Alex Wright, Morgan Irvin & Ryan Leirvik share their thoughts on Chinese culture. They highlight some of the major differences, for better or worse, between Chinese and Western culture. Take a look below to get more insight into their China study abroad experience and their new found points of view!

Daoist Thought at Play

By Alex Wright, CLI Study Tour student

Alex explores the many abstract rock formations in China's gardens

I feel as if I could write endlessly about all three of the traditions we have studied, but I will instead limit my scope to Daoism. According to our surveys, it is one of the least popular traditions. Yet I think that it is quietly and invisibly still very much a driving force of Chinese culture today. I saw it most at play when I observed the crowds of people and the constant ebb of traffic. From an outsider perspective, it really looks like pure chaos. But the entire month I was there, I only ever saw one car wreck, and it was a fender-bender on a side road. This is not to say that the traffic system is perfection realized. I only mean to point out that somehow, all of it worked. And all this without strict reference to any laws—unless there is a law that allows for cars to drive down sidewalks.

This is where I see Daoist thought at play. If you need to cross the street, you do so slowly and with complete awareness of the given situation. Referring to rules and concepts does not help in the least. When a car comes towards you as you cross, you feel out the situation as it is unfolding. Is the car going too fast? Is it beginning to yield? Thinking about it too hard tends to lead to overestimation or paralysis.

The point of the matter is that the traffic flows at a pre-conceptual aesthetic level in which you and the traffic, pedestrian or vehicular, are unfolding organically with reference only to each other. You and the traffic self-so with complete deference towards each other. Daoism is generally about deference towards the other in such a way that the other is allowed to grow organically as it is in the given situation. This deference is achieved through the wu-forms: non-coercive action, no-thought, and non-attachment. It is this very same preconceptual aesthetic deferential behavior to the given situation that I experienced at play in China. I act without reference to any set traffic knowledge, and I act in such a way that I am not forcing myself against the cars but rather acting with respect to them. This sort of traffic might not be the most efficient, but it certainly is one of the most unique things I’ve ever experienced.

Alex gazes at the beautiful scenery in Guilin

Lifelong lessons learned in China

By Morgan Irvin, CLI Study Tour student

A visit to a pagoda shows Chin's Daoist roots

A good traveler tries to immerse themselves into the culture that they are visiting. Really immersing yourself takes more than one month. It probably takes most of a person’s life time, but we tried crash course immersion with this trip. Of course, it’s important that we try to learn the native language, try the foods, and visit all the defining cultural sites.

Still, my perception of China is through American eyes. Everything I did I experienced as an American. I contrasted the social habits of the Chinese students I met with American social habits. I did the same when I talked to shopkeepers and nurses. We were treated differently because we were visitors to China. I’m not saying this was a bad thing. Often it was fun to see the differences in culture and I learned a lot from it. I think I might have learned too much from China because being back in America feels strange and a little lackluster when compared to living in the diverse “middle country”.

People stress the importance of learning from the culture that you’re visiting, but there’s not a whole lot to be said about what to do about it when you get home. There are some things I dearly miss about China that I want to start doing here. One of them is simply socializing more. Americans put so much stress on being independent that they forget that we are social beings. China has taught me the value of daily interactions with the community and spending more time out in the world instead of watching sitcoms on TV.

I also learned to be more assertive in China. In a country with a population so huge, although it enforces a one child policy, you learn quickly to make your demands heard or you will be completely swept under the chaotic noise of the average Chinese street. There’s no time to consider every individuals feelings when you’re sandwiched in between fifty people on a subway train or trying to get food from a cafeteria so huge that it resembles a Walmart storage building. In America, we wait in line and say thank you too much. We take everything just a little farther than it needs to go so that “Thank you” doesn't have sincerity anymore; it’s just a form of speech.

I miss China more than I’m happy to be home, but I think this could turn into something positive as well. Being a traveler makes you less afraid to be different. I know I can grow from making my own decisions and following through with those decisions. This means I can try to teach my friends and family that if they’re unsatisfied there is more to life than the Western way.

