There is a certain type of foreigner living in China who gains enough creditability in their understanding and explanations of life in China here that they get termed “a China hand”. Usually this involves a certain niche area of knowledge. China is simply too big, too populous and too ancient for anyone to have anything more than one area of expertise. Often China hands effectively act as ex-pat community leaders, helping newbies understand and so appreciate this strange new land. (Let’s just give a shout out to people like Kaiser Kuo formerly of Sinica and Baidu, Bill Bishop of Sinocism, historian Jeremiah Jenne, Beijing magazine-magnate Michael Wester and the many others who have provided help to everyone fresh off the boat).
Yet even the China hands occasionally receive the accusation that every foreigner in China eventually gets – “You just don’t understand China!” For example, you’ll be discussing some aspect of life in China with a local friend, trying to understand it, and then out it comes – “You just don’t understand China!” (The ironic thing is that your friend will never then explain what you apparently can’t understand).
Now of course, as a foreigner, you have a far shallower knowledge of any country you move to. It is impossible to replicate the absorption in a culture that comes from a domestic parenting and education. It might also be, perhaps, nearly impossible to fully appreciate the class basis and the cultural background of people’s interactions. (This can be one of the fascinating aspects of life in the UK, where class gradations are measured with a unique granularity).
But this does not, I think, mean that China is impossible to understand for the foreigner. Most of us when we come to China read up on the history and the culture. We travel and we get the chance to talk to people – a far broader range than back home, in many cases. We are in the fortunate position that many locals actually want to talk to us; there’s no Parisian froideur or “Seattle freeze” here. For sure, anyone living here has to adapt. I’ve know one or two who could not and returned after less than a year, after enduring endless baffled frustration, but anyone staying longer will find themselves altered, perhaps radically. And there’s also the way that coming to understand a new country is one of the great joys of living abroad. What at first seemed like incomprehensible social rituals and behaviors gradually become explicable. Social arrangements and national institutions start to take the inevitability and legitimacy that they have back home. And this is how you adapt.
So to have this accusation flung at us can be frustrating. Take for example a friend of mine, who write a tongue-in-cheek blogpost comparing some Chinese and US political leaders. He’s very well read in Chinese and US politics; that’s his thing. But an acquaintance of his, a local Chinese woman, took strenuous offense at some of the references, writing in great detail about the sorrier details of Chinese political history – of which, of course, my friend was well aware. (Even I knew them). The episode was insignificant in itself, but it was another demonstration of this rather puzzling certainty that foreigners do not understand China.
Where does this belief come from? It might be something to do with the oft-reiterated view that China’s political structure is right for China’s stage of development – in other words, that China is organized for the way that China needs right now. While this might be true, it can be taken to mean that only China can know what China needs. But this doesn’t really follow. We can all understand rules, systems and cultures. China’s political structure, for example, is not unique, but was adapted from the Soviet system created under Lenin. The Chinese Constitution is freely available. The Chinese economy is still subject to economics. (Though, of course, advice on it tends to be highly partial). “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” can be studied by anyone paying close attention to domestic and foreign media. Chinese history is wonderfully rich thanks to the achievements of its bureaucrats and writers. And Chinese society hits you immediately you enter the country, with all its energy and earthiness. (I’ve never forgotten my first car journey upon leaving Pu Dong airport, where I saw a bus undertaking up the motorway hard shoulder. That’s when I knew I wasn’t in Kansas any more).
In the end, people are people. We work, we raise families, we socialize, we eat. How a society organizes itself can differ greatly, but the varieties of human association are not unfathomable. You think foreigners can’t understand China? We think you can’t understand foreigners, if you believe that is true.
A version of this was published in Global Times