THERE is no such thing that you can come to China thinking that so long as you have studied the language you can land a high-paying job quickly. There is always more to learn, says Matthew Christensen, professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian & Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University in Utah, United States.
Based on his own experience of teaching and traveling in China in the past decades, Christensen’s book “Decoding China” serves as a reminder to anyone who will be living, studying and working in China that understanding the culture codes that help develop and maintain relationships is more important than just mastering a bundle of linguistic skills.
To highlight how important these cultural codes are, he uses a sports analogy. “Let’s say that Western culture’s codes are like the game of baseball and Chinese culture’s are like tennis. In both games, players expect their competitors to understand and obey the rules if they want to play.
“If you’re standing on a tennis court, but behave as though you are playing baseball, you won’t be invited to play tennis again,” Christensen writes in the preface to the book.
This is similar to the idiom “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Chinese have an idiom for this as well, 入乡随俗 ru xiang sui su, which means when you enter the countryside, follow the customs. A better understanding of cultural codes gets you into the game and allows you to participate in the daily lives of the people.
Shanghai Daily last week quoted Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center in Washington, as saying, “We can’t respond coherently, effectively and fully to China unless we understand China on its own terms.” This emphasizes the importance of understanding the culture alongside the Chinese language.
According to Christensen, Chinese culture can be conveniently divided into three main categories: achievement culture such as Beijing opera and Tang Dynasty poetry; informational culture like geography and political system; and behavioral culture, such as eating habits and how to maintain relationships.
Though knowledge of the first two categories is valuable, it is behavior cultural that is of the most immediate concern for those working in China, Christensen says.
Featuring first-hand anecdotes, Christensen’s “Decoding China” offers practical advice and insight on how to deal with everyday situations like eating at a restaurant, renting an apartment and going to a hospital.