Confucius Slept here

This will be the start of an ongoing, intermittent series about the daunting task of adapting to China and the Chinese ways of culture and business. The working title: Confucius Slept Here: Meditations on China for Western Newcomers is a series that will look at individual and business norms, mindsets, cross-cultural paradigms, language, and customs in the context of my circuitous path to acceptance in the Middle Kingdom.

I am no expert on China, but now having lived 17 years in Asia, I realize how different China is from America and even other Asian cultures. That time has given me some sense of what is needed to survive personally and professionally.

The musings will be random though I hope to pull them together at some point as a real book with a more linear structure. Note: This will concern life in the mainland and not Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The impetus for beginning today came from an article in Weird Asia News (WAN) about a new “Sex bar,” complete with DVD broadcasts, that opened up near me in Guangzhou.

No, this isn’t what you think.

The partons, who tend to be young singles, talk about sex and other normally taboo related topics while enjoying a cup of coffee in the bar. The establishment, created by a neighborhood committee and the area family planning department, opened last week. The broadcasts are special sex- and family planning-themed DVDs to promote healthy sex lives and childbirth. A local resident surnamed Liang, who has been pregnant for six months, says she reads books on the feeding and care of babies and exchanges child-rearing stories with others.

Though this is a move westward, the Chinese are still generally shy about public discussions of sex and public displays of affection. Hugging someone or asking about sensitive issues might evoke giggling or laughter. The Chinese often respond to social discomfort by laughing.

Do not take their seeming amusement as encouragement. They are telling you they don’t feel comfortable, so don’t push on. The Chinese have long memories and it could cause them to avoid certain kinds of contact with you in the future.

Other conversational minefields:

–While it is common to talk about a person’s background or family in China, it is rare to hear someone discuss their souse or significant other. It is entirely possible that you will attend several social gatherings over several months and not know that your colleague is married or in a relationship.

–Salary and money issues are usually off-limits. The Cantonese seem to feel no fear about asking about a person’s wages or the cost of something they own or wear, but it is best to avoid the subject in young relationships. Normal salaries in Guangzhou can be between $50-400 a month, so don’t put colleagues or friends in a position to be embarrassed when compared to you or the west.

–Don’t ask a woman in her late twenties if she is married. It is a cultural expectation that they will be married by that time, so you could really embarrass her. And don’t expect them to understand why many Americans practice serial monogamy before settling down. Many Chinese have had only one mate since junior high school or college.

–Stay away from religion and politics in dialogue. Most Chinese have no concept of religion, though many are quite superstitious, and the wrong politics can end your advancement in a job setting or worse. It will be a long time before you get anything but party-line answers to questions on Tibet, Tienanmen, Taiwan and so on. Many will not answer you because they just don’t have a lot to share. The news is controlled and bringing up a topic like the role of the new Pope might get you blank stares–like I did when I mentioned it in class as a daily news item. Because of the long-standing rift with the Vatican, Chinese news devoted a total of seventeen seconds of national television to Pope John Paul II’s death.

DO ask about holidays, customs, history and business. And when you do, listen and learn. You are not going to change mindsets by being argumentative. Find out more about how and why the Chinese think the way they do before you attempt to change it. Where some westerners enjoy a lively debate or discussion it may seem to some Chinese that you are angry or oppositional and that will drop you several rungs down the ladder of esteem.

Don’t be “a crane standing among chickens*.” There is much to enjoy in interpersonal exchanges if you are open and receptive.


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