Location: Shanghai, China
When I lived in America, I thought I had it all figured out.
Day by day, I walked through the world like it had no more mysteries for me.
One November night in 2014, I stepped off of a plane in Shanghai, and my world flipped upside down.
I realized that the more a man learns, the more he becomes aware of how much more there is to learn.
Because of that, I learned that the best way to break limitations is to look for the connections between things, instead of the differences.
Until finally, I’m sharing with you some of what can be learned from my past 15 months in China.
If I had to sum this post up in one word, it would be this: Relationships.
In 2008, shortly after coming home from the Army, I developed a deep relationship with a girl from Beijing.
She told tales of a huge country with a disorderly past where millions of people were trading rags for riches.
Naturally, I was interested.
I decided that I would one day go to live in this country.
At the time, Latin-America shined brighter on my immediate radar, so I got to know that place first.
But the desire to enter China remained, so I found ways to continue developing my understanding before making the trip.
While in New York, I lived with a Chinese guy (who became one of my best friends), made a few more intimate relationships, and spent some focused evenings in a Chan (Zen) Buddhist meditation hall.
By this time, I had already become deeply engaged in various countries and ethnic neighborhoods.
I considered myself an expert on reaching across cultural boundaries to create great outcomes for everyone involved, but I still had a lot to learn.
When I arrived in Shanghai, I felt dazed and delighted.
China was (and is) very different from anywhere else that I had ever been before.
China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
China saw massive social, cultural, and economic change over the past 30 years.
China is a place that gives one a new perspective on the world (and his own country) after living in it.
My aims with this post are the following:
- To give my American readers some ideas that could be relevant to their own lives (no matter what country they’re in).
- To give anyone else some ideas about bridging cultural gaps (from the point of view of a small-town American who fought in Iraq, danced in Latin-America, stayed up all night in New York, and now operates in China).
5 Things an American Can Learn in China
#1 Stay True
Chinese people tend to feel that Americans see relationships as “easy come, easy go.”
To them, it looks like Americans are always ready to make friends, and just as ready to end those friendships.
Chinese people value (and expect) loyalty in the people they regularly associate with.
Compared to the average American, the average Chinese is a tribalist.
Tribalists are typically talked down upon by America’s media, political, and multinational corporate class.
The funny thing about that is the people who constantly decry tribalism all seem to have two things in common:
- They have their own best interest in mind.
- They do not have your best interest in mind.
This brings me back to the Chinese.
They care about face, honor, and reputation.
Relationships with outsiders are approached cautiously, and existing relationships are very important.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t like non-Chinese.
The Chinese often aim to treat guests with graciousness, and many Chinese see foreigners as guests.
However, maybe you wish to be more than a guest. If this is the case, then you will often have to prove yourself before they fully open up to you.
How you prove yourself will depend on the context, but once you’ve done it, you’ll be glad you did.
China is about strong trust and deep connections.
Americans can learn something from this:
Take care of your people, whoever “your people” are.
Be loyal to people who will return the loyalty.
#2 Be Hungry
Sometimes I hear able-bodied Americans with iPhones complain about how “hard” their life is.
If you’re able to read this right now, you likely have:
- A computer.
- Access to electric.
- Access to the internet.
- Excellent English skills.
This already suggests you are pampered and privileged compared to at least one half of the world’s population.
This is leaving out other luxuries like:
- Indoor plumbing.
- A bank account with money in it.
- Police that don’t kidnap you for ransom.
- Protection from religious warriors who want to cut your head off.
- Food and water.
If you have all of the above, you’re now living better than most people on earth.
Most Americans live a life that other people can only dream of.
Until very recently, that group of dreamers included most Chinese people.
Most are either rising out of poverty themselves, or know that they are only a few years removed from a life of strife, famine, and hardship.
Violence. Starvation. Death. Think about that for a second.
What this means is that most people in China are willing to work early and often.
They only expect to receive the things that they work for. They would expect life to give them a painful kick in the ass for thinking any other way.
How this applies to my fellow Americans:
Be aware that your comfortable status is impermanent.
A good life only lasts as long as enough people are willing to work, fight, and collaborate with their neighbors for it.
Again, if you’re saying “But my life is hell,” and you’re a healthy American citizen living in America, chances are good that you’re being a liar.
Globalization is a process that has started, and it probably won’t reverse itself anytime soon.
