Stories we tell

“There are too many Chinese people,” is a common statement here in China. The expression has arisen in every conversation I’ve had about the unpopular one-child policy (family size for most Chinese is limited to 1 or perhaps 2 children) and family practices in the U.S. When I hear the exact same expression from so many different people in so many different locations and contexts, I take it to be a “party line,” that is, a culturally acceptable social response that carries with it the kernel of a philosophical orientation.

I get the feeling that “too many people” characterizes a lot about the philosophical outlook characterizing everyday life in this place. Environmental degradation, a lack of occupational safety (e.g. construction workers working with heavy equipment in very dusty conditions in shorts and flip-flops without any safety equipment of even a dust mask), the most dangerous traffic in the world. All of these things are accepted as either necessary for development or unremarkable. There is the underlying idea that some people are going to get run over. There are so many Chinese people that it is OK. Its up to the individual to make sure that the person under the wheels is someone else.

Ultimately, this is an orientation that takes the continuation of the collective (China, the family, the region, etc) as the preeminent goal – the raison d’etre. As such, the compliant acknowledgment of the human costs of the social order as it is stands alongside an emphasis on order, cohesiveness and stability. It is my impression that both the State and the average person in China place a very high premium on order and unity (as demonstrated by a lack of conflict).

Academics often classify Chinese culture as collectivistic and U.S. culture as individualistic and they situate these two orientations on opposite ends of a binary spectrum. Certainly in our talk in the United States we emphasize individual rights, abilities, success and contributions to the progress of the country in a way that does not characterize China. Furthermore, far from expressing a desire for conformity and unchallenged unity, U.S. culture cherishes disagreement and debate – seeing them as crucial elements of the democratic process, innovations, etc. Lastly, though in reality there are people trampled during the “march of progress” in the United States, any expression of social Darwinian notions that those who are unable to “compete” are not large losses, or explicit acceptance that some people are exploited and run rough-shod over because that is just the way it is meets with significant social opprobruim.

Although I formed these impressions prior to my trip to Singapore, I got the chance to think through it all more once I had another comparison. In Singapore the public housing was of good quality, manual laborers used safety equipment, no one shoved their way to the front of the line (common in China), and cars and bicycles drove courteously and observed the pedestrian right of way. Upon arrival, I lumped these
characteristics together with valuing individualism (debate, individual rights, etc). However, over the course of my stay I drew another conclusion. It seemed to me that the Singaporean system was motivated by an explicit desire for efficiency and order – not by notions I associate with an individualistic orientation – that each individual should have the space to live their lives and exercise their rights to the fullest. There was a construction site not too far from the hotel. At the entrance gate there was a sign stating that proper safety equipment was necessary and the failure to use it would result in significant fines and jail time. Upon passing through customs, we were informed that drug offenses carried a necessary death sentence. Uniformed personnel ensured that folks stayed in line, even if there weren’t enough people to make it really matter. Drivers honked angrily at other drivers who stopped momentarily to let people off in the “no stopping lane” even if they could easily drive around. A public service announcement on the subway showed graphic images of the terrorist acts in Mumbai in 2006 and 2008 and encouraged Singaporeans to be on their guard. Switching to images of clean and tranquil Singapore, the announcer stated, “It is up to the citizens to keep Singapore safe. In preserving our beautiful city, you may also help save yourself.”

I guess what I am getting at here is that the stories we tell about our social worlds can be so very different – offering varied views of the relationship between the individual and the state/society, the meaning of social life, notions of progress and success, etc. How different are our social worlds despite the differences in the stories we tell? Are these stories indicative of the differences or do they actually produce them? Probably both.

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