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.