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Misconceptions E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by Jim Kirk
Chinese, Japanese, Korean. Over the past two years I’ve spent a fair few hours with these mainstays of east Asia and been exposed to assorted cultural phenomena, some of which have left me at a complete loss. Anyone who tasted even the smallest bit of China will know it is a land of extremes: weird and wonderful, infuriating and endearing, rich and poor, snow and sand, meticulously organised and hopelessly remiss, socially open and politically closed, irritatingly predictable and eternally elusive, unnecessarily bureaucratic and erm… unnecessarily bureaucratic. It provokes similarly extreme responses from those who experience it, the kind of place you either love or hate. Yet those who hate China can’t help but find it interesting, and those who love at times want to crush it beneath their feet. Is it possible to actually ‘get’ China? Despite the claims of some, the answer is resolutely no. There are certain aspects of Chinese culture that are completely unfathomable to those who have not grown up with them or in the shadow of them.

For example, how can a people who seem to have the spirit of commercialism woven into their gene pool end up Communist? The answer lies in historical circumstance but no matter how many years we study it, we are unlikely to uncover an X factor, an explanation as to what exactly makes Chinese people tick.

To reach these kinds of conclusions about a country, you have to live in it, experience it first hand and the untangle truths from the socio-cultural debris. The point is this: I have come across Japanese and Koreans but my two-year period in Asia has been spent exclusively in China. I can’t make accurate judgements on Japan or Korea having never been to either.

For example, the America that many Europeans find offensive is most accurately represented in those who don’t often leave the country. An American who, through their own choosing, comes to China to work or study, is likely to fit more comfortably in the Liberal category than among the gun-toting advocates of the Confederate states.

Living in an international community, you get a taste of a variety of different cultures. The Asian ones are by far the most interesting as they are the most different from my own. Last semester was spent studying in Beijing where most of my classmates were Japanese, this semester in Qingdao the classrooms were crammed with Koreans.

Over time, you begin to recognise certain habits and customs peculiar to the people but, not seeing them in their natural context, it is very hard to explain the how and why. You end up nurturing a desire to visit these countries for yourself, although considering the trouble the Chinese language is causing me, I think stints spent studying Korean and Japanese may represent bridges too far.

Koreans are, quite simply, fun-loving creatures. Given that parts of their recent history are somewhat unpleasant and that the current situation with the DPRK means it is very difficult to move on from these events, you have to wonder whether this youthful zest is in fact a reaction against the sad feelings. Alternatively, Korea’s youth may just be a bunch of narcissists weaned on the consumerist pleasures of a newly-rich nation. There also might be fair reason to believe young people in China are going the same way.

During my time spent studying in Beijing, I made the most of the wealth of Korean cuisine available in Haidian, the city’s student-dominated area. Among the plethora of restaurants lining the streets, there were some that, well… looked like they were designed to appeal to the tastes of small children.

Ceilings so low you had to stoop, tables and chairs that appeared to have been ordered from a kindergarten furnishings company, and a laissez-faire attitude which meant customers were free to write messages and draw pictures on the walls. On top of all this, the background music of choice seemed to have been composed with the Tellytubbies in mind.

On entering this restaurant, a Korean friend emitted a piercing scream of delight in a way that only Koreans can and said: “This is just like home!” I exchanged worried looks with our other dining companion, an Australian. This Australian has actually just spent a little time travelling in South Korea and he was happy to confirm that the children’s birthday party analogy actually rings true.

It was no special occasion, but balloons had been released in the centre of Seoul and were floating down the main roads; he reported a remarkable number of children’s playgrounds, some of which were perhaps not for the exclusive use of children; and many restaurants do indeed have ‘youthful’ décor. Top prize, however, goes to the main government building – known as ‘The Blue House’. This friend did not get the chance to set eyes upon the building itself but we agreed that navy blue polka dots on a lavender wash would not be pushing the bounds the possibility.

In all fairness, when there are roads on the other side of the demilitarized zone with overbearing names like the ‘reunification highway’, I suppose a degree of childlike creativity is a breath of fresh air.

The big question is: would you want to live with this madness and hysteria 24-7? Having spent four months of mornings in the same room as 15 or so Koreans, I would have to say no. No, no, no. My classmates were very pleasant people – the one exception being the serious-minded Korean pensioner who immigrated to America in the 1970s and had the annoying habit of patronising people whenever he spoke (“You are not Asian, how can you be expected to understand…?”)

Going out for a few beers with these Koreans was a pleasure but at times in class they were just too damn loud. As soon as the break between classes began, you could guarantee the noise level would double by the minute. Whatever one person said, another person would have to reply at twice as loudly – it was as if the louder an opinion was expressed the greater its accuracy. 

