Did I ever write about the time a friend in Guangzhou took me to Xiaozhou Art Village? There are a few famous sites in that ancient neighborhood – a Ming Dynasty Well, a house made out of oyster shells, the old canal, a library and some galleries. Anyway, the friend that took me to Xiaozhou Art Village did not know the area well but had been there because it is a fairly common sightseeing destination – a second rate tourist stop.
We walked into the village and quickly found ourselves walking down narrow, twisting lanes between old Guangzhou-style building (3-story dwellings right on the street, not the hutongs that characterize the North). As we approached an intersection, my friend stopped walking. “I think the Oyster House is that way,” she said, pointing to the left. On the wall right over her head there were 3 signs in red with arrows indicating that the Oyster House was straight ahead, the well was to the left and the library was also straight ahead. I drew her attention to the signs. She glanced up but did not even seem to register the signage, turning to a passerby for directions instead. It happened several times in Xiaozhou that day and in other places with other people, too. A fork in the road, a sign on the wall, the sign not even noted, a person consulted and a tenative movement forward until the next point of indecision.
I accumulated those instances and other related observations (e.g. traffic is more likely to be negotiated on a face-to-face level instead of drivers adhering to abstract rules like right of way, people walk around manhole covers and grates) and concluded that folks in the U.S. are trusting and have a great deal of faith in rules, sign-posting, that things are what they are purported to be. In the U.S. this trust leads people to be all in, in a particular way – a dedicated faith in abstract rules and the belief that others share those same articles of faith. In China, on the other hand, people were not trusting of abstractions – it seems less an explicit dismissal than the absence of consideration of the merit of such things – and instead but limited trust in the guidance of someone else – piecing together help from enough people to et them where they needed to go.