A first insight after my trip to Switzerland: I now have visceral understanding of the ubiquitous phrase “以人为本” or “make people the basis”.
While in Switzerland, I was impressed, shocked, and actually somewhat confused by the precision of their clocks. My friend’s watch, the clock on the bus, the clock in the plaza, the clock in the bell tower – all kept the same time. I watched an empty bus pull away from a stop while two girls ran across the street to catch it. Had the driver waited another minute, the girls could have caught the bus and been on their way. Instead, they had to wait precisely 16 minutes for the next bus.
Back at my post at the school, I began to notice that none of the clocks on campus, none of our wristwatches, and few of our cellphones kept the same time. Instead, the time that matters is the time kept by the highest ranking person in the classroom or office. So if there’s a meeting, we all gather more or less at the same time, but start when the leader says to start not when the clock shows a “time”. Likewise, in the classroom, students arrive at more or less the same time, but classes start when the teacher starts teaching. The upside of this 以人为本 arrangement is that bus drivers to wait and often stop (even after they’ve started to pull away from the stop) for running passengers. The downside is that whether or not a student or staff member is “late” is highly arbitrary.
This has me thinking about how communities build our assumptions into the world, which thereby continues to confirm them at even the most minute level of experience, begging the question: what does it take to escape from cultural presuppositions and “know” something else? Yes, this is a rather quaint anthropological insight suddenly made fresh in light of the juxtaposition of times (!) experienced in Switzerland.
Here’s the point: Yesterday afternoon, I encountered my cultural unconscious in a way which has suggested that I only begin to question my “instincts” when they have failed consistantly for an extended period of time. What’s more I suspect my response time (15 years to figure this out) falls somewhere in the middle of a cultural learning curve, which means many of us live our cross cultural lives in potentially destructive ignorance.
At work, I sit at a desk in an office to which students have free access. I am fortunate to have warm relations with many of my students and so they come and go at will. However, lately, I have been busier than usual, which has meant that when they come to see me more often than not they interrupt my work. Yesterday, five minutes before class started (according to my office clock) and 90 minutes before I would give an hour lecture to over 200 students, one of my favorite students swept in, dropped his books on my desk, and asked me if I wanted to look at some of the paintings from his father’s portfolio.
I snapped, “I don’t sell steamed buns!”
He, in retrospect, looked understandablyconfused.
Me, in retrospect, felt understandably irrate and grumped, “Every morning, I line up for steamed bums at the stand just outside my housing estate gate. Every morning, someone pushes ahead of me and shouts at the bun vendor, ‘quicker, I’m in a hurry.’ Every morning, the vendor calmly serves the volatile customer and then returns to me. Cutting in line is rude and disrespectful both to me and the vendor.”
He, still confused, asked, “What did I do wrong?”
Me, still irate, said, “In the United States it’s rude to interrupt someone when they’re busy. You should first say ‘excuse me’ or wait for them to finish what they are doing before speaking.”
He, “Can’t you work and speak at the same time?”
He, “Why not? Chinese people just keep working when someone talks to us.”
Me, internally, “A-hah.”
Me, trying to be conciliatory but probably coming off as pedantic, “In the United States, when someone speaks to me, it is considered polite to stop what I am doing and give them my full attention. This means that when someone, like a student, just starts talking to me, I experience it as a command to stop what I am doing and listen. When student number three or four issues the same command, I become angry.”
He, “Oh. So its a cultural difference.”
He, “Do you want to see my father’s paintings.”
Me, exasperated, “We have class in five minutes!”
He, “I’m leaving.”
As I write this post, I’m wondering how power relations also contribute to my experience of being interrupted. I don’t become as angry when my boss interrupts me. At the same time, my current boss is British and tends to interrupt in a way that conforms to my expectations of how interruptions should occur. There’s also my vanity. When I said, “I don’t sell steamed buns,” I clearly (well maybe not crystal clearly) implied that my status as teacher needed to be recognized through corresponding forms of student courtesy. More soberingly, I wonder how much of my reluctance or disinclination to reflect on my anger at students has arrisen out of my “experience” that Chinese people tend to “live for others” within intimate circles and “live for themselves” outside those circles. What part of my unconscious was comfortable glossing my students’ behavior as collective rudeness, rather than trying to understand why a particular action by usually considerate and well-intentioned youth made me uncomfortable?
Sigh. Fifteen years in Shenzhen, 8 months in a new job, and a 2-week trip to Switzerland later, I have 1 sudden insight: if I am going to live in Shenzhen, I need to “make people the basis” of my daily interactions, rather than uncritically following the “陈习陋俗 (outdated habits and despicable customs)” of my native land.