Spitting on the ground

Most talk about cultural differences is pretty superficial. So in the Netherlands, it’s rude to keep your coat on while visiting people’s home, while Chinese people don’t like to shake hands as much as Dutch people do — let alone how French or Italian people touch cheeks. You should not wear a green hat in China, nor give people a clock (negative connotations are attached). Slurping food is OK in China, not in the Netherlands. Keeping your shoes on inside someone’s home is OK in the Netherlands, but not in China.

You could go a level deeper and say that Dutch people’s way of communicating is blunt to the point of being rude. They will not hide their emotions, even if those emotions are of disdain. But Chinese people are direct too. They will hide their emotions better, yet not their curiosity: “What’s your salary?”, “When will you have babies?”

I watched the movie Dune this month, and there’s a scene in which the main family meets the leader of another culture, who spits on the floor — because in their culture’s focus on water conservation, spitting is considered a sign of respect. After the initial shock, the Atreides family members all adjust and consequently spit on the floor as well.

Like shoes on or off, this is etiquette. A long list of things on the surface you can instantly attune to. But it is not culture. It’s not as if you read a list of ten tips and suddenly you understand China. You do not describe a country’s culture by whether they like to shake hands or not.

Culture goes much deeper. It is also deeper than clothing aesthetics, art, public holidays, or its zodiacs. It runs down to the roots of your childhood, the stories and fables with its typical heroes and villains. The stories in textbooks of primary school students. It is the Chinese script and the love for calligraphy, stroke order, and style — idioms and sayings. It’s how family members relate to each other, as well as to the outside society. It’s your country’s version of history which you tell yourself, the place your country occupies in the world.

It is also how a country is governed because money is a real cultural difference between China and the Netherlands. Everybody loves it, but Chinese people need it more.

In the Netherlands, if you get ill or lose your job or have a job that requires no education, then you can still live fairly well. You don’t need to worry about money. Maybe its roots lay in Christianity (“You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”) — I don’t know.

But in China, there are no safety nets. If you get cancer but have no money for chemo, well, you may get some cheap medicine but you are sent home. If you lose your job, you have your family but you do not get a lot of unemployment benefits. And so money is important for choosing a partner to marry — much more in China than in the Netherlands. It’s also a much bigger factor in choosing a job, trickling down to pressure on parents pushing their kids to a university — because whereas a plumber or carpenter may lead a good life in the Netherlands, it’s one of poverty in China.

Another factor is pointed out by Kaiser Kuo from the Sinica Podcast says: “For hundreds of millions of Chinese people alive today, poverty (and the cultural revolution) is a living memory. A Chinese person starting her first job after graduating junior high or high school in 1978, when China’s per capita GDP was still less than $200, is thinking about retiring only now — when China’s per capita GDP is over $10,000.” So you get weird situations where somebody drives a hundred thousand dollar car but still will walk 20 minutes to save a one-dollar parking fee. Someone lives in a million-dollar home but warns his wife not to use the air conditioner to save electricity fee.

There are a million cultural differences I am yet to come across in China. And Shanghai isn’t the best place for this, as it’s pretty international.