We’ve been looking at transitions recently, particularly focusing on transitioning back to one’s passport country after spending extended time in China in the 2017 winter issue of ChinaSource Quarterly. But of course, as our friend and contributor Amy Young has pointed out in her book, transitions loom for cross-cultural workers in every phase of their career. (A review of Looming Transitions also appeared in the "Transitions" issue.)
Timothy Conkling has written a book, the first in a proposed series, that discusses in an engaging way what it means to live bouncing between different cultures. So, if you are looking for some stay-in-where-it’s-warm winter reading, you might want to try Stranger in Every Land: Reflections of a Transcultural Adult in a Shrinking World.
To whet your appetite, we are including an excerpt from the chapter “What Time Is It? P-Time vs. M-Time.”
What Time Is It? P-Time vs. M-Time
Stranger in Every Land: Reflections of a Transcultural Adult in a Shrinking World by Timothy Garner Conkling
Before Evie and I left for Taiwan in August 1992, we were referred to a book, Michael Harris Bond’s Beyond the Chinese Face. Dr. Bond is a professor on the faculty of Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has spent his adult life studying the psychology of Chinese people in the PRC, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In his book, Dr. Bond cites the research of Edward Hall in explaining the Chinese conception of time versus the Western conception of time. Hall asserts that Westerners operate according to monochronic time, M-time, and Chinese operate according to polychronic time, P-time.
Under M-time, you schedule your day and don’t take interruptions if you have an appointment. You line up for taxis and planes. You drive in one lane and don’t weave back and forth in traffic. You arrive on time for appointments. You cross the road at a pedestrian crosswalk. You draw a sense of security from your carefully planned schedules and feel bothered when things do not go according to plan. You think through projects and plan ahead for unplanned contingencies. You anticipate rather than react. You do one thing at a time, and when you have finished that one thing, you do another thing.
Under P-time, you do many things simultaneously. You wait on three people at the same time. You crowd for boarding rather than line up. You accept and expect interruptions. You see a lane as a mere suggestion. You cross the road wherever you would like. You bite off more than you can chew and double-schedule yourself, then wonder why you are always late or cannot make deadlines. You are flexible and spontaneous. You value relationships over tasks and see life as a juggling of your obligations to these manifold opportunities or people. You live in the moment, or you are made so nervous by the multi-tasking that your terminal case of the jitter-bugs infects everyone around you.
When we moved to Taiwan in 1992, Taiwan was completely operating under P-time. Traffic weaved like a snake. Jaywalking was common. You didn’t have a pre-set appointment time at the doctor. Instead, you would walk into the clinic, take a number, then sit and wait—often for hours-- until your number was called.
Nobody lined up in the bank. The tellers would wait on three people at the same time. This made me so mad on one trip to the Hua Nan Bank that I had a minor melt-down in the lobby. “What is it with you people?” (Notice the “US” and “THEM” in my angst). I reverted to my alter ego of the Ugly “Americuhn” as I shouted out loud. “I have been waiting in line for 20 minutes and the line hasn’t moved. Why has it not moved? And while I have been standing in line, fourteen people have come in behind me and butted right up to the teller.”
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the situation was actually a combination of P-time and M-time. Customers entered and butted in to place their bank books on top of each other on the teller’s countertop. The teller would take the book on the bottom and keep on working upwards. There was a method to the madness, but it wasn’t my method.
During the meltdown, no one paid attention. I was completely ignored. At the end of my meltdown, a finely dressed Taiwanese patron politely explained in perfect English, “Here we do not line up. Instead, we give the teller our bank books and wait for her to call our name.” Well good, fine, and dandy. I wondered why the teller had been calling names, but it all just looked like chaos to me.
. . . .
Here are some other P-time situations that I observed . . .
- The shopkeeper in our neighborhood received a shipment of Ceres juice, received payment from me for purchasing a China Post, tutored her daughter in math, watched a Taiwanese soap opera on the TV screen above the counter, and answered a customer’s question about where to find the toilet paper-- all at the same time. “Now that’s different!”
- Cars, scooters, buses, pedestrians, and baby strollers all shared the back streets and alleys at the same time. There were no sidewalks on these smaller streets. Cars came within inches of pedestrians and my kids in their double stroller. “Now that’s different!”
