China absorbs foreign influences and traditions and makes them their own.
“Petra, what are you going to be for Halloween?” one of my daughter’s Chinese teachers asked her.
Petra replied that she was going to be a tiger.
“What!?! There’s no tiger in Halloween!” the teacher scolded. “You have to be a witch, a ghost, a vampire, a devil, a pumpkin, or a pirate.”
This sentiment was echoed through the kindergarten. Apparently, the Chinese think they know more about our holiday than we do. But it was my frame of reference that needed shifting: we were celebrating Halloween, yes, but it was to be a Chinese Halloween — which is of course done the Chinese way.
This culture has a way of absorbing other traditions and making them their own more rapaciously than any other I know of on the planet. This is a powerful culture — one that can put on the clothes and wear the cap of other people and still remain completely themselves.
My daughter switched to a pirate costume and attended the Halloween party at her kindergarten. My wife and I made the costume by hand, assembling it together from a bandanna, a striped shirt, a skull and crossbones scarf, a cardboard eye patch, and a cutlass made from cardboard and tin foil. To put it mildly, the Chinese teachers thought it was very strange that we would make a costume ourselves instead of just ordering one online. We tried to explain that this was our tradition, but it was to little avail (they know our tradition already, and we’re suppose to buy costumes online — everybody knows that).
Hundreds of little witches, ghosts, devils, vampires, pumpkins, and pirates were lead into the kindergarten as night descended upon Taizhou. It was (Chinese) Halloween time. From room to room the little costumed kids were taken in turn. In each room, which was decorated to the hilt with Halloween attire, they would do various activities such as coloring, making black and orange paper fans, getting their faces painted, going through mazes, dancing, or hitting pinatas.
The pinatas were interesting. They were essentially bags of candy stuffed inside of some foil that was folded to look like a candy wrapper, but they did the job.
In August, we had a birthday party at this school for Petra where we introduced the pinata. We explained to the other teachers what they were and taught the kids how to hit them. The concept of “you beat this thing with this stick and candy falls out,” was picked up very adeptly, and the kids reveled in it. This lead me to joke about reintroducing the pinata to China:
The pinata is said to have been invented by the Chinese. But, like the clock and many other things, they eventually forgot about it for a couple of hundred years before it came full circle and was reintroduced from the West. We take responsibility for reintroducing the pinata to Taizhou.
I had no idea at the time that my wife’s coworkers were actually absorbing the lesson and planned to make use of it themselves. This is how the seeds of cultural traditions are spread from place to place all over the world, but China proves to have extremely fertile soil in this regard.
Though the Halloween at Petra’s kindergarten appeared to be like the Halloweens I grew up with in the USA, the effect was very different. There was the same scary stuff, the same decorations, the same face paint and costumes, the same music ect . . . but something about it was very different. Rather than going door to door trick or treating for candy the kids went from classroom to classroom with a goody bag full of the art projects they worked on through the event. The depth of tradition was not there, but the essence of the celebration was. The fun part about Halloween is getting dressed up in costumes and going out at night to do fun stuff, and this transferred well.
The Chinese coworkers of an English teacher friend of mine made it known that they wanted to experience a real Thanksgiving. So he explained the ground rules and invited them over to his apartment for a feast. Everyone was to bring a dish, and he made mashed potatoes and ordered apple pies through the mail, deftly knocking out a few Thanksgiving classics in a country that doesn’t readily provide the raw ingredients for such.
His six or seven female coworkers roared into his apartment at the appointed time, dropped off the various Chinese dishes that they cooked (or got from restaurants), and promptly set his house in order. Though the night was freezing cold they opened all the windows — even in his bedroom — and they stayed bundled up in their coats, looking very much chilled the entire time. They did not ask for guidance and direction in his home, they did things their way: the Chinese way, the only way they seem prepared to acknowledge. They didn’t seem to care at all that us Westerners like to keep the windows closed and the heat on so that we can remove our coats and be warm and comfortably in our homes. The notion that we had the windows closed may have been an indication that we didn’t want them opened didn’t even seem to have been raised. My friend and I watched as the women continued to “Chinese” his apartment, presumably helping us poor laowai do things the right way for our Thanksgiving feast.
We all laid our food out on the dining room table and took our seats. The Chinese girls wanted us to tell them about Thanksgiving and what our families do on this holiday. They ate it up, they were interested, but the words from our mouths seemed overtly exo-skeletal in the context: like we were only sharing the husk of the holiday rather than the deeper essence.