If you aren’t willing to work for what you have, then somebody in another country will gladly take it off your hands.
Work, create, and fight for it.
#3 Acknowledge Death
Death is a part of life.
Chinese people are more aware of death than most Americans. Therefore, they are more connected to life.
One way they stay connected is through veneration of their ancestors.
Another way is through their food.
When the average Chinese person goes to the market to buy food, the food section looks like a sort of zoo.
Various animals are for sale. The more lively they are, the more likely they are to be taken home and eaten!
Even in cosmopolitan Shanghai, one can still occasionally see a turtle or chicken slaughtered in the street.
It’s no big deal for people here.
It’s the circle of life.
When the average American goes to the supermarket to buy pig or cow or chicken meat, it comes neatly packaged in plastic.
A large percentage of Americans would cry if they saw the violence that was required to put that meat onto their dinner table.
That is a fragile perception of reality, and fragile things are easily broken.
The average American man may be more removed from death than any large group of men in recorded history.
He denies death in real life while consuming a constant feed of fake and fantasized death in the media.
Just as birth is a part of reality, death is also a part of reality.
Reality usually catches up hardest on the people who deny it. It’s better to be ready than caught with your pants down.
Americans who are not familiar with death:
Admit to yourself that it’s as natural as earth, wind, and fire.
Enjoy your moments.
#4 Value Actions Over Words (communication is in the context)
In the Army, I used to hear the motto “Deeds, Not Words.”
A lot of soldiers live that type of life.
China is a country where nearly everyone lives that life.
It’s a high-context culture.
There are not a lot of wasted words here.
It’s also a culture where you can depend on the the people in your group.
If someone says they’re going to arrive at 9:00 am, they are going to arrive at 8:55.
This shows a fundamental respect for the people in one’s group.
For Americans, this means:
Learn to under promise, and over deliver.
It will make you memorable in a better way than doing it the other way around.
#5 Focus On Possibilities
America became the world’s most influential nation because of it’s risk-takers.
China has suffered massively in the past century (at least), and this is one reason why the culture encourages conservative practicality.
Until recently, Chinese society has placed more value on the ability to do that which has already been successful than to come up with wild ideas.
Sometimes this practicality comes at the expense of one’s imagination, but until recently, wild imaginations didn’t pay the bills.
Now that China’s economy is making the transition from manufacturing to information, the Chinese are learning to break out of the mold.
I’ve had some variation of following conversation with at least 5 Chinese people (probably more than 35):
梁山伯: As crazy, messed up, and undisciplined as America is, I certainly admire one thing about you guys.
Recon John: What’s that?
梁山伯: Well, a typical Chinese guy will look at a situation, like this:
First, he looks for the rules, the boundaries, and the categories.
Then, he figures out how to make something happen in the fastest manner possible while staying focused like a laser.
Finally, he finishes his task, makes some money, and goes on with his life.
Recon John: And why is this a problem? It looks like a pretty good way of doing things to me.
梁山伯: It is, but he’s afraid to draw outside of the lines.
He’s had it beaten into him from a very young age that there is an exact way to do everything in life, and that doing it any other way will result in failure.
Recon John: That sounds tough. What does this have to do with Americans?
Traditionally, you Americans break the rules and draw outside of the lines. You pride yourselves on it.
Instead of looking at a situation and first seeing what shouldn’t be done, you look at a situation and start coming up with all sorts of crazy notions about what should be done.
You often try things without considering all of the parameters and consequences.
This is why so many of you are massive failures (according to our idea of a failure), but also why so many of you are massively rich and recognized around the world.
Recon John: Wow, I hadn’t thought about it so much this way before. Thanks for your insight 梁山伯.
梁山伯: You’re welcome, but don’t get too excited about America’s greatness.
More Chinese are learning to think outside of the box everyday, while many of you Americans put too much attention on things that are irrelevant to your success.
Recon John: Maybe you’re right. I’ll tell them what you said.
梁山伯: I hope so, because we’d make excellent partners moving into the future. We have a lot to continue offering each other.
Keep thinking big.
Don’t get bogged down in the details.
You can hire somebody who is willing to be more obedient than you to deal with the details.
Keep looking for problems and solutions that you haven’t thought of before.
Keep creating beautiful art instead of efficient copies of beautiful paintings.
Keep leading, keep loving, keep influencing.
Keep it real.