Cultural Sensitivity

“People are different. And it is best that way”- Mark Twain

This topic has been floating through my head for quite some time now. Perhaps after 3 months here I can finally put pen to paper (or, in this case, fingers to plastic) and verbalize what I’ve been thinking. Maybe you were unaware of this, but part of the reason why I chose Hong Kong over, say, Italy (ahi, sarebbe sono stati bellissimi!), was to escape the West for a time. As I had hoped, western culture has been isolated to the point where I can look at it critically. That is to say, my experiences with westerners, both interactions with friends and observations of friends and strangers, have been 1) few and far between enough to become the “weird,” allowing me to consciously recognize it more, and 2) different enough from the majority Chinese-HK culture to really stand out and become more noticeable, again allowing me to look at it from an isolated view point. It’s somewhat hard to get a sense of white, American culture or western culture when you are surrounded by it and also part of it. Maybe not everything I’m about to discuss is strictly related to cultural sensitivity, but they all seem to tie in with the idea that in the west, things would/might be different.

Loud people in public – apparently many of the local Chinese dislike loud strangers (whether they’re Chinese or not). Despite the numerous death stares from locals, many of which are from old ladies, loud people don’t seem to notice or care. Also, being loud isn’t really restricted to westerners; I’ve seen many Filipino women talking very loudly and even had the pleasure of witnessing a group of irate Indians having a shouting match – Punjabi style. Further, I’ve seen the occasional oblivious Chinese dude attracting a few too many old-Asian-lady glares while he yapped away on his cellphone, although not too often. Assimilating into this cultural tendency wasn’t difficult for me – you see, I’m not exactly a loud person. I prefer public quietness. I tend to say things too softly rather than too loudly. But I see other people being loud and I see how many locals shoot disapproving looks their way. I’m not sure how I should feel, nor am I sure how I want to feel about this. “When in Rome,” said Ron Burgundy. So I think I’ll probably wind up thinking/believing that it would be better for people to respect this cultural tendency. As a side note: not all the westerners I’ve seen have been loud/obnoxious, and not all the loud/obnoxious people I’ve seen have been westerns, but for the majority of them, they do seem to be westerners (although maybe I’m projecting it? dunno…). Finally, the only people I’ve ever seen holding their hands (or some other object) in such a manner that they cover both their mouth and phone’s microphone have been Canto-speaking Chinese (although I’m not sure if they do this to keep sound in or out).
*But this is, of course, a generalization and is not applicable to everyone, everywhere. My roommate is wicked loud in the room on his cellphone, but his voice might not be so stentorian in public.
Hong Kong: 1, the West: 0

Chopsticks – this really doesn’t have anything to do with cultural sensitivity…it’s more of a passing internal thought. OK. So. It’s Asia, right? They use chopsticks, right? I think I would feel slightly ashamed/disrespectful if I came to an Asian country that uses chopsticks and never picked up the skill, unless of course I lacked the dexterity to do so. As long as I tried, that’s what counts. But that’s just me, and I don’t judge people who never use them (I’ve had a few meals with Americans and I’ve never seen a handful of them use chopsticks. However, their meal didn’t require it, and I never asked them if they could use chopsticks, so I really don’t know if they can or not). I realize some people just…can’t use chopsticks. And that’s fine. Maybe I’m lucky in that I can use them? I don’t know. However, in HK it doesn’t really matter since forks/knives are acceptable (locals use them too); in fact, it’s almost chic to use a fork and knife. All the same, I would feel weird if I needed to ask a waiter/waitress for a fork…almost as if I couldn’t/wouldn’t adapt. Maybe this theme is more about cultural adaptability than sensitivity.
Hong Kong: 1, the West: 0