Morgan (right) poses with her friend Maria at the Tarracotta Warriors in Xi'an

The Chinese culture unraveled

By Ryan Leirvik, CLI Study Tour student

One of my favorite parts of the trip was making the comparisons between my culture and theirs. There are so many differences and similarities to speak of that this journal entry would not do it justice. This is why I must focus on my own experiences of being a minority. This is one thing that I can confidently say is a contrasting experience for American minorities. Rather than delve into the apparent experiences of American minorities, I will simply give my own experiences, and premise those experiences with this: I felt more comfortable and accepted in China than any minority in America will ever encounter. Of course there are outliers to this statement, and perhaps it is naïve to say this, but I can only make claims of what I actually went through.

When I sit back and think about how I was viewed by Chinese natives, there is one thing that easily sticks out more than anything else: I wasn't given any attention! Wherever we went, there would be the occasional person that noticed 20 random tourists walking by, but for the most part they wouldn't even acknowledge us. And when they did, it was purely out of interest, such as the desire to take a photo with us. This also makes it sound like they realized we were there and just didn't want to be friendly, or contrastingly, show their distaste for us. But I believe that none of this was the case.

As the trip progressed, I realized that what was happening was people for the most part didn’t make a scene about anything! Even amongst each other, I noticed that there is this sense of comfortableness and security that you do not see between American citizens. One could argue that this depended on where we were in China. But I experienced this wherever we went, and we certainly visited the whole spectrum of sub-cultures within China.

I think their level of comfort bleeds into the way they treat foreign minorities. They don’t have this constant desire to prove themselves, the way it seems in America. I never saw a chip on anyone’s shoulder. This may again be my own romanticizing of the culture, but I truly felt more comfortable there than I sometimes feel back in the states!

The students were so patient with us, they treated us as if we were family. When we would go out at night, people would offer us their friendship as if we had known them for years. This pretty much alludes to my experiences as a minority. I could write a whole book on the anthropological and philosophical implications as to why they do this, but I summarize it by saying this: If you come across as friendly and open-minded, that is exactly what you will get in return, and more. There are so many negative connotations with the word “minority”, but I can’t really say I have any in regards to my time in China.

Ryan talks with his new Chinese friends and discusses Chinese language and cultural differences

More than any other aspect of the trip, I was able to connect the importance of Confucianism in their everyday life. One example of this was the way people commuted wherever we went. After spending a couple days in China, it was quite apparent that the traffic is beyond chaotic. Every two seconds you hear a car beep their horn. There are people cutting off people that are in the process of cutting off other people. Scooters weave through cars and buses weave through scooters. Lane barriers? Pfft, even if they’re there, their existence seems to be invisible.

Streetlights also play a similar role. Red means stop, but if you really want to go then that’s okay too. People are walking through busy intersections, as if the bus zooming by three inches directly in front of them isn't there. When you describe it on paper it seems like it is destined to be disastrous. But, when you see it in person, it is quite the opposite. In the month that I was there, I only saw a single accident, and it was very minor. Considering the amount of cars, scooters, and buses that are on the road that’s a pretty insane statistic.

But all of this alludes to a deeper aspect of the culture. They are all living in this mega-populated area to the best of their ability. The traffic is controlled chaos. People only beep their horns to let others know they’re there. In America, the beeping of a horn almost ALWAYS signifies that animosity is being spewed out on to someone. When observing this, I would literally watch drivers who beeped their horn, and see their reaction afterwards. Every single time, directly after they beeped their horn, their emotion wouldn't change the slightest. There was never any sign of apparent anger.

I made a joke about this because it happened so frequently. Whenever I would hear a horn beep, I would personify the horn, and have it say, “I exist!” because that’s literally the reason people use horns. They merely want to tell their neighboring vehicle, “Hello, I am in close proximity to your car, and it would be kind to perhaps speed up, but if you would rather not speed up that’s perfectly fine. I will switch lanes when I can and this minor impatience that I have will most readily be resolved.” There would be times when our bus cut off someone so sharply that I was sure we were going to crash. But every single time, the car we were cutting off would gracefully accept defeat, and let us get in front of them without a problem. Try that in America and you’ll quickly wish you hadn't.

The reason I focused on traffic here is because it is an excellent way of showing how Confucianism has its roots deeply embedded within the culture. So much so that something as modern as the vehicle, and its place in a land of overpopulation, have quickly assimilated to these roots. The Confucian goal of social harmony plays a large part on how this is possible. If all that we are is our relationships with others, then there cannot be an ego trip on the road as to who is the king of the mountain. Rather, the goal is a collective effort to get to whichever destination we have. If you look closely and spend enough time seeing the patterns, then this becomes apparent in many other aspects of Chinese culture.

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