January 14, 2011

“There is a policy” reactions

Filed under: china,cross-cultural understanding,istechina — Candace Hackett Shively @ 4:54 pm

Today I am sorting through, labeling, and selecting photos from the China trip for an upcoming slide show for this blog. As I relive the trip, I find myself revisiting questions I have about the amount of voice we Americans assume we have as individuals in deciding laws and policies of the federal (or state or local) government. As the aftermath of the Tucson shootings plays out in the media, my first temptation would be to launch into discussion about civility or a comparison of U.S. citizens’ assumptions and Chinese citizens’ assumptions. But I fear I would miss the subtleties of really understanding the way many Chinese citizens feel about “policies.”

As we talked with Shawn*, our country guide in China, (and I asked questions endlessly) we heard over shawn.jpgand over,  “There is a policy…” — ending with an explanation. There were the One Birth policy (not really One Child, since twins are OK), provincial policies about motor vehicles, policies about teacher professional development, apartment ownership, etc. Shawn never flinched or seemed at all uncomfortable answering our questions. He had a marvelous ability to distance himself from any pro or con, simply explaining the policy and sometimes venturing a rationale, such as for policies to limit the number of cars to cut pollution. The infamous One Child policy has eased,  he explained, to provide for the aging population. There is no way there will be enough Chinese workers to support all the older people who retire so young in China. (Sound familiar?) What was striking to me was the dispassionate way Shawn and our other three guides apparently viewed “There is a policy.” They might as well have been saying, “There is a tree.” I marvel at the dispassion.

As teachers, we often face students who balk at rules, especially in middle school, where a “That’s not FAIR!” fundraiser paying $.10 each time this cry is heard could fund iPads for several classrooms. In young children, that voice is far less prevalent, probably because early elementary kids are more developmentally aware of  “rules”  than “fair.”  But I can’t say that Shawn’s response to “policy” was a developmental lag or lack of awareness. He has spoken with and guided people from many, many countries. Rather, his demeanor is a totally aware acceptance without malice. There were no signs of fear that he could get in trouble for questioning or saying the wrong thing to us. He just seemed to care about other things. Think about people you know. You probably know someone who simply accepts things without getting hot and bothered. He/she is not stupid or naive, simply detached. These people care about something else.

So, as a loud-mouthed, questioning American,  I wonder what it is that Shawn and his compatriots care about more. THAT is the cross-cultural understanding we should be working on, instead of asking why the Chinese do not question “There is a policy…” as many Americans would.

 *Shawn is his English name. His real first name is Shunqiang.

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