Habit. It used to be that thing I longed to establish when sneaking into my covers as a five-year old without brushing my teeth. They say it takes only fourteen days to form a habit, though once we start keeping track it’s not likely that we’ll break with routine— if only until the experiment is over.
Lately, I’ve decided that most undesirable human traits are all simple acts of habit— mental, physical, and emotional routines that, having been completed in the past, find refuge in the logic that they have the right to emerge again. This is not a new concept, but the avenues through which habit deepens grooves of cultural stereotypes, patriotism, and assumptions are more perceptible to one navigating new shores abroad.
Last week, I stopped to buy fruit from the same street-side vendor that I’ve visited since last June. It’s fair to say we’ve become friends, chatting about the weather or plans to visit family— all within the minute or so that it takes him to weigh my dragon fruit. Still, last week, as the man greeted me and began to strike up a conversation, an older gentleman to his right snorted loudly, saying that the vendor was crazy for trying to speak to me— I clearly didn’t understand Chinese. I took his words to be an older generation’s attitude towards those who lack Chinese features, an assumption grounded in habit.
If a local doesn’t automatically assume that I don’t speak the language, then they almost always assume I’m a teacher. I have rarely entered a conversation where one objectively asks why I am in Shenzhen; most presume that I’m a student or teaching English or, my personal favorite, that I grew up here.
Then again, I’m not the only one confronting the frustration that accompanies pre-conceived notions. A Chinese from Sichuan province must like to eat spicy food, right? I mean, like, everyone there grew up eating hot peppers. And a northerner must prefer mantou buns and noodles to rice— it’s just that way. Oh, you’re from Henan province?… yeah right, like I’d trust you. A few assumptions later and an entire country’s individuality suffocates inside cages of air-tight generalization.
Everything above has been mentioned tirelessly in the past, so I’ll try to describe a few new occurrences that have truly made me question how exactly habit fools with our brain. In China, it goes like this: follow the person ahead of you, and everything will be fine. When crossing a road, when parking a car, when choosing a place to eat— if other people are doing it, it must be right. And in this fashion, countless people narrowly avoid being hit by oncoming traffic, dozens discover parking tickets waiting on the hood of their cars, and even more pay for a meal that they may have previously categorized as dog food. This happens everywhere in the world, but the image of a girl foolishly following a pedestrian ahead of her while texting on her cell phone and blatantly entering an intersection just as a line of cars revs up their engines is etched into my brain on a daily basis. Then again, there is a certain power in numbers, and I can tell you that crowds of Chinese pedestrians can indeed stop taxis and Hummers in their tracks even after the light has long turned green.
I’ve always thought that marketing in China is truly an advertising agency’s paradise. Present a product in a way that will kick-start that “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality and there’s really no way you could go wrong. It is along the same strand that notions of culture and identity are formed. While there are real differences between cultures, I wonder to what degree our habits influence those differences and make them more pronounced. There is a reason why we were instructed to create a habit of saying the national anthem every morning at school— it engraved a patriotic identity in our hearts. Yet does saying the words generate genuine loyalty and respect for the beauty of the founding of America, or does it merely form some surface-level habit? China, too, has tried to instill patriotism in the blood of every citizen— to inspire individuals to sacrifice themselves for the good of all. In this kind of “follow-the-leader” society, one would not be surprised to discover that the love Chinese have for their country is nearly as strong as the love they have for family members.
But going forward, if I’m going to present a complete argument, this entry would require a fair description of how creativity and individuality is slowly maneuvering itself into daily life in China. There are more and more young start-ups sprouting up in Guangdong, Shanghai, and Beijing with young Chinese CEOs who are focused solely on establishing designs that are distinct from anything Japan or Western countries have previously marketed. There is more and more risk and innovation in style— I see it everyday on my commute. There is spontaneity and individuality in the eyes of everyone here, it just needs a place to flourish. On that note, look forward to a passionate entry about the current state of education in the United States and China within the next few days. 😉