A physician at Beijing Tiantan Hospital once remarked that Chinese people who go abroad often feel very lonely. I thought he would follow that up with something along the lines of not feeling entirely comfortable in a country where the language and culture are both foreign. But he said, to my surprise, that it was the excess space. The vast expanse of land that, to them, seem to stretch on endlessly in solitude.
In the major Chinese cities, land is now the most valuable form of currency. Small apartments in Beijing can cost more than three-story houses in my hometown of Oakville, Ontario. It is a testament to how crowded the city has become, how there was not nearly enough space for everyone who wanted to live there. In the mornings, I biked to work using the popular bike-sharing program. Distinctive yellow bikes, like the yellow cabs in New York City, fill the streets during rush hour everyday. One might say that it was a battle for survival—wading through the sea of pedestrians, honking cars and other bikes to get to the next intersection in one piece.
In some ways, the amount of available physical space is the source of fundamental differences between Chinese culture and Western culture. In the past, I’ve come across editorials and opinion pieces that criticize the lack of courtesy in Chinese culture, some written by expats and others by visiting Westerners. They write that people cut in line, push in front of you to get onto the subway, yell to be heard above the din, etc. The subjects of their criticisms are often actions that stem from the endless crowds, the lack of space, and the need to fit into that space.
Towards the end of my stay in Beijing, I started to understand what the physician had meant when he said that the Chinese expats’ loneliness came from having too much space. It’s true that surface-level courtesy is not given the same value as it is in North America. It’s also true that trying to get on or off the subway during rush hour can feel like a group boxing match. But with courtesy comes a distance that I’ve never been quite sure how to make up, even between the closest friends. In China, this distance vanished along with my personal space, and I realized that you almost always knew exactly where someone stood on friendships and working relationships. What outsiders saw as faults are appreciated by locals as part of the culture, as a quirk of the place that they call home.
When I arrived in China in May, the goal was to understand the culture enough to blend in at work, to appropriately conduct myself in work-related interactions, and I didn’t expect to get more in return for my efforts. But these two months in China, though full of unexpected problems and logistical nightmares, were among the happiest during my time at Duke. I saw the country in a different light, and it was like regaining lost memories.