- People at their jobs were asked to do more than one job, wear more than one hat, and stay late to work overtime without payment. “Now that’s different!”
- Plumbers, repairmen, and delivery boys would come to your house when they wanted to come, not when you wanted them to come. They absolutely refused to make a scheduled appointment, and if they did, you would often wait around for days for them to show up.
. . . .
My frequent trips to Hong Kong and China confirmed Dr. Bond’s observations. Taiwanese and mainland Chinese operate out of P-time, no doubt about it. Hong Kong operates on M-time, due to the British influence. People actually line up there and don’t jaywalk. “How sad,” I thought, after living in Taipei for 2 years. “No jaywalking.”
As time went on, I gradually became more and more P-time. People started expecting me to be late. I overscheduled myself to the max. I sang the praises of multi-tasking and wearing more than one hat. I realized that P-time was often more relational and that “Americuhns” were way too particular about time. I began to see P-time as the timing which made for endless possibilities with seemingly non-existent limitations.
Where it came back to bite me was when we returned to the US for vacations or to see our parents. I was driving like a possessed bat out of the warm place, passing stopped cars on the right shoulder in Honolulu when Evie said to me very nicely, “Now honey, we’re not in Taiwan anymore. You are going to have to stay in a lane.” I had been giddy behind the wheel of the rental car, praising myself every time I passed the “idiot” who was waiting in line for the light to change. Oops. My bad?
Another incident happened on one of my brief visits back to “where did you say you were from again?...Titusville?” I had been invited by Pastor Ray to preach at First Baptist, my home church, and the hive of all my fans and prayer supporters. Unfortunately, I had spilled something on my suit and it needed to get cleaned before Sunday.
On Friday afternoon, I bopped into the cleaners and announced, “I need this suit cleaned by tomorrow.” “It ain’t gonna happen, honey,” I heard the anonymous voice behind the sea of hanging suits saying to me with a lilt. “No, you don’t understand. I have to preach on Sunday. I need my suit by closing time tomorrow.” “No, honey. You just don’t understand. It ain’t gonna happen, sweetie.”
I wanted less honey and more action. When smooth talking “Sara” appeared from behind the suits, I thought I would try one last time. “I will pay you an extra 50 dollars if you can get this suit cleaned by tomorrow 4 p.m.” “It ain’t gonna happen, honey.” “Why not, sugar?” “Because the person who does the suits doesn’t come in until Monday.” I was beginning to really, really resent M-time.
But at that point, I would have done well to remember another paragraph from Dr. Bond’s book, Beyond the Chinese Face:
Although there are no tests for measuring P- and M-time orientation, it is my judgement that Chinese are and will remain on P-time despite the demands of twentieth-century industrialization. The Chinese are fully capable of structuring events within their P-time framework by relying on the dictates of hierarchy and relationship to direct the unfolding of their lives together. If a particular interaction is not completed, a longer time perspective and a cyclic view of time will reduce any sense of panic. Everything will happen in its own time!
I was stuck in P-time but the local Dry Cleaners was operating out of M-time. I was not in Taipei, I was in “where did you say that was again…… Titusville?”
Much has changed in Taipei since 1992. Contrary to Dr. Bond’s prediction, many features of M-time have found their way into daily life. Customers take a number to wait in the bank or post office. Many major hospitals now arrange appointments in advance online or by phone, and give an estimated appointment time. The sidewalks and streets of Taipei have been repaired. There are relatively few traffic jams due to the completion of the MRT. Pollution seems minimal. Repairmen make appointments and arrive at the agreed-upon time. The ugly duckling of Asia has been transformed into the ideal landing-spot for expats. It is a great place to visit, and the ideal place to live. And after staying here off and on for the better part of 25 years, I don’t ever want to leave. But if I ever do leave, I certainly want to come back and retire in the land where it all started for me twenty-five years ago.
Excerpted from Stranger in Every Land: Reflections of a Transcultural Adult in a Shrinking World by Timothy Garner Conkling.
Used by permission.
Image credit: Alex Sawyer on Unsplash.
Narci Herr and her husband, Glenn, lived for just over 30 years in Hong Kong. They were first involved in working with the church in Hong Kong and then for the last 20 years of their time in Asia they served workers living in China. During that time Glenn traveled extensively throughout China and Narci... View Full Bio