What’s the Difference Between a Duck? (AKA: Nonessentialized Chinenessness)

What’s the Difference Between a Duck?

When I was a kid my dad used to always joke around and ask me this question. We’d be in the car or at dinner and he’d get serious and look me in the eyes and then say, without any hint of a smile, “What’s the difference between a duck?” For years I never said anything other than, “A duck and what else?” and he’d just repeat the question with a big smile on his face until I just gave up frustrated. When I was a teenager I realized that there was no wrong answer—and there was no right answer either—and any answer would stop the annoying questioning.

I was reminded of this question as I had the opportunity to listen to a sales professional from Taiwan speak to a group of businessmen and educators about working in China last week. He’s a well educated professional and has done business in Shenzhen for a number of years. In his presentation he made a point that I’d never heard from a Chinese before, and it got me thinking. He said, “Foreigners have a racial/cultural excuse when they want to get out of something or want to say no to something here in China. We (Taiwanese) don’t have that option. We’re expected to be Chinese, just like they are.”

This reminded me of the experiences of an ABC (American Born Chinese) woman that I knew that worked in here in Shenzhen about twenty years ago. She was born and raised in a Chinese immigrant family in the US and went to a PAC 10 school on an athletic scholarship. though ethnically Chinese, she was, in her own words, “more American than Chinese.” She came to China with an MBA and was fluent in Mandarin. She had a good job (title) and was excited to be here, the land of her ancestors. She originally hoped that this would be a real educational experience for her—she would learn about her family and China and she expected to learn to love her Chinese ancestry.

Unfortunately for her, the opposite happened. She was frustrated that she was expected to play a very specific (and for her, limiting) role—one that she did not fully understand. Being seen as a (local) Chinese woman, meant that she was expected to be, “less than the men.” She told me that she had more education and more work experience than most people in her company but she was seen as not only a junior employee but a woman as well—meaning she was even less than the junior men. She was explicitly told that she was supposed to dress “pretty” (according to local standards) and that she should keep her head down and fit in, rather than stay to stand out and try to get ahead. As an athletic, rather tall, culturally American, educated woman, playing this role was too tall a request and eventually proved to be impossible for her.

She told me that she “understood the words” that were being spoken to her, but she “didn’t get the hints” behind them. She looked and sounded “Chinese” and so was expected to play the role that she physically resembled. But she didn’t fully understand her part, and the more she learned the less she agreed with the expectations being placed upon her. She eventually left China and got a job working for a US company (in the states) and an interlocutor between Chinese and American businesses.

The Taiwanese professional that I heard speak this last week had a similar point to make. He “looks” the part and so is supposed to play the role. Those that don’t look the part, foreigners, are given great leeway (read: allowed to bumble though negotiation protocols that Chinese are expected to know). It’s just assumed that foreigners don’t know what’s going on and so get a pass.

For me at this time, this highlights a scale of Chinese and foreignness—it’s isn’t as simple as you are or you’re not Chinese. Ditto being or not being foreign—although this is a bit harder “not to be.” I have a buddy from the States that went to college here and has lived most of his adult life since age 18 in China. It’s been decades for him in China and he consciously recognizes that returning to the West is a “foreign” experience for him. While he’s occidental and will never be considered “Chinese” by the locals here, he himself feels more comfortable here in China.

So what is the difference between a duck, or in this case, a Chinese? Culture isn’t a racial, or ethnic, or even geographic distinction—those it’s often used colloquially as such. It’s learned set of behaviors and ideals that are specific to a time and space. “He’s Chinese,” or “She’s Hong Kongnese,” or “He’s an ABC” point to location, a nationality or an ethnicity as the defining cultural markers that are often generalized across a large spectrum of people with a similar attribute. But this is not only essentializing but problematic to recognizing cultural differences and understanding how these differences in affect understandings and behavior.