Of course, all the talking was in Korean, not Chinese. Perhaps these students found that Chinese just didn’t reach the required level of intensity. People who don’t understand Mandarin often find it hard to distinguish between an angry Chinese person and a one just trying to make themselves heard – whatever is said, it always sounds aggressive. Similarly, in Korean, each sentence seems to be infused with excitement.

Sadly, this need for zest and consequent reliance on Korean left me at a loose end. All I could do was let the incomprehensible madness whirl around me and try and concentrate on preparing for the next lesson. You’d think the majority group would make efforts to ensure the rest don’t feel left out – this was not the case.

The semester spent studying in Beijing, however, encountered no such difficulties. My largely Japanese classmates and I chatted in Chinese during break times and there was generally a more inclusive atmosphere in the classroom. Unfortunately this didn’t extend to the characters teacher who took an immediate dislike to me (well, I was the worst in the class) and exploited any opportunity to make me look stupid. That sarcastic little laugh that followed my frequent incorrect answers will remain with me forever.

The nadir was reached towards the end of the semester when on one occasion she just couldn’t be bothered trying to understand what I was saying and asked a French classmate for an explanation – effectively requesting that he translate my sub-standard Chinese (which, let us not forget, he could understand so it can’t have been that bad) into proper Chinese. Given a gun and a rock solid alibi, I would have happily shot her dead right there and then.

Had these events taken place in front of a crowd of Korean classmates, there would have been giggles, perhaps even mild hysteria. But, to their credit, the Japanese were the model of understanding. Patient, helpful and – most important of all – respectful. I’m not trying to pretend there is no such thing as a conceited and loud-mouthed Japanese person, it’s just that this kind of person wasn’t in my class.

Unsurprisingly, this led me to have a high opinion of the Japanese. They are generally a little reserved and perhaps this very English characteristic endears them to me. Add to this unerring reliability (if they say they will be somewhere by a certain time then they will be), politeness and excellent manners. However, I do think the practice of wearing a mask whenever they catch a cold is taking things a little too far.

The Chinese unashamedly look over your shoulder at whatever you are reading, stare at you intently on public transport and aren’t shy about making inquiries into your private life. If you’ve got diarrhoea, this news will be shouted from the hilltops. This socially open attitude has its benefits: there is little chance of getting tangled up in etiquette and repression can be kept to a minimum. That is not to say the Chinese aren’t socially repressed – it’s just the pressures act in a different way.

Alongside this overbearing fascination in your personal affairs, the Japanese reserve is a breath of fresh air. Contrast the at times lackadaisical Chinese attitude towards accurate service and prompt delivery with Japan’s rigorous culture of standards and you leave feeling similarly elated.

Of course there are drawbacks. Just as the Chinese social openness seems to paper over myriad cracks, the Japanese reserve can be seen to create problems. Could it be argued that this habit of diplomatically skirting around an issue as opposed to tackling it head on is part responsible for Japan’s hesitance in issuing apologies for past misdemeanours? While this theory is in no way a solid one, you can’t help but notice how a young German person is usually able to discuss World War Two without inhibition. If the subject is raised with a Japanese of similar age, it is likely to provoke an embarrassed silence or a mumbled neutral response.

Never having sampled Japanese culture on its home turf, my arguments are not well informed. A Japanese apology for wartime atrocities, for example, is apparently not a wise move in domestic political circles given the strength of the country’s nationalist lobby (who were, incidentally, responsible for publishing ‘that book’). But the Japanese I have met in China do not reflect these sentiments – after all, it’s hardly a suitable destination for right-wing tub-thumpers from across the Yellow Sea.

It all amounts to some kind of gigantic illusion, placing hopes and sculpting ideas out of material that has been uprooted from its own reality and temporarily transplanted elsewhere. The people are real enough but the assumptions I draw of their general society are inaccurate as these people aren’t operating in their natural surroundings. I am trying to construct ideas of a country through a third party and so the results are liable to be lacking in accuracy.

And, in a strange way, once you appreciate the falseness of your impressions, you have license to embellish them. Which brings us to Japanese women. Perhaps it’s the conservative behaviour; perhaps the reserved nature; perhaps the simple fact that my poor Chinese sees many conversations stumble well before the existentialist-themed small talk: but there is something elusive about Japan’s fairer sex. The cultural, social and lingual barriers that lie between us lend these women an air of the unobtainable – and this in itself is an attractive characteristic. All I need to do is buy a plane ticket to Tokyo and the illusion will probably be destroyed forever.

Our valuable Editor Jim Kirk has been with us since Wednesday, 25 August 2010.

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