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Culture as a Rhythm
“Culture” and “cultural differences” are buzzwords that get thrown around a lot, especially by me when I’m trying to explain my experiences in China to friends and family back home. Despite the political correctness of paying tribute to diversity and cultural differences, there is in fact a palpable rhythm that human beings move to and which differs with each country and even each city. This rhythm has very specific rules, but as long as everyone is following them, moving to the rhythm, it is completely imperceptible. It is when somebody breaks the rhythm that they become glaringly obvious, and this rhythm can be broken as easily as standing too close to someone or walking away abruptly without first saying the proper goodbyes. A rhythm-breaker is someone who doesn’t pick up on the subtle signals sent out by others (“Can’t he see that I’m busy?”) or sends out confusing signals himself (“Why does he always have to touch people on the shoulder when he talks to them?”). Sometimes others are not sure exactly what the rhythm-breaker did wrong, but they feel that something is definitely not right about him/her or that the rhythm-breaker is simply “socially awkward.”
When in a foreign culture, the traveler brings his/her native rhythm along. Some signals are international but others either have no meaning or very different meanings in a foreign rhythm. Either the traveler adjusts or not, but this determines whether he/she can stand living another day in that country. So for example, foreigners either love or hate living in China as the rhythm is so different. Many things that are no-no’s in western countries are ok in China, such as spitting, pushing oneself into an already crowded elevator, and telling someone they’ve gained weight. But adjustments in rhythm are also necessary for a small-towner who moves to a big city. After adjusting to a foreign rhythm, one begins to notice the idiosyncrasies of his/her native rhythm. At least there is now a point of comparison. If a traveler has adjusted to a foreign rhythm for a long time, he/she can feel “strange” or out-of-place in his/her native land.
I’m certainly not the first to interpret culture as a rhythm; I recommend Edward T. Hall’s “Beyond Culture” to anyone interested in a detailed analysis of how this rhythm works. I read his book after my first few months in China (getting close to two years ago) and have been testing out his conclusions ever since. The really interesting part is that once the rhythm is perceived and understood, it becomes amazingly easy to know (and direct) the reactions of those following the rhythm. (“I do this, and he’ll do this. If I say this, I’ll get this reaction.”) I don’t want to exaggerate this culture-as-rhythm idea as some sort of enlightenment equal to suddenly seeing the Matrix as columns of glowing green numbers. However, after reading Hall’s book I have looked at social interaction in a different way, and noticing these subtle nuances (cultural differences) has made it much easier to fit in here. I’ve received many comments from Chinese people about how “Chinese” I am or that they can’t imagine me living anywhere else but China. The highest compliments are when people (often children) ask me if I’m a foreigner or Chinese. (Remember that there are 56 ethnic groups in China, and Uighur look more Arab than Chinese. But it should also be mentioned that being asked if you're from Xinjiang often means that you have a good grasp of Chinese vocabulary but that your accent is horrible.) When they’re not sure, that means I must be following the rhythm pretty well.
Written August 26, 2003 by Shelley Timmins (shelleytimminsatyahoodotcom)
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