Cultural compass: the habits of Chinese people

Having read this bullet list on Douban about the characteristics of Chinese people, I cannot resist writing a post on this. After all, I do agree with a lot of the observations, some of which I take the liberty to share here:

52. Enjoy giving mooncakes as presents, as well as eating them.

57. In a restaurant, they always compete to get the bill.

60. They like to live with the parents. Sometimes, even three generations of the family would live together.


These are habits that are so common among my friends and family, that sometimes it’s hard not to take those for granted. Having lived in Hong Kong for so long, I am used to the idea that the best way to show someone your friendship or goodwill is by buying them a gift or a meal. It is perfectly normal to treat a friend or the family to a meal, even if it’s not his or her birthday. It’s simply a way to show your care. When dining with close friends, family or relatives, it’s expected that you should try to get the bill to demonstrate how much you love them. During mid-autumn festival, it is quite common to buy several boxes of mooncakes and give them to your relatives, your in-laws, and business contacts. I remember feeling somewhat disappointed when I came to England to study, and realised that British friends around me kept to paying only for themselves. It felt as if there’s an insurmountable distance between people. That every person remains an island. The other day, a Chinese student that I have taught years before, sent me a very expensive gift (a silver necklace) to congratulate me on the birth of my child. This gesture is heart-warming, not because of the necklace itself, but because it reminded me of the value systems behind the Chinese cultural practices.

The article also mentions how family members, or even generations within the family, like to live together. Surely, it is in part necessitated by the exorbitant property prices in Hong Kong or some other well-developed Chinese cities. How can one ever save up enough to buy a property otherwise? More than that, however, lies the Chinese people’s priority of family life and their take on what happiness means. There is a lot less emphasis on becoming self-sufficient or independent. For a lot of Chinese people, life is not complete if the family members are not living together or within close proximity so that they can visit each other regularly. When a Chinese couple gets married, sometimes they’d also consider buying properties nearer to their parents’ homes so that they can visit the parents regularly and ‘take good care’ of them. The perfect, happy scenario is to have the joy of three or even four generations under the same roof (and ideally in a luxurious, spacious family home). Some children live far away from their parents because they are sent overseas to study, which is a different matter. However, anyone who chooses to live far away from his or her own family (i.e. parents), is thought to be somewhat unfilial and don’t care enough about their parents. It is not uncommon for Chinese couples to return to their home country after their studies or a few years of work overseas, so that they can ‘take good care’ of their parents. Perhaps because I have lived in that society for so long, this kind of cultural values still affects me. For those who decide to pursue their careers or dreams overseas, or have set up their own homes and families overseas, there is almost always a strong sense of emotional ambivalence or guilt that such a decision or situation makes it hard for you to ‘take care’ of the parents or show your filial piety.

In analysing these feelings, I have come to appreciate how salient cultural beliefs are. Despite having lived in Britain for so many years, these Confucian thoughts are still deeply entrenched in me and, to some extent, I am defined by such a hybrid of cultural values.

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