Monday, April 10, 2006

Cultural Differences

There’s always a lot of talk about the cultural differences between “westerners” and Chinese. In this context “Westerners” is, as far as I can tell, a euphemism for anyone who is from Europe, North America or Australasia.

Now this can be irritating at times – most English people don't like to be thought of as being the same as Americans any more than Scots like being referred to as English. There are clearly a huge number of differences between the average Brit, American, Aussie or Canadian but our cultures are similar enough to be lumped together because they are all quite distinct from Chinese culture.

One of the key things (and the topic for today) that makes us stand together and, apart from the Chinese is that we (OK, middle-class people like me) don’t know the value of money. To put it bluntly, we’ve had it so good for so long, comparatively, that we’re quite wasteful with our cash. For the Chinese, things are clearly changing rapidly and it certainly appears to be for the better, but there are still an awful lot of people for whom recent memory is filled with hard times and this still encourages a strong sense, on average, for prudence. For Brits, the real hardships are further in the past so some of this sense still exists in the pre/immediately-post war generation but the 60s changed a lot…

I think an example will help here.

Last weekend, PL and I went up a mountain – you’ve already seen the pictures. When we came back down we were walking along the road we thought would take us out of mountains and back towards the car until suddenly we came across 飞来峰 – a nice park that is just outside Linying Temple. When we got to the gate a security guard stopped us. We explained that we were walking and that we just wanted to go through and out. We were told that would cost 35 RMB (about 2.50 GBP) so what we need to do was retrace our steps for 20 minutes then we’d come across another road then, presumably, another 25 minutes to get back to the other side of the park. Walking through the park would take 5 minutes to the other side. We explained that we’d been walking for more than 4 hours already and wanted to get out quickly and were repeatedly told that retracing our steps would be quick. Not quick enough for us though so we paid the 35 RMB, each, and went in. I’m pretty sure we were getting a look of shame from the guard at the idea of paying such a sum of money when there was a free alternative but my calculation is the cost for getting in and the time saved equates to 3.75 GBP per hour – that counts as worth it in my book.

This idea of fixing problems by ‘throwing money’ at them is fairly common behaviour for a lot of people in the UK. I’ve heard many a lament about how hard it is to get a plumber, gardener, etc. at all in the UK – particularly in affluent areas like Cheshire. The number of people wanting to do this kind of hard, physical work that people don't want to do for themselves is on the wane. The country has virtually full employment and even kids don’t want to mow lawns for pocket money because the work is too hard, and presumably means tearing themselves away from their Playstation. This is why the increased, legal, immigration of people to do these jobs is, in reality, essential for the UK. Compared to the UK, the number of people here who would like the opportunity to be paid to do these jobs (OK, I don’t have a lawn) is, simply, staggering. Another example:

When I shipped my stuff over from the UK, the one thing that was deemed most humorous was my 24V Bosch Cordless Drill as being ‘of no use’. I didn’t get it at the time and tried to explain what it was for only to get laughed at again. Now I’ve come to realise that, if you want to drill a few holes in the wall to install something you can simply ‘get someone in’ – and this typically means having to wait up to 30 minutes from when you made the call to when someone comes round with the appropriate tools – often mounted on a specialised rack they’ve built on their bicycle. Coming from the ‘you kids don’t know you’re born’ generation in the UK – we can often think that spending 200 quid to buy a tool to fix the immediate problem on the assumption that it will come in useful in the future makes perfect sense. To most people here an expensive tool like that isn’t a simple tool – it’s a career.

The ‘you kids don’t know you’re born’ generation is currently growing up here and there are plenty of them too. There are many people around driving flasher cars than I. There must be customers for the new Lane Crawford department store where all the shops are of the ilk of Gucci, Prada, Versace and the like – not that you’ll catch me shopping there. And I recently applied, and was rejected, for a credit card because of insufficient income. However, for most people here this wealth is much more recent phenomenon than for us Brits so people still know the value of a kuai. I think I have an even better example to show how this can manifest itself.

I have watched, on a windy day, a man on a bicycle struggling to ride against the flow of traffic whilst carrying and 8’ by 4’ sheet of hardboard. I started thinking that I couldn’t even imagine how he had ended up in this, positively life-threatening, situation. Then it dawned on me – the reason for this isn’t that our thought processes are fundamentally different. It’s that we’re not starting from the same point. Assume, for ease, that we’d both cycled to B&Q on the same windy day and realised that we needed to buy a sheet of hardboard. Our thought processes would start from “How can I get this home?” but the assumptions and caveats that go along with that are:

Him: I need to get this home. I don’t want to spend any more money than I already have.

Me: I need to get this home. I don’t want this to be hard work. I’m happy to throw money at it if it makes the problem easier. I don’t want this to threaten my life in any way.

So, he carries it on his bike and risks being blown into the path of a bus by the strong, gusting winds. Meanwhile I’ve paid the shop to use their home delivery service and quickly cycled home.

As more and more people have the means to think as I do, clearly more and more people will start taking the easy option. Increased wealth is, as we know, not all good news. People will undoubtedly become more accustomed to the easier life and become lazier and suffer a different range of social issues but it is, without doubt, better than poverty.


JP said...

A good lesson for us all, but...have you EVER cycled to B&Q?

dB said...

I _have_, once, cycled to B&Q.

And no, I didn't buy any hardboard BUT I did have to cycle uphill to get home again.