Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Expats living in China at one point or another come across Chinese friends telling them in frustration, "You don't understand China." In some cases, it could be the Chinese friend's lack of language skill in expressing themselves. Or it could be that they have little experience with foreign culture, which is necessary for cross-cultural exchanges.
But sometimes, it's simply that you don't understand China, which has a long history of 5,000 years, multiple dynasties, various dialects, rich cuisine and different philosophies. Frankly speaking, if you don't read classical Chinese, you're hardly qualified to say, "I know China," even when you are Chinese.
I was in a synagogue in Washington DC about 10 years ago with a Jewish friend for a lecture about how to lobby the Chinese. The idea was that China is rising to become a superpower, so Jewish people might want to work to win the support of China and its people in addition to lobbying in the US. But how? How do you deal with sensitive topics like human rights records?
The speaker was an old China hand. He told the audience, if you think there's an issue, you don't talk to the Chinese in an upfront way. It's better to show them that "under such circumstance, we'd do it this way." In short, subtlety is the key. Directness could have opposite the intended effect, as Chinese are sensitive to being criticized openly.
Obviously, few people understand the "correct way" to raise the issue of human rights when dealing with China. Otherwise Western leaders would have held their tongue and achieved much better communication with the Chinese on such topics. Or Washington would not publish an annual report to embarrass the Chinese leadership.
It's true that we all go to school, find a job, raise a family and take care of our parents and kids. It's also true we have more in common than differences. But it's the differences that often count in understanding each other.
Chinese culture is as rich as its history is long. Unless you dive really deep into a Chinese way of life (as if that were one thing), there's no way to read the "hidden code" of authentic Chinese life.
Norbert Haguma, who hails from Rwanda, is the China representative of the African Leadership Network. He once advised his African friends who plan to do business in China that "you have to learn to stomach the Chinese liquor," which is so strong that few foreigners fall in love with it.
Why? Nowhere can you find advice encouraging you to consume baijiu in do-business-in-China manuals! But Norbert has a point, which is valid and probably beyond the understanding of most of the expats living China. He notes, when you finish a few cups of liquor in a determined and honest manner in front of your Chinese business partners, the stiff air in the room and the strangeness of each other will melt immediately. Friendship will be forged quickly and business deals are getting much easier to be sealed.
That observation might not be accurate in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but it's stunningly spot on in places like Inner Mongolia, Shandong and most of northern China.
That's probably why Chinese restaurants are often noisy: once the men have a few drinks, they open their hearts to each other and become talkative.
It requires painstaking effort to thoroughly understand another culture. A civilization like China presents even more challenges given how large the country is both in terms of its population and its size.
But it doesn't matter if you know China or not, or how much you know China. The ultimate goal is to get along well with each other.
Usually, it's not the differences but the way we treat each other that separate us. Arrogance is a taboo. Seeing a country through your own value prism should be avoided, because countries as well as cultures are equal, and there're always something we don't know about one another. As long as we treat each other with respect and stay humble in trying to learn about differences, we'll be fine.
The author is a commentator on current affairs with China Radio International. firstname.lastname@example.org