I have been in Nanjing for nearly two weeks now. During these two weeks, I have been able to observe many interesting cultural elements of the country. Some of them are unique to China; others also exist in Canada but manifest in different ways. Today, I would like to share with you my three most interesting observations. Of course, they may not be entirely true or accurate; rather, they are just my personal thoughts. Please feel free to comment or make corrections. Here are the observations: the face culture, the education system, and the social attitude towards homosexuality.
The Face Culture
To start, I would like to first clarify that “face” here does not mean the physical part of your head where the eyes, nose, ears, and mouth reside. Rather, face, or 面子 in Chinese, simply means honour, prestige, vanity, or pride.
In China, face is something of great importance. To lose face is an extremely embarrassing thing. You are expected to respect and uphold other people’s faces; and you can expect the same from others. That is why you must be very careful with what you say, as one wrong word might hurt another person’s face. People would really hold a grudge against you for hurting their faces, and sometimes that can become a long time animosity.
A great face can come from many things – wealth, social status, personal achievements, unmatched skills, and so on. To hurt someone’s face is to question his/her ability in these areas. Therefore, people rarely disagree with one another in public even though they do not like other’s ideas. You must help uphold people’s faces.
Now, let us use one example to demonstrate how the face culture manifests in everyday life. I worked many jobs in Toronto and held positions on many different organizations. We would hold regular meetings to discuss and exchange ideas. If I do not like another person’s proposal and believe I have a better one, I would voice my objection and opinion. Sometimes, it may turn into a fierce discussion or intense debate. But, no matter how much we argued, we knew that we only targeted each other’s ideas, not characters. And what happened in the meeting room stayed in the meeting room. Once we left, we were still good friends as if nothing occurred.
In China, it would be a different story. You do not object somebody’s ideas. If you do, that somebody would feel you are making him/her lose face. That person will think by attacking their ideas, you are actually questioning their ability, and that is unacceptable. A grudge might grow from this point. If you really do not like an idea, what you are supposed to do is to point it out politely and subtly; or do it afterwards. In public, you still need to express agreement.
In short, face is a serious business in China. People would do many things to defend it. And you are expected to help them defend it as well.
The Education System
In about four days, all the graduating high school students in China will take part in gaokao (高考) – the annual Higher Education Entrance Exam.
This exam is something that can decide the rest of your life. No matter how well you have done in all your past school years, this one exam determines whether you can attend a top-notch university, such as Beijing University or Tsinghua University; or have to settle with an unknown, second- or even third-class community college. Gaokao is what separates future elites and future common people.
That is why the preparation for gaokao can be extremely tough; or even cruel by Canadian standard. As an education student, I am taught that schools should be about inspiring minds and encouraging creativity. Grades are important, no doubt about that; but what’s more important is to teach students essential life skills, such as critical thinking, team work, community volunteerism, sense of responsibility, and so on. That is the goal of a teacher. That is what we must strive for in the future.
In China, the education system takes a very different approach. It is about preparing students for gaokao – the life-determining exam. People say Chinese students are smart. That is because from a very young age, their heads are filled with facts, knowledge, and numbers. Grades and marks are everything. The life skills that are highly valued in Canada mean little here.
To prepare for gaokao, schools dump mock tests after mock tests, exercise questions after exercise questions on the students on a daily basis. Students’ gaokao results determine a school’s reputation, which then determines how many students it can attract and tuition fees it can bring in. Therefore, in many ways, schools “require” students to do well. That is why they design such “cruel” review system.
Just to demonstrate how serious gaokao is: a few days ago, two grade 10 students of Yunan province were expelled for throwing paper airplanes and blowing bubbles on the school exercise ground during gaokao review period. The school believed that such actions could severely disrupt those who were trying to concentrate and affect their gaokao results. This sparked great controversy and protest across the province. Eventually, the school was pressured into revoking the expulsion order and taking the two students back.
For somebody who did not experience gaokao, I will never fully understand its intensity and the stress it brings to students. But, from what I have read and heard, it is sufficient to say that Canada and China take very different approach to the meaning of education.
Social Attitude towards Homosexuality
I know, I know, this can be a quite sensitive topic.
In Toronto, homosexuality is, from what I know and see, largely acceptable and treated with equality and respect. I say “largely” because there are people who do not tolerate it, especially from the religious sector. However, generally speaking, at least among the people I know, gays and lesbians are seen as just another ordinary person. I have many close friends who are gays and lesbians. We go to class, eat out, and attend parties together. We hang out the way other friends hang out. We do not feel anything awkward at all when together.
In China, feelings towards homosexuality are much more subtle. I will try my best to explain it.
First of all, there is a grey area in China’s legal system regarding homosexuality and same-sex union. It neither outlaws nor recognizes it. So it is entirely up to the people to decide how they want to feel about it. And among the people, homosexuality is generally acceptable. That means, if your friends found out you are a gay/lesbian, they would not shun you. They would still be your friends and hang out with you. More or less, everything would still be the same.
That being said, the coin has another side. Although homosexuality is generally acceptable, it is not without its own controversies, either. You friends would still be your friends; but you will surely attract a lot of attention and discussions behind your back. Homosexuality is not something that is looked down on; but it is certainly frowned upon. You friends do not have to say anything but you could feel something is changed. You could sense that you are being treated a little differently. It does not have to be a negative difference; but you can sense the change.
It is hard for me to fully and clearly explain it, so allow me to tell you a true story. I go to Nanjing University’s gym a lot and make many friends there. Last Sunday, I went out to have a cup of coffee with two Australian friends who were traveling and needed a translator in Nanjing. Yes, they were very tall and good-looking guys. So, when a gym friend saw us together, and when I went to the gym the next day, rumors had spread that I was a gay. Nobody said or did anything. We still trained together. But I could feel something had changed. I could sense that people looked at me and whispered behind my back. So I asked them what was going on and found out it was a big misunderstand.
To conclude, I do not think homosexuality is considered to be an evil thing in China. It is generally accepted. However, accepting it does not mean everybody fully embraces or understands it. One could certainly expect subtle changes in the way people treat him/her.