How come it’s always the naysayers who have the loudest voice and feign profound knowledge when all they know is what doesn’t work. So, China’s a complicated place. If you can’t get it done, maybe you should go back to Iowa.
One of the most common mistakes that I’ve encountered when discussing Chinese culture is the tendency to equate how long someone has been in China with how well they understand the culture. While the duration of a stay certainly can help one to understand Chinese culture (or indeed, any culture) better, it is hardly a guarantee. In fact, I’ve met quite a few people who’ve been in China for more than a decade and who have very little real understanding of the culture. Worse, this can actually be a barrier to understanding, as they suffer from the delusion that they actually do understand the complex world around them. So, if you’re talking to someone and seeking to determine how reliable their opinions on Chinese culture are, try a few of these simple tests to check their true level of integration.
How many Chinese friends do they have?
This does not include Chinese girlfriends. I mean friends, people that they hang out with on a regular basis and ask for advice and support. If they’ve been in China for a long time and still have no close Chinese friends, how well can they really understand the culture? I can already hear someone protesting, “But it’s impossible to build close friendships with Chinese people!” If you think that way, you’re already demonstrating that you don’t understand the culture. I know plenty of expats in China who’ve built very close, long-term friendships with Chinese people. In fact, most of my best friends are Chinese.
How good is their Chinese?
While learning the language is not crucial to learning the culture, I do have to ask the question—how interested are you in Chinese culture if you’ve been here that long and still don’t speak the language? If a Chinese person went to live in your country and after two, five, or ten years they still couldn’t speak any English, how seriously would you take their claims that they understood your culture?
How often do they blame Chinese for their problems?
You’ve probably met plenty of people like this: every time they face a problem in China, it’s always the Chinese peoples’ fault. They’re too stupid, too lazy, lack creativity, lack initiative or any of a long list of such accusations. The fact is, there are tons of Chinese who are smart, hard-working, creative, and ambitious. The key here is simple. If the problem happens once and you find a way to solve it, it demonstrates knowledge of the culture. If the same problem keeps happening over and over and over again and all you do is bitch and complain about it, then odds are very high that it’s your fault. My evidence? Simple, there are plenty of expats here who’ve faced exactly the same problems and have found effective solutions.
What kind of advice do they give to other expats?
I recently heard that a long-term resident of Dongguan advised some newcomers that it was a waste of time to try to learn the language, that it was too difficult and that the Chinese would only laugh at their mistakes. I had dinner with another who, when some recent arrivals talked about a few new Chinese friends they’d made, advised them that any Chinese who wanted to make friends with them was only doing so in order to take advantage of them. Both of these individuals have been in China for well over a decade.
About eight years ago, I was at a business conference in Vancouver attending a talk about doing business in China. The speaker was a Taiwanese man who had made several large investments in the mainland and lost all of them. His concluding point was, “I’m Chinese, I speak the Chinese language and I know the Chinese culture, but I was still unable to do business with the mainland Chinese. What chance do you have?”
When he finished, I stood up and gave my rebuttal. I pointed out that myself, and many others like me, had actually been able to do business on the mainland quite successfully. It seemed rather strange that he based his claim of expertise on multiple failures, as opposed to taking advice from those who had been successful. This is a curious inadequacy that seems to affect a certain kind of person—their failure to make Chinese friends, their failure to do business and their failure to resolve repeated problems somehow makes them an expert source of advice for others.
If you’re looking for advice, listen to those who’ve successfully built friendships with Chinese, who’ve figured out how to solve culturally-based problems and who’ve demonstrated their competence and ability. If a person’s claim to expertise is one that involves failure, you can very safely and confidently ignore anything more that they intend to say.