China · Taiwan

Cultural contradictions – West v China

Sometimes it can be hard and frustrating in the mainland, but that’s why it’s so important to realize that sometimes, it’s not just that values and behavior can be different from the West, but sometimes can be completely contradictory. Here are several contradictions based on completely non-scientific observations and admittedly broad assumptions, with some deliberate generalizations in order to make a point. Please don’t take it too seriously. Some of the Chinese observations are taken from Taiwan and to a lesser extent, Hong Kong, but are common on the mainland as well. By West, I’m mostly referring to the US and Canada, and to some extent, Britain.

In the West, people are expected to follow rules and laws, and breaking the rules is seen as radical, cool and badass.
In China, people tend to disregard rules and laws, but following the rules is seen as weird and silly. Breaking rules is normal, but following them – now that’s crazy!

In the West, such as the US and Canada, a lot of people tend to be polite and friendly to strangers, but this is regular behavior and shouldn’t be taken to mean someone actually wants to be your friend.
In China, people, especially service staff, can be rude or callous to strangers, but this is routine and shouldn’t be taken personally to mean someone doesn’t like you. They probably don’t like you, but they also don’t like everybody else.

Western societies (esp the US) seem to have an emphasis on the individual and being independent, but people still seem to care about society as a whole.
In mainland China, society places more emphasis and value on collective identity and being a group member, whether at work or with family, as opposed to individual identity. Yet people don’t give a damn about society in general (the disdain for traffic rules and the lack of toilet etiquette being two egregious examples that I’ve gotten used to).

There’s so much politeness in the West that at times there’s too much hence the idea of political correctness being a problem.
In China, there’s too little, so that everywhere you go there are signs urging people to be polite and civilized in general as well as specific acts like to line up, give up seats to the elderly on the subway, or to stand close to urinals in the bathroom.

Being direct in terms of talking and behavior is considered a good thing, even valued in the West. For instance, straight talk is a positive term to describe blunt, honest speech. When dealing with problems such as at work, sometimes the more direct you are, the better.
Being indirect is very common in China and Taiwan, and it’s the default, especially in dealing with problems in workplaces for example. Hidden or opposite meanings and insinuations are regular parts of normal speech. Sometimes people can be confused when you say things directly or make direct queries.

Chinese culture is something a lot of Chinese (and Western Sinophiles) feel proud of. Yet few people, especially the young, really practice it. Weddings, music (especially the playing of instruments), sports and physical activities (yoga compared to tai qi) are all instances where Western forms are more popular than traditional Chinese versions in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Western culture, especially American culture, is often something people, both locals themselves and foreigners, make fun of or ridicule as shallow and absurd. Parodies of pop culture and celebrities or even any aspect of regular life are common. Yet it is something widely enjoyed and participated in. Not just by people in the West, but in Asia and even in China where English TV shows and Hollywood movies, coffee and Western fast food are increasingly popular.

People in the West would go anywhere for a holiday. The more exotic, the more remote, the more “off the beaten path,” the better. It doesn’t matter that there’s no material gain or benefit, going somewhere for the thrill or the adventure is everything.
Chinese people, in contrast, scoff at going anywhere difficult or unknown for a holiday. Only well-known or prestigious places are good holiday destinations, even better if there’s good shopping.
But Chinese would go anywhere in the world and brave war, disease or unknowns if there’s an opportunity to make money. They’ll even bring their relatives and families for good too.

Chinese are very proud of their past, the older the better, and I don’t mean reminiscing about the “good old days.” While the last two hundred years were nothing to write about, the time before that, especially the glory days of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Tang Dynasty (618-907) are fondly remembered and are exactly how many Chinese like to base their identity on.
For say, Americans and British, the past is the past. In some ways, British people might feel embarrassed about the old glory days of Empire. After all, it’s an uncomfortable reminder of outdated attitudes such as colonialism and feelings of ethnic/cultural superiority. Telling somebody “Stop living in the past” is a criticism… if you’re in the West. In China, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan, it seems that’s all many people want to do.

When it comes to resolving interpersonal problems such as at work or family, in the West, people are more inclined to talk things out, even argue and highlight differences.
When it comes to China and Taiwan, people often think problems can be solved by just ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t exist. Doesn’t matter whether it’s catastrophic societal tragedies or family issues, leaving things unsaid and trying to act as if it didn’t happen are how those are dealt with.

In the West, dating different people and having flings are all good when young and single, but not when one gets married. Even the rich and powerful like celebs and politicians are not exempt from this social rule (except maybe in France perhaps). In China, people get married first, then start having flings, having mistresses, and sleeping around after (well at least mainly the men). Of course, it’s not all in the open, though it’s not exactly a secret either.


2 thoughts on “Cultural contradictions – West v China

  1. This post is so fun! I remember last year scratching my head on the banks of the Kavango River in Rundu, Namibia, wondering how in the world this Chinese family came to be there, owning the local fabric shop… Several of the other points are really interesting.


    1. Haha, I’m glad you found it so. I knew about some of these aspects already, but it was only recently I realized there are so many contradictions, as opposed to mere differences, between Chinese and Western cultures.
      Those Chinese-Namibians entrepreneurs seem like a great example of what I was talking about.


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