The Long Tail of Culture

I am intensely proud of my American heritage. To me it will always be the shining city on the hill that the ever-optimistic Ronald Reagan so powerfully referred to.

China, as I’ve so feebly attempted to articulate, is a very different place at every level. The people look and behave differently; they speak a different and difficult language; their very worldview is in many ways the polar opposite of the one I held for more than half of a century prior to moving here.

There is no escaping it.  You walk out the door in the morning and it hits you smack in the face - the difference.
There is no escaping it. You walk out the door in the morning and it hits you smack in the face – the difference.

And at first, like most Western ex-patriates living in China, I found that to be the source of great stress. There was never a break. As soon as you walk out the door or even turn on the television there it is. The difference. The difference, as I often note, between the straight line and the circle; the difference between deductive and inductive logic; the difference between Aristotle and Confucius.

After seven years, however, I must admit that I now find the opposite to be true. When I return to the U.S. I relish the clean air, the ability to drink water straight from the tap, the ease with which I can communicate with other people in my native tongue. At the same time, however, I find myself increasingly out of place. America has lost its feel of familiarity. But more than that it has lost its – what to call it – simplicity, innocence, predictability?

That’s it. Predictability. America, for me, the land of my birth, has lost its predictability.

But why?

Part of the reason, of course, is simple familiarity itself. Much of my firsthand knowledge of day-to-day America is outdated. Culturally speaking seven years is a lifetime in this day and age. I seldom even turn on the television when I go to the U.S. now, despite the seemingly infinite choice of channels, simply because the faces and the drama I find there are completely unknown to me.

Part of the reason, however, I think gets down to the fundamental issue of predictability. It’s the other side of the coin of stress, which psychologists tell us is not a function of pressure, but our sense of control, or lack thereof. People in very high-pressure jobs who nonetheless feel that the task at hand is within their abilities and the tools at their disposal may feel relatively little stress. People performing very simple and repetitive jobs, on the other hand, are often overwhelmed with stress due to their total lack of control over the work they do.

When I first arrived in China it was exotic and intense and exiting. But stressful. Because I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t understand the worldview. I was like the figurative leaf rushing through the white water rapids; exhilarated and scared and totally out of control.

It is strangely reassuring to know that everyone is going to ignore the queue you are standing in.  And if you do something about it that's perfectly okay.
It is strangely reassuring to know that everyone is going to ignore the queue you are standing in. And if you do something about it that’s perfectly okay.

Now, however, when I’m waiting in a queue and I see an old Chinese woman half my size approaching I know with calm certainty that she is going to try and cut in front of me. But I also know that if I stand my ground, and I do, that will be the end of it. A little grumbling about the size of my nose perhaps, but nothing more. Nothing personal. No hostility. I am, once again, in control. My world is predictable. I have regained a sense of order in what, at first, appeared to be sheer chaos.

Western behavior used to be equally predictable for me. Westerners are linear and absolute in their worldview, of course, so they tend to be idealists in the sense that they project ideal behavior in the face of uncertainty. They give people the benefit of the doubt. Predictability, as a result, was less urgent, less necessary.

If someone approached you in a crowd you didn’t need to give it much thought. You could generally assume they meant you no harm. They probably weren’t about to cheat you out of your spot in line. Heck, they were probably friendly.

At least that used to be the cultural norm. I wonder, however, if America isn’t losing some of that idealism, however, and, in the process, some of the predictability that goes with it.

If I’m waiting in a queue in the U.S. today I can’t be at all sure that someone won’t attempt to cut. But more importantly, when they do I’m not at all confident how to react. If I stand my ground will they react in the same way that a Chinese person would, or will there be a confrontation or conflict? And will the people around me support my move to enforce justice or will they look the other way?

I know that the price will be higher for me.  That's okay.  Because I also know that I can bargain it down and there will be no hard feelings.
I know that the price will be higher for me because I’m a foreigner. That’s okay. Because I also know that I can bargain it down and there will be no hard feelings.

Part of the change is simply a reflection of added mobility and the anonymity that enables. I grew up in a small town of a few thousand people where people left their car keys in the ignition and many homeowners had long forgotten where they left the keys to the house even if they were inclined to lock the door while away on a trip. (What if a neighbor needed to borrow some eggs?)

Those days are gone, of course, and I don’t lament them per se. The world is smaller.

The Internet, of course, has made it smaller still. You may well be reading these words at the same time as someone you’ve never met on the other side of the planet. Such is the wired world.

And one of the by-products of that connectivity is the ability for relatively small groups of people to bond over some shared passion or interest – good or evil. Marketers refer to it as selling to the long tail. The customers for your product or service may be relatively small in number and scattered across the globe. And you can, due to connectivity, create a viable commercial market that would have been financially unsustainable when connectivity was largely limited to the physical movement of goods and information.

But connectivity has also created another long tail – the tail of micro-cultures. Always the Melting Pot whose ability to assimilate diverse ethnicities and cultures was one of its great strengths, America’s extreme connectivity now enables sustainable diversity of every kind. Your physical neighbor no longer represents the community in which you live and with which you identify. They are merely someone who shares the same day for garbage collection.

Time magazine recently republished an article by Sierra Mannie entitled Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture.” The point of the article was powerful and well articulated but I was horrified nonetheless. I had no idea that black women or gay white men had their own cultures. Affiliations, yes; interests, yes; shared political agendas, yes; but cultures?

When I was growing up in America your culture was generally defined by your ethnic heritage or the region of your birth. There was French culture, and New England culture, and so on. But even they generally shared a common worldview. The very reason people came to America, for the most part, was to share in that deductive worldview of cause and effect, hard work and success, talent and opportunity.

I am a foreigner in a foreign land. I don’t just believe in cultural sensitivity; I live it every day. But how can I be sensitive to so many cultures with which I have no familiarity? What do I say to a Mid-Western Buddhist black woman of French heritage with a passion for skateboarding? “Don’t worry, I’m not gay and I can’t stand up on a skateboard. I won’t steal your culture?”

China, as I’ve noted many times, is home to 56 officially recognized ethnic groups. And it is, in my experience, a people and a country that truly embraces diversity. They accept differences as a simple fact of life. I am a foreigner with a big nose and always will be. But that’s okay.  It’s who I am.

There is, nonetheless, a homogeneity to the Chinese worldview and the inductive, holistic logic on which it is based, which is genuinely reassuring in its predictability. I get it. I understand the circular cause and effect that creates logic that is, dare I say it, deductively logical.

Cause and effect. “Wherever you go, there you are.”

It makes sense. It’s predictable. And that, in itself, is quite comforting to me.

Predictability brings order even to chaos.
Predictability brings order even to chaos.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.