Language – I feel disrespectful for coming to a place that doesn’t speak English and not knowing the local language. I feel disrespectful for coming to a place that doesn’t speak English and not bothering to learn the local language. My feelings of disrespectfulness have diminished somewhat over the past ~4 months, partly due to the fact that this isn’t America, and the people don’t seem to demand or expect proficiency in their language, partly because learning two languages at once is fairly difficult, especially when one is Mandarin and the other is Canto, and partly because Canto is really difficult for me to pronounce. I tried learning phrases in the beginning, but no one seemed to be able to understand a word I said, so I eventually just gave it up and resorted to simple English. I try and use Canto words as often as I can, but mostly that’s just “yes, no, thanks (for the favor), thanks (for the gift), good morning (my favorite word) ok, sorry I don’t speak Cantonese, you have a beautiful face,” – you know, simple stuff. I regret not taking Canto here, if nothing more than for the chance to learn a second language while being immersed in it (when again will I have this chance? Never?). I’m not so regretful now; I’ve learned that the beginning Canto classes taught on campus don’t teach characters; if I’m able to continue my studies sometime down the road, it’ll probably be Mandarin, not Cantonese; personally, I like the sound of Mandarin better than Cantonese, specifically the Beijing and Taiwan accents.
At this point I’m inclined to being OK with not learning Canto. I still feel slightly disrespectful, but in this city of 95% Chinese, 5% other and 35 million transient tourists per year, I don’t get the impression that the locals are unused to non-Canto speakers.
*As an aside, my favorite Cantonese word is 多謝 (doh jey, thanks for the gift), but I don’t get to use it all that often. My second favorite word, which I get to use every single day is jo san (not sure of characters, it means good morning). Did you know that I am a morning person? Well I am. I love the morning. However, a slightly ironic phenomenon is that I absolutely detest saying the phrase, “good morning.” When I wake up, the last thing I want to say is a phrase that starts with a back-of-the-throat ‘g’ sound and ends with a nasal gerund, not the first thing! However, I enjoy saying “jo san,” partly because the front-of-the-mouth sounds are pleasant to say, and because people generally respond well, as if they’re glad to hear it from me (also, I’ve had people [both jokingly and in all seriousness] ask me if I speak Cantonese after I say it). Sorry for tangent, but language was on-topic.
Hong Kong: 1, the West: 1 (?)

Escalator etiquette – Have you ever been on an escalator? Have you ever been stuck on an escalator? These things are slightly irrelevant. In Hong Kong there is a correct way to ride an escalator – simply put, if you’re not walking, stand to the right, if you’re walking up the escalator, pass on the left. This applies at all times except when it’s super busy in the metro and there are too many people for this etiquette to be feasible. I noticed it immediately the first time I used a non-airport escalator (but maybe I’m just observant?). It wasn’t too difficult to assimilate to this cultural method. But I see non-locals standing side by side on an escalator and I wonder if they notice? (This time, I don’t have any counter-evidence; it’s ALWAYS non-locals who disobey this unwritten rule, and NEVER locals. I’ve seen locals standing side by side, sure, but invariably they move out of the way when someone approaches…but that’s not to say non-locals always disobey; I have western friends who obey this rule.) I’ve been frantically searching for an instance of a local not following protocol, but I’ve yet to find it. Maybe after finals I will ride the metro for a day and see if I can spot it.
Maybe this topic isn’t really about sensitivity so much as it is about observing how the locals do it. Still, though, maybe it would be better to say, “When in Rome.”
Hong Kong: 2, the West: 1

Saving face – I’ve only heard about this from indirect places, here and there. I don’t think I’ve ever been told directly what this entails. I’ve heard it mentioned and was able to figure out (through context) what it meant, and I’ve also heard bits and pieces. For example, I’m under the impression that saving face means not exposing another person’s errors publicly. Another bit I heard is that any sort of public outrage causes all parties to lose face, or some such thing. Am I wrong? I saw a western woman being very irate with a grocery story manager. Did she cause him to lose face? I’m not sure where I’m going with this anymore, but all the same, it seems like many westerners feel the right, almost the necessity, to boldly declare (publicly) their outrage, their indignation, to point out the injustice done to them! Maybe she was just having a bad day, or whatever. Still, and this seems to tie back into the public quietness, perhaps it would have been better had she just taken a chill pill and dealt with it like a lady.
Perhaps this is just my temperament and preference for avoiding public confrontation, but I would like to take this one back home.
*Again, this is a gross generalization and does not apply to all the locals all the time, nor does it apply to all the non-locals all the time. But I did see that one woman that one time, which is enough for 100% success rate.
Hong Kong: 3, the West: 1

