Let Chinese not be livid at cultural gaffes
It is hard to say whether 40 years of reform and opening-up have changed the Chinese people’s attitude toward foreigners.
China has a huge population. The understanding of an alien culture depends on individual experience and how much one has been exposed to circumstances that show the original side of foreign culture. People generally like to stereotype which could lead to misunderstanding.
In metropolitan cities, there are some Chinese who regard ordinary Westerners as superstars to have a photo with, as well as look up to Chinese who previously lived overseas and speak many languages. Their flattering attitude toward foreigners spans a wide range.
Unlike the US or Australia, China is not a country built on immigration. The rules and laws here have been framed largely for Chinese with a similar cultural background. Some regulations have not yet been updated to match the fast pace of development of an international metro city. Therefore, foreigners are treated differently.
China’s huge market and increasing opportunities have attracted more and more foreigners to come here to work, study and live. It contributes to enriching Chinese people’s lifestyle and encourages more cultural exchange. However, the mix of cultural shock and patriotism in reaction to mistakes by a global brand has triggered an international controversy. It is still questionable whether crosscultural communications have improved after these incidents received intense media attention.
Chinese should be all for mutual respect and cultural recognition, but an “apology” under pressure may only temporarily console our feelings, but not necessarily help win the respect we want.
We have to accept there are many in the world with little knowledge about China or a superficial impression of Chinese culture, even though the news about China’s rise is all over foreign media.
During my overseas travel, I met a local Scot who thought Tokyo was in China, and an American who kept calling me Korean after I said I was from Beijing. I knew they certainly had no intention to insult me. Should I get offended because they were not well educated and lacked basic knowledge?
If Western fashion designers prefer traditional clothes from the Tang Dynasty or the Han Dynasty instead of the Qing Dynasty, would we be less angry with them? They are all part of Chinese history. Why should we criticize Western designers who take elements from Qing Dynasty when drama about the dynasty on Chinese TV has captured hearts?
If we are angry that Western women do not wear the Chinese qipao in the way we do, should Westerners feel insulted at Chinese brides in Western wedding dress not getting married in the church?
A successful company would not put their business at risk by deliberately insulting its biggest customer group.
Before we get mad at foreigners who made mistakes depicting our culture, we should understand why the errors were made. It could probably be stereotyping. Somewhat like many Chinese believe in clichés like bullfighting represents Spain, all French are romantic, or all English are gentlemen. It is cultural misinterpretation under different environments. If foreigners make mistakes related to our culture, we should laugh over them and invite them to China.
If the Chinese truly want an apology, it should be a sincere one and must be based on mutual understanding. We need to work on how to develop more Chinese cultural influences, how to engage in better cultural exchange with other countries and how to develop our soft power through culture.
More importantly, the Chinese need to have more confidence in their culture. China is a big country with generosity and tolerance and the Chinese should not stoop to the level of those who lack knowledge about a new China.
We need patriotism to unite everyone together and make our country stronger, but we do not need extreme patriotism to separate us from the world. When patriotism goes too far, it may become racism.
Chinese value gentleness, friendliness and modesty. They need to understand that there are many foreigners who also master the use of chopsticks, and their culture is equally important to us. We need to respect their culture in China as a good start.
The author is a Beijing-based journalist. She lived in Sydney from 2014 to 2016. opin[email protected]altimes.com.cn