Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.. China (II)
This turned out to be a very long entry. In the digital age of mass media and information overload, I find myself in the itchy situation that very few readers will probably take the time to read this blog post. Those who have the time to read it anyway, I hope you’ll enjoy like it and am grateful for your feedback and comments. 🙂
Spilling the beans…
I will begin my second China blog-post on stereotypes with a confession. I started studying ‘Sinology’ – The Study of China or China Studies back in 2003, and quit after the first year. Why? I said I couldn’t identify myself with the culture/mentality of the Chinese. I couldn’t imagine ever living and working there (without ever having been into China). Ironically my first big project abroad had me live and work in China for almost an entire year. I learned so much about myself during this time, about stereotypes and prejudice, about observing and learning like I have never before. I became a big fan (not politically speaking) and want to see more of China!
Germany from a Chinese Viewpoint
Everyone has their stereotypes about different nationalities. A Chinese tourist in Germany expects to see castles, Oktoberfest, Lederhosen, and drink beer. Also German soccer (the best known team seems to be FC Bayern München, which should make my dad very happy 😉 ), German cars, punctuality, German engineering, and that Germany’s boss is a woman 😉 add up to the list of connotations Chinese have when you ask them about Germany. You might be thinking, well this is the stereotypic picture of Germany everywhere else in the world too. Considering that only Shanghai’s population already makes up nearly a third of Germany’s total population, I was often surprised about the high awareness level of Germany. I have even had curious taxi drivers asking me about my country of origin, soccer, German cars, you’d be surprised! Their broken or non existing English and my very basic knowledge of Mandarin, which I like referring to as fluent ‘Taxi Chinese’, always made these conversations extremely adventurous.
China from a German Viewpoint
This leads me to the stereotypic view Germans, Europeans and probably most Western countries have of China. This view ranges from respect and also fear of the country’s economic power on one hand, to the perception of cheap labor and piracy of brands on the other hand. Regardless, we all like going to Chinese restaurants and love Chinese food, as long as it’s not dog. And the first thing we do when we arrive in Shanghai (as I mentioned in my previous blog I can only speak from my own experience, this is why all my comparison will always be referring to Shanghai), is take a cab straight to the fake market on People Square and buy cheap hand bags, soccer shirts, sunglasses, Luis Vuitton scarves, wrist watches and so on. The list of fake products would exceed the word limit of this blog post. Back at home we go back to criticizing the cheap labor market in China. (Myself included.)
When Stereotypical Views Turn Into Prejudices..
A widely discussed topic: Chinese eating habits.. I decided to dedicate almost a whole blog post to this topic since there are so many links to other prejudices. Some of you might be wondering now why I choose to call the eating habits a prejudice, since ‘Everyone knows that Chinese have horrible eating habits.’ In the Western culture slurping, gurgling, and eating with an open mouth are absolute no-goes! Yet…
Chinese eating habits – Eating with the mouth ‘wide open’
It didn’t take long until I was confronted with my first real-Chinese-eating-habit-experience. I was on my very first flight to SH. There he was, my Chinese neighbor on the airplane. Eleven hours of flight time ahead of me and he was already munching on some snacks before we even rolled up the runway. It was impossible to overhear him even with the airplane engines running. I tried to listen away and started reading my book, finally I got out my earplugs.
Arriving in SH at 7am we reached the hotel by 10am and went straight to the breakfast buffet. Next to a variety of everything a Western buffet has to offer there was also an Eastern buffet. Cooked eggs of brown color (I found out later that they cooked them in soy sauce), fish, sea weed, dumplings, noodle soup… everything I would like to try some day, but not for breakfast! The Chinese business men at the buffet went on with their noodle soup and thousand-year old eggs, but also stacked piles of cake, waffles, fruit and whatever else fit on their plates. As soon as they sat down at the tables around us they put their heads down to their bowls and started slurping, smacking (German: Schmatzen; the sound you produce eating with an open mouth). After finishing, they would leave at least half of the food they brought for the waiters to clean away. I was disgusted. I even felt personally offended, I remember saying to my colleague: ‘how rude of them! These Chinese have no manners at all, and all that waste of food!’ …
Learning #1: Eating with an open mouth carries more oxygen to the taste buds and simply makes food taste more intense: hence, more delicious. Or have you ever seen a French sommelier taste wine with a closed mouth? And think of what happens (unconsciously), especially in children, when they taste something extremely delicious? “Om nom nom” – onomatopoeic for the chewing noise of joy.
Second learning: In the Western culture we like to finish our plate. From child on we are reminded by our parents: finish your food or it will rain tomorrow. Or: finish your food or there will be no dessert.
In the Chinese culture it is believed that finishing your plate is a sign that you are still hungry. Don’t ever finish all food when you are invited to have dinner by a Chinese business man. It is a sign that he didn’t put enough food on the table. So what happens is that Chinese order way more food than necessary, on purpose. Having enough food on the table is a sign of wealth.