Thus, this leaves me with a broad question concerning cultural identity and things like respect, such like.
Where does one draw the line when dealing with cultural differences? When is it appropriate to try and act like the locals? At what point does it go too far? Is that possible? When do I need to maintain my own cultural identity, rather than striving for a completely homogeneous society? It it alright to just pick and choose the behaviors of my own culture that I wish to maintain?
These are some of the questions I ask myself and have been asking myself for quite some time (some even prior to this semester). Right now I believe that it is certainly necessary to be both self-aware (of one’s self and of one’s culture) and aware of other cultures and their differences. I feel comfortable enough in my own identity to be able to pick and choose what I like from my own culture/society without feeling a loss of identity (I realize now that I was already doing this before I came). Maybe what’s more important is evaluating what of my own culture is vital and intrinsically part of me and what’s transient and just what I do (in other words, being able to judge whether changing a behavior from my own culture to another from the culture I’m in is alright).
For example, in Korean and Japanese culture, taking your shoes off before entering the house is, for lack of a better term, necessary. In many other places, such as white America, it is not always necessary. If I were to live in or visit Korea or Japan, I would certainly take my shoes off before entering a house/apartment, whether it be my own or a friend’s. I have a preference for this style, but I would have no problems with someone entering into my American home with his/her shoes still on. On the flip side, many Asian or AA cultures seem to have much more filial piety than white western cultures. If I were living in China, I would still feel the intrinsic need to determine my own life. That’s not to say that I would disrespect or downright not listen to my parents’/family’s requests, but ultimately my life decisions are in (God’s) my hands. But perhaps this is more specific as my (sub)culture/family tends to have a bit more independent/self-determining aspect with regards to its existential experience.

“And that’s fine”- author possibly unknown, heard from my former roommate Zach

P.S. This entry is full of generalizations and I realize that. Sorry if wrong. Sorry for stereotype. Sorry for hurt. Sorry for grammar. Sorry for loud. Sorry for west. I love Hong Kong.
P.P.S. The word “heard” is strange indeed. Hear’d? Herd? Ya heard?
P.P.P.S. Feel free to share your thoughts. I am open to others’ opinions.
P.P.P.P.S. I love cicadas and they are everywhere. They start singing about 7:00, take a lunch break, continue around 2:00, take a dinner break, and stop around 8:00.
P.P.P.P.P.S. My clothes have never, ever been so wet. A simple 3 mile run leaves me on the verge of cataclysmic dehydration. MY BODY WASN’T READY.
P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Merry Easter, ya filthy animal…and a happy new moon!

3 thoughts on “Cultural Sensitivity

  1. I have found in my travels and studying other languages that how a culture speaks, how they use the words, what they say in order to say anything, is a reflection of their culture, how they feel about how the world should be…. Or did that language dynamic evolve from their cultural beliefs? I have always wondered this.

  2. We are fortunate to have so many cultures in Western society.
    Or so it would seem.
    In my experence, Western cultures are very similar with only minor differences in applied social and personal norms which are very rarely mutually exclusive.

    In my opinion, cultural and social dichotomies are orchestrated by zealots in the name of religion and/or politics and not by cultural differences.
    Wack-a-doos in my opinion….I could be wrong…. often am…. plan accordingly.
    Anyway, cultural guidelines seem to mirror one another and provide a sort of universal road map on how to conduct oneself in a manor which is socially acceptable in most situations most of the time. They are learned behaviors…beginning at a very early age. Most of us know – when your mama smacks you on the top of your head with that big wooden spoon for saying or doing something you’re not suppose to say or do – you tend to avoid saying or doing those things that are loaded with consequences and repercussions just waiting to be swiftly delivered by an angry woman with a big wooden spoon. It’s the same in every culture. There are slight variations in the “wooden spoon” tactic, but you get my drift.

    Translation from one culture to another is not required. The basics are understood. This gives most of us the ability to easily sample, learn, and appreciate those slight cultural
    differences and have fun doing it. No one gets hurt or losses face in the process.
    Unfortunately there are those self important, unreasonable, ignorant and selfish individuals among us that allow their atavistic tendencies to rise quickly to the surface when confronted with anything outside their perceived normal expectations including those cultural differences the rest of us value. They react in a manor which causes all of us (as a culture and society) to “lose face”.
    They are in every culture.
    They are in every society.
    They will always be there.

    Dog poo on a shoe. You can wipe it off, but the stink remains.
    A dog-bomb will always be a dog-bomb it ain’t gonna change.
    All you can do is move on and try to dodge the next one.

    I think the Dog Poo thing above might be the start of a song…..right? Chorus, verse maybe? Hmmmmmm.

    Ok….I’ll wrap it up.

    We live in a large Culturama melting pot. A social fondue of sorts. Loaded with unique flavors and textures. Some very good, some not.
    So….go ahead, stick a piece of bread on that fondue thingy and enjoy. Savor those tidbits that all too often slip by without notice, and ignore the poo some sociopathic waste-of-skin is willing to throw at anyone for no apparent reason at all. They get theirs in the end. It’s a carma thing.

    Be Safe

    P.S. Dude!….No photos?…W.T.F.?

  3. Oh Caleb, it is good to read another long post on your thoughts. You are coming home soon. I hope I get the chance to see you at some point. You have made some good observations and asked some really good questions. I know that God has been at work in you and I hope you put forward the time and space to reflect and listen to what God has been up to in your life.

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