Cultural Differences in China


Why are cultural differences so important in China? Ask Marco Polo, who arrived in China at 1266 to a city then called Dadu (today’s Beijing). We can only imagine what it must have been like for him to travel for such an extensive period of time and finally to reach China, a country that was practically unknown in the West back then.

Fast forward about 750 years. Today, many foreigners come to China to study its culture, to do business with it or to travel within its boundaries. It is a fascinating place. Nevertheless, not much has changed since Marco Polo was here. Cultural differences in China are still vast, and if you do not speak Chinese you will find it hard to get by. So much time has passed, break through technologies have been developed and introduced into our lives, the world has become flatter and more open, information is free and is transferred everywhere faster than the speed of light, yet enormous cultural differences between China and the West are still prominent.

Watch: Cultural Differences in China


Perception of Cultural Differences in China

It has always been interesting for me, as an Israeli, to see how people perceive Israel. The impression people have usually, but not always, derives from the media. When I was 18 years old, I spent six months in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S.A, as an exchange student. I remember vividly that when I told people I am from Israel they sometimes asked me if I ride camels to school or if I live in a tent. The impression they had might came from the bible, the media or other sources of information. They may have never thought to look where Israel is located on the map or what kind of a country it is today. Nonetheless, they had the image that in Israel people ride camels to school and sleep in tents.


That brings me back to China. When I was home on one of my visits, I was talking with an old friend about my time here in Beijing. I could sense he did not fully understand about what I am talking, not only because he has never been here, but because his image of China is somewhat distorted. When I told him that I live in a very modern city that has an extensive subway system, great airport facilities etc., he seemed somewhat surprised or confused, as if he thought everyone here still sleeps on park benches.

These images that we have in our heads of what a place is like cause us to feel certain emotions about that place. Many people dislike Israel even though they have never actually been there or even met with an Israeli. Many people are afraid of China even though they have never been there or even met with a Chinese. Since we all maintain certain images of various places in the world, we should be very cautious with how we relate to them.

In that respect, when one travels or relocates to a country in which the culture is different from what he is accustomed to or from what he had originally perceived it to be, one should pay special attention to the social environment and to how locals behave under certain circumstances.

I would like to provide an example that demonstrates the essence of cultural differences in China, and how it influenced me personally. While traveling in China, I got to a main and hectic street in a city called Guilin. While walking down one of the main streets, I noticed a man and a woman arguing. Suddenly, the man hit the woman in her face with his fist. The woman stood still. Although the street was crowded, no one except me stopped to look, everyone kept walking. The couple continued to argue, when the man continued to be violent and threw his cigarette on the woman’s face. I was standing there, debating with myself whether to help that woman. Eventually, I decided not to get involved, only after I saw that the woman was not in a life threatening situation. When I had come back to Beijing, I asked my Chinese friend about the incident. She replied that I should not have intervened because it is none of my business. I was simply shocked by her reaction, but she insisted and told me I had done the right thing by not confronting the man.

This example symbolizes one of the aspects of cultural difference between our social environments. I could not look away when seeing a woman being hit, yet no one but me seemed to be bothered with it. This incident showed me that even what I consider to be one of the most fundamental elements in a culture such as helping someone in need is only basic in my culture and not necessarily in others.

I am very interested to hear your thoughts about this issue. What would you have done if you were in my shoes? Do you think that this example rightfully displays a form of cultural difference?