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Chinese Culture and the Amazing Ability to Ignore the Obvious

It is the differences in culture and perception that makes traveling so fascinating.

When I first began staying in China for extended amounts of time I was mostly based in Hangzhou. The air quality was horrible there — even back in the beginning of 2006 — but nobody talked about it. Every once in a while a disgruntled expat would jest about it and I once had a TCM professor who would wear a military grade gas mask when out in the streets (strange then, normal now), but they were oddities. The horrid air quality was just something that nobody talked about, and because nobody talked about it few people seemed to have any knowledge of what that thick wall of haze hemming all of us in really was. To them, it was just how the sky looked. It was something that everybody seemed to have just agreed to ignore.

I experienced the same when I first moved up river to Taizhou at the beginning of 2012. Taizhou is right in the belly of one of the major manufacturing corridors in the world. The industrial pollution there is often worse than in Shanghai.

But by then, there was a good deal of information available about China’s air, it had become a buzz in the international media, but the airwaves about it in China were very much stunted. It was still something people just weren’t talking about in the inner provinces. I would mention the excessive smog that prevented us from seeing the sky or even down the street to locals and they would look at me like I was a foreign idiot.

No, in Beijing and Shanghai the air is bad. Here in Taizhou it is not bad.

That’s what they thought because that’s only what had been reported in the Chinese media. They never heard their families complaining about the air, they never had a teacher mention it, they never heard anybody talk about it, so they were able to ignore the absolute obvious. This cultural agreement, if it could be called that, was absolutely riveting to me — I just couldn’t understand it, it all seemed so obvious.

Then a couple of months later this all changed. The first “airpocolypse” hit, and entire cities were shut down along the Yangtze corridor from the east coast out past Wuhan. The air was so thick you literally couldn’t see the buildings across the street. At first, the local government in Taizhou said it was a result of farmers burning their fields, but then, as more information became public knowledge, China’s Central Government and national media came out and admitted how widespread and severe the air pollution problem was.

Then everybody began talking about it.

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Today, the air quality in Xiamen was exceptionally poor. 247 on the index. Usually, this island city is well below 100 and the skies are clear blue. Air quality truly isn’t an issue. Though once in a while in the winter a smog storm will roll in, and we get blanketed. Today is one of those days.

There was a debate in my daughter’s kindergarten about whether to allow the kids to go outside. It was initially decided that they would keep the kids indoors, but this was later overruled by the head teacher. She said they couldn’t keep the kids inside because that would be admitting to the parents that there was a problem.

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I recently interviewed a foreign business man in China who sets up factories for various clients. One of the biggest issues he said he faces is dealing with employees not admitting when there is a problem. This extends from someone screwing up in one stage of an assembly line and just ignoring it to not acknowledging what seems to be blatantly obvious safety concerns.

“I had to really tell them that if they smell something like gas or notice something that’s dangerous that they have to tell someone, because otherwise people could get killed. But they just wouldn’t do this. They wouldn’t do it until I told them I was going to dock their pay if they didn’t.”

If you admit a problem you must take responsibility for it. If you can act like you don’t know, then how can you be blamed?

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The facts of reality are less often play by plays of what actually happened and more often takes that have been agreed upon and confirmed by people operating in groups. This is often to the point of altering our own memories and perceptions to fit the verified collective take on reality. It could be called cultural base-lining, and it’s more than likely a key ingredient to create the cohesion necessary to allow humans to function together in groups. This is to the point that relatively large groups of people can ignore what outsiders would call the blatantly obvious.

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Filed under: China, Culture and Society

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 83 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3211 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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