Chinese eating habits – Eating heads, ears and noses
..We have another image of Chinese food habits, which brings disgust to many of us: Chinese eat everything. Dog, snake, chicken feet, pigs’ feet, heads, ears, noses, intestines; basically the whole animal. Turning European history back not too long it was a normal thing to utilize everything that the animal offered. It was a luxury to eat only the best parts and dispose of the rest.
My learning: In the Chinese cooking culture, which is known to be one of the best and most diverse in the world, everything of the animal is edible. With the right spices and ingredients they convert a donkey’s tale or a duck’s tongue into a delicious meal. We’re just not used to it anymore. And that Chinese eat dogs (favorite prejudice of most dog-loving people) might be true for other areas in China, but surely not for mainstream cuisine in big cities like SH. If at all, you can find these very ‘exquisite’ meals in gourmet restaurants through insider tips. I am a vegetarian and I dare to say: compare dog and pig – why eat one and not the other? My first experience: observe and learn for the better.
Now let’s take a look at the ‘wasting food’ topic again in regards to these two examples; leaving leftovers and on the other hand eating every part of the animal: While we finish our plates, we still throw a lot of food away, and since we only like to eat the filet, we produce way more than we need. Hence, our markets are supersaturated so we send what we don’t want to eat to the Asian and African markets for dumping prices, destroying the local markets. Not so delightful either.
Chinese eating habits – Slurping
Slurping has the same effect as described in #1 and have you ever tried to eat noodle soup with chopsticks? Another explanation I got: soup is also considered to be a beverage China and is therefore being ‘slurped’. 😉
My learning: Bringing your head down to the bowl helps a lot. While noodles, vegetables and pieces of fish or meat are ‘shoved’ into the mouth with chopsticks, the rest of the soup comes in ‘easiest’ through slurping, great technique that makes a lot of sense. Try it 😉 ..
Chinese eating habits – Where to put the bones?
I have watched my colleagues in the cantina spitting pieces of bone or fishbone onto their plate or bowl after having turned them around in their mouth at least a dozen times. Again, not such a joyful sight if you’re not used to it. There is a very simple explanation a colleague explained in following words:
“We don’t like touching our food with our hands because we believe they are dirty. This is why we prefer picking our food up with our extended fingers, the chopsticks. When there is a piece of bone or e.g. the head of a fish, we chew around the pieces of bone without utilizing our fingers.” It made sense to me now that, when we’d order pizza during endless meetings, my colleagues would only eat their slices using a napkin to pick them up. What must they be thinking about us barbarians, grabbing our food with our dirty, bare fingers? Interesting perspective, I think.
Snuffling, clearing the throat & spitting
In a metropolis like Shanghai, which is influenced a lot through Western culture, it is not so well seen to spit on the street anymore. Still you observe it every day. But no one seems to bother. I still can’t help feeling disgusted. Yet, I learned why this is such a common thing to do in China.
My learning: The explanation is simple, again: Chinese medicine is well known and highly respected worldwide. It is an old belief that everything ‘bad’ in your body needs to come out, the sooner the better. Arriving for the first time in SH in October 2012, autumn has just begun. Hence, people started catching colds. Especially in these air-conditioned office buildings, shopping malls and even in the metro. And a cold usually begins the production of an unpleasant, biological substance. And this substance needs to find its way out in the most direct way. Tissues are seen as less hygienic, because they involve getting our fingers in touch with ‘the substance.’ Interesting perspective that I believe makes perfect sense, once again.
One last take-away..
..which I would like to share before closing. To some of you this might be no revelation at all, but to others it might: Do it like the Chinese: drink warm water! – Just like that? Without any tea leafs or bags? I thought China was so famous for its tea? The simple explanation which makes perfect sense when you give it a thought: our body needs more energy to heat up ice-cold water. During the summer this can have the opposite effect from the originally desired one: it can make you feel even warmer. Some of us know that people coming from geographically warmer regions drink hot tea instead of ice-cold water or coke from the fridge or cooler. In the restaurants we’ve been to in Shanghai we have always been asked by the waiter when ordering our drinks: bīng de? Meaning cold/iced or bù bīng de- warm, room temperature. My Chinese colleagues always ordered beer at room temperature. Makes more sense to me now, even though I would still never drink my beer warm.
Last but not least..
To pre-empt possible questions about my (eating) habits – no, I have not started to eat with an open mouth, nor to spit or snuffle. My Western education is still too deeply routed. But I have tried it all, for the sake of fieldwork, so to speak 😉 .
Again I would like to point out that the purpose of this blog posts is not to deliver a scientific work, nor to be objective. I have checked a few individual terms and definitions to make sure my memory is correct. I have not cited them because everything is written from my own memory and the experiences and impressions, which I have gathered. My intention is to give those who are interested a glimpse into the Chinese culture, which I have experienced with all my senses. In my next entry I will continue with the attempt of comparing the company cultures based on the extensive cultural studies of Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede, mixed with my own experiences, which I have already announced in Part I.
Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.
Thanks for reading 🙂