This deeper essence is called culture. It can only be learned through osmosis, not instruction. But the mechanical aspects were all that the Thanksgiving party seemed to want:
Thanksgiving is a day when you get together with your friends and family, eat a big meal, hang out, and talk about all the things you’re grateful for. Pretty cool.
Foreign Culture Absorbed by China
This is not to say that Western holidays are taking over China. They’re not. If you go to a department store here you will not find Halloween costumes, you will not find turkeys in supermarkets around Thanksgiving time, and though Christmas has gotten relatively popular, it’s more a celebration of shopping than anything holy. In reality, the only people in China metamorphosizing Western holidays are the young adults and youth of the middle and upper class echelons of the country — those looking for what could be called progressive worldviews, to heighten their employability, and bolster their status.
Being worldly, or, as the Chinese put it, internationalized, is a highly sought after quality here. It is in the international sphere that this country is staking its claims, and many middle and upper class Chinese youths are going to high school and university abroad with the goal of learning how to navigate in the international sphere. It is highly touted that learning about Western culture is a good career move here. Like no other country on the planet, China seems to realize the value of learning about the other powerful players in the world, and this goes far beyond the mere study of language.
“Western” style education
Knowing that the Chinese education system is very particular and different than that of pretty much any other country in the world, many middle and upper class parents are sending their kids to “international” schools in droves, which advertises education on the Western model. These schools are often built to look like replicas of English academies: there are often pillars by the doors, Romanesque geometric architectural facades, and an interior design that would seem more in place in a movie based off a Charles Dickens novel than in modern China.
My wife was hired by an international kindergarten to design a Montessori class that would be 100% on the Western model. Her class was meant to be the most cutting edge, the most “internationalized” offering of the school. She was tasked with designing an American kindergarten in China, and this was what she did.
But her supervisor did not get the concept. She just couldn’t understand what my wife, who’s a Montessori teacher with a degree in international education, was doing. Though she has never been anywhere near a Western country and can’t even speak English, this supervisor thought she knew what “Western education” was, she thought she knew all about Montessori, she thought she knew exactly how American kindergartens are set up and operate, and sought to impart this vision on my wife’s class. To be blunt, she reeled in the line and brought the class back to China.
This was probably actually a good move. What my wife was offering was what the parents of her students and the school that employed her said they wanted, but it became clear that they have no idea of what this actually meant. A real Western style class is not what these parties were after, they wanted the Chinese idea of a Western style class. The two are very different.
But when this Sino-Western style education is put into practice it’s a learning system that’s very much its own thing. I’m unsure if the end result is more Western than it is, simply put, less Chinese.
China absorbs what they want of other cultures and traditions and makes them their own. On the one hand it could be said that these pursuits rarely go beyond the surface, while on the other hand it could be said that these cultural mimicking acts show that China is taking massive strides to make itself able to perform well on the international stage. There is a massive movement here to assess, consume, and reproduce valuable or quintessential aspects of other powerful cultures, and the result is often very interesting Sino/ foreign amalgamations.
One thing that has to be remembered about China is that the country is changing fast not just economically, technologically, and infrastructurally, but culturally as well. Modern Chinese culture is like a boiling stew: the broth is the same as it’s been for ages, but new ingredients are being tossed into the mix regularly. Various other traditions are being tossed into the pot, but they quickly absorb the flavor and essence of the broth and, before long, fit right in with the rest of the stew. China is a country that can absorb traditions, technology, and practices of other cultures and make them Chinese.
All cultures are in constant flux, but if most are changing at a gradual walking pace, Chinese culture is rolling like a Ferrari racing down an open highway. Customs are being introduced, selected, and absorbed at an astounding rate. China has become a global crossroads, and the effect of this is starting to leave its footprint on the culture in no uncertain terms:
Cultures are like germs, you touch them and there is no way that a little is not going to rub off on you. Cultures affect and infect each other upon exposure. You don’t travel to the other side of the planet without being infected, and, likewise, you don’t do so without infecting others.
A culture that copies other traditions and practices is weak, a culture that absorbs other traditions and practices and makes them their own is strong. The Chinese have been absorbing external cultural influences for a very long time, twisting them around a little, and making them their own. This is a nation that absorbed the Mongol Khans, the Manchus, colonialism, Communism, globalization, and still remains intact. Chinese culture is like a sponge: you can beat it, crush it, and throw it around, but it always retains its shape. It’s a sponge that sucks up everything that is poured into it, but only keeps what it wants while squeezing out the rest.