When I was living in Beijing, I usually rode my bike to work. One Wednesday morning the street in front of the school where my office was located was like a parking lot. A big bus and a big truck were staring each other down, completely surrounded by stopped cars and cars trying to get around the stopped cars. Some drivers had taken to honking their horns (a true exercise in futility) and others seemed to be settling in for the day.
“That’s funny,” I thought to myself. “It’s not Friday afternoon. Why is the street like this on a Wednesday morning?” Because I was on a bike, I simply weaved my way down the street, past the stare-downs and honking horns. When I entered the campus I discovered the reason for the traffic jam—there was a school program to celebrate Children’s Day (June 1). This meant parents were in attendance, which explained the chaos on the street on a Wednesday morning.
Normally this traffic jam appears every Friday afternoon when the parents arrive to pick up their kids from the boarding school to take them home for the weekend. For the 15 years that I worked in that neighborhood that street had turned into a parking lot on Friday afternoons.
One year it even provided me with an important cultural lesson.
A few years previous, I had visited some fellow Americans at the foreign student dormitory on the campus of Northeast Normal University in Changchun. We were admiring the great view of the campus from the giant window of a 6th floor room—we could see the sports field, the swimming pool, a small lake, and hundreds of students going hither and yon on the campus.
In the course of the conversation, we spotted someone walking near the lake and all agreed that said person was a foreigner. We wondered how it was that, even at six floors up and across campus, it was possible to make that distinction. We were too far away to actually see any physical characteristics, but we all knew that this person was not only a foreigner, but was most likely an American.
A discussion ensued as to how and why this was possible. Finally, one of my colleagues hit the nail on the head. “It’s the way an American walks,” she said. “The walk says one of two things: ‘I own this place.’ or ‘I’m off to fix something.’” We all laughed in agreement, instinctively knowing the truth of what she said.
At times, Americans living overseas can be like three-year-old kids who drive everyone in the room crazy by asking a never-ending series of “why” questions. In most cases, what we are really asking is “why is it like this?” And what that really means is “It’s not like this at home, so it shouldn’t be like this here.”
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t ask “why” questions; on the contrary, I’m a firm believer in them. They demonstrate a desire and willingness to learn, but I think it’s important to make a distinction between two different motivations for incessantly asking “why.”
One motivation is the desire for understanding. Asking the “why is it like this?” question about chaotic traffic may reveal the fact that until twenty-five years ago, private cars were banned in China, and there were almost no taxis. That means that many of the drivers of those ubiquitous taxis and Mercedes Benzes are rookie drivers, none of whom grew up riding in cars. So the traffic patterns of cars are merely extensions of the traffic patterns of bicycling, which are much more fluid and situational. I still may be terrified when careening through traffic on the third ring road, but it sort of makes sense.
The other motivation for asking the “why is it like this?” question is a desire to fix whatever it is that is being questioned. The question gives definition to a problem, and once a problem is defined, then it can be fixed. “This chaos is fixable,” thinks the American. Put in one-way streets. Put in left-turn lanes. Impose strict fines for breaking the rules. Put up stop signs. The list of solutions can go on and on and on.
Now, back to the weekly traffic jam. . .
A few weeks after my trip to Changchun, I was discussing the issue of the weekly traffic jam with my Chinese professor. I described to him the scene outside the school. I told him how every Friday afternoon, when parents come to pick up their children, the mother of all traffic jams forms as the drivers of Cadillacs, Benzes, Buicks, and BMWs all jockey for position, trying to be the ones to get their car closest to the gate. Everything else in the neighborhood comes to a stop.
The question I put to my professor was why the school, or the local police, or someone in authority couldn’t come up with a way to prevent the weekly traffic jam. Since they know it’s going to happen every Friday, it seemed to me to that it was a fixable problem. He pointed out to me that the school wasn’t doing anything because it wasn’t their responsibility. The traffic jam was on the street, not on the school grounds.
I then pressed him as to why the local “paichusuo” (police station) didn’t do something, and he said that they didn’t view it as a problem either, or at least not their problem. The local police stations handle neighborhood registrations and deal with petty crime and other activities that affect social stability. To them, as is the case with everyone else, the traffic jam was simply a weekly natural occurrence that will, within two or three hours, take care of itself.
In other words, I was viewing it as a problem to be fixed, but nobody else was.
The following Friday, I stepped out of the gate to watch the traffic jam, this time viewing it through a different lens. I realized that not only was no one bothered by it; in fact, for the migrant workers who tended the shops that lined the streets, it was a weekly source of entertainment; a happening! Everyone was out, many with grandparents and kids in tow, watching the rich people and their cars. By supper time, it was all over and everyone went back to their regularly scheduled activities.
In their book, American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-cultural Perspective, Stewart and Bennet discuss this American tendency to “see events as problems to be solved, based on their concepts of an underlying rational order in the world and of themselves as individual agents of action.” Americans see problems and solutions as “basic ingredients of reality.” It’s just the way life is.
But it’s not necessarily the way life is for many other cultures. In cultures (like China) that are predisposed to adapt rather than change, accepting things as they are (chaotic as that may be) is the first tendency. What a westerner calls a problem may be viewed simply as a twist of fate. In some languages, the word, “problem” is synonymous with “confusion,” which is defined as “a condition that is best addressed by stopping whatever one is doing and waiting.” Stewart and Bennet point out that attempts to solve the problem may be interpreted as contributing to the confusion.
This tendency towards fixing (be it personal or societal) can often be a cultural clash point when we are sojourning abroad. We look around and see so much that we don’t understand and the “why” questions start bubbling to the surface. When they do, it’s good to check ourselves to see if the questions are being motivated by the desire to fix what we perceive as being broken, or if they are motivated by a genuine desire to learn how the society is organized and the thinking patterns that lie behind it.
Well, that’s all for now . . . I’m off to fix something!
Note: This is a slightly edited version of a post that first appeared on Joann Pittman’s personal blog, Outside-In.
Image credit: Organized Chaos by Let Ideas Compete via Flickr.
Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio
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