3 Things the Chinese Can Teach Us About Relationships
In China, values like community, harmony, tradition, and pragmatism often trump personal convenience. That means that multiple generations of relatives often live together. That means that grandparents live with their children and serve as the primary caregivers of their grandchildren. And in China, advice is fair game. Offering unsolicited advice can even be an expression of care. Undoubtedly, it can also be a game of control; but in many cases, it is welcomed as genuine concern.
Of course, these cultural norms deeply disturb my American sensibilities. That’s MY child, I can feel myself thinking. I don’t want some grandparent taking my place – step off, grandma! Like pins and needles under my skin, I am agitated to the core when I think about some other lady moving in on my space, on my role. I don’t welcome people telling me what to do or giving me unsolicited advice. I think I’m entitled to my own opinions and have a right to do things my own way. Clearly, this is the best way of living, the best way to relate to other people…right?
Or is there something to the way that the Chinese relate to each other? Might it be possible that I, a proud American, have some important things to learn from the Eastern ways?
Here are 3 things I have observed that I believe the Chinese have to teach us Westerners about relationships:
1. Elderly people have a lot to offer
I don’t think anyone in the West really argues that shoving all our old people into special “homes” is the healthiest way to go. We all guiltily admit that nursing homes (or “retirement communities”) are not the most appealing places to grow old and die. And yet, for the most part, our culture does not provide an alternative.
In China, age brings reverence. The phenomenon of the retirement home is only very new to the Chinese. Most elderly people live and die with their families surrounding them. They are the most honored people in the family. While my Western, 30-something self balks at the idea of still having to listen to my grandma’s opinions of how I should live my life, I certainly respect how the Chinese honor and treasure their elders. They recognize the wealth of wisdom available in these gems from past generations.
I am not suggesting that we change all our cultural habits to completely mirror those in China. But I am proposing that we at least consider adopting the Chinese value of respecting, honoring, including, and caring for aging family members.
2. It’s OK to need each other
When I gave birth to my daughter almost a year ago, it was very difficult for me to let others help me. Why was that? Admittedly, part of it might have partly been due to my personality. But I think part of it was also my cultural upbringing, which says that womanhood means “doing it all” – raising kids, holding a full-time job, staying fit, cooking, keeping a house, and still finding time to be interesting. Taking a nap doesn’t seem to make it on the list. The “Wonder Woman” image is too enticing. So, when it comes to having children, sure, we say women should rest in those weeks following childbirth. But we seldom make that very easy for a girl to do.
The Chinese approach this sensitive time in a woman’s life very differently. It’s called 坐月子, and it literally means “to sit for a month.” During a new mother’s “month of sitting,” she is expected to rest. In fact, traditionally, the Chinese even forbid their women from taking showers. But most modern women do not adhere to the strictness of these old traditions. What they do still practice is taking a much-needed break for the first month of their new baby’s life. They do not cook. They do not clean. They usually don’t even go outside. They rest. While staying indoors for a month might seem a little extreme to most western people, it is, nonetheless, admirable that the Chinese take resting during that time so seriously. I think we on-the-go, always-need-to-be-productive gals from the West need to look to the Chinese as an example in this case.
The point here is that Chinese women have no innate need to “prove” that they can do everything self-sufficiently. It is culturally appropriate to let others help you, even to do everything for you, during certain seasons of life.. And this says something deeper about Chinese culture. True, the Chinese tend to be less independent than those of us in the West. But where they excel is in knowing their limits, in being secure enough to let others help them. It takes a certain level of personal confidence to admit that you can’t do everything and to let someone help. This is where Chinese humility works to their advantage.
So, why not consider putting that image of the self-made man (or woman) aside for a spell and try on some good old Chinese interdependence for a change? In other words: why not ask for help?
3. It’s OK to admit you don’t know everything
I surprise myself at how offended I can get at people’s unsolicited advice. “Your child is cold! She should be wearing more!” they’ll say to me with shocked looks on their faces. And I will suppress every urge within me to argue to the death why my child is dressed absolutely appropriately. What is it in me that is so disturbed by these encounters?
Now, clearly, it is my right to disagree as to what temperatures warrant wearing what types of clothing. But why do people’s, even warmhearted, suggestions so deeply disturb me?
Again, this is perhaps partly due to my own personality. But I also think my home culture tells me that, not only am I to do it all, I am to know it all. I, a young mother, am to read all the books, research all the best websites, and in short…know what I’m doing. To not know what your doing is to be weak. And to be weak is to fail.
The Chinese, on the other hand, are not easily offended by suggestions. In fact, they all give suggestions. And suggestions in China do not equal threats. They are what they are. And moreover, young people understand that they are, well…young. They are OK with their place in the world, with the fact that they are not old. They can take grandma’s advice in stride, accepting what is helpful and laughing about what is not. This is not to say that, sometimes, boundaries are crossed and warm-hearted advice becomes controlling behavior. This, perhaps, is more of an epidemic in China than in America. But there is a strength in the midst of what we westerners often dismiss as a major cultural weakness. The Chinese have a great ability to hear suggestions without the background noise of their own insecurities. It’s a strength I greatly admire.
…even if I’m not quite ready to invite the grandparents to move in with us.