(Not quite) Embracing Chinese culture.

I met a person the other day who posed me an interesting question. Upon learning that I spoke Chinese, he asked me if I’d ever had a Chinese boyfriend whilst I was here. When I said no, he asked me why and when I responded that I simply wasn’t interested in Chinese men I was further pushed to justify, so I said it was mainly because Chinese men were culturally too different from me. He then asked me, but how is it you feel so removed from this culture yet you are half Chinese and speak the language?

This got me thinking. It is true that I have all the tools to embrace this culture, yet after nearly two years living here and though I appreciate the culture, respect it and to a certain extent understand it, I still feel incapable of connecting with it.

To the person I was talking to, speaking the language seemed key to embracing the culture and breaking down the cultural barrier. This is undeniable, but the two are not inherent.

Indeed, language is a means of communication, which is the first step to understanding, which in turn leads open minds to acceptance. But when it comes to cultural differences, communication and understanding are separate if we understand “understanding” as “embracing”. I understand and even appreciate (some aspects) of Chinese culture, but I have not embraced it and have trouble thinking I ever will.

Recently, I rekindled my relationship with art, which I had somewhat lost touch with here through disappointments with the art scene and the lack of people to share the experience with.

This recent reconnection with art served as a contrast with the disconnection I felt with Chinese culture in an interesting interplay of connection and disconnection through communication.

Art is expressed through a medium everybody can relate to, but an ensuing connection between the artist and the viewer relies a lot on interpretation, on a pre-established mutual understanding, vision, and mindset. Everybody has access to art, but not everybody feels a connection to it.

When I used to live in Paris, I loved the art scene. I thoroughly enjoyed strolling and immersing myself in the exhibitions at Beaubourg, Orsay or the Grand Palais. They would change my mindset, reconnect my nerves and senses in new ways. Why? Because they spoke to me and I fed off them.

During my last visit to Paris, a retrospective of Dali was on at Beaubourg. I happened to attend it at the same time as many tours were being conducted; university professors and art historians could be overheard explicating defining points about the works and giving many insights that even I, having studied the Surrealists and being familiar with Dali’s work, found truly enlightening.

Amongst other things, I marveled at the way Dali was able to exteriorize his paranoia and perhaps related, not to the paranoia, but simply to the need of exteriorization. However slight, this was a form of connection.

Art is such a personal form of expression that it allows a true connection between the artist and the onlooker through a medium that is a language in its own right after all. Whether the connection is slight or overwhelming, it derives from the sharing of some sort of wavelength.

This sharing is essential when communicating, through language or through art; the sensation that the drift of your message has been caught by your interlocutor without you having managed to word your thoughts exactly is exalting and brings about a closeness. Without this, the interaction is void of connection.

The same way two people from a same culture share many “non-dits” (things that do not need explicating) as part of their shared cultural background, in art, things can resonate with you simply because you recognize and interpret them as something you are familiar with, something you can relate to.

We can interact in the same language but not be aware of the volume of associations that these interactions contain, the same way a painting may have a thousand things to say but not every onlooker will grasp the thousand messages.

With the majority of Chinese I interact with, I feel like the more you try to use language to explain things, the more it complicates things because on top of associative misinterpretations (word choice, tone…) you either realize their beliefs actually go against your own, or that you are not using language in the same way, i.e. they are using language in a roundabout way to sell themselves as something they are not whilst you are trying to extract a personal opinion.

So it’s not about the language, it’s cultural. Of course, knowing the language raises the curtain on something otherwise quite unknown, but what the curtain reveals does not change and ultimately, it’s your cultural background that will decide whether you embrace what you find behind it, not your understanding of the language. Either you discover the message and like it, or you discover it and don’t, but learning a language is not inherent with embracing a culture, it simply opens up the possibility of doing so.

So, in my case the curtain has been raised, and with it a new light has been shed on my perception of Chinese culture, and though I have a far better understanding of it and even an appreciation of it, I have not embraced it.

I understand that because of China’s history and its recent boom, money here is of essence and wealth defines a person; I understand that brands are a means to promote that wealth and are to be sought after for this reason. I also understand that face is of utmost importance and to be saved at all cost and why a woman who drinks and smokes is not quite acceptable. I understand that it’s not a big deal to shove someone in the ribs for a place on the metro or that slamming a door in your face doesn’t require an apology. I understand that hygiene is about exuding what is “unclean” from our body even if that means into or onto somebody else’s. I understand family is family and not always ‘friend’, ethics are often a mirage and tact is but a concept.

I do, I really do understand how all these cultural characteristics came to be and I understand that each culture has its differences. And I’m in no way trying to posit Chinese culture as worse or better than others, I have come to accept it, but I simply cannot embrace these traits. Unlike with art where understanding can lead to embrace, here I just feel no connection.

I do not wish to generalize to a whole population either and I do have the most interesting Chinese friends here whom I adore, but in my eyes, though they are Chinese, they display very ‘foreign’ traits, or they are Taiwanese… so I cannot really say that I have true Chinese friends who have not been extensively exposed to foreign cultures.

As for having a Chinese boyfriend, like I said to begin with, I understand, appreciate and respect the culture, but I’m simply not able to embrace it.

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