A Sense of Community

The longer we live in China the more we realize that Americans and Chinese approach life from different perspective. The American viewpoint is individual, whereas the Chinese viewpoint is communal. When we first arrived we often wondered “Why?”

Why do people here go outside in their pajamas?

Why do girls clean their boyfriends’ ears in public?

Why do people ask us how much we pay for rent or how old we are?

Why are there generational names by which they call strangers the same thing they call their family members?

Why do the ladies in Bible study wait to “go together” after the lesson even if they are just riding the elevator downstairs and then taking different buses?

Why are we constantly offered advice, especially about how to take care of our young children?

Why do the elderly still have friends from grade school?

And the list could go on (and on and on and on….)!

The answers to those questions would have many facets, but a common thread would be that Chinese live in community with others. You might wonder if this is part of being a Communist governed society, but I don’t think that has much to do with it. One contributing factor is likely that China has a long and varied history, which is shared by all people. It is not a “melting pot” of different cultures but rather a very homogenous society. While we Americans treasure the diversity and differences various ethnicities and races bring to our collective, my Chinese brothers and sisters value their shared roots, their well-known history, and their national pride. In America it tends to be “all about ME” whereas in China it’s “all about US!”

There are situations where we may tend to question that thinking, and, in truth, it is not always a good thing. However, our passion for individualism at the expense of the common good is not always healthy either.

Another reason for this mutual life would be sheer numbers. Masses of people living in high-rise buildings next to high rise buildings; crowded villages with open courtyards where people gather; cities of millions…. Many people plus little space equals cooperative lives!

Our purpose in having this blog is not to criticize our host country. We will share the good, the bad, and the ugly things we see to some extent, because every nation has its warts and we would be remiss not to mention some. However, neither will we be disrespectful of a country, which has welcomed us in and given us so much- including a daughter, two daughters-in-love, and many friends. With that in mind, I’m not telling you the downside of this equation, but highlighting the positives I see in this mindset.

• The elderly are included, respected, and not set aside.

• No need to worry about what others would think if they knew this or that, because they do know!

• No preoccupation with privacy

• Lack of self-consciousness

• More opportunities for the gospel

• Crimes, at least petty crimes, tend to be punished immediately within the community rather than before a court of law resulting in greater hesitation to do it next time!

• Less loneliness

• Within one’s own circle, people tend to take care of each other with a system of mutual support. (i.e. In your circle you have a doctor. You have made him sticky rice dumplings for Dragon Boat Festival. When you get sick, he will contact a friend in the medical field of specialty you need and help you get proper care.)

• If you don’t know or forget someone’s name, you can just call him a generational name!

• You know what relationship someone has with another by the name used. (There are special names for “younger sister’s daughter” or “grandmother on my dad’s side”. It’s very complicated to learn but once you’ve learned it you can save all that explaining of who’s who!)

• Safety in numbers

I am sure there are others, but those are off the top of my head. I’ve mentioned it briefly earlier, but one funny aspect of this is the “yiqi zou” idea, or “going together”. In America we see it a little in the example of ladies going to the restroom at the same time, but in China you see it continually. People just prefer to do things together. Recently I saw this during Dragon Boat Festival. Let me depart for a moment to explain this holiday so you’ll understand the context.

Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. This year it was June 23. Legend has it that Dragon Boat Festival memorializes the patriotic poet Chiu Yuan who committed suicide by attaching a large rock to himself and jumping into the river. Chiu Yuan is said to have been the primary advisor of the Chu kingdom, making him the target of jealousy, which resulted in slander. When an interloper killed his king, Chiu lost his position and went to the countryside to write poetry. There, he is said to have met a peasant who didn’t care about the country but only about himself, so the disillusioned Chiu jumped into the river to drown. (Seems drastic but you know those poetic temperaments!)

According to the story, all the neighbors came out in boats to seek the fallen Chiu. (You see, they KNEW he had done this AND they came to help him!) They threw sticky rice pyramids (called zhong zi) into the river to attract the fish to keep them from eating his body, and they also beat drums to scare predators away. Somehow a dragon entered the story so villagers poured white rice wine into the water to make the dragon drunk, causing him to leave poor Chiu alone! Later, a drunken dragon-fish flew up out of the water with shreds of Chiu’s garments hanging from his whiskers. Thus began the festival today called Dragon Boat Festival!

What does all this have to do with communal living? Here it comes! This year, we live along the river, so we enjoyed watching the long, thin boats practicing the week before the event.

Local companies sponsor boats, as does every little village that can muster a crew to man one. The long, skinny watercraft can hold about fifty passengers most of whom row, but there is also one at each end of the boat yelling a cadence to keep the tempo, people who toss firecrackers in the water ahead, and, of course, a pair or two of drummers. Down river a short distance, we could see two gathering points for boats, which we hoped meant that we would see a race on the actual festival day.

But much to our surprise, there was no competition nearby. Guangzhou has one huge race featuring entries from all over the surrounding area. So why were they meeting outside our window? Yi qi zou! All the boats from this district- and there were tens of them- left at the same time to go down to the race. So though we got to enjoy the excitement of the continual drums and firecrackers all week, when race day came we only saw them join together and leave as a group! For us, it seemed anticlimactic.

But for our neighbors, this translated to great fun as huge numbers gathered around the river, cheering, shooting off firecrackers, and just generally giving their friends and colleagues a big sendoff. After all, what are holidays for except to gather together in community, making noise, eating traditional foods, and just hanging out? This is only one example of people going to great lengths to “go together” but I hope it demonstrates the idea at the same time as it educates you regarding one of the more popular celebrations of the year. At any rate, it provided me with a chance to post a few of the photos taken from our window, showing that there really was a plan behind my convoluted posting.


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