10 Reasons Why China is So Different than Us

“American expats going to China typically have the highest early attrition rate, given the stark differences that exist between US and Chinese culture … It’s an extremely difficult place for Americans to figure out! China and the US score differently on almost all the 10 Cultural Value Dimensions.”
– Professor David Livermore, Cultural Intelligence Center; Audio Series. Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are (Lecture 14: Anglo Cultures)

If you are interested in traveling anywhere in the world (especially China), I highly recommend listening to Professor Livermore’s podcast on Customs of the World! It puts things into perspective and will give you an advantage in determining where you might fit in around the world. Jess and I have been in China for almost 2 years now… if we had known some of these things beforehand, we may have been able to avoid some of the struggles we have had in day-to-day life in rural China.

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Are you a “westerner” in China asking, “Seriously … what’s up with this place?!” OR … Are you considering traveling or moving to China? Read this article first!

10 reasons why China is so different:*

1. China is a Collectivist culture (as opposed to an “Individualist” culture)
“My stability and family is more important than … everything.”

This is biggest and strongest struggle you will have to overcome as a foreigner living in China. It is the single biggest motivator of the way Chinese people think, act, and live.

Collectivism is common amongst Communist nations and China is no exception. In Chinese society, family is massively important; to the point that family ties and relationships are more important than love. People get married because their family expects them too. If girls aren’t married by their late 20’s “something is seriously wrong with them.” As a result, many girls are getting married at young ages and looking for suitors with good jobs, apartments, and stability.

In many countries in Asia (China not excluded) you will see very young and attractive women who have married old and not-so-attractive westerners … I think this has to be inspired by the fact that it is good for the girl and her family financially. In many of these cases, stability and wealth are more important than love and happiness… that is a hard concept to get used to for foreigners.

2. High Power Distance
“I don’t know what my government is doing and I don’t care.”

Power Distance is a measure of the gap between those in power (ie. leaders & the rich) and those who are not in power. After living in China for 2 years I am continually amazed at the separation between the government and its people. People are very uninterested in government affairs and seldom talk about politics (at least in rural China where I live). This is especially interesting because China goes to great efforts to control and direct their people (ie. Internet Censorship, Population Control, Media Manipulation, etc.). It appears as if people are either, too afraid to do anything about it, or they just don’t care. This is why the majority of Chinese people have no idea about Tiananmen Square or just won’t talk about it.

Coming from a country like the US, where we value everyone’s ability to “rise to the top,” China can be a bummer when you look around and see most people accept their current status and are happy to do so. To us it seems like “settling;” to them it is just life.

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3. Low Uncertainty Avoidance
“Calm down … we will get there when we get there.”

Uncertainty Avoidance is described as the extent to which a culture goes to avoid “uncertainty.” The US for example, goes to great lengths to avoid uncertainty and unpredictability, whether it is in business or just what we are doing on Friday night… we make plans and we expect people to know what’s going on. If I am catching a bus in the US I will by a ticket, show up 10 minutes before the departure time, and expect the bus to leave within a few minutes of that departure time. Once the bus starts moving, I expect it to travel along a known path and it should arrive on time.

Buying a ticket for a bus in China can be a whole different story. In China, you might go to a bus station early, the bus arrives late, it leaves late, stops on a random street corner 20 minutes off it’s “usual” path, picks someone up and takes them somewhere else off the beaten path, then finally works its way to the final destination 2 hours late … meanwhile, everyone on the bus carries on as if everything is perfectly normal. People are just used to daily surprises and never, NEVER expect anything to go a certain way.

4. Cooperative Ideology (as opposed to Competitive Ideology)
“Why compete when we can work together?”

Saving Face is huge in China! … to the point of being unproductive, counter-intuitive, and profit crushing. It’s no surprise that, while admidst a massive housing bubble, political and social unrest, and Hong Kong standing against them continuously … China has recently come out with figures declaring they are the largest economy in the world. It’s no surprise that China put on one of the best olympics in history in Beijing a few years back. China is exceptional at working together for the common good, even at the expense of their freedom, quality of life, and potential to excel in life.

China is not focused on business as much as Europe and N. America. People are all about making a quick buck in China, but when put in a scenarios where they must pick between family or friends and a business decision; they will always fall back on Relationships, status, and communal obligations.

What does this mean to you? It means that you may go to a restaurant at 8pm because you know they close at 9pm, only to find out that they aren’t open … no note or explanation. If you are a teacher, it is also common to show up to teach a class, only to find out 5 minutes before that it is cancelled because “leaders” are coming to visit the school.

In other words, China places community, family, and cooperation ahead of individualism, planning, and competitive advantage. 

Interestingly enough, this does not mean people are selfless. There are so many people in China and everything, everywhere is always crowded! People are loud, rude to those in service industries, crowd and shove each other in lines, and maintain a look-out-for-yourself mentality. 

At this point, allow me to write a small disclaimer: Sure, I am biased … I am an American and I know the west. BUT, I am not exaggerating these things just to rag on China. This is how things are across the vast majority of the mainland and this is what an interviewer, the media, and Chinese people/companies will not tell you. It is because of these things that westerners do not always stay in China for very long. 


