2/10/2009

Misreading Cultural Codes

Just finished reading a very interesting older article on JSTOR (cited below) about foreign teachers working at a Chinese university in the 1980s. It details how problems with the staff of their dormitory led to a strike and analyzes the cultural misunderstandings on both sides. I have to say that as a student in Shanghai more than 20 years later, I deeply sympathize with many of the problems faced by the teachers. I haven't faced any serious problems from our own staff, but I've witnessed some and heard of many others. I guess this post should be taken by the potential student or teacher who plans of living on campus or in any building where the management and not you have control of who comes in and out, buyer beware.

The key issue in the dispute was the incessant paternalism that the foreigners faced from staff, which began with the dormitory management's use of their control over the building to express their discomfort with racial mixing (harassing the Chinese wife of one of the teachers, and limiting/monitoring Chinese visitors) and ending with university administrators refusing to believe the claims the of foreigners over the dormitory staff and threatening the teachers with dismissal after teachers went on a one day strike (btw, striking was and is illegal in the PRC). Finally, the president of the university stepped in to reassure the teachers, but without addressing any of the problems they had faced initially.

How did they come to this situation? Frankly, situations like this are inevitable for Americans in China, though to a much lesser and more benign degree today. I'm sure every foreigner who comes to China can recount a situation where they've been placed in a very frustrating situation and treated in a paternalistic fashion. Paternalism is interesting to talk about in this context, especially since in anthropology we're normally talking about the American expats as acting paternalistic, not the other way around. One explanation is to tie this behavior to Confucianism; connect a lack of a conception of privacy and the Confucian conception of "righteousness" the responsibility to intervene in the affairs of others.

The central problem in the paper that enraged the foreigners was the social and moral classification of foreigners and Chinese visitors to the foreign dormitory, and the abuse they experienced. I have to say that while I have witnessed nothing of the degree that the subjects of the 1986 article faced, I'd say these problems are rampant in the university housing for foreigners. Blatant racism towards African and Middle-Easterners and stereotyping of Westerners as wild, dangerous party-goers. And of course the worst is reserved first for ethnic or mixed Chinese who are trying to explore their heritage here in China, and lastly for native Chinese who are making friends or lovers with foreigners.

I don't mean to gripe. In different circumstances I might praise these exact same qualities within the "Chinese worldview". But for people who come from the most tolerant of cultures, to experience the discomforting webs of ethnic tensions present in everyday China is quite enough, to have it thrust at us in our supposed places of refuge is too much.

Anonymous, Deborah Pellow (1986) An American Teachers' Strike in China: Misreading Cultural Codes. Anthropology Today, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 3-5 http://www.jstor.org/stable/3032709

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