Monday, September 12, 2011

Culture and Love

This may sound crazy, but I think I am just now experiencing the cultural stress people often talk about and lump in with “culture shock”. Oh I have had my fair share of adjustments, getting used to new language and new rules regarding staring, spitting, sitting, eating, cleanliness, bathrooms, whistling (yes, whistling),
green hats, and a plethora of other things. But I am a pretty mellow guy, even keeled you might say. Aside from the initial feeling of being an alien (a feeling I realized I was carrying with me, not a feeling the people or land were projecting at me), things have been pretty easy culturally. Things like crowded buses or lines that aren't lines but a contest to see who can shove to the front-- overall these haven't really stressed me.

But recently I have entered a new cultural context. Maybe context isn't the best word. Perhaps level? I any case I have now been here long enough and our office staff is large enough that I find myself having chinese friendships, real and palpable. And I don't just mean that I have chinese friends. I have had those for a while. What is new is that the ratio of chinese to foreigner has shifted among the general staff so that I am the clear minority, and things tend to run, relationally speaking, in a chinese way.

Which is quite exciting! But also frustrating. I don't know if you all know this or not, but I will let you in on a secret: I am not chinese! I don't know all the tiny little social protocols and rules and expectations that go into friendships here. I have these big general ideas about how they are different, but no idea how those really work out in practice.

For instance, paying for meals. In America, when out with friends, this is relatively easy. Everyone pays for their own thing. You either get separate checks or everyone puts in money. Every once in a while someone will pay for you, just to be nice. But its not like you owe them anything.

China is completely different. Everything is based on relational capital and doing things for other people, and those people being indebted to you. It is a system called guanxi. So when you go out to eat, everyone paying for themselves is pretty much out of the question. One person pays. They don't collect money. They pay. Basically what happens is that there is a knock down drag out verbal fight (indirectly) for who gets to pay-- not with everyone trying to avoid paying, but with everyone trying to out give the others. I have to fight to pay for anything EVER.

And the same idea applies to anything else. I have to scrap and fight and pound my head against this cultural wall in order to do anything for my Chinese friends. It is this weird dynamic where I know that I am culturally expected to do things for them and I also know that Christ wants me to be as loving toward these people as possible-- but they won't accept my love! And it is completely 100% frustrating.

It is hard enough to love people from my own culture, where I know the rules and expectations. But learning to love across cultures is a whole new thing, learned slowly through a thousand mistakes. May God give me grace as I learn to really love the Chinese way.

~J.L. Smith

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