Cultural Learnings

It’s been a whirlwind week of non-stop socializing with Christina here in Beijing, and it’s been a blast. I feel like I’ve met so many interesting people, both expats and locals, and learned so much about China just from having great conversations with people. I realized as I was talking to my parents last night just how happy I was because I couldn’t keep the joy out of my voice as I described things and people I had met.

I had a really sobering conversation with Sarah, a girl from Guangzhou who went to Beida to study Chinese literature and who works for a theatre company now in Beijing. She was describing her hometown, a small town in Guangzhou which she described as “wild”. When I asked what she meant by “wild”, she talked about how some outsiders came to town to do business and were killed by the locals, or how a school principal just stood by and didn’t do anything when one of his students was killed on the school premises. It isn’t safe to walk around holding your cellphone because someone might just come and snatch it away from you, and there might be gunfights on the street because there is a military garrison nearby and an illegal arms trade where the local gangs get guns from the military. She said the town was ruled by two large local gangs who have monopolized the bus routes out of the town, and that when the local government tried to build a public bus network with bus stops along the route, the bus stops were destroyed overnight by the gang. She also said that there was a 6-year-old girl who was murdered on the way to school because her father had gotten in trouble with one of the gangs. It was really quite shocking because my impression of China had been one of a strong state, not one with such “brown areas” of lawlessness. I guess I do project a lot of Singapore onto China, thinking of it as a giant version of my home country, when the truth is really very far from it. A systemic part of the problem is also how corrupt the officials are, allowing the gangs to continue their reign of terror and turning a blind eye to the grevious injustices that are perpetrated on the populace.

She was also describing the local traditions and cultural practices, in particular the religious parade during Spring Festival, in which children are dressed up as gods and paraded down the street, and the spirit of gods enter a particular person during the parade so that he acts crazy and other people worship him. While in this trance, he might pierce his mouth with a stick and not bleed or feel pain. Sarah was lamenting that these cultural practices are being increasingly abandoned by younger people and the turnout for the parade is smaller each passing year. It really made me wonder what I thought of such practices and whether I thought they were desirable or not. I think on the one hand as a consumer of traditional culture – as a tourist, in other words – I would lament the loss of such practices, because of the urge to experience something different or ‘authentic’ about a foreign country which I am visiting/living in. But that requires a certain remove from the culture, to appreciate it only on the level of performance. As a Christian, on the other hand, I cannot ignore the spiritual dimension to these cultural practices, and to me they sound like demonic possession, which I can only say unequivocally is undesirable. Am I, then, as a Christian, for the spread of monolithic culture and against diversity and cultural heritage?

It’s easy to approve of culture when it is divorced from its spiritual content – when theatre has been secularized and is no longer an offering to the gods but rather a commercial product for consumption, or when parades are held by the state and emptied of religious content (like Chingay in Singapore). But much of traditional culture is intrinsically linked with traditional religion and spirituality. It’s not easy to divorce the two, and converting away from traditional religion often means cutting yourself off from community and its cultural practices, which is why Chinese Christians face a heart-wrenching choice when they choose to convert, and also face the criticism that they are turning their back on their culture. The easy answer to this is to Christianize the cultural practices, to let Christ redeem the culture, but what does that look like in practice?

Tangentially related was Kate’s question to me about praying for our ancestors, as she prepares to sweep her grandmother’s tomb in Sichuan. She asked me how I pray for my ancestors because I mentioned that I did, and I told her my logic for doing so. I believe that God, being outside time, can take prayers of future generations into account for people who have already passed, since he is not constrained by time the way we are. So I think it makes perfect sense to pray for people who lived on earth before our time, or who have already passed away, much the same way that you can pray for future generations who have not come into being yet. So I don’t pray to my ancestors, but I do pray to God for them, for their souls, for their knowledge of God and for blessings in their lives. It is my way of honoring them and loving them, even the ones whom I’ve never met. After all, time and space are mysterious things which we do not entirely understand the working of, and I am certain that my prayers have an effect and power. Being in China I increasingly wonder about the people who generated me who lived in this country and were part of this culture, and wonder how similar their minds were to the people I meet here today.

I was just describing the flexibility and pragmatism of the mainland Chinese people to my parents, and how different it is from rigid, law-abiding Singaporeans, and my mother mentioned that her mother’s generation thought in the same way as well, and that it was only with Lee Kwan Yew’s imposition of law and regulations and rule through fear that the mindset of Chinese Singaporeans changed. It is a pretty remarkable feat to change the wiley, rule-bending, loophole-finding flexibility of a Chinese into the rigid, sometimes one-track-mind, law-abiding, rule-following straight-forwardness of a modern Singaporean, and my mum pointed out that it’s only something that could have been accomplished through fear. Being in China has opened my mind to a whole different way of doing things, the flexibility of grey areas, the arbitrariness of rules and a certain….creativity. While Americans are open to the vastness of possibility out of a sense of boundless optimism, the Chinese are open to possibility because they refuse to believe that the rules apply to them – they can always be bent if one has the right connections and approach. There is more than one way to do things, and you never take no for an answer.

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