Be Eastern… or be Western… a constant conundrum

East or west?

When I moved to China last year, one thing I really wanted to do was to learn the language and culture as quickly as I could, and try as best as I can to “fit in.”

I knew that it is impossible for a “Westerner” (I am American) to ever “become Chinese.” It just isn’t possible. You can speak, read and write better Chinese than they do, know the customs perfectly, have a Chinese wife and mixed children, and live here for decades… and you are always going to be a laowai.

And frankly, I wouldn’t want to. There is a lot that I admire and love about this culture… and there is a lot that I find, frankly, repugnant. And the same thing is true of my own culture. It isn’t about better, or worse, its just about different.

One thing I quickly realized here is that, as a foreigner, you have a constant choice, in any given situation. How do I play this… Chinese style, or Western style?


Let me stop here, and say that I am absolutely no expert here. Just some guy living in China, running his mouth about what he sees. I’m sure much of my impression is stone cold wrong. That said, let us continue.

Chinese culture is very focused on community, family, and harmony. It tends to be a bit more placid on some (but by no means all!) ways than Western culture. Things like face, patience, respect, are of paramount importance here.

Western culture, by contrast, is an individualistic society, and at the end of the day, only one thing matters… did the job get done? If it did, nothing else, hurt feelings, loss of face, how you looked doing it, matters. We are a results oriented culture.

Both have their advantages I think. Western society is more “free” and I don’t mean that in a political sense. I mean we are free to leave home, do what we want, marry who we want, visit our parents or not, as we choose, etc. Doesn’t work that way in China, for the most part anyway.

We just flat get things done. Our society is very dynamic, and good at accomplishing objectives.

I think the western culture does not know the meaning of words like “contentment” and “enough.” We are always looking for more, better, faster, hotter. This is good, as it advances our lives, and society. But… we tend to be super stressed, and not very happy as a result sometimes.

Chinese people, in my experience, seem to be able to be happier with whatever life gives them. That is rapidly changing, as our culture infects theirs, and you see much less difference between the younger generations than the older ones.


One thing you read a lot before coming to China (I’ve read it here) is that as a Westerner, you should always try to keep your cool. Be patient. Be calm. If you lose your temper, you lose face.

First of all, let’s talk about “face.” What is it? Well, I’m sure there are many people here more qualified to answer that than I, but I’ll take a stab at it.

“Face” loosely translates into pride, respect, honor, reputation, dignity. Various concepts like that. Many Chinese people think we Westerners do not have this concept in our culture. We don’t, in the formal, elaborate sense the Chinese do. But obviously, we have our version, pride foremost among them.

You learn all the little “face” rules here. The thing about clicking glasses, and your glass position vis a vis other people’s (you want your boss, girlfriends father, or anyone else you need to ‘give face to’ glass to be higher than yours. This sometimes results in a race to the floor.) Often, asking Chinese people for directions is useless, especially older ones, as face will not permit them to say they don’t know, especially to a laowai, so they will just make some shit up and send you on your merry way.

If you go out with the boss, he picks where to eat, he orders what to eat and drink, and you are pretty much his bitch.

One of the amusing things to me as a foreigner here, is how much credit I get any time I play by the Chinese rules. I basically always have a choice whether to ‘opt in’ or ‘opt out.’

If a girl says “you are so handsome!” (which happens more often than you’d think. They’ve never seen blue eyes in many cases before.)

You have a choice. Go western with a “Thank you.”

or go Chinese, with a “Nali, nali.”

If you do the latter, they will be delighted. The give you the same reaction as if you talked to a dog, and it talked back.

This is obviously a minor example. It gets more important.


I love my life in China. I like the people here. I like learning the language and the culture. I am not trying to in any way badmouth the Chinese people or culture.

But, there is only so much new and different one can take before you just want to explode sometimes. My year in China has been a constant cycle of “I love it!” verses “leave me the hell alone, quit staring at me, and just do your job!”


We Westerners, Americans especially, are an impatient people. We expect things done as efficiently as possible. If the way you are doing something doesn’t work, or is inefficient, change it.

That is just simply not how it works here. You want to go open a bank account? That will take you two hours, seventeen signatures, and damn near give you a stroke to hold you patience in check. Sure, in America, that is a transaction that takes ten minutes and is very easy. Tough shit, you ain’t in Kansas anymore, and nobody gives a shit.

File an insurance claim? You’ll get your money. Someday. Eventually.

“When” and “why” are useless word here. Things happen whenever they happen. And they happen that way because somebody higher up the chain said so. That is all you need to know. In fact, asking “why” too much, especially at work, is a good way to get in trouble, as it looks like you think you know better than the boss, which, of course, is exactly what I think.

So sometimes you are faced with a choice. You can be Chinese, be patient, meek, and get served when and if someone figures out how to do it.

Or, you can go American, and steamroll people. Be blunt. Be loud. Be direct. Whatever gets the job done.

The latter works in many cases. But it does so at a cost. Yes, you got what you want. But now those people think very little of you. Which you may not give a damn, but… you will see them again. And you will not remember them, as they are one of a million Chinese faces you see in a day… but they will remember you.

The same “East vs. West” thing can apply while dating too. Often, the very fact that I am foreign is, I’m sure, most of my appeal. Whatever works I guess, right? But invariably, after the initial phase of the relationship is over, and the warm glow softens, they begin to get annoyed a lot. “You can’t do that! In China, you should X, A Chinese boyfriend would Y, blah bah blah.” Sometimes, the over the top, brash, cocky, I don’t care how I look stuff that amuses or impresses western girls will kill your chances with a Chinese girl. So again, you ask yourself… how do I play this? Sometimes she wants me to be western… other times not so much.

As my first year here winds to a close, I am struggling to keep my temper in check. The constant… well, in western eyes, idiocy, is getting to me. Just driving around on the chaotic, incredibly noisy, populated by people with no clue how to drive roads is enough to make me crazy anymore.

Fortunately, next week, I go home for a while. I am sure that when I return, I will be able to find my zen again, and keep moving forward building a life here.

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