5. Event Time (as opposed to “Clock Time”)
“So what if I’m late!”

In my humble opinion,Clock Time” was the greatest outcome of the Industrial Revolution. As a westerner, I never knew how much I appreciated the concept of structuring society around a clock until I moved to China. You are expected to be at work at a certain time, you take your lunch breaks at a certain time, and you meet your friends at pre-determined times. It’s a beautiful thing! As a result, stores are open when you expect them to be, busses, trains, and airplanes leave when they say they’re going to, and if you’re meeting your friends for coffee you will never sit alone in the coffee shop for an hour waiting for them.

In China, “Event Time” is what dictates day-to-day life. Because relationships and community are more important than professionalism and business success, people are just late more often. They plan their day through events rather than time. So rather than meeting at the coffee shop at 2pm, they will meet at the coffee shop when they are finished with whatever event is happening beforehand … and then they will plan their next event based on when they are finished drinking coffee.

You will probably never get used to “Event Time” if you are from a “Clock Time” culture; but understanding priorities and cultural differences can help you tolerate it.

6. Low Context Society
“Turn left at the tractor, go 10 minutes, look for cows and you can’t miss it!”

In a Low Context Society, people will talk and act as if you have always lived there despite the fact that you are obviously a foreigner. You may tell a Chinese person that you don’t understand them and that your Chinese is horrible (in Chinese) … but many times they will just carry on as if you understand. Low Context societies share a lot of things in common with “small-town America.” People aren’t afraid of interacting with strangers and everyone is treated like a local (for the most part). 

Some unique conversations can come from this … Asking a stranger how much money they make, or openly being told you are fat, is not seen as rude in China. People are open and honest with each other and have a very small-town friendliness with strangers.

Other results of Low Context life can be seen on the road. If you ask someone for directions you are less likely to get “Go 1.5 miles north, turn left on Heather Lane, and look for a small red house immediately on the left” … You’re more likely to hear, “Go down this road for a little while, then turn onto a dirt road and keep driving till you get to the white house, then drive a few minutes and you can’t miss it!”

Signage and directions are much more ambiguous in a Low Context society.

High Context Societies like Amsterdam and the US never assume that a stranger knows anything. Airports, roads, and cities are marked with incredible detail and things are laid out in such a way that disabled people, foreigners, and everyone else can navigate with little thought or difficulty.

7. China is a Being Culture (as opposed to a “Doing” culture)
“Today everything is cancelled so we can start preparing for when the leaders visit.”

America judges success through career success, winning and being productive. China judges success based on family relations and quality of life.

This is why saving “face” is so important in China. China primarily takes things “as they come” and looks to make the most out of life. I believe this is China’s greatest advantage over western culture. People are more satisfied with just living and being in the moment rather than always trying to get to that next level. In the US, we take pride in the concept that everyone can succeed and live the American Dream.

In China, people are typically satisfied with the status quo and less concerned about continually being bigger, better, and more successful. There’s ups and downs to both, but in a “Being” culture individuals are more likely to be happy and accept things as they are rather than continually chasing a dream (ie. secure retirement, bigger house, faster car, etc.)

8. They are Particularists (as opposed to “Universalists”)
“Don’t worry about hitting that pedestrian while you were drunk … we’re all friends here!”

2014-01-16 13.07.21In a Particularist Culture, rules tend to change based on circumstance and who you know.

In Universalist Cultures (like the US) we tend to value standard rules and universal laws. Laws and contracts are unwavering and based on what’s right and wrong. As such, we give very high precedence to laws and contracts. 

In China, they take each situation in stride and prefer to look at the “particulars” of individual scenarios. The down side to a Particularist culture is that corruption and bribes become the method to get things done … China is no exception to this rule of thumb.

A good example from the podcast mentioned above goes like this:

‘95% of Americans say they would testify against a friend who hit a pedestrian because, “they broke the law and it’s the right thing to do.” On the other hand, 50% of Chinese managers said that they would lie under oath to protect their friend.’

Relationships are the most important thing!

9. Haggling Price culture (as opposed to a “Set Price”)
“It’s usually $10 but you’re a foreigner so… $35 please.”

This one needs little explanation. In the west we like to know what the price is and when someone is willing to waiver we are more likely to wonder, “did I get screwed over?”

In China you can haggle for almost everything. In Asia as a whole, there can be a lot of room for negotiation when it comes to buying common items. The problem a lot of foreigners can run into though, is that in places like China, Vietnam, and Thailand we may end up paying a lot more because locals expect that we have more money and paying more is only fair.

10. They are an Effective Expression culture (as opposed to a “Neutral Expression” culture)
“Hey there stranger, how much money do you make?”

Speaking loudly, using tons of animation, and continuously interrupting are common methods of conversation amongst Effective Expression Cultures. China, Latin America and African Americans are more likely to share this cultural trait. 

America as a whole, typically adheres more towards a Neutral Expression Culture. This means that we don’t show emotion to strangers as often, are less likely to smile in pictures and are slower to open up when talking to strangers. Japan is a good example of a “Neutral Expression” culture.

If you can relate with any of these I would love to hear your opinions, arguments, or thoughts in general. I understand that this article is China bashing a bit … but, I wish I read an article like this before I moved to China. Ultimately, everyone makes their own experience and yours may be outstanding. Please share if you learned something and by all means let me know what you think!

These 10 reasons are not my own terms. I have lived in China for 2 years and I have taken these 10 ideas/terms (Professor David Livermore from the Cultural Intelligence Center) and applied them to what I have seen in rural China. The expertise, educational knowledge, and foundation comes form Professor Livermore, while the opinions and interpretations are my own.

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