Culture Shocks

When we head overseas we brace ourselves for the variety of new foods, the crazy streets, and missteps in a new culture. The thing we often forget is that culture is truly ubiquitous, permeating absolutely every aspect of life.

So over the next few days we will be looking at a few of the places where cultural differences surprise us because we didn’t even realize they were part of culture.

As I like to think of this blog as a place to be exposed to new concepts and ideas, I’ll be introducing a variety of anthropological terms that will help us talk more exactly about culture.


This one seems fairly obvious, we have heard about cultures that are more or less time sensitive (Americans say the meeting is at 5pm, and they mean 5pm, other cultures might simply say afternoon). Time though, is much more cultural than just how specific we are in talking about meeting times.

For one, the idea of “early” is completely dependent on the culture you were raised in. For most Chinese the normal time for waking up is about 6-7am, even on the weekend.

In my first few weeks I was greatly irritated by the chopping sounds (breakfast being made) that echoed through my apartment building every morning around 7. I couldn’t believe nobody else complained, but everyone else was already awake. A few days later a giggling student told me about how lazy she’d been that weekend. She could barely control her laughter as she explained that she hadn’t even got out of bed until 8:30am!

I think there are a couple of factors in play for this affinity for the morning. I have heard explanations from some of my Chinese friends, known as “Emic” view (this refers to how a culture explains its own practices). They say that there is a time in the morning that is best for doing exercises. Apparently this special time is around 6:00 in the morning, but I have yet to see for myself if this is really true.

The other factor, and this is coming from an “Etic” view (the outsider explanation of a culture), is that China was a country of farmers less than 40 years ago. I know from time spent with my wife’s family that 1) farmers like to get up really early, and 2) getting up early doesn’t stop just because they aren’t farmers anymore.

China’s internal clock is still set to avoid doing physical labor in the noon day sun, even if a growing chunk of the population is sitting in air-conditioned buildings all afternoon.

In China timing is also an important way of demonstrating your power or subservience in work relationships. This was especially true in meetings I’ve had with party officials, who tell you the dinner will start at 6 and then waltz in at 6:30 or later. To American’s it feels like they are being incredibly rude, but after a few meetings you realize that this is simply the way things are done. Walking in late gives the boss “face”, and serves to maintain the social hierarchy. Me showing up on time and waiting shows that I understand my lower position.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at how “personal space” doesn’t seem to be a part of Chinese culture.

15 responses to “Culture Shocks”

  1. Rick says:

    I’m just starting a project to establish a joint venture in China and find your thoughts useful and interesting. Thank you for your efforts!

    • Tom says:

      Which part of China are you working on the joint venture in Rick? I’ve heard a lot of stories about starting projects in China, but would like to hear yours.

  2. Chopstik says:

    Speaking of time, I would almost argue that it is an East vs. West thing. When showing up at Chinese-hosted parties, if we arrive within an hour of the stated time, we are still early. And I remember attending the wedding of a South Asian friend of mine a few years ago. Everything was a minimum of three hours late – drove us non-South Asians nuts trying to make plans…

    • Tom says:

      Well the west tends to be more time sensitive than other countries. I’ve heard Africa is particularly frustrating for Americans. My friend said that the bus schedule in his town was “morning” and “afternoon”. Really this post is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to time issues.

  3. john book says:

    Yes, I think this blog will prove to be most enlightening and enjoyable. Please continue the good work!

    Japan, I found is more western in timeliness. I found that an appointment was an appointment! Being late, however, always seemed to have more rudeness to it to the nationals. Lateness was never an issue either with me or with my flock or students.

  4. Neil says:

    Ah, thanks for your post Tom, that explains a lot. My Chinese teacher has been late every week by about 15-20 minutes for the past one and a half years! At first I used to get quite annoyed by this, but I’ve come to accept that my lesson now starts at 9:45 rather than 9:30. Of course, I still turn up at 9:30, just in case she arrives on time. Haha, I guess I’ve been confirming my lower position all this time without realising it.

    • Tom says:

      I thought it was hilarious when my students praised me for always coming to class on time. I later discovered that virtually all of the Chinese teachers saunter in 5-10 minutes late every day. It can feel like an awfully silly place at times.

  5. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Ha! When I started learning Chinese from the ubiquitous Da Shan on CCTV9, he emphasised how punctual Chinese people were! Looking forward to post on “personal space” Tom!

    • Tom says:

      Da Shan might be my least favorite Canadian. He does seem to be everywhere in China, but teaches us only the “emic” view of China.

  6. […] Seeing Red in China My life in their world Skip to content HomeAbout MeMap of China ← Culture Shocks […]

  7. […] When we head overseas we brace ourselves for the variety of new foods, the crazy streets, and missteps in a new culture. The thing we often forget is that culture is truly ubiquitous, permeating absolutely every aspect of life. So … Continue reading → […]

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