Culture Shock – A Westerner Living in China

I first came to China in 2005. I flew in via Hong Kong to Shenzhen and was completely blown away by this city. I didn’t know quite what to expect but it certainly exceeded any expectations I might have had. Thirty years ago Shenzhen was just a small fishing village across the river from Hong Kong but with an idea of creating a model city to rival Hong Kong, the then leader Deng 安全套 Xiaoping set out his vision for this super-city. In my opinion Shenzhen is an amazing modern city with futurist tall buildings, well designed family friendly apartment blocks, wide tree lined avenues, lush vegetation, relaxing parks and a vibrant economy to compete with any western city. Wow! I thought – this is communist China!

It wasn’t however until 2007 when I came to live in Zunyi, a ‘small’ city in Guizhou province did I come to discover the real China. The fact is you never really know a country until you live there and for me, it was a real culture shock! Make no mistake about it, life in the west is so very different from life in China.

Population: As we all know, China has a huge population – 1.3 billion people, a figure which is difficult to comprehend. Zunyi is considered to be a small city in China but has a population bigger than England’s second biggest city – Birmingham. And because everyone lives in apartment blocks, the inhabitants are more crammed in than English cities. Only the mountain right in the middle of the Zunyi creates a refuge from the noise and busyness of the city but most cities here don’t have mountains in the middle of them. The bigger cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing seem to places of endless habitation but fortunately the city planners have thought about this and there are always either beautiful parks or historic sites to escape too. Because of the size of the population it is difficult to get away from people in China; even the countryside where agriculture is labour intensive, it can be difficult to be totally alone. Having said that, I have been fortunate enough to be taken to some stunning countryside away from the city where all you can hear is the birdsong and only occasionally meet another person.

Cultural differences: It is quite difficult to define Chinese culture so simply because like western culture, it is changing. There is the old traditional culture which underpins society and there is the new modern culture imported from the West, Japan and Korea. Although China has one of the oldest civilisations, it is actually one of the newest countries. Sixty years ago was the Cultural Revolution lead by Mao Zedong which swept away thousands of years of dynastic rule by emperors and freed the great majority of people from impoverished living. China reinvented itself in 1949 and became a truly communist country but that was sixty years ago and there can be no comparison between now and then. Only long held traditions and values remain and some of these are under threat from modern day life. Today young people in the cities have high aspirations and want all the modern day fashion and technology they can get their hands on.

So, on the surface in the modern cities all can appear the same as in the West. The men and women wear the same stylish clothes, the girls wear skimpy clothes to reveal their figure and the boys wear fashion to imitate their pop idols; business people drive expensive saloons and 4 x 4s (often black) and high-heeled ladies shop in expensive boutiques. Look up at the skyline and you’ll see amazing high rise blocks of futuristic design which equal or even better western skylines. Under the modern exterior however, most people are very traditional and it is best to be aware of these traditional values if you want to live, work and do business here.

Family: In China, the family unit is a very strong one and there is generally great respect afforded by children to parents and to grandparents. That doesn’t mean that everything is perfect in family life but family is the refuge and the security here. When people need help they turn to family, if they need financial backing for a business venture they turn to family and if they need advice, they do the same. It is not only in life that respect is given but in death also. Every year in April there is ceremony called Tomb Sweeping Day and on this day families will visit the graves of their relatives to clean the graves, say prayers and burn paper money for the dead. This creates a strong connection between the living and their ancestors, and gives an underlying message to the living that they won’t be forgotten, even in death.

Today in China there is still the one child policy, although this does not apply in the countryside where there is a need for labour. This means that the family is small and often the children are cosseted. Most often both parents will go out to work and therefore the grandparents are frequently called upon to assist with the child’s care. Sometimes the child will live with the grandparents if the father and mother have to work away. Many people have to work in other cities and commuting is impossible and so can only visit their family once or twice a year. This makes festivals like Spring Festival so important to the family. At Spring Festival most workers get a week’s holiday and this is a big time for family reunions. This can be the only real holiday a lot of people get in the year.

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