To see how this might look in another context, think about claiming that Americans all have something culturally generalizable and significant in common other than a common nationality—though even that would likely be understood differently. Generalizing third generation immigrant Cubans living in Miami, Bill Simmons from Boston, my ranching-family from Wyoming, multi-generation Mormons in Arizona, Japanese immigrants living in San Francisco, or someone of African-American descent in Atlanta would certainly be too general and/or completely inaccurate to give any real understanding of culture in America.

China needs to be understood in a similar way to the diversity in the US or the EU—a collection of very different small countries and groups rather than a singular cultural and historic monolith. Chinese working in the company (where I’m conducting research) are from more than 12 difference provinces and speak 7 different “native” languages before their common-use language, Mandarin. Some are urbanites with educated parents, some are from (much) smaller hometowns, and some are first generation college grads from large east-coast cities. Within the employee pool there are stark generational differences, with some being graduates of the best colleges in the country and some who were forced to skip years of school due to politics. Of course there are economic differences as well—significantly influencing how life in Shenzhen (the highest per capita GDP city in China), as well as rapidly developing China, is understood and experienced.

Back to the Taiwan professional, he finished with a final thought about economic development and how it’s changing the cultural habits of urban professionals in China today. He said that drinking and eating out are popular here because there isn’t yet a culture of other social activities. For the most part, he said, the middle class in Shenzhen don’t yet go to NBA games with buddies. They don’t go biking or running with neighbors. They don’t golf on weekends with their professional counterparts. Classes, church groups, home improvement projects or yard work are just not part of most urban lifestyles in China. While these types of activities are increasing as disposable income rises, they’re not yet anywhere near the norm. But food and drink are relatively cheap, are available everywhere, are extremely convenient and require no special training, have been culturally acceptable for generations, and can accommodate any size group or type of group.

The point isn’t that there are problems with China, or that this Taiwanese professional’s and the ABC’s experiences are standard. Rather that there are likely as many definitions of Chineseness as there are Chinese. Many MBA types might exasperatedly exclaim, “Well what the hell’s the use in knowing that everyone different?! What can we generalize and apply across people and industries and cities? My answer? Difference. Each experience will be as unique as the people participating. Don’t overly generalize urban Chinese or the Chinese experience. Don’t assume that your experience in Beijing will be repeated in Guangzhou.

I realize that this isn’t a new concept. I actually wrote about this years ago—the generational and regional differences in China. But I think that it’s still true, despite the standardization of education, the increasing control of the media and the seeming globalization (Westernization) of Chinese cities. There is much localization of neoliberalism that makes for unique adaptations to globalism. Diversity may not “look” the same here as it does in the West, but that doesn’t make it any less of a reality in Chinese businesses.

Post Script: As I’m typing this blog up in a local Starbucks, there is a saleswoman pitching some electronics and her company to a client from a phone company in Zhejiang. The guy has just arrived in SZ and has been waiting for her here for about 1/2 an hour. They’re sitting in the seats right next to mine, him next to me and she across the table from us. They are talking about parts and standards and markets. About 15 minutes into the conversation, she pauses for effect and says, “The truth is that foreigners think differently and have different expectations than we do.” At this comment, Chinese guy on the other side of me, studying for some US graduate exam, and I both look up at her and I catch her eye, right as she continues to say, “Foreigners just don’t think the same way that we do.” And while I’m looking right at her, with a kind of surprised smile on my face, she says in Chinese to me, without skipping a beat, “Excuse me for that“ (buhaoyisi, 不好意思). In Chinese I say to her, “No need to apologize” (Buyongkeqi, 不用客气). She smiles and then just continues right on with the sales pitch to her client about how we think differently and how that makes our markets different. At this, the Chinese student laughs and smirks. The sales lady talks for another 20 minutes and then, despite me trying to start a conversation with her on her way out, she doesn’t make eye contact with me and continues with her client; and I’m left without the follow up questions that I was hoping to get.

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