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The Voices of Time E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by JX
That's the title of one of the texts in the extensive reading book I was issued last term. It was actually quite interesting to talk with my students in Xi'an about different cultural perceptions of time. The example given in the text described an important American agriculturalist who had an appointment with the minister for agriculture in 'an Asian country' (not specified).

After announcing his arrival to the secretary, the American waited for fourty-five minutes in the outer office, before leaving in an insulted huff. In 'western' culture, promptness is a virtue, and to keep a business associate or official visitor waiting is considered highly unprofessional. Yet in the 'asian' country apparently fourty-five minutes was only the start of the acceptable waiting time, and thus the American's actions appeared both incomprehensible and impolite.

When I asked the students which culture China's view of time was closer to, they always picked the western one - and it's certainly true that here official meetings, lectures or events will start exactly on the time advertised, and sometimes even a few minutes early (to the chagrain of some foreigners I know).

However, I felt compelled to draw the students' attention to an earlier section of the text:

"In the United States (sic - as if the US were the only proponent of western culture, but sometimes you've just got to sigh and live with that kind of attitude), guests tend to feel they are not highly regarded if the invitation to a dinner party is extended only three or four days before the party date...In other parts of the world, it may be considered foolish to make an appointment too far in advance because plans which are made for a date more than a week away tend to be forgotten."

I've met so many foreigners in China who've been highly aggravated by the lack of forewarning they get for both official and private functions. I'm sure every foreign teacher has suffered from the dreaded knock at the door, "You must come quickly - we'll be late!" "Late for what?" "You're judging a speech competition in ten minutes." ".......!"

Then there are the official dinners - highly official, with the mayor and local government leaders and everything - which you're lucky to be informed of two hours in advance. Or the timetable changes which you might find out about the day before - providing you happen to walk into the right office at the right time that is. (I'm sure a certain anon will happily chime in with stories of foreign teachers turning up for class only to find that the students are mysteriously absent: doing military training, or physical labour, or work practice or something.) It's easy to presume that these problems are caused by language difficulties.

I've spent years with foreign teachers who were convinced that everyone else got all the information nicely in advance, but were too forgetful/lazy/rude to translate it into English. Yet after a few years in China, I came to the conclusion that it was more of a cultural difference than a linguistic one.

As a 'westerner' I've got a mental diary of the future. Certain important events are marked in that diary months in advance - the wedding of a relative or close friend for example. Normal events get added to the diary somewhere between a month and a week in advance. Thus if you ask me what I'm doing over the next four days I can give you a pretty firm idea, and if you add a new commitment at only a few hours' notice, you're disrupting my mental diary, which will irritate me.

However, the traditional Chinese conception of time is rather different. Remember, in Chinese there are no tenses - at least not in the way speakers of European languages understand them - instead there are much vaguer 'time markers'. For example, everyone in China knows that the government will lengthen the dates of the official holidays for May 1st and October 1st by swopping around work days and weekend days. Yet the official announcement is never made until 3-4 days before the holiday (5 at most). Thus, no one can safely buy their train/bus/plane tickets for the holiday until just before hand.

Indeed, the Chinese antipathy towards planning for the immediate future is such that officials are struggling to persuade my friends to buy their train tickets home for Spring Festival a week in advance. That's when everyone in the entire country knows that the transportation is going to be an over-crowded nightmare.

However, writing that just reminded me of an alternate theory: a foreign-teacher friend of mine wrote an article several years ago - this was long before we could easily get any sort of workable internet connection, because the article was actually typed and photocopied into a newsletter. The author wondered why the Chinese were so averse to short-term forward-planning, and he gave two examples: a couple of students who appeared on his doorstep asking if they could borrow his DVD player for an English association meeting that evening, and a student who went to visit another city during the holiday, spent all her money because "there were so many beautiful things to buy" and thus found herself stranded in a strange town without enough cash to buy a ticket home.

His conclusion was that the random and oppressive nature of authority here are to blame. If you've just spent your life savings in doing up your home, and the local authorities decide to demolish the block to make way for new building work, well, that's your hard luck. If students can be given detention for 'trying to check out the wrong kind of library book' (why can't you just tell them, 'I'm sorry, this is a reference book, it can't be borrowed'?) then how can you expect them to act responsibly about other things?

Well, anyway, whether it's because the Chinese are culturally programmed to lack forward-planning skills, or whether 'the leaders' are once more to blame, this whole rant was triggered by an email I just received. Inviting me to the wedding banquet of two of my old students. On Saturday.

Yep, I got 48 hours' notice of an event that I would love to go to. (Guess I should consider myself lucky to get that much warning.) Had I received the invitation two weeks ago, there would be no problem. As it is, last week I agreed to do another weekend's work in Hangzhou, and it is far too late to cancel on them, especially as I'd like to be considered for regular offers of work.

Cue cursing and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Our valuable Editor JX has been with us since Saturday, 19 January 2013.

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